Forty-five per cent of the substances sold as MDMA at English music festivals last year contained no MDMA at all, according to research by The Loop. Two years previously just 7 per cent of the MDMA sold was fake, constituting ‘a substantial shift in the UK drugs landscape between 2019 and 2021’.
The rise in ‘copycat’ ecstasy was caused by lack of demand as a result of COVID lockdowns and compounded by Brexit-related supply chain issues, says the study, which was produced in association with Cardiff and Liverpool universities and published in the journal Drug Science, Policy and Law. Most of the substances sold as ecstasy instead contained drugs like cathinones or caffeine, with The Loop warning of the risks of similar unknown substances being sold during this summer’s festival season.
The study was based on the results of almost 800 substances tested by The Loop at festivals before and after the pandemic. It found that the presence of MDMA in substances being sold as the drug fell from 93 per cent to 55 per cent between 2019 and 2021. Synthetic cathinones and caffeine, meanwhile, each accounted for a fifth of the substances sold as MDMA last year despite being ‘virtually absent’ in 2019. Two of the three most common cathinones identified by The Loop were still legal in the Netherlands last year, but have since been banned.
A recent survey of almost 50,000 people across Europe by EMCDDA found that almost half of respondents reported using less ecstasy since the beginning of the pandemic (https://www.drinkanddrugsnews.com/europeans-using-more-cannabis-since-pandemic/). There have also been reports of traffickers into the UK focusing on smuggling more lucrative drugs like cocaine and heroin, for which the penalties are the same as the class A MDMA.
The Loop recently launched the UK’s first ever Home Office-licensed drug testing service in Bristol, where one person died and 20 were hospitalised in a single weekend last year as a result of a ‘rogue batch’ of ecstasy (https://www.drinkanddrugsnews.com/uks-first-home-office-licensed-drug-checking-service-launches-in-bristol/)
‘The sharp rise in synthetic cathinone prevalence in the UK in the summer of 2021 coincided with a unique combination of events including Brexit and the reopening of nightlife after 16 months of lockdowns, months ahead of other European nations,’ said The Loop’s director, Professor Fiona Measham. ‘This isn’t the first time we have seen cathinones being sold as ecstasy at UK events. In 2014, shortly after the banning of mephedrone, methylone made its debut on the UK drugs scene. After methylone was also banned, N-ethylpentylone emerged in 2017. In the latest festival season, three other cathinones reared their heads.’
‘This study illustrates how cathinones are mis-sold as MDMA during periods of scarcity in the MDMA market,’ added co-lead author Dr Michael Pascoe of Cardiff University. ‘Without laboratory tests, it’s impossible to tell what’s really in the drugs people purchase – and the pandemic and Brexit appear to have exacerbated this issue. Rapid onsite testing, dissemination of alerts, harm reduction information and associated risk communications through media and social media channels provide vital ways to inform drug-users, practitioners and policymakers to help reduce drug-related harms at festivals and beyond.’