Ecstasy may not contain MDMA – nah, really?

This is not news. The fact that ecstasy is part of an illegal and therefore unregulated market has left users exposed to this problem for years. What has suddenly made it news in New Zealand is the fact that since the banning of BZP a year ago, the problem has become much more marked. Previously, users had a legal, semi-regulated alternative. Adulterated pills certainly existed, but the ability to walk away from them put users in a much stronger position, in that producers who wanted return custom would have to have a reasonable quality product.

Now, it’s much easier to put a variety of different substances into a pill than it is to illegally import MDMA, and the vast majority of pills available on the market today are adulterated with other things. The problem here is that there is no longer an alternative, and people are now dealing solely with this unregulated market. Anyone who thinks the banning of BZP has stopped people seeking substances is delusional. As predicted, it’s simply created a situation where there’s a demand for a scarce substance, all of the advantages are in favour of the supplier, and people are taking what they can get from people for whom there is absolutely no comeback for supplying goods that are ‘not as advertised.’

So what can be done about this situation?

Well, if this were a legal market, the government would step in under the Consumer Guarantees Act, or would regulate the market in the interest of safety. But this is not a legal market, the majority of people think that drugs are bad and therefore anyone who gets hurt obviously deserves it, and the government is afraid of taking steps to make people safer when breaking the law, because it will mean they are seen as ‘encouraging’ drug use. So the government will do squat to ensure the safety of users.

That leaves it up to the users to ensure their own safety as much as they can. This is no mean task. How does one know, when purchasing a substance, that its contents are the relatively safe MDMA, and not Ajax (as stated in the article), some other chemical such as BZP or 2CB, or even Panadol?

Well, according to this report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, there are three useful ways of checking the contents, and therefore the safety, of pills sold as ecstasy: pill reports, colour reagent testing, and chromatography. All of these are available in New Zealand, although chromatography is not as available as it seems to be in Europe (see the section of the report relating to ’15 minute’ chromatography tests at dance parties). Chromatography is still a lab-based test, which takes time and is therefore not particularly useful to a user who wants to know what’s in their pill before they take it.

So that leaves us with pill reports and reagent testing. Pill reports are definitely useful in terms of informing people of ‘bad’ pills, but an inherent problem with pill reports has arisen in the last year – duplicate batches. A type of pill can be reported as ‘good’, and sometimes these pills have even been chromatography tested to contain MDMA – and immediately the colour and stamp of the pill is copied as someone cashes in on the reputation of the ‘good’ pills. The user has no way of knowing from the reports which type they have, and therefore can’t use reports as a definitive guide as to the safety of their substance.

Enter the testing kits. Erowid has a comprehensive FAQ regarding Marquis, one of the more common kits available (yes, these are available in New Zealand). A word of warning is included here. It’s true, Marquis will not identify MDMA in a pill, only the possible presence of MDMA-like substances. Nor will it indicate the amount of the substance contained in the pill. Therefore, it would be very unwise to use Marquis to ‘guarantee’ that a pill contains MDMA. However, what it can do effectively, is identify pills that do not contain MDMA, and also the presence of adulterants. Apparently BZP is very easy to identify using Marquis.

So hypothetically, a user could test a pill with a reagent kit, and find out that their pill doesn’t contain MDMA, or may contain MDMA but also has something suspect in it. What now? Well, the user then has to make a decision about their own safety. If they have bought the pill there is the option not to take it. The sensible option would be to send the pill to the testing lab (yes, New Zealand has one) so that it may be analysed using chromatography and others warned of the contents. If the user has not bought the pill but is testing for the purpose of buying, they have the option to not buy the pill.

This is an unregulated market. Yes that’s right, the wet dream of neoliberals everywhere. In basic economic terms it’s a supplier’s market because of the scarcity/demand thing, and this is leading to charlatans making profits from those desperate to purchase, while disregarding the safety of their customers. Sooner or later there will be a death, and those who think drugs are bad will be quick to blame the users and use it as justification to continue with the draconian system that has created the unsafe market in the first place. The only way to change this situation is to be willing to not make the purchase if the product is not of the quality the purchaser expects.

I recommend that anyone with an interest in the quality of pills sold as ecstasy, and therefore the safety of those using these pills, buy a testing kit and use it to identify adulterated pills and those not containing MDMA, and refuse to purchase anything that is not as advertised. Furthermore, refusing to purchase any further releases from the people who supplied those dangerous pills will send a message that users do care about their own safety, and will not allow a situation where they are being fleeced and their lives put at risk. I repeat, the government is not going to help in this situation, it is up to those who suffer the consequences of their decisions to keep themselves safe.

And if a pill does appear to contain an MDMA-like substance? That is still no guarantee that it’s safe to take it. Chromatography is the only effective way of identifying the contents of a pill. Therefore, the more pills that get donated to labs for testing, the better, the more information makes it back to the users.

Of course, to not take the pill or to walk away from a purchase takes willpower. To donate a pill for lab testing takes willpower too. I’d like to suggest that anyone who finds themselves unable to do these things after discovering that their pill contains unidentified substances that are not MDMA, might want to consider their drug use as a whole in the context of the risks they are prepared to take, and consider the potential consequences of a bad decision made for the sake of a fun night out.

10 replies on “Ecstasy may not contain MDMA – nah, really?”

  1. Rich says:

    You’ll note Shulgin’s comment that “no estimate can be made as to the quantity present”. Which means that Evil Drug Makers could put a milligram of MDMA in with a bunch of substances that Marquis and the like don’t react to, and the test will show “positive”.

    It would be interesting to know the results for substances in current circulation in NZ?

  2. tenchinage says:

    Yep. That’s why I recommend lab testing for anything that shows an MDMA-like substance with Marquis. It’s only really good for identifying bum pills that have no MDMA or also contain other things.

    As far as I know, the lab test results are published on (NZ section). They are mixed in with field tests and user reports, but the form specifies which way they’ve been tested.

  3. flow says:

    we have an alcohol, Metamphetamine and violence problem in this country,

    its time the politicos got their head out of america’s posterior and legalised a recreational drug that is known to improve a population’s mood and behaviour.

    what are the side effects of MDMA? a 15 year study shows 1 major one, only: a tendency to form inappropriate relationships. wow. that’s really bad.

    • tenchinage says:

      This is the latest report from the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (published this year). It makes several harm minimisation recommendations, and also recommends that MDMA be reduced from Class A to Class B* in the UK based on the identified harms. Legalisation is not recommended in this report, since there is no proven medical use for MDMA – however, another recommendation is for research to be carried out to more clearly identify possible benefits and harms.

      Currently there is research sponsored by MAPS being conducted into possible uses for MDMA in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and end-of-life anxiety, so it may emerge that it’s more useful than originally thought, which could lead to a rethink of its classification under the UN Convention as Schedule 1.

      Meanwhile, I completely agree with you. The comparative harms from ecstasy when compared with a number of other substances are minimal, it’s not addictive and not associated with violent crime, and has reported (anecdotal) benefits for many users. I believe that prohibition has had the opposite effect to the harm reduction message we are being sold, and that people will continue to buy and use it regardless of its legal status. I also believe that a regulated market for MDMA would reduce the risks involved in using street ecstasy. In the meantime, I hope people reading this will take something away in terms of what they can do to reduce the risks for themselves, since the government has failed to act in their interests.

      * It’s Class B in New Zealand.

  4. MikeE says:

    “this is an unregulated market. Yes that’s right, the wet dream of neoliberals everywhere”

    This is not an example of a free market at all. Its a completely regulated market in that its banned, and the only market exists is an illicit one.

    In order to be a neo liberals dream it would need perfect information – i.e. product knowledge. This doesn’t exist.

    While you are correct on your comments on the perverse incentives created by silly drug laws, your economics knowledge is a lil suspect.

    • tenchinage says:

      You’re quite right, as was pointed out by another commentor:

      “There are deliberate attempts to reduce supply, there are attempts to roll up production and supply networks, and there’s control of the information about the product and the markets. There are differing degrees of enforcement on different products, and all of this takes place in the shadow of a vast and regulated market for alcohol. So yeah, it’s not regulation in the strict sense that the housing market is regulated, but it’s still a market that has regulation that affects the behaviour of both suppliers and demanders.”

      Which explains the concept of how the government is regulating the market.

      You’re also right that my knowledge of economics is basic at best (working to fix that you’ll be pleased to hear). However, while it’s clear that the market for E is not a free market, it’s also clear that the kind of government regulation pushed for by drug reformists is completely absent.

      And if what it takes to get people commenting and discussing the issues is me making a dick of myself by being ignorant about economics, I’ll take that (while quietly going and studying economics some more).

  5. @MikeE Yup – there’s market failure due to prohibition and asymmetric information between the dealers and the users about the good they are trading.

    But the analogy still stands. The only way the government interferes is by restricting the supply… it doesn’t even tax the drug market.

    Note, a free market should of course not be confused with a perfect market. The latter of which might be more aptly described as a neo-liberal’s dream.

  6. The following substances (among others) were found in ecstasy pills:
    – DOB in “China White” pills
    – DXM (dextromethorphan)
    – Ketamine (“rape drug”)
    – Levamisol
    – MDA
    – Meth (methamphetamine)
    – PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine)
    – Procain (local anesthetic)

    These substances are usually stronger or their effects have later onset, resulting in frequent overdosing. Main dangers are hyperthermia, arrhythmia, heart attack..

    Detailed and fresh (2009/10) testing data are published on

    I don’t think pure MDMA is “safe”. It grossly distract users from learning how to achieve joy by doing something meaningful in life.


    • I’m sorry, I thought GHB was the “rape drug”? Until people stop using emotive terms like that it’s impossible to have a rational discussion about recreational substances. Why not call alcohol a “rape drug” too? Since it lowers inhibitions and probably results in more regrettable one night stands than any other drug.

      Given that I’ve occasionally indulged in said substance – and yet I’ve completed a PhD, DJed at festivals around the world, and am now creating an internet startup, I think you can go revise your expectations about drug users not doing meaningful stuff in their lives. I know many people like me too but everyone’s too damn afraid to admit as such because of the social stigma and risk’s to employment (which are mostly because the media continues propagating fallacies about drugs).

      Personally, MDMA got me out of a depressive rut in my life and now my life is more joyful than it’s ever been. Please stop making assumptions.

  7. Tenchinage says:

    Jan –

    Thank you for reiterating the point of this post – that street ecstasy may not contain MDMA and that without information, taking street ecstasy can be dangerous. I wish you had cited your sources for the information, that always makes it more useful.

    The problem with sites such as is that testing of pills and the publication of their content mostly happens ‘after the fact’ – by the time the information is published the pills are usually well distributed and the information is of no use to anyone trying to find information about the pill they may be about to buy or take.

    I would like to see pill testing made accessible in a timely manner, to avoid this issue. It would be easy to say ‘don’t take pills’ but the fact is, people do, they are willing to take that risk, and if the government is serious about minimising harm then giving users accurate information about the content of pills in a timely manner is a good way to do this.

    I agree that MDMA is not ‘safe’ (all drugs have risks), but your last statement unfortunately detracts from your comment overall by making unsubstantiated value judgements about joy and what is meaningful. Who decides what is meaningful? Who decides what kinds of joy are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? What data backs up your statement? Did you know that MDMA is being researched as a potential aid in PTSD therapy? I wonder if those people would agree that it grossly distracts them from achieving joy by doing meaningful things.

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