Ecstasy tablets have doubled in strength over the past decade, but have remained steady in price, according to a major report from a Dutch research institute, which warns of the mounting dangers posed by synthetic drugs.
In 2005, a typical ecstasy pill contained 81mg of 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) – but tests last year showed that the average strength is now 150mg.
Despite the dramatic increases in strength, the price of the drug has remained much the same, at about €4 a tablet.
Ecstasy can kill by complicating heart or liver problems, and sometimes leads to psychotic attacks or seizures.
It was hugely popular in the 1990s but fell out of favour after it was linked to a number of deaths and supplies of its key active ingredient MDMA – a central nervous system stimulant – dried up.
Festivals and clubs
In the past few years, however, it has become fashionable again, with a stronger tablet and a new powder or crystalline form, known as “Molly”, sold at festivals and clubs, according to watchdogs.
Last year, the Global Drugs Survey reported that consumption of ecstasy in Ireland is the now second-highest in the world, at 1.98 pills per person – just marginally behind Australia, which recorded 2.10 pills.
EU citizens spend €24 billion on illegal drugs annually, according to Europol. Much of the ecstasy consumed in the UK and Ireland originates in the Netherlands.
The purity of Dutch-produced ecstasy and Molly contributes to their popularity. A 2014 international survey showed Dutch drugs contained 70.5 per cent MDMA, well ahead of US, British, Canadian, or Australian equivalents.
Last weekend, a 17-year-old girl died after taking a type of ecstasy known as “MasterCard” at a clubbing event in Greater Manchester called Don’t Let Daddy Know. A month previously, a 16-year-old girl died in Lancashire.
The Dutch findings are not surprising, according to Dr Chris Luke, an emergency care consultant at Cork University Hospital and the Mercy University Hospital, who said the drugs scene is changing rapidly. Pointing to the Manchester death, he said: “We haven’t seen that in Cork yet but the ecstasy scene has changed dramatically and is continuing to change so we now have drugs that are far more toxic and terrifying than the genteel ecstasy of the 1990s.”
The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) has now identified more than 400 different types of ecstasy or MDMA variants – which leaves hospitals trying to deal with “chemical chaos”. Laboratories in China, eastern Europe and South America are tweaking the molecules in synthetic drugs to create new tablets, and emergency departments are unable to “keep up”, he warned.
“You just treat the patient and you hope that there will be some interesting forensic chemistry available in due course,” said Dr Luke. “Nine times out of 10 you are not going to know for days if not weeks what the patient in front of you has taken.
“The problem is that one man’s mild euphoria is another man’s lethal cardiac arrest – the ultimate issue is a person’s metabolic response, which is why you have one girl dying out of a group of six who have all taken the same tablet on a night out. Everyone has an individual vulnerability,” he said.
Synthetic drug users have to increase their consumption as their habit develops, added Dr Luke.
“In the early 1990s people would start off on half a tablet on the weekend and by the end of the decade they were taking 10 tablets on a night to get the same effect.”