This article originally appeared on VICE UK
There is a central mystery behind the batch of pink, diamond-shaped, Superman-logo "ecstasy" pills that appear to have caused the torturous deaths of four young men in England over Christmas and New Year's. And that is: Why would anyone make these things?
Over the holiday break, two Lithuanian men from Ipswich—Justas Ropas, 22, and Gediminas Kulokas, 24—died on Christmas Eve and New Year's Day, respectively, after taking the Superman pills. The deaths of John Hocking, 20, from Rendlesham in Suffolk, and Daniel Bagnall, a 27-year-old from Telford, who both died on New Year's Day, have also been linked to the batch. Police in Suffolk acted quickly and printed flyers in four different languages warning people about the pills. But for these guys it was too late.
If, as suspected, the pills that killed these men are from the same batch that first surfaced in the Netherlands and Belgium a month ago, they are some of the most dangerous pills masquerading as ecstasy known to man. Their existence is mystifying because drug suppliers, like any other businessmen, have always tended to avoid killing off their customers.
It's strange for two other reasons: The first is that MDMA is easier and cheaper to get hold of right now than it has been for a decade. The second is that whoever made these could've cut them with half the amount of PMMA and they still would've got users high. (PMMA is a derivative of the highly toxic MDMA substitute, PMA, a drug that even its inventor Alexander Shulgin shunned.)
The pink Superman pills found in the Low Countries contained extremely high levels—173mg—of PMMA, effectively turning them into deadly pills. Ecstasy pills containing PMA and PMMA usually contain 50mg of the drug. Even at these levels, there were 29 deaths connected to PMA last year in England and Wales. For reference, this compares to 41 MDMA deaths over the same period, when the vast majority of pills in England and Wales contain MDMA.
Police in Suffolk have charged Adrian Lubecki, a 19-year-old from Ipswich, with supplying class-A drugs. Police uncovered Lubecki's stash of 400 Superman pills but believe that Lubecki is not the only dealer in the UK who is selling them. They believe Daniel Bagnall bought his pills from a different seller than the Suffolk victims. Usually batches of pills run into tens of thousands, and the police say they will only be able to tell if the publicity around these deaths has hit home by the end of the weekend, when Britain's ecstasy users start popping their pills.
Police say they will only be able to tell if the publicity around these deaths has hit home by the end of the weekend, when Britain's ecstasy users start popping their pills
I spoke to Daan van der Gouwe, of the Drugs Information and Monitoring System at the Trimbos Institute in Utrecht, which put out an alert about the PMMA Superman pills on December 19. He told me: "We have never seen a pill with such insanely high concentrations of PMMA or PMA. As to why someone has made this, either they are completely idiotic and made a mistake or it is a professional manufacturer who knows what they are doing and is taking advantage of the fact PMA and PMMA are cheaper to source than MDMA."
It's been a common and shady practice in the fickle world of pill branding for decades, but what makes the manufacture of these deadly pills even more cynical is that they mimic a pink Superman-branded pill that has previously been popular because of its high MDMA content. The same thing happened with Mortal Kombat pills last year.
Van der Gouwe told me the Superman pills had popped up several times in the Netherlands in December. The Trimbos Institute decided to issue a red alert because of their "historically high" levels of PMMA. Despite this, and the fact that virtually all UK ecstasy pills are supplied via Liverpool-based traffickers from the Netherlands, the only alerts put out in the UK were by the Loop, a community-based drugs information group, and the Warehouse Project, a Manchester club that provides testing facilities for pills.
The tragedy highlights the urgent need in the UK for a similar pill-testing scheme to that in place in the Netherlands. It might not realistic that every E-dropper will have their pill tested before they take it—but what's important, as illustrated in this case, is that once a bad batch has been detected, public alerts can be issued at a more attention-grabbing, nationwide level.
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