Chemical chaos: the new drugs
The recent deaths of two men in Kinsale highlight the wide availability of new synthetic drugs. Their ingredients are often unknown to users, and their effects can be lethal
LAST MONDAY SHOULD have been Michael Coleman’s second week in his new job at Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical company. Having graduated from Cork Institute of Technology as a chemical engineer, the 22-year-old had recently moved to a cottage in Kinsale with his partner. One neighbour reported having seen a fire lighting in the house in recent weeks and said the young couple had looked very happy. Liam Coffey, who was also 22, had stayed with the couple for the weekend. At 6.10am last Sunday the bodies of Coleman and Coffey were discovered.
Unusually, in the days that followed, the HSE warned about the substance gardaí believe was linked to the deaths of both men. The warning urged medical workers and drug users to watch out for a substance known to contain two amphetamines: methylamphetamine, also known as MDMA or ecstasy, and paramethoxymethamphetamine, or PMMA, a stimulant and psychedelic sometimes known as “Dr Death” or “Mandy”. The warning included a photograph of a brown powder in a clear bag and listed symptoms users and front-line staff should be aware of.
Also unusually, the HSE detailed “practical steps that drug users can take to prevent overdose”. These included avoiding mixing the drug with alcohol or other drugs, and knowing your tolerance levels. This is the first warning in Ireland relating to a mix of MDMA and PMMA, and it follows similar moves in other countries, among them Israel, where dozens of deaths have been linked to the new drug since 2007. Deaths have also been reported in Australia, Scotland, Canada and the US.
Sinead O’Mahony Carey, of the HSE’s substance-misuse service in south Co Tipperary, says drugs such as PMMA have come to regional agencies’ attention in recent years. “Since ‘legal highs’ were made illegal in 2010, we are seeing the emergence of a range of new chemicals, particularly in the recreational-drug scene,” she says.
Some users say they first encountered a powdered form of MDMA more than a decade ago; they regarded it as a purer type of tablet ecstasy. The trend of mixing it with other components, such as PMMA, is more recent. The Garda has reported a decline in the use of ecstasy during the past five years but a marked increase in that of new synthetic substances. One 32-year-old professional who moved to Dublin from the US and is an occasional user of MDMA was surprised at how socially acceptable that drug and its variations are here.
“I moved here in 2004, and within six months I was going to parties and MDMA was freely available. I was surprised by how casual and cheap it was compared with in the US. When taking the pill format you get a confined experience, but with the powder you take a dab or two on your finger, rub it into your gums and you can prolong it. I assume the powdered MDMA is mixed with all kinds of awful things, but I suppose there is a sort of trust with those you buy it from. The culture of MDMA in Ireland is very casual.”
Some of these drugs are widely available on the internet through drug forums, particularly after the closure of headshops. Another regular user, a 33-year-old woman from south Kerry, started taking powdered MDMA in 2001, after regularly using tablet ecstasy since 1996. “The pills were great, and then they got bad, and then this powder came around. I think it is the same as pills used to be years ago. You can pay anything from €50 to €100 for a bag of it. The average, though, is about €70-80 for a gram. It lasts longer and it is much stronger. A lot of people snort it. I don’t, because I get sick.”
She says that users tend to regard powdered MDMA as a purer version of ecstasy, although this is impossible to verify, and she is somewhat sceptical of the claims. “My friends say it is a lot cleaner, but I’m not sure. I think people who take drugs tell themselves a lot of stuff about the drugs to justify buying them. If you get the good stuff you are up a long time, and it is very strong, much stronger than pills in their pure form. It is very widely available. [From 2007] in my town, in west Kerry, there was a huge boom in it.