Two weeks ago, in the early hours of Saturday morning, six people were taken to hospital in Manchester after taking a bunch of dodgy pills. One man – since named as 30 year-old Nick Bonnie from Gloucestershire – died. The next day, a further 10 people were hospitalised from their narcotic indulgences. Last weekend a 32-year-old woman was hospitalised and was in a critical condition until a few days ago. All 17 people were attendees at Manchester’s Warehouse Project, the annual series of clubnights that have become, over eight years of world-beating electronic music line-ups, the biggest party in Britain.
There have always been drug casualties, but normally they are few and far between. Why have so many people been taken ill at just one club in the last couple of weeks? It may be because the pills people are taking don't contain MDMA, ecstasy's active ingredient, at all.
Every desperate teenager looking for a score has probably had an experience with a joint that has been unsuspectingly packed with oregano. And the same goes for MDMA. It’s always been cut with other substances, but since 2012, what DCI Rick Jackson of the Greater Manchester Police terms an “unfortunate pattern” has emerged; much of the ecstasy being sold is actually another drug entirely, called PMA. Just like ecstasy, PMA is a drug of the amphetamine class. Like MDMA, you can take it in a pill. I’m pretty sure the majority of the 3am pill shelving crew aren't chemical scientists, so essentially, to the common teeth-grinding connoisseur, it is, by all means, ecstasy.
But the reality is that it’s much stronger; the toxicity level is higher, meaning it takes a lot less to find yourself waking up in a hospital bed apologising to your family after an accidental overdose. Additionally, the tablets take way longer to take effect than ecstasy. Every clubber has made the rookie mistake of double-dropping before the first pill kicks in. On ecstasy, it normally means you'll spend most of your night hugging a railing in the smoking area. On PMA, where the extended impact times make it more likely you'll take too much too soon, overdosing can be incredibly dangerous.
Essentially, PMA is becoming a big fucking problem. In the years between 1993 and 2011, it was mentioned on one UK death certificate. Basically an anomaly in the paper work of those that have left the earth. In 2012, this figure was upped to 20. It’s too early to confirm which drug Nick Bonnie took at the Warehouse Project, but in 2013, 21 deaths in the UK have been linked to the effects of PMA and that figure will rise by the end of the year. “Unfortunately there are going to be other hospital admissions, and in the worst cases, it is likely that we’ll see further deaths,” says DCI Jackson.
Ecstasy, in contrast, has had a famously low death rate. David Nutt, the former chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, once equated the dangers of taking ecstasy with the dangers of horse riding. The deaths from ecstasy taken on its own remain low – just 13 in 2012. But, as it is impossible to know what’s in an illegally purchased pill, ecstasy is often taken alongside other substances. The deaths caused by ecstasy taken in combination with other drugs in 2012 was 31, up from eight in 2010.
Sure, a small number of these ecstasy deaths will have been caused by abnormal reactions to MDMA that would have taken place whether the drug was pure or not. But it seems that the majority could have been prevented if pills were properly tested and controlled. If people had known what was in the pills they’d taken – whether PMA, or MDMA cut with other substances – it’s likely that many of them would still be alive.
The problem is information. There is no Boots or Superdrug for drugs. The marketplace is the street, where baggies are sold by your mate's dealer or some scally walking round the club whispering "coke, pills, coke". You’ll pay for a baggie, and ingest what’s inside without thinking twice. It’s not as if the dealer can provide a pamphlet of legitimacy. In fact they probably don't even know what they're selling. According to DCI Jackson, “many of the people supplying PMA are probably doing so oblivious to the fact that it's PMA, which of course increases the risk significantly. If the supplier doesn't know what it is, and they're the one supplying it, then there's little hope that the users will know what they get”.
The police’s response to this has largely be the same as their response to any drug problem in the last 30 years: drugs are bad, don’t do them, and if you do, we’ll arrest you. DCI Jackson recognizes the problem of this approach and speaks of a need to balance the “traditional enforcement message” with “the more important issue of public health”.
“We will target those who supply controlled drugs, and we have done so successfully over the past few years. But we are not blind to the fact that despite any enforcement activity, whilst there is a demand for drugs there will always be a supply.” The beginnings of this adapted strategy begin tonight when – in conjunction with the home office – there will be testing of drugs that are confiscated at the door. The results will then be spread on social media, to inform those at the venue if there are bad batches of drugs in circulation, and the kind of substances that drugs have been cut with.
While this approach is progressive, the testing will only be for those drugs that have been confiscated. Unlike in many European clubs, there will be no service whereby drug users can have substances they’ve snuck past security analysed before they take them. A spokesperson for the Home office rejected any suggestion that this could help save lives, particularly given the new threat of PMA, stating that “We have no plans to introduce testing centers for illegal drugs. Drugs are illegal because they are dangerous – they destroy lives and blight communities. The UK's approach on drugs remains clear: we must help people off drugs and into treatment, while protecting society by stopping the supply of illegal drugs and tackling the organized crime that is associated with it”.
There is still a refusal from from those in authority to deal with the reality that drugs are not an unfortunate and coincidental occurrence at dance music events but completely embedded in their culture. The government, in their simplification of the situation into terms of illegality, completely misses the point. Ecstasy has been an integral part of counter-culture since the mid-80s. More than any other narcotic, it represents an allegiance with a culture of underground music, ruined weekends, and the subsequent working week comedown, dancing and chatting shit until your teeth fall off. It would be disingenuous to claim that events like The Warehouse Project, or any of Britain’s large dance festivals, would be as popular, or even exist, without the existence of ecstasy. If, by some miracle, the Warehouse Project did manage to eradicate all drugs from its premises, the 6am DJ would be spinning to an empty room.
Rappers constantly reference molly, in front of huge cheering crowds, what do the police think that is - a joke? Even Disclosure, dance music's least hedonistic sons, just made a video about how great it is to take pills and go raging in south-east London (although it does now appear to have been taken down because of unease about drug refrences). Ecstasy is part of mainstream youth culture, and that's not going to change any time soon.
In light of this, what measures can be taken to help promote public safety, and stop young lives being cut short from PMA? The Warehouse Project should be praised for the way they have handled the situation, and it’s clear that they make the safety of their clubbers a priority. Joe Bowley, who went to the club on 28th September, was impressed by the thorough attitude of the security staff; each person was extensively searched before being allowed to enter. Last weekend, the venue even had a “mini hospital”, with oxygen, beds, defibrillators and a Doctor on site. More venues should take such a pro-active, responsible approach. But in reality, short of cavity-searching the body of every single one of the 5000 people attending each event, there's not much more that can be done, and it is almost certain that dealers and clubbers alike will still find a way to get drugs into the venue.
The recent shut-down of the SilkRoad is a good example of the US and UK's ill-informed attitude towards illegal drugs. Though there were huge ethical issues with it, like urmmmmm, it's founder ordering a hitman, it did have potential as a safer, more regulated way of buying drugs. The website included a rating system where those vendors supplying drugs were given a customer satisfaction score. Sort of like eBay, but with coke, acid and MDMA. Dealers selling higher quality, clean drugs received higher ratings, and users were able to make a more informed decision about who to buy from.
The dangers of placing drugs in the black market are mitigated, to some extent at least, when more information is available to the user, and dealers are more accountable to those that they supply. This could be provided by the availability of anonymous drugs testing at clubs like the Warehouse Project. As Brad Burge of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychadelic Studies stated, “drugs testing at events are the only way people can know what they're taking”. Such a service would help counter the problem of PMA masquerading as MDMA. And, crucially, it would make dealers more accountable to those they are selling to; if you repeatedly get drugs cut with dangerous substances from the same person, then you won't buy from them in the future. Unless you’re an idiot.
Without the support of the government and police, and those that have the power to legislate in ways that will help recreational drug users, then illness, hospitalization and death from drug use is likely to continue. The current, rigid attitude of complete criminalization is clearly not preventing people from taking drugs, and it never will. Instead, it is just worsening the risks associated with taking substances. A new approach is needed for the sake of public health. This is not about legalizing all drugs so that anyone can tighten belt buckles around their arm and inject whenever they want, but a case of saying that it isn't OK that someone dies every single time there is a festival or big club night.
There are many, many things that the government is currently making a catastrophe of, but their attitude towards drugs is something that affects a huge number of people every weekend, and should be reviewed before more people needlessly die from PMA.
Follow Ruth on Twitter: @RuthHardy22