What did you get up to this New Year’s Day? Hungover brunch with friends? Lying on the sofa with a bacon sandwich while you cringed at your Instagram from last night?
For 30 year-old Natasha Mumby New Year’s Day 2015 involved finding her partner, Gediminas Kulokas, unconscious in their living room after taking MDMA pills. It was his 24th birthday.
In the past year, there’s been a huge spike in the use of MDMA (the chemical name of ecstasy), but other slang names you might have heard include Molly, Mandy, Superman and Crystal. While MDMA is no stranger to the party scene, there is now a worrying rise of it in its ‘pure’ which is having dangerous and devastating consequences on its unsuspecting users.
“It’s like an arms race to make the ‘purest’ pills, which is incredibly dangerous,” says Dr Fiona Measham, a professor of criminology from Durham University who is also an academic researcher on drugs and alcohol. “For women who have a lower BMI especially, that’s a big concern as it will get into their system very quickly.”
There is a horrible irony in the pills that people think are the safest – the ones with fewer substances added – are the ones causing the most harm, but that’s the complexity of drugs.
Taken in either powder, pill or crystal form, the popularity of MDMA is not just because of the ‘happy effect’ it has on users but also because it’s less expensive than other recreational drugs like cocaine.
“It’s cheap and I like the way it means I can carry on the party,” says Lucy, 28, an office administrator from Berkshire. “But I’ll admit, I try not to think about whether it could be dangerous, even though I know I should.”
According to the Home Office’s annual drug survey published in July this year, ecstasy use among 16 to 24-year-olds has nearly doubled over the last two years. In addition, 50 people died from drug-related deaths due to MDMA in 2014 and there’s been a steady incline from a figure of just eight in 2010. The number is now the same as it was in 2003, a year when newspapers reported an ‘ecstasy epidemic’.
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For Gediminas, the pills he and the other four had bought had been especially dangerous because they contained a high concentration of para-Methoxymethamphetamine, also known as PMMA.The slow release substance takes effect far more slowly meaning that often users – thinking their MDMA pilI is a dud – take more.
“Then suddenly, bash,” says Tim Young, Chief Executive of the Alcohol and Drugs Service. “Before you know it you’re in real trouble.”
Anne-Marie Cockburn, a drugs campaigner whose 15 year-old daughter Martha died from an accidental MDMA overdose in 2013, says her only child consumed enough for 5-10 people. Intelligent, Martha had researched the drug online so the MDMA she took was 91% pure. Heartbreakingly, instead of keeping her safe with its lack of adulterants, it was the purity that caused her overdose as it means it breaks down and gets into the blood stream more quickly.
While in November 25 year-old Sylvia Choi lost her life after mixing ecstasy and MDMA in water at an Australian music festival. If any death showed no-one was safe, it was this one: Sylvia was a pharmacist.
At New Year of course, the dangers are greater than ever. Whether our drug of choice is MDMA or shots of vodka, most of us up the ante. There are more people admitted to hospital for ‘acute intoxication’ on New Year’s Day than any other. New Year’s Day also sees the highest number of UK deaths.
“You’re rolling the dice anyway but at this time of year it’s more extreme,” says Young. “New Year is not a usual night out. You may have had more or less to eat, more to drink, taken something else, stayed out for longer, had a heavy month in the run up and all of those things can mean it affects you differently.”
So what is the solution? Needless to say, abstaining is the only way to guarantee safety. But for those who still take party pills there are kits which test for the different substances in the drug, though they are limited in how much they can tell you. And then there is the controversial argument that if these drugs were legalised, their ingredients and strength would be exposed, leaving users far less vulnerable. For Anne-Marie, that’s key.
“It’s like sex education,” she argues. “It’s not about the moral argument any more: that’s not going to save lives. But harm reduction does. You need to change ‘Just say no’ to ‘What you need to know’. We need to have a grown-up conversation about it.”
“If these partygoers had been told they had PMMA in [their pills], those people wouldn’t have taken them,” adds Dr. Measham.” It was a tragic and unnecessary loss of life. So there is a benefit. There are people who will still take them but you can save some lives. And isn’t that more than worth it?”
“Within half an hour, she was dead”
Molly Tregidgo, 22, a PhD student from London, lost her friend through MDMA two years ago.
“The night Sophie* died, she invited me to the drum and bass club she went to in Brixton but I couldn’t go – I had university deadlines. Now it’s impossible not to wonder if it would have been different if I had. Maybe it would have been me who would have died instead or maybe we’d have shared the pills, so she’d have taken less and still be here. We both met at university and took drugs occasionally when we went out. To be honest at the kind of clubs we went to it was more unusual not to do it.
“That night Sophie had been SnapChatting me from the club – she was obviously having fun. When she got back to her boyfriend’s house in the early hours, everything was still fine. But then as she brushed her teeth on the side of the bath, she collapsed. She was taken to hospital but within half an hour, she was dead. I know she had taken MDMA but I don’t know why she had that reaction – her boyfriend had taken the same thing and he was fine.
“I found out around 6pm the next day. I got a call from a friend, sounding panicked and telling me to check Facebook. It was a message from Sophie’s dad, telling us what had happened. I couldn’t move. I just stood there staring at it for about 45 minutes.
“When my flatmate came in and asked what was wrong, I just had to point at the screen. I was put on sleeping tablets and had counselling. I couldn’t believe I’d never hear Sophie’s cackly laugh again, and that she’d never live out her life plans.
“Now, my views on drugs are completely different. I would never do them again. I can’t even go to the kinds of clubs we went to because I can’t be around people doing drugs. I want to run around everyone asking ‘What are you doing?’
“When you see what drugs can do that close-up – no matter how rarely – it hits home. We’d heard stories of it happening to friends of friends but were quite detached. We thought they had obviously taken too much, or done something silly. We never thought they’d done exactly the same as anyone else; they were just unlucky.”
What Is MDMA?
MDMA is the chemical name for ecstacy and comes in either pill form or a crystal powder. The effects, which include an energy buzz and greater feelings of love for those around you, tend to last for three to six hours followed by a gradual comedown. Short term risks include panic attacks, paranoia and confused episodes however a big problem with MDMA is that you rarely know what is in it, regardless of what it looks like – and you can’t predict how you will react.
By Caroline Corcoran