You know those dance floor lifers you sometimes meet in the smoking areas of nightclubs, the greying men with sweat-logged shirts wrapped around their necks, blabbering through locked jaws about how much better pills were back in the day? They are all officially wrong.
The latest data on ecstasy – taken from pills seized by police in England and Wales between July and October of last year – reveals that the average pinger contains 108mg of MDMA, making them the strongest they've ever been in the UK.
For context, "back in the day" – i.e. during the Second Summer of Love, as rave took off here in the late-80s and early-90s – most pills were around the 80mg mark. Which, as it happens, is close to what's seen by ecstasy researchers as the "acceptable" dose (70-75mg) for an average-sized adult during one drug-taking session.
As recently as 2009, because law enforcement agencies managed to disrupt the supply chain of the precursor ingredients used to make ecstasy, most pills in the UK contained zero MDMA. Instead, largely because of a seizure in Cambodia in 2008 of 33 tons of the precursor chemical safrole oil – enough to supply the UK ecstasy market for five years – pills contained a mixture of BZP, speed or caffeine. They were basically duds, which is one of the reasons mephedrone sales reached the extraordinary heights they did.
It was the popularity of mephedrone, however, that helped to really open up the online drug trade, which – in turn – has enabled the mass supply of high quality ecstasy pills.
At Glastonbury Festival last year, all the pills seized contained MDMA, which is a pretty good sign of the current state of play. This potency surge also applies throughout Europe; in Holland, where most pills are made and where they've always been of higher quality than they are in Britain, the average strength is 140mg. In Spain, 120mg pills are the norm.
A new breed of super-strong ecstasy has accompanied this peak in quality. In February, six young people were hospitalised in a nightclub in Middlesbrough after taking pills branded with a UPS logo. The UPS brand, manufactured in Holland, have been found to contain 278mg of MDMA – over three times the potency of pills being necked in the Hacienda two decades ago, and ten times stronger than the average ecstasy tablet on sale five years ago. The strongest pill tested to date has been a 300mg purple Burger King.
The reason for the upturn in the quality of pills is two-fold. First, Dutch chemists have found a new way of synthesising MDMA, finding a key ingredient that is totally legal and therefore easily available and relatively cheap to order in bulk from underground Chinese chemical labs. Instead of using safrole oil or PMK, both MDMA precursor chemicals that had been heavily policed, they are using an analogue of PMK called PMK glycidate, which is controlled but yet to be globally banned.
You can get an indication of the volume of PMK glycidate being shifted around the world by looking at the huge seizures occasionally being made. In June of last year, one ton of PMK glycidate – enough to make seven million ecstasy tablets, according to the police – was found on a shipment from Shanghai, bound for Maastricht in Holland, at Barcelona's port.
Two months earlier Europol busted what it described as an "international organised crime network" that specialised in importing precursor chemicals from China into Europe. Europol seized 600kg of APAAN – a precursor used for production of amphetamine and methamphetamine – and 425kg of PMK glycidate.
The second driver behind the rising strength of ecstasy is the darknet. The scale of sales made possible over encrypted online sites such as Agora means that sellers can reach huge global markets. Selling high quality pills on the deep web makes economic sense, both because sellers can gain a reputation and because MDMA-packed pills can go for low prices, as dealers are shifting them in their tens of thousands on a weekly basis. On the UK streets, 200mg pills are going for £10 to £15 a pop, but online they can be bought for just £3.
Fernando Caudevilla – a Spanish physician known as Doctor X on the deep web because of the safety advice he offers online users and buyers – told me that the darknet, despite its untrustworthiness, maintains quality standards in a way that street markets do not.
"The system of online markets allows for relatively good control over the quality of the product," he said. "This control is not perfect, but rating of vendors, the feedback, comments on forums – they all reduce the possibility of adulterations, frauds and scams. Online markets are highly competitive markets, and this has an impact on quality and the price of substances."
The Loop, a non-profit drug safety organisation based in Manchester that sends out alerts about super strong or toxic pills via Facebook, urges people to be extra cautious when taking ecstasy – for good reason.
"Start with as low a dose as possible and wait at least one hour before considering re-dosing," they advise. "Take plenty of breaks from dancing; avoid mixing with alcohol or other drugs; and ensure you stay hydrated and drink water regularly (no more than one pint per hour, sipped).
"While it doesn't seem like the UPS pills are toxic, they are very, very strong and contain a seriously high dose of MDMA. If you are going to take them, look out for yourself and your friends. If in doubt, take a half or even a quarter."
Considering how potent some batches have become, you'd do well to follow their advice.
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