The Rise and Fall of 'Red Mitsubishis': the Pill That Terrified Australia
In the 90s they were the pinga of choice. By the early 2000s they'd become public enemy number one.
Image by Ben Thomson
Kristie* remembers her first time taking a red mitsubishi like it was yesterday, although she struggles to explain the experience: “How can you explain an enveloping, warm hug? It felt like your best friend—one whom you haven’t seen in years—had just appeared. They made you feel like you could take on the world and that everyone was your best mate.”
One weekend in 1997, when she was 22, Kristie and her friends headed to a rave—just as they often did—in the Melbourne suburb of Altona. This particular night though, she found herself chatting to the promoter running the event and next thing she knew, a red mitsubishi was in her hand. After taking just half, Kristie danced for hours, a smile glued to her face. “Absorbing the music into her soul,” as she puts it.
Over the next few years, Kristie partied with not just red mitsubishis, but green and white ones too—specifically buying from dealers who supplied ecstasy pills embossed with the Mitsubishi logo. “You knew you were going to have the best time, and the excitement knowing that was almost as good as actually taking them,” she says, recalling the experience.
Kristie's enthusiasm for mitsubishis wasn’t isolated though. At that time, in the late 90s, all over the world, the Mitsubishi stamp was achieving cult status as a reliably powerful and clean high. But what’s interesting is that in Australia, seven years after Kristie's first encounter, red mitsubishis had become darkly infamous, and were widely blamed for a series of overdoses.
This transition occurred via a combination of urban myth and inaccurate media reportage, and encouraged a renewed tough-on-drugs approach by state governments around the country. Today, we can look at the rise and fall of red mitsubishis as a case study on how misinformed people in media and government often combine to make recreational drugs more dangerous.
How it All Began
We don’t know which clandestine laboratory first started pressing pills with the Mitsubishi logo, or where, but there are many theories about how the first batches got to Australia. One popular example was that Carl Williams was the first large-scale importer, before he began pressing inferior copies to cash in on their cult status. But one former raver told us that they were around as early as 1993, before their quality began slipping around 1996, which is a timeline that predates the bulk of Carl’s criminal career. Another theory suggests that Tony Mokbel had masterminded the lot in Australia, and it was him who’d exported them to the world—but again, it’s impossible to know.
While you're here, you should check out this VICE doco about the drugs being confiscated inside Australian mail rooms:
What is known is that in an era when most people didn’t have the internet, the Mitsubishi print became a cult favourite via word of mouth. By around 1998, the logo had become synonymous with the Sheffield-based nightclub GateCrasher. “[mitsubishis] were such a big thing that there were Gatecrasher kids who tattooed the Mitsubishi logo on themselves or had it shaved into their hair,” explains British journalist Simon Reynolds, author of Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture.
According to Simon, it was the mitsubishis’ reliably clean high that made them a hit, “after a long, long period in which pills were adulterated with all kinds of crap.”
The print became seen as form of quality assurance at a time when reagent testing kits were hard to come by. In fact, a pill’s individual design was the only way users could “know” what they were buying. And as a two-year study found, customers everywhere use pill designs as a quality assurance indicator.
Then, in 2004, associations surrounding the Mitsubishi logo flipped. What had been previously seen as a logo signalling a safe and relatively unadulterated drug, suddenly—thanks to a misguided media feedback loop—became a symbol for public fear.
In September 2004, two men entered the emergency department at Sydney’s St. Vincent’s Hospital. One of them was extremely unwell with a temperature oscillating between 40 and 41 degrees Celsius. When questioned by the emergency staff, the two men admitted to having taken “red ecstasy-type pills, stamped with the three-triangled Mitsubishi symbol.” According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald quoting Gordian Fulde, who was then the Director of Emergency Medicine, the symptoms suggested the pills had contained para-methoxyamphetamine (PMA)—a stimulant similar to MDMA but typically more toxic at lower doses.
This is where it gets interesting. A couple of days later, an email from an unknown source went viral within Sydney’s LGBTIQ community. It claimed that a mass spectrometry test from the hospital had revealed that red mitsubishis were 10 times stronger than most other pills while also implying that one of the men had died.
A week after the men were admitted to hospital, the renowned, and now closed, queer party Sleaze Ball was anticipating about 14,000 attendees. Fearing the safety of thousands of people, the Aids Council of New South Wales (ACON) released a statement that warned about red mitsubishi pills and their potential adulteration with PMA.
“ACON's harm minimisation messages in the lead-up to this weekend's Sleaze 2004 have focussed on crystal meth and GHB, but the appearance of this relatively new drug is of major concern. We would urge everyone to be extremely cautious," wrote Stevie Clayton, CEO of ACON at the time.
Presumably, Stevie Clayton believed she was doing the prudent thing, but others doubted the authenticity of the email on which Stevie had based her warning. Paul Dillon, founder and director of Drugs and Alcohol Research and Training Australia, was one such person. “I’ve always intended to write a paper about that, because it was such a classic example of urban myths associated with drug use,” Paul Dillon told VICE. “So when the red mitsubishi thing happened, because I was there, it was the most bizarre couple of days.”
Paul explained that the first thing he did was try to find evidence proving the pills contained PMA. He called the St Vincent’s Emergency Department, only to discover that no one had died after taking pills with a Mitsubishi emblem, and there hadn’t been any pathology reports confirming the presence of PMA.
“My feeling is that someone just did a quick Google search and went ‘oh my god, we’ve got this terrible poison. We have to alert everyone,’” he says. And perhaps that’s how the subsequent scare campaign started: not from a fatality and a subsequent drug test, but from pure speculation.
A fortnight after the initial PMA scare, 12 individual overdoses in both Sydney and Adelaide—including a 19-year-old Sydney girl who ultimately died—were all blamed on red mitsubishis. Newspapers, radio stations, and online outlets began covering the story. And thanks to that unattributed and apparently fictional email, most blamed red mitsubishis. They even began calling the spate of drug fatalities "the Red Death.”
The unproven association between the overdoses, PMA, and red mitsubishis frustrated many, including Dr David Caldicott, Emergency Consultant and Senior Clinical Lecturer at the ANU College of Health and Medicine. “It was a link that had been made officially by the media, and particularly by law enforcement. And from what we were able to ascertain at the time—I don’t recall ever making a link between a red mitsubishi and PMA.”
It’s this assumed link that makes this story frustrating. Because without any scientific evidence, the media and police were left to make broad generalisations that resulted in a false sense of security. Users thought that by simply avoiding red mitsubishis they’d be safe, when in reality they were far from it.
Towards the end of our interview, David mentioned that when he’d worked at the Lyell McEwin Hospital in North Adelaide a red mitsubishi there had tested positively for the stimulant and dietary supplement Methylhexanamine. “So the red mitsubishis were doing the rounds at the time,” he said, “but there was no consistency in content.”
In the end red mitsubishis faded from the scene, and ecstasy pills in general are now something of a rarity. Today amber-coloured lumps of MDMA in gelatine caps and plastic baggies are all the rage. But it’s this misconception that certain runs of drugs are ever consistent in contents that’s the true moral of this story.
Ecstasy can be made by anyone with access to a pill press, and that includes both colour and print. What that means is that a certain colour/print combination doesn’t indicate origin. In fact, if a print is popular, drug cooks everywhere create knock-offs to capitalise on the presumed sense of “safety.” But until festival goers, as well as members of the general public, can access legal drug testing, the constituents of any particular drug can’t be known.
The other common interpretation of illicit drugs like ecstasy is that there are “good batches” and “bad batches”—but again this is a fallacy. And moral-panic warnings like in the case of red mitsubishi, or the recent “Orange Pill” scare, perpetuate this misleading duality.
As a result, we keep cycling through the same narrative—narratives that far too often leave out very important details, such as the exact content of the pill and the amount taken.
At the end of the day, withholding information, disseminating false information, or barring people from sourcing their own information is all dangerous practice. Because people will always take illicit drugs. Always. Always. Always. And if people are always going to take illicit drugs, then specific and accurate information about those drugs is the only safety net society can offer.
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*Name has been changed