Five years ago, an analysis of ecstasy pills across Europe found that the majority contained absolutely no MDMA, the psychoactive ingredient from which the drug derives its name. However, in a staggering turnaround, MDMA levels are now soaring across the continent – and quite possibly the world – largely due to the development of new synthetic compounds that act as precursors to the popular party substance.
According to a new report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), the average amount of MDMA in ecstasy tablets during the 1990s and early 2000s was between 50 and 80 milligrams. However, an international crackdown on a substance called safrole – from which MDMA is produced – led to a global shortage by 2008. As a result, the underground chemists cooking up the drug began substituting MDMA for a range of other psychoactive compounds such as mephedrone, to the point where, by 2009, most ecstasy pills contained less than 3 percent MDMA, if any at all.
However, the following year saw the emergence of a new chemical called PMK-glycidate in China, which can be used in place of safrole. Furthermore, because international trade in PMK-glycidate is not yet illegal, ecstasy manufacturers have little trouble getting hold of the ingredients they need to produce the drug.
The sum total of this has been a wave of new pills with an ultra-high MDMA content, many of which are now produced in China. According to the EMCDDA report, the average pill now contains around 125 milligrams of the substance, with a large number of “super pills” having been found with up to 340 milligrams of the stuff.
MDMA is the main psychoactive ingredient in the party drug ecstasy. ShutterDivision/Shutterstock
Over half of all ecstasy tablets tested in the Netherlands in 2015, for instance, contained over 140 milligrams of MDMA, leading to experts from the Trimbos Institute issuing a warning to clubbers regarding the dangerously strong pills that are now flooding dancefloors.
Exactly how dangerous MDMA is remains a murky subject, as very little proper science has been conducted on this issue. Those studies that do exist tend to be highly contradictory, with some finding very little evidence that the drug produces lasting neurotoxic effects, while others suggest that it may interfere with levels of vital neurotransmitters in the brain, resulting in cognitive deficits.
As with all drugs, though, ingesting extremely large quantities of MDMA is sure to be a bad idea, and, according to the report, can lead to seizures and a range of other serious health problems. However, the authors go on to say that virtually all deaths associated with ecstasy are not in fact caused by MDMA, but by a particularly dangerous filler substance called PMMA, which is sometimes used to bulk up pills or as a replacement for MDMA.