Ecstasy: the comeback pill
The closure of headshops, the low price of tablets and the ease of manufacture and supply have reignited the almost-dead ecstasy scene. How big is the problem?
Ecstasy at a house party. Photograph: Sturti/Getty Images
The crowd heaves as the dance-music DJs Paul Oakenfold, Jeremy Healy and Judge Jules spin tunes from the stage hour after hour. Ten thousand people are dancing outdoors, at the former holiday village of Mosney in Co Meath. The crowd are drinking more water than alcohol, to ensure they don’t dehydrate. This is Homelands, the biggest dance festival of 2000, a 14-hour marathon fuelled by ecstasy.
The rave scene began in London and Manchester in 1987, the so-called summer of love. By the early 1990s dance culture, and its byproduct “E”, had become established on Irish campuses and in Irish nightclubs. But by the time of festivals such as Homelands and Creamfields, with their loved-up, euphoric crowds, the drug’s potency had plummeted. Drug gangs were adding agents to bulk up the powder pressed to make the pills. They reduced levels of methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, the chemical that caused the euphoric rushes and made the pills so popular.
Users would complain of having to pop a handful of pills on a night out for the same high provided by one tablet a few years earlier. “They weren’t the same any more, and the comedown wasn’t as clean either. You’d be all over the place for a few days,” says one former heavy user of the drug.
Ecstasy use seems to have peaked around 2003, when the Garda seized €9.7 million worth of the drug. As the dance music synonymous with the drug waned in popularity, and as Ireland and most of Europe became more affluent, cocaine replaced ecstasy as the recreational drug of choice. Ecstasy had all but disappeared by 2010, when the Garda seized just €88,000 worth of the drug.
But now it is making a reappearance. Seizures of the pills this year are already higher than at any point in the past eight years. And 2013 is the third successive year that finds of ecstasy have increased.
Although data about deaths from ecstasy – a rare phenomenon in any case – are not available for the last three years, the period over which the drug appears to have re-established itself, other indicators suggest the drug is once again a significant component of the illegal drug market.
In addition to the increased Garda seizures, higher levels of MDMA have been detected in lab tests. This suggests MDMA esctasy has supplanted the synthetic chemicals that mimic ecstasy and were once sold in head shops, the retailers of “legal highs” that became popular in the 2000s before being shut down in 2010.
Some health and security professionals are are also convinced that ecstasy use is growing fast. Dr Jean Long of the Health Research Board says the HSE’s early-warning system is indicating increased use of the drug in Ireland. “We have noticed an increase in ecstasy use,” she says of 2012 and 2013. “It’s mainly through hospital admissions, from people having negative effects and through deaths. The UK is noticing exactly the same thing. There is more MDMA in each tablet and they are more available.”
Long believes that for a number of years so-called recreational drug users were taking pills they believed were ecstasy but were really a less potent pill, containing BZP and PMMA, two stimulants sold as “party pills” in head shops before they were banned. “MDMA has, in the past year or two, come back with a force,” she says.
The experience in Europe is similar, though less pronounced. A new report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction notes declines of up to 50 per cent in the volume of seizures of drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines and heroin between 2001 and 2011. But the report asks whether ecstasy is making a comeback.
Seizures of the drug across Europe peaked at 23 million tablets in 2002, then fell sharply through most of that decade. In 2009 just 2.5 million tablets were seized. Since then the figure has risen again.
The European monitoring report says the downward trend for so many years was attributable to strengthened controls and targeted seizures across Europe of PMK, a key “precursor” drug used to make MDMA.
“There are, however, indications of a recent resurgence of the ecstasy market, although not to the levels seen earlier,” the European report says. “MDMA appears to be becoming more common, and high-purity powder is available in Europe. Ecstasy producers may have responded to precursor controls by moving to the use of pre-precursors or ‘masked precursors’, which are essential chemicals that can be legally imported as non-controlled substances and then converted into the precursor chemicals necessary for MDMA production.”