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Trends in quality January 1998

Trends in quality in January 1998

Recent drop in quality

Our January 1998 test results found that only 6 out of 35 pills contained MDMA, and these only contained about 70mg. (A normal dose is 100-125mg.) 27 pills, nearly three quarters, contained speed: caffeine, amphetamine and methamphetamine. Although pills sent in for testing are not representative and are always below average quality, this batch was very much worse than previous batches.

In Holland, government testing of street ecstasy has consistently found that 60% of the pills contain MDMA. This was true right up to last autumn, but in January 1998 only 20% contained a reasonable active dose of MDMA (according to Volksrant).

The reason for this sudden drop in quality is presumably that the Christmas demand exceeded the supply of MDMA by pill makers. Rumour has it that a large amount of pure MDMA was manufactured in Poland in an ex-government pharmaceutical factory, and that this was the main source of MDMA since the Dutch clamped down on home production about two years ago. Although the factory was closed some time ago, stockpiles only ran out in autumn 1997 creating a vacuum in the market. Pill makers simply switched to amphetamine and caffeine, often using the same brands that used to be MDMA.

History of changes in quality

According to the Forensic Science Department* who test drugs seized by the police, the quality of drugs submitted as ecstasy has remained fairly constant over the years, with MDMA still the most common active ingredient to be found. In fact, both the chance of getting pure MDMA and the quantity in an average E pill increased between 1993 and 1996.

Two things have changed over the years. 'Ecstasy' meant MDMA up to 1991 when many pills appeared like the renowned 'Snowballs' containing MDA. In 1993, MDEA appeared as a substitute, presumably because it was not illegal in Holland, and after that MBDB which was only recently outlawed in Germany. Now the second most common active ingredient is MDEA with MBDB coming third. These drugs are substitutes, but they are similar enough for most users to be unable to tell the difference.

The second change is that amphetamine-like drugs are often sold in the form of pills with logos instead of wraps. For clubbers who know which brands are speed and not ecstasy, this is just a new way of marketing. However, if these pills were sold as 'ecstasy', then it would be true to say that the quality has got worse.

In Britain, the proportion of fakes has stayed at around 10% ­ aspirin or other substances with no effect. Another 5% are active drugs such as amphetamine, ephedrine and caffeine, sometimes mixed with other active drugs. That leaves 85% ecstasy-type drugs, of which about 60% is MDMA (the real thing); about 20% is MDEA and 10% MBDB. These ecstasy-type drugs are seldom found mixed with other drugs. In particular, heroin has never been found in samples sold as ecstasy, apart from such small traces as to be inactive. Very much the same overall results have been found in Holland, where the government tests thousands of pills each year.

My own test results show a lower quality, but this can be explained by the the fact that I only accept pills when the donor can describe the effect. That means they are far more likely to donate a pill of a type that was disappointing and keep good ones for themselves.

Many illicit drug samples contain traces of other drugs, probably due to contamination during handling and pill making (illicit pill makers presumably press one batch after another without cleaning their equipment). The National Poisons Unit have found paracetamol, pseudo ethedrine, amphetamine, caffeine, codeine and dihydracodeine in tablets, but like many labs, they list the contents of samples without distinguishing between active ingredients and traces, fuelling support for rumours such as ecstasy containing speed or even heroin.

©Nicholas Saunders 1998

*Information based on phone conversations with Dr Les King on 1 December 1997 and previously

(replacing previous pages with same title dated 1995 and 1997)