Sunday, 15 September 2013

What does 'a bad batch of ecstasy' really mean?

With the reported death of a young man at a dance festival in Sydney over the weekend it did not take long for a news service to start talking about 'a bad batch of ecstasy pills'. So before we get onto what that ridiculous statement might actually mean - let's take a look at what we do know at this time and what we don't ... All we do know is that according to media reports a 23 year old male attending the Defqon.1 festival in Penrith was taken to the event's medical centre around midday and died at around 10.30pm last night. The reports also state that the young Victorian man suffered a series of seizures (and a number of cardiac arrests according to some media outlets) and that's about it ... We don't know what drugs he supposedly took (ecstasy or not) and we certainly don't know if those drugs were potentially more dangerous than those typically available on the street, but very quickly the media jumped onto the possibility that there may be 'a bad batch of ecstasy' out there!

So what does the term mean and most importantly, does it lead to any changes in ecstasy users' behaviour?

Firstly, 'a bad batch of ecstasy' implies simply by definition that there must be 'a good batch of ecstasy' somewhere, whatever that may mean! As far as an ecstasy user is concerned, a 'good ecstasy' would mean a pill that contains a high amount of MDMA - the substance that provides the user with the effects he or she wants - euphoria, a sense of intimacy or closeness with others and an altered sense of perception.

The trouble is that some ecstasy users believe that a pill containing MDMA is also completely 'safe', that it can't cause harm. Even though MDMA poisoning is rare, they have occurred and where there have been high levels of MDMA found in ecstasy pills (such as have been identified in European pills in recent months) we have seen increasing numbers of users experiencing problems, including hospitalisations and in extreme cases, deaths. It is also important to remember that one of Australia's highest profile ecstasy-related deaths was found to be due to MDMA poisoning - the death of 17 year old Gemma Thoms from Perth who died at the Big Day Out in 2009.

So when the police or the media start to talk about 'a bad batch of ecstasy' are they simply meaning that the pills contain something other than MDMA, or a substance that is particularly poisonous? One would imagine that if there was something particularly poisonous to be found in a batch of pills then we would see many people die, particularly considering how many people use ecstasy each and every weekend. We certainly have seen times when a substance like PMA appears in pills and a number of deaths have occurred. PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine) is a synthetic amphetamine-type drug with both stimulant and hallucinogenic properties.  Much more potent and far more toxic than MDMA, its danger is related to the over-stimulation of the central nervous system, often resulting in the user overheating, which in turn may cause internal organs to melt. 

The reality is that this doesn't happen often and thank god for that! Unfortunately though, people still believe that the majority of problems caused by ecstasy are due to impurities i.e. the other substances that are found in a tablet, and this myth is regularly reinforced by statements made by those who should know better about so-called 'bad batches'.  Although there are exceptions, the major problems that we continue to see with ecstasy are related to the context of use - dehydration and overheating. The other thing to remember is that ecstasy, like any drug, can also attack weaknesses in the user. There have been cases where seemingly perfectly healthy young people use the drug and experience fits, strokes and heart attacks. Many times these are people who have used the drug many times and have never had a bad experience. Put simply there seems to be no rhyme nor reason why these deaths occurred at that particular time.

What infuriates me about stories like the one this weekend is that at this stage we know absolutely nothing about what caused the death of this young man - nothing! We certainly don't know anything about the content of a pill that he may or may not have taken. Regardless we still have the media talking about a possible 'bad batch of ecstasy' - truly, it is no wonder that young people don't believe anything we tell them when it comes to drugs. What will happen when we actually do know something about pills that are on the street, when we have toxicology results that prove we have a particularly poisonous substance out there? Do we have a chance of getting that message believed by potential users? I very much doubt it! You can't keep issuing warnings without real proof and not expect your credibility to be affected.

When you're contacted by the media after a death has occurred at a dance event, as I was today, it doesn't matter how many times you tell the journalist to be careful about how they report it, it is inevitable that they will find some idiot to make a comment based on little, if any, information. Today the journalists relied on a Twitter comment from a partygoer to report the possibility of a 'bad batch'! If we had some toxicology to go on, or some hard evidence to provide to potential users, I would be the first to disseminate it as widely as possible, but we don't and once again we run the risk of becoming 'the boy who cried wolf'!
 
When a drug-related death occurs (if this is what this death proves to be), the best message to get out to users is that it is important to remember that you never know how a drug is going to affect you and if you are going to use any substance, give it the respect it deserves! You should never underestimate the risk associated with any drug, because no matter what you think, all drug use entails a certain degree of risk!
 

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