Quiz a Second Summer of Love raver about partying in the early-90s and you'll likely get a misty-eyed answer about the nirvana-inducing quality of the pills they were all necking back then. Depending on their temperament, that might be followed by a claim that ecstasy these days is all shit in comparison – glorified Berocca compared to what they were taking.
This, of course, is not true: ecstasy and MDMA purity is now at an all-time high. A 2016 report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) found that the average strength of ecstasy was 125mg of MDMA per pill, while the average was 50mg to 80mg during the early-90s. Of more concern are super-strength pingers – which can contain between 200mg to 300mg of MDMA – and MDMA powder reaching 83 percent purity. These are chiefly to blame for the spate of tragic MDMA-related deaths over the last couple of years.
But what are the long-term effects of these high strength drugs? Will repeated use see you added to that long list of gap-toothed ecstasy casualties who left a chunk of their brain on the floor of Hacienda, Bagleys or Amnesia in 1992? I called up Guy Jones, Technical Lead of Reagents Test UK, and Oli Stevens, Research Officer at DrugScience, to find out.
"Damage associated with MDMA is damage to the serotonin system that it affects," says Guy Jones. Serotonin is a monamine neurotransmitter that floods your brain whenever you take MDMA. It's colloquially known as the "happy hormone", and its influx into your brain's pathways is the reason ecstasy makes you euphoric and compelled to cry non-ironic tears of joy when your friend drops "In the Air Tonight" at the afters.
"There is some published research that suggests people who use MDMA very heavily maybe struggle with verbal recall – particularly vocabulary – in the longer term," says Jones. He adds that there's a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest people struggle with their mood after heavy MDMA use. Therefore, he adds, "What we would is expect is that the more MDMA you use and the longer you use it, the more severe the symptoms would likely be."
Higher strength pills and higher purity MDMA drain more serotonin from your brain. Does this mean, then, that a regular user – let's say someone popping factory strength pills most weekends for a year – is going to quickly lose their ability to use regular syntax before descending into a pit of perpetual self-loathing?
"Unlikely," says Guy. "MDMA is fairly self-limiting. If somebody is really overdoing it, the first and most noticeable effect of MDMA damage is that it becomes less enjoyable and the comedowns become more severe. So, normally, people stop doing it because it has such a big impact on their life. I would expect those negative impacts to start taking effect after two or three months."
But what about the comedown-avoiders and the tolerance-havers? We've all got that one friend who, no matter what depths of depravity they sink to, manages to make it into the gym first thing on a Monday morning. Can they happily bash 300mg pills until 7AM Sunday and still stride into Body Pump with Russell just 24 hours later?
"There are some lucky people who seem to bypass a comedown, whatever they take. As far as we can tell, it’s a genetic thing," says Guy. "But tolerance is not good. Tolerance is your body’s way of saying 'this is too much and I'm going to have to decrease your sensitivity to it'. This is a semi-permanent change, and if you’re experiencing a reduced effect from MDMA because your body is desensitised, this is the case all the time and not just when you’re taking the drug."
Guy is at pains to say he thinks the long-term effects of super strength ecstasy won’t differ hugely to those of the 70mg ones your dad took back at ClubUK – though he does speculate that you could suffer a more pronounced bout of every festival-goer's most dreaded foe: brain zaps.
The exact cause of these horrendous seizure-like jolts is still unknown, but they come as a result of a depletion of the serotonin system, so it stands to rights that the hardier the pills you use, the higher the likelihood that the symptoms will endure longer. "Two or three weeks could be possible, you don’t know," says Guy. Imagine that for a second. Twenty-one days of ruthless zaps. The absolute, brain stem-shaking horror of it.
Like Guy, Oli Stevens of DrugScience accepts that it's hard comment definitively on this issue, because there just isn’t enough research in the area. What is clear, however, is the danger these high-strength and high-purity drugs pose in the short term, and how we all need to be more savvy about the pills and powders we’re putting in our mouths.
"Users are more likely to overdose with very strong ecstasy and MDMA," Stevens says. "It's a particular problem with pills. Taking two pills could be anywhere from a strong recreational dose to a fatal dose for some – particularly in teenagers, and more so in teenage girls."
With MDMA, it's easier to regulate dosage with some scales. "You can still weigh out the dose you want," says Oli. "If purity goes from, say, 70 percent to 85 percent and you still weigh out 200mg of crystals, your actual MDMA dose goes from 140mg to 170mg – a change that's unlikely to land you in hospital."
With pills, the message is start with a quarter and regularly sip water. And for the long-timers who want to get their hands on some heavy-duty pills from the Lowlands – go easy, lest the zaps come after you.