MDMA was first developed in Germany in the 1900’s, as a psychotherapeutic tool. In the 1970’s, it was used by psychiatrists in the U.S.A as a tool, with some even calling it “penicillin for the soul” because it was perceived to enhance communication in patient sessions and allowed users to achieve insights about their problems. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, it started to become available on the streets, becoming engrained in rave culture, which is how we got to the stage we’re currently at, where MDMA is popular in mainstream clubs. MDMA is still used as a psychological tool in some parts of the world, particular to help treat PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder.) A woman by the name of Alice who was one of 136 patients undergoing a clinical trial involving the substance, said that “I had the first few minutes of peace I’ve had in years. The MDMA just pulls things out of you. It supports you. You can start looking at all your experiences and how they are affecting you. There were times when I just sat up and started talking.” Although stories like Alice’s are positive, she would have been taking an FDA approved version of the substance. You can’t necessarily have that kind of guarantee of quality when you buy from the street, or from a shady guy in the smokers at Revolver.

For most people, using a party drug for the first time comes down to a momentary snap decision – it is offered to you, and you just decide to take it. It’s not as if you’ll be at a club or a house party, and then research a drug in depth before you take it. This can be a huge problem – often, people have no idea what they are actually putting into their body, they just know how good it makes them feel. But almost every pleasure in this life comes with a related cost, and in the case of party drugs, that cost can sometimes be your life. Take the bad batch of MDMA that circled around Melbourne and Revolver recently. Over the course of a single weekend, 20 people were hospitalised, and three people died. That particular batch of drugs was noted to not actually be MDMA upon the reveal of a leaked police memo that stated it was actually “a cocktail of illicit substances, including 4-Fluoroamphetamine [an amphetamine-type stimulant, also known as 4-FA] and 25C-NBOMe [a strong hallucinogen]”.

But the fact that it wasn’t actually MDMA doesn’t really matter to the people who died or the people who were hospitalised, and it highlights just how clueless we truly are when it comes to these illicit substances. Even if you think you are certain about what is in your drugs, it may not always be as it seems. This stuff isn’t produced in state of the art labs with safety procedures and quality control. Particularly in the case of pressed pills, it can be hard to know exactly what you’re putting into your body, and what it will do to you long term. This is concerning for a number of reasons.

MDMA has seen a surge in popularity as the drug of choice amongst young people in recent times. In fact in 2016, a study reported that there had never been more MDMA available globally, and that the quality was constantly soaring. In 2016, the self-reported use of MDMA has gone up by 12.7 percent in Australia compared to 2015. The rise in the popularity of the substance has also led to higher rates of hospitalisation resulting from use. Since 2013, reported hospitalisations of MDMA users has doubled. These statistics are in relation to both pressed pills with MDMA as a base ingredient, and MDMA in crystal form as a capsule, and obtained from the GDS (Global Drug Survey 2016.) .  In their 2015 report, the Global Drug Survey made the following observations.

“MDMA users seeking emergency medical treatment from 0.3% in GDS 2013 to 0.6% in GDS 2014 to 0.9 in GDS 2015.  Now, although it’s important to note that GDS 2013 was predominately UK, AU and USA whilst GDS 2014 and GDS 2015 involved much larger samples and more countries, the trend is striking and worries me that better quality MDMA in pill or powder form, taken unwisely places people at greater risk of harm.” 

There are preconceptions amongst MDMA users that the drug is entirely harmless, or that the negative effects can be counteracted with something like a serotonin booster after the fact. But investigations into the matter show that the long-term effects could be direr than many users will tell you. One of the most frightening effects of long term use is the altering of the brain. Prolonged MDMA use can alter the activity of chemical messengers (also known as neurotransmitters) which enable nerve cells in the brain to communicate with one another. This means that connections in the brain do not happen as quickly as they should, essentially weakening one’s brain functionality. Research conducted by experimenting with animals (animal testing is not cool, but that’s a whole other thing) noted that even a moderate dose of MDMA can be toxic to nerve cells in the brain which contain serotonin, and can cause long-lasting damage to these cells. Serotonin is a natural mood stabiliser released by the body – essentially, it’s one of the chemical reasons we feel happiness. With the use of MDMA, your body’s serotonin reserves are depleted, which can begin to damage your overall happiness and emotional state in the long run. Long-term users will often find themselves experiencing depression resulting from their body’s lack of serotonin. So in a way, the trade-off of the few hours of glorious, delirious happiness you experience when you take MDMA is a prolonged lack of happiness in the future. It has also been established that MDMA use can result in long-lasting brain damage that affects thought and memory, and damage to portions of the brain that regulate critical functions such as learning, sleep and emotion. A price for everything, eh?

So how can Australia reduce the risk of drug intake, and stop instances like what happened at Revolver from occurring? In the Netherlands, a government sponsored drug testing facility issues warnings to the public when they locate a pill or version of a drug that is dangerous. In one particular case, a drug was circulating in Europe known as the “superman” pill. This drug contained a large dose of the lethal adulterant PMMA. The Netherlands put out a national televised warning about the pills; in the UK, where there is no equivalent testing or warning system, four people died from the pills before it became public knowledge that they were dangerous. At the very least, The Australian Government should heed the wisdom of other countries throughout Europe who have introduced pill testing at major events, allowing people to discern what chemicals are actually in their drugs prior to consuming them. That kind of thing can save lives. There is no way that drug use is just going to stop, but our governments can certainly make it safer by changing the false narrative created by the failed war on drugs.