In September two friends died after using a brown powder containing PMA in Kinsale. Most likely they thought they were taking MDMA. Rashers Tierney looks at how the Irish authorities need to wise the fuck up and catch some sense from abroad in order to prevent future deaths.
For those of us without a chemistry degree, PMA stands for para-Methoxyamphetamine – more dramatically known in some quarters as Dr Death. The recent deaths in Kinsale and the overdoses at Swedish House Mafia have unsettling connotations for any weekend warrior that has taken a sneaky dab off a stranger at a festival or in the smoking area of some club.
In what was seen as an unusual move, the Health Service Executive issued a high-profile, poorly-informed warning about PMA. Beyond a nondescript image of a baggy there was little else identifying the substance, and users were left scrambling to find out for themselves online. PMA is one nasty substance. Alexander Shulgin, the researcher who popularised MDMA, bluntly suggested ‘staying away from this compound’. Putting its market presence down to restrictions on some of the precursor chemicals used in the production of MDMA.
In a nutshell, prohibition leads to it popping up in adulterated street drugs that users would rather not touch. One Irish head on pillreports.com came into contact with the contaminated batch in Newbridge. “I took this brown stuff… after the first tiny bit my friend went cross eyed. I threw the rest away I couldn’t sleep or do anything I was that fucked. People do not take.”
Despite calls and emails to the HSE communication section, I couldn’t find out whether this was a once-off or if a protocol was now in place to issue warnings when they became aware of such cases in the future.
The media leapt on the story, falling over themselves with delight at having a “new” chemical nasty to castigate – conflating MDMA and PMA in the same breath as if it was a new party sensation. This ignorant whoring for headlines has the consequence of making recreational users just go ‘meh’ to a media that cries wolf at every stage in the drugs debate. Remember the mephedrone hysteria?
There’s nothing novel about PMA. To suggest so chucks about ten years of harm reduction research and work right out the window, and fills the void with worn-out tabloid templates.
Not one mainstream Irish journalist delved deeper. How hard is some Google research? Sharply contrasting with this were the hordes of clued-up heads in the comment sections and on social media retorting with quickfire pops at various journalists’ laziness.
When it comes to MDMA, fatalities are, thankfully, a tragic rarity in contrast to garbage warblings from the Herald and friends. PMA is a different story entirely. Russell Newcombe, known to some as the “godfather of rave research”, spearheaded Madchester’s Safer Dancing Campaign in the 90s. Russell worked alongside local authorities, clubs and even law enforcement to establish guidelines that took into account the realities of chemical usage. Basic things, like having free water on supply for over-heating ravers. The Point Depot could have done with this in 1995 when it was criticised for charging five punt a bottle in the wake of one death.
On the phone Russell tells me there was a number of PMA deaths in Liverpool last year too. “All of this is created by drug prohibition. If MDMA was legal, there’d be no need for people to buy unknown tablets off dealers that had PMA in them.”
And that’s the controversial crunch. He’s not alone in this thinking; a health chief in British Columbia landed himself in hot water for similar comments.
About one in ten people aged 15-34 have admitted use of ecstasy in their lifetime, according to the latest Irish drug prevalence survey released in October. A sample of 2000 clubbers taken in the UK found that 94% had tried an illegal drug at least once and 36% had planned to or had already taken pills on the night of the survey. The vast, vast majority of these will never experience any problems with MDMA. Trapped between an entrenched anti-drug political class, media moral outrage and the spectre of demon chemists are these bog standard weekend users.
Face it, some drugs do give us the desired effect of being more social or cresting on a wave of music in a sweaty basement. Regardless of how much demonisation is done, we’ll still party on – that’s what the research says. Referring to this as a game of Russian Roulette is true, but the authorities are refusing to let us look in the barrel before we play.
The National Drugs Strategy only concerns itself with what it terms the “problem user” – that’s generally seen as someone on opiates or crack. While needle exchanges and so on are accepted wisdom – this logical stretch of the imagination hasn’t been extended to party drugs in Ireland.
Fiona Measham sits on the UK government’s Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs. For her this approach means “we miss this whole group who might go into occasional recreational use and could have harm reduction strategies directed at them but that doesn’t happen any more. We’ve come a long way backwards since twenty years ago with Safer Dancing and Safer Clubbing. That doesn’t get funding anymore. And that’s a tragedy. Because that’s what most people are doing”
In the absence of the authorities doing much to minimise our exposure to dodgy batches, recreational users themselves are using the internet to crowdsource information on what’s doing the rounds. Pillreports.com leads the charge on this front, with results from home ecstasy testing kits paired up with info gleaned from research elsewhere.
Bearlove, one of the site’s moderators told me how it was set up as a platform to share experiences when pills started to “turn really shit” at the start of the noughties.
“People were taking random ass pills and, as they had no prior experiences, thought they were using MDMA/Ecstasy. They had no idea that they should not be puking up and unable to sleep.”
There’s quite a few active Irish users there, sixteen reports were filed from Ireland since the start of September. Warnings were posted for about eight of these batches.
Just in case you leap to assumptions, sites like this aren’t just for doped up psychonauts. User reports are regularly quoted in briefing documents from health centres and state agencies.
Pill-testing too isn’t a renegade idea. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) is one of the EU’s decentralised agencies – it looked at the dangers of PMA as far back as 1995. It concluded “one answer is on-the-spot pill-testing. Not by the ‘authorities’ – but by groups in touch with the music and dance scene. Not by warning them off pills – but by giving instant analyses of the chemical content and other useful information, enabling users to weigh up the health risks themselves.”
There are groups in the US and elsewhere that pursue this strategy. I asked the Garda Press Office for a comment on what would happen were people to do the same here.
“I suppose in one way life is simple for us. These drugs are prescribed as illegal, we don’t give advice as to how to make it safe – you need to be talking to the HSE . There is nothing illegal in using the kit, but if you are using one, you are in possession of an illegal drug. It’s very simple from our point of view, we don’t give advice about how to use fireworks safely, if we can stop them, we do.” The focus of law enforcement is to reduce crime, that’s understandable – but is there not a need for compromise when it comes to public health? Not in Ireland anyway.
If ecstasy testing kits represent users fending for themselves on a DIY bent, the other end of the scale is the well funded Dutch Drugs Information And Monitoring Service (DIMS).
DIMS is as an information exchange between users who access drug testing but also contribute to a feedback loop of what they themselves then experience. Often it’s not the labs that signal the first warnings, but partiers on the ground, setting off a red alert system across the region. Crucialy, the knowledge they gather allow this to happen before fatalities occur. Zurich too takes a similar approach. It’s a core plank of their drug strategy.
With such an array of novel psychoactive substances finding their way onto the market, there’s a fear that home testing kits are too crude to guard against everything. So maybe this authority-led approach is the way to go? Fiona Measham anticipates the backlash to suggestions we follow this model.
“One of the criticisms of testing is that dealers can go along, get their drugs tested and then it’s just becoming a service, sort of rubber stamping and giving approval to the illicit ways of dealers. They’ve really taken that on and said ‘our priority is public health, we don’t give a monkey’s about that, it’s a red herring.”
Headlines around the world indicate the ground is shifting on recreational drug use. There was the legalisation of marijuana in Colorado and two other US states, Channel 4’s reality TV experiment, Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial, and then, the elephant in the room that is decriminalised Portugal.
Saying Joe Duffy dominates the discourse here isn’t a glib joke. Go read the Seanad Eireann debate on the headshop legalization. You’ll find Liveline popping up eight times as the main reference point for our lawmakers. Our politicians lag pathetically behind international sense.
After the Guatemalan president suggested legalisation, The Journal website carried a survey asking ‘should Ireland consider legalising drugs?’
That site is hardly known as a bastion of drug fiends – yet over 80 per cent answered either “yes to some extent” or “yes totally.” Community and voluntary organisations here like Citywide are also calling for an open debate on how decriminalisation can facilitate harm reduction. Real lives are at stake and there are mechanisms in place elsewhere to prevent such losses.
Not that you’d pick up any of this in the mainstream Irish press. In that world, recreational drug users are only worth paying attention to when they wind up frothing at the mouth on the highway to heaven in an A and E ward.
As long as we abdicate quality and control to profit-motivated street suppliers, there’s no guarantee what’s floating around our sessions. People will remain exposed to the threat of adulterants like PMA. When all they want is a decent empathogen and a bit of a dance.
The Irish authorities are abandoning us. By not considering strategies to alert users to what’s in their recreational stashes and how to keep themselves safe. They are making us fall victim to middle Ireland’s drug-use cliches and worst nightmares.
It’s not madness to think deaths like those in Kinsale could have been avoided had we woken up a little sooner.
You can read the full interview with Fiona Measham here.