A dash of olive oil, a pinch of muscle rub, spray paint, sweetener, a Polish brand of toothpaste, and pure, high-quality MDMA were all found in people’s ecstasy pills at Australia’s Groovin the Moo music festival last year. For the first time in the nation’s history, punters were given the chance to test substances they hoped were drugs in order to ascertain whether they might fuck them up in a good way, fuck them up in a bad way, or not fuck them up at all.
Among the innocuous antihistamines and dietary supplements found in people’s pingers, there was at least one psychoactive substance showing up in two different pills that raised a red flag for experts in the field: a highly toxic, "absolutely lethal" compound known as N-Ethylpentylone. Earlier this year, at Groovin the Moo’s second pill-testing trial, the same substance was detected in at least seven “ecstasy” tablets.
There’s a troubling reason why this so-called “bath salt” might be starting to rear its ugly head of late, and we’ll get to that. But N-Ethylpentylone isn’t the only noxious psychoactive to have been sold to unsuspecting users in Australia under the guise of MDMA in recent times. In 2007, a 20-year-old Sydney dance teacher named Annabel Catt died after dropping two caps which, unbeknownst to her, contained the adulterant para-Methoxyamphetamine, or PMA. More recently, in 2017, three people at Melbourne’s Revolver nightclub were killed by what was initially described as "a bad batch of MDMA", but later revealed to be "a cocktail of illicit substances”—including a lethal strain of the powerful hallucinogen N-benzyl Methoxy, or NBOMe.
“Just say no” crusaders love to give chemical compounds provocative misnomers like “rat poison”, “rocket fuel,” and “drain cleaner.” While none of these descriptions quite fit the bill, the reality is almost as menacing—and it's important to take stock of what we're actually looking at in contaminated pills.
It’s also important to stress that even pure MDMA can kill you. Too much ecstasy can lead to a sharp increase in core body temperature or a condition known as “serotonin syndrome”, where the body loses its ability to regulate heat. When a dose like that is ingested in already hot settings, it can be deadly. Many of these problems are further exacerbated, though, when unknown chemicals are added to the mix.
These are some of the most common and dangerous adulterants to have been passed off as “MDMA” in Australia in recent years. While N-Ethylpentylone was the only one to have been detected at this year’s pill-testing trial, the cyclical way in which each of these substances has entered the recreational scene points to a larger, more troubling pattern of drug manufacture and distribution within the country—and highlights why we ought to be cynical toward current hardline drug enforcement strategies.
(otherwise known as PMA or “Dr Death”)
Pharmacologically speaking, para-Methoxyamphetamine (PMA) is closely related to both MDMA and mescaline—meaning it has a similar effect to ecstasy, but with stronger hallucinogenic properties. It’s also more toxic, and has a slower come-on period, than pure MDMA. And that’s a potentially fatal combination for anyone who thinks that pure MDMA is what they’re taking.
“It takes longer for you to feel the effect,” Dr Monica Barratt, Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University’s Social and Global Studies Centre, told VICE over the phone. “If someone takes a substance that they think is ecstasy but it actually has PMA in it they might think wow this isn’t very strong, I can’t really feel it, and take a second one. And then of course it comes on way too strong.”
PMA—or “Dr Death” as it’s been dubbed by the media—has been implicated in a number of deaths in Australia over the years, most likely as a result of increased core body temperature or serotonin syndrome. In a recreational context, where people are ingesting chemicals with a higher toxicity and a more delayed release than they’re used to, it’s easy to see how things can unravel.
It’s this close-but-not-quite resemblance which Dr Death bears to ecstasy that makes it such a hazardous substance. According to Dr Barratt, it might also be the reason why the chemical started popping up in Australia’s pills in the first place: as an affordable stand-in for MDMA.
“PMA is not a new drug—it’s been around since 1973—but it’s structurally related to the MDMA classes. So one idea is that it’s potentially easier to make, or cheaper to make, and at some point it could have been profitable to make it and sell it as MDMA,” she explained.
“On that note, though, we haven’t really seen much evidence of it around in the last few years.”
(otherwise known as NBOMe)
While Dr Death had all but slipped back into obscurity in Australia by the end of the noughties, it wasn’t long before another menacing contaminant took its place.
N-benzyl Methoxy is an umbrella term that encompasses a range of hallucinogenic substances. These “NBOMes” are analogs of an emerging class of drugs called psychedelic phenethylamines—think 2CB, otherwise known as “tripstacy”—and mimic the effects of both LSD and MDMA. Similar to PMA, however, NBOMes typically have a higher potency and toxicity than the drugs they’re trying to replicate.
NBOMes are toxic enough to cause organ failure, can lead to blood clots, and have been known to trigger powerful psychedelic effects in extremely small doses. While the average amount of MDMA found in a cap or ecstasy pill is usually somewhere in the range of 100 milligrams, NBOMes are measured in microdoses, with an effective dose ranging between 200 micrograms (one fifth of a milligram) and 1000 micrograms (one milligram). There’s also a fine line between what counts as an effective dose of NBOMe and and what might constitute an overdose, making it easy to take too much.
Dr Barratt related a string of incidents a few years ago where NBOMe tabs—masquerading as LSD—were found to contain 1200 micrograms a pop. “That was a concern: that six effective doses were being bundled up into a single tab and sold as LSD,” she said. “There were some NBOMe deaths around that time.”
In 2017, the substance was also linked to a number of deaths in Victoria after multiple people took what they thought was ecstasy. A safety memo circulated internally by Victoria Police's Drug Taskforce at the time, and subsequently obtained by VICE, revealed that although the capsules appeared to have been sold as MDMA, the drugs actually contained a “cocktail of illicit substances” including 25C-NBOMe. Three people died and 20 were hospitalised by that “bad batch”.
Symptoms of an NBOMe overdose include high blood pressure, heart palpitations, seizures, psychosis, and elevated body temperature—otherwise known as hyperthermia. Even in more benign cases, though, the trip is anecdotally described as intense and distressing: inducing feelings of confusion, nausea, paranoia, and aggression.
There doesn’t appear to be any reports of NBOMes showing up in Australia in the past 12 months.
(otherwise known as ephylone, bk-EBDP, or NEP)
N-Ethylpentylone, or “NEP”, appears to be the latest harmful additive to have infiltrated Australia’s party drug scene: showing up in seven dangerous substances at this year’s Groovin the Moo pill-testing trial.
Unlike PMA and NBOMe, which are both closely related to MDMA, NEP is defined as a synthetic cathinone—that is, a synthetic stimulant that mimics the naturally occurring stimulant found in the khat plant. Other synthetic cathinones, or “bath salts” as they’re more colloquially known, include the “zombie drug” flakka (alpha-Pyrrolidinopentiophenone) and monkey dust (Methylenedioxypyrovalerone).
While not as closely related as PMA or NBOMe, however, NEP does still resemble MDMA by way of its appearance and stimulating effects—and is often passed off as or cut with ecstasy for this very reason. Problem is, it’s also about three times stronger than MDMA, and in high doses can lead to rapid muscle breakdown, multiple organ failure, and death.
Kate Pern, a nurse at Thorne Harbour Health and a member of peer-led harm reduction initiative PARTi project (otherwise known as Sesh Ed) told VICE that NEP’s close resemblance to MDMA, combined with its three-fold potency, could be a potentially deadly mix.
“If someone believed they had MDMA but it was actually N-Ethylpentylone, they might take a dose that they have had previously without any serious ill effects and end up with a fatal overdose,” she explained over email. Kate further noted that anecdotal reports from people who have accidentally taken NEP indicate it takes longer than MDMA to kick in; that initially it may feel similar to MDMA but more “speedy”; and that unlike MDMA, the enjoyable effects usually fade quite quickly—after an hour to two—which can then leave the user feeling anxious, agitated, and paranoid.
“This can lead to people taking more in a futile attempt to stop the unpleasant feelings and regain the enjoyable ones,” she suggested. “Re-dosing also seems to disproportionately prolong the effects, making sleep difficult or impossible for up to 48 hours. There are even reports of people having trouble sleeping for weeks after taking it—and sleep deprivation can increase the risk of paranoia and psychosis.”
And that’s just what we know anecdotally. N-Ethylpentylone is such a recent emergence in the novel psychoactive substance scene that there hasn’t been any research into the short- or long-term effects.
“We know that it’s significantly more harmful than commonly used drugs like MDMA or cocaine, so it's not a drug that anyone should intentionally take,” said Kate. “It’s important that people who choose to take MDMA in Australia know that this comes with a risk that what they have may contain N-Ethylpentylone, or something else that’s harmful.”
The Problem with Prohibition
There are no reported cases of someone having died as a direct result of ingesting NEP in Australia. That can probably be at least partly attributed to the most recent pill-testing trial, which saw the seven festival-goers who presented NEP-laced ecstasy pills throwing their drugs in the bin.
But why the sudden emergence of N-Ethylpentylone in recent years? And moreover, why are we seeing this pattern of harmful adulterants cycling in and out of the drug scene every few years?
It’s possible that prohibition is to blame. As the war on drugs wages on, and authorities continue to exert pressure and clamp down on the supply of illicit substances in Australia, the precursor chemicals used to make drugs like ecstasy are getting harder and harder to obtain. That doesn’t stop the suppliers though, who are more than happy to plug the holes in the market with various approximations.
Dr Matthew Frei, clinical director of Eastern Health's alcohol and other drug treatment centre Turning Point, described it to VICE as follows:
“When a shipment of ecstasy arrives through customs, they’ll test it and then arrest someone over that shipment. When a shipment of N-Ethylpentylone arrives through customs, they are often not really sure what its composition is and so they’ll let it pass through border control. This is what leads to drug trafficking where unknown drugs enter the market.”
Dr Frei further noted that “making MDMA illegal, policing for drugs at music events, and limiting pill testing all appear to worsen the risk of drug use at these events.
“This is the environment where drug traffickers are looking for options that are less problematic to sell,” he explained over the phone. “Drugs of uncertain legal status are a risk in these settings… and these issues seem to encourage the use and distribution of novel psychoactive substances.”
Thus the revolving door of increasingly novel substances entering the drug pool. Even as one contaminant comes to public attention and is subsequently stamped out by authorities, another is inevitably there to fill its place. On this view, Australia’s war on drugs starts to resemble an endless game of whack-a-mole—with an infinite number of moles.
The pill-testing trial can rightly be hailed as a success for how it identified the potentially fatal substance N-Ethylpentylone, brought it to the forefront of the public’s attention, and ultimately deterred people from ingesting it. But to take the long view, it’s just one part of a much bigger problem—and as Dr Barratt suggests, there’s no way of knowing what kind of harmful additives and adulterants we might run into in the near future.
“Will we be seeing N-Ethylpentylone in the next festival season?" she wonders aloud. "What will we see coming up into the next season? There will still be synthetic compounds that can be passed off as stimulant drugs—but what will they be?
"That’s something that we don’t really know yet.”