Back in January, a bad batch of MDMA killed three people in Melbourne and landed 20 others in hospital. It was the deadliest night for the city's club scene in recent memory. In the weeks since, authorities have failed to explain what actually happened, and why so many people were badly affected. Now it appears Victoria Police did test the drugs that caused the deaths, but neglected to make public their potentially lifesaving findings.
According to a safety memo obtained by VICE, which was circulated internally by Victoria Police's Drug Taskforce, police officers were warned about "the existence and rise of an illicit drug that has been seized in recent times." This was on January 27, 2017—a little over a week after the bad batch hit nightclubs on Chapel Street. The memo, clearly marked "not for public release," alerted officers that although the capsules in question appear to have been sold as MDMA, "the drug actually contains a cocktail of illicit substances, including 4-Fluoroamphetamine (4-FA) and 25C-NBOMe."
Both substances are dangerous: 4-FA is an amphetamine-type stimulant, which has been described as having an effect somewhere between amphetamine and MDMA. 25C-NBOMe is highly potent hallucinogen which induces intense effects even at low doses. Crucially, as the memo notes, even if users checked their drugs using conventional kits, they probably wouldn't have detected these two drugs. This has some harm minimisation advocates arguing that Victoria Police should've released their information to the public.
"The reason why [an MDMA cap containing] NBOMe is so dangerous is that if you do a reagent test, even if you're really careful about it, it'll tell you it's just MDMA," says Will Tregoning, the executive director of Unharm. Additionally, he says it's unusual that NBOMe was being sold as MDMA at all, especially in an international context.
NBOMe started showing up in Australian MDMA around 2012, according to warnings on online forums. It's a phenomenon unique to the Australian drug market, but Tregnoning has no idea why. He says he's spoken with academics overseas about the hallucinogen showing up in Australian caps and pills, all of whom have had a similar reaction. "They couldn't believe it was something people put into caps."
Tregnoning was also alarmed by the timeframe of the memo. "There's always that two week period of reporting when everyone is speculating about what the substance could be," he says. "[Victoria Police] have got top of the line [equipment in their laboratory], they could've done this analysis in 40 minutes… they could've released these reports in 24–48 hours."
After the Chapel Street deaths, Dr Monica Barratt from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) arranged for a sample of the bad batch to be sent to Energy Lab in Barcelona for testing. She explains they found the same ingredients as Victoria Police. "The tests we've done in Spain last week match what we now know that the police already knew, which is that the capsules contained 25C-NBOMe and 4-FA," Dr Barratt says. "You've got pretty strong circumstantial evidence, although it's impossible for us to say that it's exactly the same."
On the forum Bluelight, Dr Barratt warned users about the small amount of MDMA found in the caps. "This may be an indication that the manufacturers were hoping to fool reagent test kits by including enough MDMA to produce a positive result," she wrote. Essentially, to pick up the 4-FA and 25C-NBOMe, you would've needed equipment like an Alpha Bruker and gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC/MS)—both of which Victoria Police have in their laboratories.
For Barratt, the Chapel Street MDMA deaths illustrate the way that Australia needs the same world class public testing facilities as Spain. Simply put, it's a dangerous situation when police have access to drug information that the public don't. Many countries do release detailed information to the public about potentially dangerous street drugs, the Netherlands for example. It's something that's been done in Australia before too—police in South Australia and New South Wales have given the public warnings in the past, complete with pictures of the drugs in question.
When VICE asked Victoria Police why this information wasn't made public, a spokesperson said, "This internal memo was sent to police members on 27 January following several instances of highly concerning drug reactions, including a number of overdoses in Chapel Street last month... As the internal memo indicates, synthetic drugs can take a variety of forms. If we issue a warning for one particular lot, that does not mean the drug isn't also doing the rounds in other forms and so it is inappropriate to provide a specific warning."
According to Will Tregoning, the issue is larger than the policy of a particular state police force. For him, it illustrates the need for police around the country to be be more forthcoming with drug information. Looking at the analyses of the Chapel Street batch—both the information in the Victoria Police warning and Dr Monica Barratt's tests—Will says the results suggest it was the same batch that wreaked havoc on the Gold Coast earlier this year. "It's just a case of saying, if you've got this data, you should be releasing it to the public," he says. "Clearly batches aren't sold in single markets, they are sold across all Australian markets."
Dr Barratt finds it interesting that the memo has been leaked from within the police force. "The memo appears to be an internal one to notify other members of the police force that there are these capsules in existence and that they contain an unusual mixture," she says. "So it's not a public health facing document, but it's interesting that it's been leaked because we still don't really know, three weeks later, much about the deaths that happened."
Three weeks on, it's possible that the bad MDMA is still being sold around Melbourne. Barratt says users should look out for an "unusual looking, wettish, brownish capsule... Anything like that should be wrapped up and carefully thrown away," she says.