13 January 2011

What's in the pills? Fuck knows.

One pill now costs about the same as a pint of beer - and is almost as easy to get hold of. But the youth of Britain is starting to turn its back on ecstasy.

alcohol is indeed more
harmful than heroin or crack
When Alexander Shulgin, an eminent Californian professor of biochemistry, who suffered a stroke on Tuesday 23 November 2010, put 120mg of an obscure and unregarded phenethylamine to the test in his back garden in the summer of 1976, the result was a social revolution and a $65bn industry. Prof Shulgin has been synthesising and tasting new mind-altering drugs for more than 40 years, so, as you might expect, he has seen a few things in his time, but he still considers 3,4 methylene-dioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA) to be unique.

For the first time since Shulgin's discovery, it seems that the people of Britain, once its greatest enthusiasts, are losing interest in ecstasy. In fact, figures published in the British Crime Survey showed that the number of 16 to 24 year olds who had tried the drug in the past 12 months was down by a fifth on the year before to an estimated 312,000, or 5.4% of everyone in that age group. And this is at a time when the price of pills has been plummeting.

Since 1996 when BCS drug use measurement began, trends in levels of use among adults aged 16 to 59 demonstrate:

• Last year use of any illicit drug by 16 to 59 year olds is at its lowest level since measurement began, falling from 11.1 per cent in the 1996 BCS (and from 10.1% in 2008/09) to 8.6 per cent in the 2009/10 BCS, mainly due to successive declines in the use of cannabis since 2003/04.

• Class A drug use among adults aged 16 to 59 was lower in 2009/10 (3.1%) than 2008/09 (3.7%) and levels of last year Class A use are now at similar levels to 1996 (2.7%).

• Although the long-term trend displays relatively constant levels of last year Class A drug use overall, within this there were increases in last year cocaine use between the 1996 and 2009/10 BCS partly offset by a decrease over the same period in the use of hallucinogens.

After over 20 years in the mainstream, ecstasy is unquestionably non-addictive, and appears to be "relatively safe in the short term", according to Professor David Nutt in his advice to the home affairs select committee. In fact, though the authorities prefer not to make the comparison, roughly 20 deaths a year ranks ecstasy alongside electric blankets in a list of Britain's biggest killers. As with most things, prolonged heavy use is generally agreed not to be a good idea, and only research from a British team found that regular users are risking damage to their long-term memory. But a supposed breakthrough linking it with Parkinson's-like deterioration in the brain was comprehensively discredited when it emerged that the compound the researchers had been studying wasn't ecstasy at all. "As each year goes by, I get relatively more sanguine about the risks, rather than less," says Nutt.

Add to this the fact that pills are cheap and simple to manufacture, as well as being easy to distribute and consume discreetly, and the mystery only deepens as to why so many of its core consumers stopped taking it.

With the birth of house music in the 1980s ("Sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats," to borrow the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act's seductive turn of phrase) did the drug begin to forge its definitive association with the dance floor. Then, in 1988, during what became known as the second summer of love, ecstasy seemed to have found its spiritual home in a flagging Thatcher's Britain.

The nation's youngsters began to congregate in their thousands in fields and warehouses. In acid house they had their music, in fluorescent T-shirts and smiley’s they had their fashion, and in ecstasy, at £25 a pill, they had their drug. Never again would school parties be embarrassingly called "discos"; from now on, they would be, even more embarrassingly, called "raves". Even today, and probably for all time, ecstasy's public image - that thumping, sweaty dance floor in which it is always imagined - is a scene from 1988.

And this, as any brand manager will tell you, is a slump waiting to happen. Like 501s or Marks & Spencer, ecstasy's image got stuck in the past.

In fact, in Britain's illegal drugs market, cocaine has been the clear success story of recent years established now as second only to cannabis among the nation's favourite illicit highs.

At the same time, the traditional pills'n'thrills clubbing experience has come down from its late-90s apogee. Ten years ago, you went to a club or a field to take drugs, dance like a loon and leave at six in the morning. Now it's different; there are lots of different sorts of music. It's a lot more social. There are pills there, but you don't have to take them.

This new, restrained style of socialising, however, has done little to quench the modern clubber's appetite for intoxication. Britain's dance floors now bristle with a hitherto unimaginable variety of powders and potions. Before it was just pills, and maybe some coke as well, but that was about it. But now people do ketamine quite regularly, GHB now and again, mescaline, all that stuff. And they mix it up a bit, too. Next to these fearsome compounds, and the Shulgin-designed 2C-B, ecstasy seems very tame indeed.

Such comparisons, and habituation, no doubt play their part in ecstasy's decreasing cachet, but then the cut-price tablets now on offer are also, by common consent, not what they used to be. Pills are less strong than they were.

What's in the pills? Fuck knows.

If doses have been getting weaker that might explain why people are taking more of them while also accounting for a decline in the mystique which used to attract new users to ecstasy. With estimates suggesting that only around half of all tablets sold as ecstasy actually contain it, could it be that it is not MDMA but shit, weak pills that don’t contain any MDMA that people have lost their taste for?

The most compelling evidence for such a theory is the increasing prevalence, anecdotally at least, of “MDMA powder”, a product variant that claims to offer a more quality-controlled source of pure ecstasy. It's been around for a while, but it's really taking off now. MDMA is a reassurance to people that they know what they're getting. It is available as crystals, and it's definitely better - a lot cleaner and more rushy better than any pills you'd take. As one user said: "I am astounded. Everyone must get to experience a profound state like this. I feel totally peaceful. I have lived all my life to get here and I feel I have come home. I am complete."

David Nutt’s assertion, from his study published in the Lancet, that alcohol is indeed more harmful than heroin or crack should now take the focus of the British Crime Survey away from drugs and shine it on alcohol, but it’s doubtful. The study by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs also said tobacco and cocaine were judged to be equally harmful, while ecstasy and LSD were among the least damaging.

The rise of MDMA powder is unlikely to account for the British Crime Survey's findings - how many among its new users have honestly not taken one pill in the last year, if indeed they consider it a different drug? But it certainly suggests dissatisfaction with the quality of today's tablets. In this climate, it is easy to understand why some of Britain's more occasional drug users might be opting for coke instead of ecstasy on their - now more soigné nights out at The Brewery Bar, as well as why their teenage brothers and sisters, without a thriving house music scene to absorb them, try pills much later, if at all. It's easy to understand, in other words, that ecstasy is not dead, or dying. But it may just have entered middle-age.


A documentary, entitled Dirty Pictures, which explores Shulgin's lifetime quest to unlock the human mind through psychedelics, is touring film festivals worldwide at the moment. http://dirtypicturesthefilm.com/index.html  

Friends of the scientist have now launched an appeal for donations to help with his treatment. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Help-Sasha-Shulgin/177539002260930?v=wall  


"We need funds for a lot of things including attempts at archiving his work, and that is something we have been asking for money for. But right now it's simply donations for Sasha's health that we need," said Ann, adding that she expected him to survive and that he was not paralysed. http://www.erowid.org/donations/project_shulgin.php  

thanks to http://www.mdma.net/club-drugs/ecstasy.html