In light of tragic news once again, we ask ourselves time and time again, are drug deaths avoidable and what are we doing wrong?

Editors Note: This article first appeared August 22nd 2015

Following the new years eve celebrations it was widely reported that four young people in the Ipswich area of England had died from taking ecstasy tablets. Warnings were issued by police that tainted superman pills had been responsible for these tragic deaths. The media widely reported this and to date no other deaths have been linked to these pills. Perhaps it was the police and media warnings that people heeded, the usual January lull in which people are more inclined to stay in rather than revel or that perhaps the pills had been seized or were no longer in production.

400 pills were seized by police but considering that batches usually come in the tens of thousands this is hardly a consolation they are still out there in an unknown quantity and there are probably more like them with a different brand.

This is of course speculation, what is not up for debate is that these people died horrible unnecessary deaths. Unfortunately these are not the first and probably not the last people to die in this way. Every couple of weeks or months it seems there is a new warning from police about tainted or fake ecstasy tablets. Dozens of people have died in Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over the last number of years all being linked with these pills, these four young men are just the latest fatalities.

Other young people who have lost their lives in recent years include Shane Cotton a 16 year old boy from Wexford Ireland who died last year after taking 6 green rolex pills which toxicology reports confirmed the presence of PMMA. 19 year old Thomas Philip Jones from Wales who died in February of 2013 after taking a green apple stamped pill. Micheal Coleman and Liam Coffey both 22 and from Waterford Ireland who died in 2012 after taking a brown crystalline substance which contained PMMA. These are just three out of dozens like them all young people who have fallen victim to callous drug manufacturers and out-dated legislation which facilitates the production of lethal drugs such as PMMA when there is a much safer alternative available.

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To some who have been following this story or to the families that have been affected by losing a loved one so early in life this is nothing new. It almost feels like deja-vu as the exact same warning for superman pills was issued by police in Scotland at the same time last year and in the year 2013 & 2012 similar warnings were issued by authorities. The pills vary from green rolexs’ & apples, white mitsibishis, mortal combats and this years superman pills both of which have been manufactured to copy popular brands of ecstasy known for their high concentration of MDMA a cynical move by manufacturers yet the culprit remains the same, not MDMA the traditional and highly controlled chemical that is used in the production of ecstasy and one that gives users that euphoric feeling that has been so popular since it first burst on to the scene in the late eighties but rather its more easily accessible, cheaper and toxic cousin PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine) or PMMA (paramethoxymethamphetamine) both as the name indicates amphetamine based drugs which act as an MDMA substitute mimicking the sensations.

It is this mimicking of sensation which seems to be causing the deaths as users start to feel like they are experiencing early signs of ecstasy use such as a spike in energy and increased affection for others. However these drugs take longer to kick in then MDMA leading to users taking more as they believe there to be a low MDMA content. PMMA is far more toxic than MDMA with 50 or more milligrams per pill considered enough to be lethal. Users then begin to show symptoms of PMA or PMMA poisoning hallucinations, rapid heartbeat, severe overheating being just a few. Unfortunately for those affected even if they or someone close to them suspects them to be in trouble it is often too late with many people dying at home, at a party or later on the way to or having been admitted to hospital.

There is of course one solution that seems frustratingly simple as Dr Garrett McGovern a GP specialising in alcohol and substance abuse had to say in conversation with Decoded Magazine:

“Sell MDMA in the shops of course you have to regulate it and tax and so on but sell it. People are taking this drug so sell it and have some control over it” he continued “As David Nutt quite rightly points out, this drug is a relatively safe drug, pure MDMA of known dose is a relatively safe drug and if you sell a drug properly like alcohol for example at least you can give safety advice the government can’t give safety advice with illegal drugs it’s Nancy Reagan territory “Just Say No” so that’s what we need to do maybe the public don’t want to hear that but they’re being fed lies and people are dying as a result”.

If drugs like MDMA, heroin, cocaine, ketamine and cannabis were made legal they could be regulated and therefore made safer. Government agencies and NGO’s could be responsible for making sure that these drugs are in their purest form with no added potentially lethal ingredients. Users would no longer be considered criminals therefore drastically reducing the number of young people who have had their prospects destroyed by some innocuous drug charge. Criminal gangs would lose billions resulting in a loss of power and influence and less people would die from drug related deaths.

Crucially for governments they could be taxed creating revenue for a country that could be reinvested in say the public health system. Yet this is in an ideal world one which unfortunately seems far into the future. However there are steps that can be taken now to at least lessen the effects of toxic chemicals such as PMMA being sold to young people.

The Dutch introduced a drug checking scheme to great results, Manchesters’ Warehouse project also introduced a similar scheme. Although not perfect this is the way to go. Governments need to look at this model and make it mandatory in their respective countries rather than the old approach which echoes Southparks’ Mr Mackay of “Drugs are bad“. Until our respective governments wake up and accept the fact that a lot of people will continue to take drugs recreationally or otherwise and put some harm reduction methods in place people will continue to die unnecessary deaths.

References Mixmag BBC Drugpolicy.org Vice IrishExaminer Independant.ie



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About the Author

From Dublin, Ireland, David has been a journalist for just over a year. A graduate in media studies and a current masters’ student he has written on a number of topics including drug policy, racism, social justice and of course music.