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Is it really Ecstasy

The chance of getting a good E in Britain (1995)

Is it really Ecstasy?

What is sold as Ecstasy in Britain may be a number of different drugs. Of these, MDA (3,4 Methylenedioxyamphetamine) and MDEA (3,4 Methylenedioxyethylamphetamine, also called MDE or Eve) are quite similar to MDMA, but what is sold as 'Ecstasy' may consist of other drugs such as mixtures of LSD and amphetamine or caffeine. Some 10% are fakes with no effect. In America, the last figures published by Pharmchem (1985) show a similar picture ­ only half the samples were pure MDMA, with nearly half the remainder being MDA or MDEA while the rest was either another drug altogether or fake.

Varying quality

Since Ecstasy first arrived in Britain, the quality has varied widely. At first it was almost entirely pure MDMA, but as it became more popular the quality declined, reaching a low ebb in the winter of 1992. This was probably due to supply outstripping demand and dealers selling any old tablet as Ecstasy, but as a result people had disappointing experiences and turned to other drugs, mainly LSD, for the simple reason that the dose cannot be adulterated. They also built up a following for some substitutes, such as LSD and amphetamine mixtures. This was when the term Ecstasy began to be used to include other drugs besides MDMA.

The overall quality of Ecstasy in Britain has improved. Dr Les King of the police forensic laboratory at Aldermaston told me in January 1995 that not only the proportion of MDMA has increased, but also the average strength. The same is true in Holland. The chance of getting pure MDMA in 1995 is about 2 out of 3, and of getting an MDMA-like drug is about 3 out of 4. Dr King also told me that Snowballs, a notorious brand of Ecstasy, consisted of very strong pure MDA which came from a government laboratory in Latvia! After splitting from the Soviet Union, Latvia needed Western currency and had the advantage of no drug laws, so they joined up with a German businessman to produce MDA for export as Ecstasy. This went well for a couple of years until a consignment of 10 million tablets was intercepted in Frankfurt airport, since when MDA has been rare. Similarly, MDEA has nearly dried up since it was made illegal. The result has been a higher proportion of MDMA on the market.

Drugs with similar effects to MDMA

MDEA and MDA are two common drugs similar to MDMA. All three are psychedelic amphetamines with fairly similar effects, although connoisseurs invariably prefer MDMA because of its empathic quality. MDA lasts twice as long (8-12 hours) and has a rather more amphetamine-like effect. MDEA (sometimes sold as Eve), lasts a rather shorter time (3-5 hours) than MDMA (4-6 hours) and is nearer to MDMA in effect, but still lacks its communicative qualities.

The effects of all these drugs wear off after a few successive days' use, a phenomenon known as tolerance. However, there is no cross tolerance between MDA and MDMA: someone who has taken so much MDMA that it has no more effect on them can still get off on MDA and vice versa.

Why Ecstasy may not be as good as it used to be

Although the average quality of Ecstasy has improved in Britain, street wisdom declares that Ecstasy is not as good today as it used to be. The effect is greatly influenced by other factors.

The first is tolerance. If you had an unlimited supply of absolutely pure MDMA and took the same dose each day in the same situation, you would find that the most smooth, open, loving experience with the least amphetamine like effects would be on the first dose. Each subsequent experience would have less of the loving feeling and more speediness until, after 5 days or so, you might as well be taking amphetamine (speed). You would then have to stop taking MDMA for a time before you could experience the good effects again. After a week without MDMA, its effect will be nearly back to normal, although to get the full effect you may have to abstain for as long as six weeks. Even then, the experience may not be as good as your first one ­ but that is probably due to being familiar with the effect. Tolerance varies according to the individual and amount taken. But as a rough guide, tolerance is noticed by those who take more than one E a week.

The second factor is your state of mind. Although this applies less with MDMA than with many other drugs (particularly LSD), the effect is highly responsive to your mood, in fact one of the drug's effects is to liberate suppressed feelings. You may not even notice that you are uncomfortable about something until the drug takes effect. It has also been suggested that dancing may also alter the effect.

Expectation of the effect of a drug also plays a surprisingly large role, people get what they expect. Everyone likes to believe that they won't be fooled, but tests in which LSD and hash were substituted with a placebo show that, with those drugs at least, nearly everyone experiences what they expect. Alexander Shulgin, who wrote a book on the effects of psychedelics, describes how he had an emergency operation on his thumb during the war. Before the operation he was given a glass of orange juice with white powder at the bottom which immediately sent him unconscious ­ later he was told the powder was sugar!

©Nicholas Saunders 1995