How to protect yourself from super-strength ecstasy
With reports of dangerously high strength ecstasy being sold at clubs and festivals, Mixmag has compiled a guide to help you stay safe when taking MDMA
At a time when MDMA has become more potent, more mixed, and less secure — it’s important that partygoers and ravers have as much information as possible to stay out of danger.
New evidence has found that a combination of Brexit, COVID lockdowns and police crackdowns is leading to a rise in fake and potentially dangerous MDMA circulating around the UK. At last month's Secret Garden Party a batch of "teddy bear" pills were found to contain 2.5 times the normal dose of MDMA. Today The Loop found that samples of 4-CMC in powder & crystal form, which is up to 1.5 times stronger than MDMA, have been missold as MDMA at Lost Village.
It's never been more important to keep yourself and your mates safe. So we've gathered available research and enlisted the help of some experts to offer advice on staying out of danger when taking MDMA.
1. CHECK PILL WARNINGS
Just bought a pill at the club and you're not sure what's in it? There are plenty of places you can check for warnings on specific pills. One of the best known is Pill Reports, a website that compiles warnings and testimonies from organisations and clubgoers, providing a great resource to find information on a pill you're unfamiliar with. All you have to do is type in a description of your pill — whether that be its colour, shape or pressing logo — and you can find information on its potency, contents and if there are any existing warnings out there for it already. It even features reviews from those who have taken it recently, detailing come-ups, intensity and severity of come-downs.
Another great resource is The Loop, a non-profit harm reduction organisation that regularly posts pill reports on its social media pages from drugs it has tested at festivals, club events or drop-in centres. If you’ve just purchased a pill at an event — or any type of drug, for that matter — it's always good to check online first before you drop.
2. REGULATE YOUR BODY TEMPERATURE
A side effect many people don’t take into consideration when taking ecstasy is the risk of overheating and hypothermia — particularly in high doses. MDMA causes your body to release a hormone called norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter responsible for your blood pressure and body heat. As the hormone is released it causes an acute rise in your body temperature, and as with most side effects of MDMA... the higher the dose, the more of this hormone your body releases.
This becomes more of an issue when the user is undertaking exercise... such as dancing all night. Combined with being in a tightly packed crowd or baking in the hot festival sun, it can quickly get out of control. "Users tend to believe that [ecstasy] is pretty safe when used in moderation and that serious adverse health complications, including pathological hyperthermia, result from contamination of MDMA by other 'more dangerous' drugs," said study researcher Eugene Kiyatkin, a scientist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse to Live Science. "Contrary to popular opinion, MDMA could become very dangerous even at relatively low or moderate doses," when used in a warm environment.
It's important to remind yourself to take breaks, cool down and rehydrate. If you're feeling warmer than you should, don't stay on the dancefloor — tell a friend or a medic that you're not feeling well.
Read this next: Study finds Brexit is causing an increase in fake ecstasy
3. WATCH YOUR DOSAGE
While it may be difficult to know how potent, or pure, your MDMA may be — being mindful of how much you're taking is essential. As the age-old saying goes... start with a nibble. If you haven't had a chance to test your MDMA's purity or strength, try it out with a small amount first to see how it makes you feel before taking any more.
When you’re taking MDMA, even when you know its strength and purity, it's useful to measure your dosage beforehand. A milligramme scale is the most effective tool for this — and much safer than reaching your hand into the bag on a dark dancefloor. “You really have to be cautious with dosage, mostly because you don’t know the purity or the strength a lot of the time,” says Chris Rintoul of harm reduction group Cranstoun.
The Bristol Drugs Project says that dosage will depend on a number of factors including tolerance, gender and how it’s taken (either nasally or orally). The recommended advice is to take 50mg + your bodyweight in kilos, and redoses should go down by half of the original dose every 2-3 hours.
“If I were an average person who was a somewhat regular user, I would start at 120mg. Two hours later, when you’re considering redosing, go for 60mg. Then two hours later go down to 30mg. You want to tail off easily. But if you ever feel like you’re heading south, stop.”
Professor Adam Winstock of The Global Drugs survey wrote in a blog: “ MDMA is broken down in your body by enzymes in your liver. These enzymes produce other substances some of which don’t do anything but some of which do a lot. What’s a bit weird is that one of the breakdown products of MDMA actually stops one of the major enzymes involved in MDMA metabolism working.
“This means that your body may become less effective at breaking down MDMA after a certain dose. The consequence of this is that small increases in MDMA dose can lead to unexpectedly large increases in blood level. The higher the blood level of MDMA, the greater the increases are in things like heart rate, blood pressure and other stresses on your body.”
As well as being mindful of how much you're taking on a night out, experts reiterate that it is best to not do MDMA more than once every three months in order for your body to recuperate. “Avoid taking MDMA more regularly than once every three months. This will allow time for your body and brain to fully recover between sessions,” says Bristol Drugs Project.
Adam Winstock writes: “It’s reassuring to know that 75% of people who use MDMA do so less than 10 days a year, on average more than four weeks between doses. That is very sensible.”
4. TAKE SMALL SIPS OF WATER
It's important to watch how much water you're drinking, we like to call it the goldilocks formula — not too much, not too little... you want it to be just right. MDMA can alter your perception of how hydrated you are, so taking frequent sips of water is the best way to go rather than downing a bottle all in one. The Alcohol and Drug Foundation state that drinking too much water and causing brain swelling is known as "dilutional hyponatremia" — which can be fatal.
Chris Rintoul of harm reduction group Cranstoun explains to Mixmag: “If you drink too much, it can cause your brain to swell. That is a problem. It can also cause an issue with kidneys, especially for women. This can also happen if you drink too much water and you’re re-dosing too frequently.”
"It would be so much easier to give precise advice if we knew how much activity you were doing, what your body weighs, what your medical needs are, and the exact strength of the MDMA,” he says. However, generally, Rintoul recommends sipping about 500ml of water per hour if you are being active, and 250mls when resting."
While it is dangerous to drink too much water while taking MDMA, it is also dangerous to be too dehydrated. A significant portion of medical emergencies when using MDMA are brought on by overheating, and heat stroke. “You also don’t want dehydration. That can cause confusion, tiredness, and can cause someone to pass out,” explains Rintoul.
“It’s about being in the middle, not being dehydrated or being overhydrated. When I started in this field in the early 90s, the advice then was to drink lots of water because you’re off your tits and it’s sweaty. But that’s before we had more research — we were wrong. How much movement or dancing you’re doing actually is the best determiner of how much water or isotonic sports drinks to consume.”
Read this next: UK government urged to back drug safety testing at festivals this summer
5. TEST YOUR DRUGS
Testing kits are a great, and discreet, way to test your drugs at home before you head out to the club or festival. You can purchase them online for less than the price of a coffee, and it might just save your life.
UK Drug Testing, Pill Report, and The Loop all sell at-home testing kits where you can analyse your drugs for high strength and impurities. The Loop, for example, can even test your MDMA or pills on-site at certain events — although not every festival employs the harm reduction organisation, so it's important to check online beforehand whether the event you’re heading to has a special area for harm reduction testing.
“For The Loop, as for many other drug checking organisations around the world, infrared spectroscopy is one of our key methods of chemical analysis and has been since we started testing substances of concern. The technique is fast, portable, easily detects most substances and costs very little money per test,” explains The Loop.
Recently, warnings have spiked over added chemicals to drugs such as MDMA such as PMA, n-ethylpentylone, clephedrone/4-CMC and eutylone. Many impurities can cause the effects of MDMA to last longer than expected and cause anxiety for users — so it's important to know what's in your drugs.
6. MAKE SURE YOUR MATES ARE DOING OK
Despite being immersed in crowds while at a club night or a festival — it’s easy to be in your own little world. The flashing lights, the music, that feeling when the soundsystem hits just right. However, if you or your friends are using MDMA it’s important to keep an eye on each other — and look out for any warning signs that someone could be feeling unwell. In an article published by The Conversation, Lecturer in Paramedic Science at CQ University Australia Ian de Jong says that it's time to become concerned if there are any feelings of a tight chest, a dramatic increase in heart rate or if your friend becomes disorientated. “It's normal to loosen up a bit, but the user should still be oriented to where they are and what is going on,” he explains.
“If several pills have been taken (or a single particularly strong pill) users can suffer something called ‘excited delirium’. This is where they become confused, very hot and sweaty, and possibly aggressive. If not treated, the condition can be very serious. If you see a friend who has taken a pill acting agitated and confused, it’s time to get help.” He adds that if a friend or anyone you see at the rave loses consciousness, it's important to roll them on their side and seek medical attention. “Sometimes when taking these drugs people can have seizures. This could be from a combination of the pill, the heat, the alcohol, and any underlying conditions the person has. Roll a seizing person onto their side and get some help.”
Andre Gomes, communications lead at Release, offers his advice to Mixmag on what to do if you or a friend exhibit any of these symptoms: “Do not hesitate to seek medical help in the venue or call an ambulance if you or your friends need it.” Adding that it's important to “know the potential risks” of any drug you’re taking and that will “help you understand how to react if you feel you’ve taken too much or are having a bad trip.”
7. BE MINDFUL OF MIXING
You want to have a great time — don’t we all — but mixing drugs and alcohol can cause many dangerous repercussions as well as unpredictable effects.
Firstly, when planning to take any drugs or drink alcohol, it’s best to check how this could interact with medication you might already be taking. Chris Rintoul of harm reduction group Cranstoun explains: "It’s not just illegal drugs that you need to be careful about mixing, we’ve dealt with some really tragic cases because people didn’t realise it also meant mixing with prescribed drugs and painkillers. If you’re on SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), those modern types of antidepressants, I highly recommend staying away from MDMA. It can cause a serotonin storm and syndrome, and that could be highly damaging.” According to Scottish harm reduction charity Crew, many HIV medicines as well as hormone medications such as oestrogen can have negative interactions with MDMA.
As well as prescription drugs, it is advised not to mix recreational drugs alongside taking ecstasy. Stimulant drugs increase activity in the central nervous system and worsen any potential side effects from MDMA, these drugs include cocaine, methamphetamine, dexamphetamine and even caffeine. According to Positive Choices, drugs that can be “depressive” can also cause problems when on ecstasy — including alcohol, heroin, GHB, ketamine, benzodiazepines (e.g. Xanax and Valium) and opioids (e.g. MS Contin, OxyContin, methadone, codeine and buprenorphine).
Though alcohol seems harmless enough and is usually readily available in environments where most people tend to take MDMA, its depressant nature can increase the chances of dehydration and overheating. While the stimulant quality of MDMA can block signals from your brain telling you you've had enough to drink — meaning you can drink a lot more than usual. Stick to the water if you can!
Read this next: Experts recommend pilot programme to test drugs at music festivals
8. TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY AND YOUR MIND WILL DO THE REST
Maybe not the most traditional of concerns when taking eccies, but one way you can ensure you will have a good time and stay safe is, well, looking after yourself. Boring as it may be, eating nutritionally balanced meals (midday chips don’t count guys), getting a solid eight hours sleep beforehand, making sure you wear sunscreen and getting some shade, wearing earplugs — are all things that will give you a better chance of avoiding any nasty side effects from MDMA.
As far as keeping your stomach happy goes, food journalist Shamim de Brún offered her advice on food and drink while on the sesh: “A hearty and healthy meal four hours before you take MDMA. This way, you will digest the food before you bump, but you will also have food in your system.” Her choice? “Chicken and eggs have high levels of tryptophan. Tryptophan is a key serotonin building block, so this combo makes perfect prep.” Tryptophan is rich in the amino acids that 5-HTP, go figure! While on the day after, she advises some of the green stuff — by way of juices. “You want to look for something that has greens or seeds in it. These all have magnesium, and magnesium is nature’s muscle relaxant. If you’ve been grinding the gums off your jaw, you will be in desperate need of muscle relaxants.”
When it comes to sleep, we’re all pretty aware by now MDMA naturally keeps users awake and alert for much longer than they would be normally — hell, the reason many of us take it is so we can keep dancing until the wee hours. But what about afterwards? The Sleep Society released a detailed report in 2016 on how recreational drugs affect our sleep patterns, with evidence suggesting that people can have an interrupted sleep pattern for up to 48 hours after taking MDMA and that the drug suppresses the body's ability to enter into REM sleep, the state in which you get the most rest. You of course can do your best to try and lull yourself to sleep the night after — eye mask, some lavender spray, whale noises — but it's inevitable you’ll end up being somewhat sleep deprived. Best way to combat this? Get a solid forty winks in beforehand so the disturbance to your rest won’t be as dramatic.
Another point we’re pretty passionate about here at Mixmag, and advice you should take regardless of if you’ve taken a gary or not — wear. some. earplugs. Andre Gomes from Release believes this is a key part of looking after yourself in the rave, with many of us forgetting due to our intoxicated state that the soundsystem we’re standing next to could have long term effects on our hearing. “Wearing proper music ear plugs can also be a blessing to avoid any permanent ear damage from spending a lot of time in front of speakers” he says. “Invest in a proper pair that doesn't compromise the quality of music. Long-term your ears will thank you."
Lastly, one a little bit more specific to festival season: watch yourself in the sun. We’ve mentioned above how important staying hydrated and controlling your body temperature are, a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience in 2014a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience in 2014a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience in 2014, discovered that even a fairly moderate dose of MDMA taken in hot environments can trigger dangerous spikes in brain temperature. Outside of this, being distracted by the dance might also make you forget things like SPF and elongated sun exposure — which could lead to heatstroke. The last thing you want on a comedown is a nasty sunburn, so set alarms on those phones and make sure to apply that Hawaiian Tropics every other hour people!
For more information on drug safety and pill alerts head to The Loop. Stay safe this summer!