What do getting through the Channel Tunnel and ecstasy all have in common? They all seem to have gotten worse since Brexit. In the case of MDMA, the data was particularly stark. In 2021, according to drug testing charity The Loop, 55 percent of all substances sold as MDMA during the summer contained absolutely none of the drug whatsoever.
With 2022 marketed as the first “normal” summer in three years and a restored festival season in the offing, there were concerns that this fake ecstasy wave would continue. However, someone in the murky world of inter-European drug smuggling clearly saw a Brexit opportunity that Jacob Rees-Mogg missed – because preliminary data suggests that the UK ecstasy market has enjoyed a dramatic recovery.
In fact, government-funded testing lab TicTac told VICE that only one percent of samples tested contained contaminants and imposter substances, while The Loop observed five times less fake MDMA over the course of this summer’s festival season. “This year we have seen the amount of fake ecstasy drop back to pre-pandemic levels,” says The Loop director Fiona Measham, who oversaw testing in various capacities at several festivals across the country and is the Chair in Criminology at Liverpool University. She believes that the rogue samples may be down to the sale of “leftovers” from the year before.
“It’s very strange and we have no idea why it seems to have just disappeared,” she says. “This was an exclusively UK phenomenon and there seems to be no hangover from last year, except that people appear to be behaving more cautiously at festivals than before – maybe this year’s heat also factored, but we are seeing comparatively less MDMA samples making their way to us and are instead seeing more ketamine and mushrooms, which are harder to fake and have lesser aftereffects.”
TicTac director Trevor Shine says they observed a similar drop-off from a sample size of thousands. The lab typically collect thousands of samples from law enforcement but have also tested drugs at two major British festivals this year. They, too, observed a steady “uptick in seizures of ketamine and magic mushrooms over the last few years, they still fall well short of MDMA”, which makes it “hard to say that there is any less MDMA around now than before.”
Pills, too, are lower in dosage than before, says Measham. “Before the pandemic, we were regularly putting out warnings for pills containing upwards of 300mg of MDMA, which is many times more than the suggested dose [of around 80-120mg],” she says. “Super strong pills are still being found but we are finding more pills of around 150mg to 180mg, which are still high but much smaller than what was around before.”
MDMA is a relatively cheap drug to produce, meaning that faking it or mixing it with adulterants was often uneconomical. This all changed in 2021, when samples tested by The Loop were typically found to contain no MDMA and large quantities of cathinones – a broad family of substances that are fairly similar in structure to MDMA, and in some cases can offer mildly similar effects, but can be more dangerous to unassuming users.
“Cathinones are typically designed based on modifications to the design of the amphetamine molecule that change the properties and legality,” explains Guy Jones, the senior chemist at The Loop. “They are often produced legally in countries with large chemical industries like China and India and then imported to Europe by criminal gangs.”
Cathinones are unable to accurately replicate the effects of MDMA, Jones explains – they “end up in supply chains due to their legality and because many of them are basically identical in appearance to crystal MDMA”.
“Some of the substances we saw were particularly dangerous because they can mimic what feels like the start of an MDMA experience in that they give the user a bit of a rush,” he says. “This lulls them into thinking it’s what they paid for but they’re not getting to where they would normally be so they keep taking more – which increases the risks of prolonged periods of insomnia and other after-effects.”
There are various reasons why ecstasy went from the crystallised equivalent of a national treasure to a night-ruining lottery.
One is that lockdown caused such a significant drop in demand that dealers stopped dealing and exporters stopped exporting. Then, when then-PM Boris Johnson announced Freedom Day in July of 2021, a mad rush to satisfy a sudden increase in demand saw domestic and international producers making use of whatever they could get their hands on.
Brexit also plays a role. The vast majority of the UK’s E comes from Western Europe, particularly the Netherlands. Increased paperwork and security at the border have made the UK a more expensive and higher risk destination for drugs. Chuck a lorry driver shortage and general COVID related delays on top of that and you can see why Britain might be a less attractive market for drug manufacturers.
UK Border Force data goes some way to supporting this. Brexit came into effect in January of 2020, just before the pandemic broadsided Europe. Interestingly, the overall number of seizures of most illegal drugs, including MDMA, rose significantly over this period, which indicates that there may never have been a shortage of actual MDMA – just less of it getting through to our shores. Current data shows that Border Force seizures have decreased in 2022, but still remain higher than pre-pandemic and pre-Brexit levels.
Recent changes to international law have also made obtaining the precursor chemicals that are typically used in the manufacturing of MDMA much harder to obtain. “Between 2012 and 2016 the amount of MDMA available really seemed to increase and the knock-on effect of that was that pills became much stronger and crystals got a lot cheaper,” Jones says. “This was down to an increase in new precursors, particularly PMK Glycidate, that made production easier, got around laws and absolutely flooded the market before it was made illegal at a UN level in 2020.”
Whilst the quality of ecstasy seems to have improved, consumption of the drug still poses risks and users are advised to exercise caution before taking. “One of the most common misconceptions is that one pill is equal to one dose and this is very rarely the case,” cautions Measham. “Welfare at festivals regularly deal with people who have taken too much to start with or more too quickly. The safest thing to do is take a half or less to start with and then wait an hour or more before taking more.”
DIY drug tests are also an easy and accessible way to improve harm reduction. “We saw reports about bad pills and didn’t want to end up with something dodgy,” says Hugh (not his real name), a 27-year-old festival goer from Bristol who took commercially available testing kits to Glastonbury this year. “We don’t take drugs very often and were going to buy in the festival, having the tests allowed us to relax and we were able to test for our friends as well and want to do it all the time from now on.”
“At the end of the day, people are always going to take drugs at festivals and they should be allowed to offer this on site or give people their own kits upon entry – if you give people an easy route to testing, then I think they will use it.”
3/11/22: A previous version of the article stated that The Loop found fake MDMA in only 1 percent of samples over the course of the summer. It has since been updated to reflect that The Loop had found five times less fake MDMA. We regret the error.