Fake MDMA is on the rise at clubs and festivals in the UK after COVID-related bans on partying sparked a slump in exports of the party drug from Europe.
Drug checking service The Loop, which provides advice on safer drug taking, reported that only half of “MDMA” tested at the Lost Village festival in England’s Lincolnshire last weekend actually contained the substance. Instead people were sold a mixture of substitute substances such as 4-CMC, 3-MMC and eutylone – cathinones that can cause anxiety, paranoia and more intensive redosing – as well as caffeine crystals.
This follows the identification, also last weekend, by drug checking service Mandrake of 4-CMC being sold as crystal MDMA during Manchester Pride Festival and at the Creamfields music festival, and in 10 of the northwestern English city’s boroughs last month.
Last month VICE World News revealed how an MDMA supplier destroyed £3,500 worth of fake ecstasy after getting it tested and finding out it was 4-CMC.
Expert drug trade observers said the shortage of MDMA in the UK, a county with one of the highest rates of ecstasy use in Europe, is likely due to the impacts of the pandemic on Dutch MDMA producers, who make most of the world’s MDMA, and business decisions by drug traffickers.
“COVID-19 caused a significant lull in demand, while venues were closed and social lives shut down, so Dutch producers will have slowed down, as no-one wants to sit on an excess mountain of an illegal substance,” said Tony Saggers, former head of drugs threat and intelligence at the UK’s National Crime Agency.
“From the last 20 years of working with Dutch law enforcement partners, it's clear that high UK demand is a major driver of Netherlands-based production and thus the need to access precursor ingredients. When a slowdown happens, producers cease buying pre-cursors and the chemicals required to make them.
“So I'd expect a lull in availability while that subsection of the illicit market regroups and secures inbound supply chains for manufacture, as well as confidence that demand will regenerate.”
Saggers said a series of drug busts across Europe over the last year linked to police cracking open encrypted messaging networks used by drug traffickers such as EncroChat, have noticeably hindered drug trafficking in northern Europe. “Those busts created some successes and a fair amount of paranoia. And with MDMA or ecstasy being the drug of least demand during COVID – as the most sociable substance – it’s easier for producers to mitigate risks by closing down.”
Fiona Measham, director of The Loop, which will be testing onsite at the Parklife festival in Manchester later this month, said MDMA suppliers are struggling to cope with a rush of post lockdown demand for the drug.
“It’s a combination of factors including the disruptions to supply chains due to COVID, Brexit, road haulage shortages and the sudden huge demand in the UK after 18 months of very limited partying and party drug use.”
She said although fake MDMA is unpredictable and disliked by drug users, these substitute substances may end up causing less harm than the real thing.
“One of our unexpected observations at Lost Village last weekend was that some festival-goers ended up taking less drugs because their initial dose(s) had been negative experiences. People were taking an initial dose then not redosing. So there were fewer medical and welfare problems related to people having taken large amounts of MDMA, as usually happens at festivals. Instead there were a smaller number of medical and welfare incidents where people had taken large amounts of cathinones and were experiencing anxiety, insomnia and in a few cases, psychosis.”
However, there is no such shortage of MDMA in the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain, according to drug experts, indicating that Dutch MDMA-makers and suppliers have kept business ticking over despite the difficulties they have faced over the pandemic.
“There’s currently no noticeable MDMA drought in the Netherlands,” said Tom Kiel, a Dutch researcher and journalist specialising in drug policy. “MDMA prices are very low at only 0.8 euros a gram wholesale, pills are highly-dosed and crystals remain pure, even though producers have slowed down due to the pandemic.”
Kiel said due to the higher profits to be made from making and selling methamphetamine, the rising number of Dutch drug producers involved in making both MDMA and meth will likely have prioritised the latter.
One UK-based drugs and firearms trafficker who spoke to VICE World News on condition he would remain anonymous, said the current MDMA shortage in the UK is all about profit. “The risk has risen since the Encrochat busts, but the price hasn't. It doesn’t make sense to send less-profitable drugs to the UK if they take up the same amount of space [on a lorry or boat] as drugs such as cocaine and heroin.”
Police raids on European drug labs indicate that production facilities commonly specialise in just one step of the manufacturing process, whether it’s pre-precursor conversion, MDMA oil synthesis or crystallisation and tableting. Producers believe this reduces their vulnerability to law enforcement threats.
But while this may reduce risk of detection, it significantly slows progress through the supply chain, especially when combined with the growing evidence that many labs are beginning to engage in ‘production to order’, closing down once an MDMA manufacturing run is completed.
The slow down in MDMA production in the Netherlands has also been felt on the other side of the world. In New Zealand, drug testing charities, such as Know Your Stuff and The Loop, reported MDMA shortages during the festival season, which runs parallel to winter in the northern hemisphere. Only two-thirds of drugs believed to be MDMA were actually MDMA, with the highest-levels of mis-selling typically taking place at music events.
In the short-term, this means UK drug users should be aware their MDMA may instead by a synthetic alternative. But as is so often the case, the drug world is notoriously adaptable to consumer desire. As organised criminal gangs regroup post-COVID and spot an opportunity to boost their profits by fulfilling an unmet demand, this MDMA shortage is unlikely to last for long.