Interviews

What's Really in Your Ecstasy?

A new study has looked at over 25,000 pill reports to figure it out.

Dan Ozzi

Unlike that box of cookies you ate after you stumbled home drunk last weekend or the mac and cheese you made for breakfast this morning because it was the only thing left in your kitchen, ecstasy does not come labeled with nutrition facts. So when you take ecstasy or molly (ecstasy's supposedly purer equivalent) at a music festival or a party, it’s hard to know exactly what percentage of it, if any, is actually MDMA. Pure MDMA is the active ingredient that produces feelings of euphoria, but of course, like with any unregulated drug that you buy from some dude, you’re taking a risk on the actual contents.

Drug-related deaths at music festivals have become more commonplace in recent years. Two ecstasy-related deaths at New York EDM festival Electric Zoo in 2013 led to the cancellation of the third day of the festival. Similarly, last year, two people died of drugs at Las Vegas' Electric Daisy Carnival. As we learned last year by talking to the makers of a documentary called What's in My Baggie, much of what passes for MDMA at music festivals—and puts festivalgoers at risk—is something else entirely.

Music festival organizers can often get in their own way with drug safety in their refusal to acknowledge the prominence of these substances inside festival walls and their banning of test kits, which could help filter out low quality drugs containing substances that mimic the effects of MDMA. In high doses, these can lead to hospitalization or death. Electric Zoo, for example, in the year following their tragedies, made all festival-goers watch this well-intentioned but ultimately confusing and much-derided PSA.

So ecstasy users have taken it upon themselves to evaluate these pills, most prominently via two websites, PillReports and EcstasyData. Project Know, an organization aimed at exploring substance abuse and providing resources and information on its effects, has just published a report examining the common contents of ecstasy. The report gathered analyses of more than 25,000 samples of ecstasy pills over a ten-year period from these two sites.

Observed across several regions, the results were interesting: Canada consistently has the lowest percentage of actual MDMA (sorry, Canada), while Australia and the UK have the highest number of pills containing PMA (or PMMA) which has been linked to recent ecstasy-related fatalities. Commonly known as “Dr. Death,” PMA in low doses produces similar effects to MDMA but in higher doses leads to a dangerous increase in body temperature and heart rate. Instances of PMA were relatively rare though, usually accounting for less than one percent of all the samples studied—three out of 3,400 on PillReports and roughly 100 out of 23,500 on EcstasyData.

We talked to Jon Millward, the freelance data journalist who led the study and compiled the information, to explain the report further and to tell us what’s actually in your ecstasy. See the full report, "Jagged Little Pill," here.

Noisey: What information went into this report?
Jon Millward:
The report is based on two databases of ecstasy reports. One is one created by users of ecstasy, either by taking the pills or using the testing kits—called PillReports. The other one is a bit more official or slightly more reliably because it’s based on lab reports—called EcstasyData. So all together, we had about 25,000 reports.

As someone who crunches data, what do you make of a user-submitted database like PillReports? Some of the ecstasy there was analyzed with test kits but a lot was done just by feel. How accurate would you say the reports from that are?
That’s one interesting thing I found, actually. A lot of the reports are only based on consumption. Other ones are only based on tests. Some are based on both. PillReports is kind of like an average of over thousands and thousands of reports, just to get an idea in one direction or another but it’s not as chemically reliable, of course. You can see that in the contents of what people list—they talk about MDMA or MDxx which is just an MDMA-like substance. They never mention things like caffeine or other active ingredients.

One indication that it seems to be in the right direction—that people seem to be getting it right in the contents—is that the number of pills on PillReports that people expected to contain MDMA ended up being pretty much identical to the proportion of pills on EcstasyData, which is a third. So I’d say they’re more reliable than you’d think from a subjective report. They’re almost like connoisseurs. I was impressed by how fine their analysis was. They think about—almost like a wine connoisseur—texture, however long it takes for the results to start, and so on.

It’s amazing that people who just took unknown drugs would have the clarity to be able to distinguish so accurately.
Yeah, it is. But I think MDMA is probably a slightly easier thing to have an accurate awareness of than some other drugs.

So MDMA is the ingredient that you’d want in ecstasy. I’m looking at the percentages and it looks like it’s relatively low—outside the Netherlands—that you’re getting pure MDMA in what you’re buying. What are the other contents in ecstasy?
If you look at EcstasyData, which is more reliable for knowing exactly what’s in there, a third of them only contain MDMA. Then you’re gonna find caffeine which is just a filler, really. It’s put in there to maybe modify the experience, slightly, so that the users feel like they’re getting more for their money than they usually are. And then, after that, you’re going to find amphetamine, probably, or other MDMA-like substances like MDA or MDEA, which to be honest, a lot of people—especially on PillReports—will openly say they can’t tell the difference.

How do those get into ecstasy? Is that deliberate? Is it bad manufacturing?
For the most part, it is deliberate. Sometimes, it is from manufacturing and sometimes it’s from naïve chemists. Sometimes in the report from EcstasyData, it will mention that it could be a byproduct of the manufacturing process. But usually, it is deliberate because they want to find a balance between the cost to them and the quality of the product, like any business.

Have people ODed and died from pure MDMA?
That’s an interesting thing about a lot of the media reports—the sensationalist ones. They get it completely wrong. It’s actually very rare for someone to die from just taking MDMA. There was a case a year or two ago where a kid took probably, like, a dozen pills or something that you’d never take under any circumstance. And that killed the kid. But most of the time, what happens is, someone takes a pill hoping it’s got MDMA in it. Then nothing really happens for 40 minutes or an hour when it should be coming on. So they’ll take another one, double the dose, and the thing that will kill them is the fact that they have PMA or PMMA, which again, is not a chemical that’s like a poison, but the effects of it—overheating your body, increase in heart rate, and so on—that’s the thing that kills the person through dehydration or just making them collapse. So MDMA in its pure form is actually not that dangerous in low doses, certainly not compared to other drugs. And it’s not the thing that really kills people.

But you’re saying PMA or PMMA is dangerous? What is that?
Its nickname is “Dr. Death” and it mimics certain effects of MDMA. But it’s not very common. That’s in the report, also.

It looks like an average of half of a percent contains it.
Yeah, it’s not like it’s going to be 50/50.

The study collected data from over a ten-year period. What trends did you notice over that time?
The most notable ones were between the different countries. Canada has just been getting more and more speed in their ecstasy and less MDMA. If you look at the actual comments on PillReports, anecdotally, people mention it again and again and again that for some reason, in Canada, speed is more prevalent there.

Overall, the five countries we looked at are fairly consistent. The Netherlands always seems to contain more MDMA. Canada, least, and the other countries in the middle—the UK and Australia swapping places back and forth.

Why do you think it varies so greatly regionally?
The easiest one to make a guess about is Holland because they have such different drug culture there. They have offices where you can go in, take your pills, leave them for a week or two, and come back and find out what’s in them. That doesn’t exist as far as I know in the UK or any other countries.

We ran an interview once with a person making a documentary about drug culture at music festivals. And one thing he mentioned was that although drug kits seem to be a handy tool, a lot of festivals ban them simply because by admitting them would be acknowledging that there is drug use at their festival.
Which is crazy.

So from all the data you looked at, what would you say is the most successful way of determining what’s in your pills without the use of a kit?
Well definitely referring to either of these sites because they’re kind of like reference libraries, and very recent ones—they’re updated constantly. And the reason PillReports doesn’t take any powders into account is that pills, the way they’re pressed, they can almost have a prominence that can be tracked or that people kind of guess whether they’ve come from the same batch which can be very, very useful. So if you can’t get a kit, refer to these websites, which is what they say they’re for—harm reduction. And also, of course, where you get them from. Not to be giving advice to people but it’s probably more reliable, I’d say, to buy online from these drug market places than just to buy it from some person, unless you know them. I looked at Evolution which just shut down recently and some other ones and they’re almost like the Amazon of drug-buying.

Are there ever just placebos or pills with nothing?
No, the most common thing is that somebody might have taken methylone or some other amphetamine that’s fairly similar to MDMA in its effects and they’ll have had that many, many times, thinking it’s MDMA when really, they’ve not been taking it at all. So when they do actually get an MDMA pill, they might think that’s the one that’s a bit weird. But no, it’s very, very few that contain no active ingredients.

Dan Ozzi is on Twitter - @danozzi