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.