Dani Garavelli: The pills that kill

As fake ecstasy tablets claim more victims, are police warnings enough, or will festival ravers soon be able to have their drugs tested, asks Dani Garavelli

Some tablets, being sold as ecstasy, contain dangerous chemicals. Picture: PA

Like many teenage girls, she poses for the camera with her head tilted back celebrity style, hand confidently on hip but a shy smile playing on her face. She is modelling a floaty white summer top that she may have worn if, like many of her generation, she had headed along the A9 to the old airfield at Balado yesterday where Scotland’s premier music festival takes place every year.

But last week 18-year-old Demi Campbell was named by police as the latest victim of fake ecstasy tablets that have claimed the lives of at least six other young Scots and many more in other parts of the UK.

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Giant posters warning of the risks of the tablets were a tangible reminder of Demi’s death for the tens of thousands of festival-goers yesterday crammed on to the site to enjoy some of the music industry’s biggest acts. That the accompanying images resembled a tray of exotic-looking cakes hid the fact that these tablets contain an unknown cocktail of chemicals that could prove fatal to anyone who takes them.

They also underlined that the problems caused by ongoing – and increasing – consumption of ecstasy and other tablets that claim to be the world’s most famous dance drug still haunts the burgeoning festival scene around Europe. In the face of such demand, all drugs information workers and police officers alike can do is try to urge caution.

“We have been advising people to be extremely cautious, but we are aware that whatever we say, some people will choose to use, so if they are determined we are advising them to start with a quarter of a pill, and wait at least two hours to see what the effects are,” says Emma Crawshaw, service delivery manager with Crew, a Scottish drugs information, support and advice charity.

Supt Graham Clarke, of Police Scotland’s Safer Communities, is keen to emphasis that ecstasy “is not a brand name. It’s not like going to the shop and buying Heinz Ketchup – you don’t know what’s in it,” he said. “Ecstasy in its basic MDMA form is a complex chemical compound which is actually fairly hard to synthesise so a lot of attempts at it wittingly or unwittingly don’t hit the mark. There is a lot of exploitation – people passing other things off as ecstasy. If you buy an ecstasy tablet you have no more an idea if it has MDMA in it than if it has horse tranquilliser or wallpaper paste or whatever.”

The problem of fake ecstasy tablets is not new; indeed, some would argue the very terminology is a misnomer because – though ecstasy is supposed to be pure MDMA (methylenedioxy-n-methylamphetamine), a high percentage of the pills sold as such contain some other substance.

What Demi, from Alexandria in West Dunbartonshire, and the other young people who have died are believed to have taken is a tablet including PMA (para-Methoxyamphetamine), which is much stronger than MDMA and is more likely to cause convulsions and a fatal rise in body temperature. Three friends who also took the pills survived, illustrating the random nature of its effects.

In the UK previously, pills thought to contain PMA (para-Methoxyamphetamine) – on sale for around £3 – have come in other guises – including pink McDonald’s and Einstein blue pills stamped with E=MC2. But the latest batch linked to the Scottish deaths have come in a form of a green tablet, stamped with a distinctive Rolex crown. The green pills have also been linked to ten deaths in Northern Ireland and five in Merseyside and Derbyshire at the beginning of the year. Some of the pills involved have had a Mitsubishi logo and some a star.

Now the fatalities have renewed calls for drugs testing centres to be set up in the UK so that users can at least test what they have bought before swallowing them with potentially deadly consequences.

According to drug service workers, the fake tablets bring dangers of their own. In addition to the overheating effect, PMA-laced tablets appear to take much longer to kick in than pure MDMA; convinced it isn’t working, some users may be tempted to take more or to combine it with other drugs, with potentially fatal consequences.

In 2011, the friend of a Scottish man who died after they both took blue Einstein pills, described his experience to dance music website Mixmag. “It took three [pills] before I had a decent hit off them,” he said. “They were much more tweaky and uncomfortable than normal MDMA should be, and the comedown never really came on. My mate was far worse. He was walking into walls, very confused. He went grey in the face before being taken to hospital. Somehow I survived, but my mate didn’t.”

Last week, Dr Richard Stevenson, of Glasgow Royal Infirmary, said many other people had been admitted to intensive care after taking the pills. “Initially it starts off with hyperactivity, unable to sit still, they are quite restless.

“Then the hallucinations start to kick in. They are very frightening for the individual. They’re not pleasant and they become combative, quite aggressive and they are confused about their surroundings and who is trying to help them. Then their body temperature starts to rise quite dramatically and it is that which is what is killing these individuals. We need to get their body temperature down as fast as possible.”

With the festival season in full flow, law enforcement and drugs agencies are desperate to ensure no more lives are lost, but there is intense debate over how best that can be done. Since the early days of ecstasy when clubs began to provide chill-out zones to counter the harmful effects of the drug, an uneasy alliance has been struck between the zero tolerance and harm reduction wings of the drugs debate. T in the Park organisers DF Concerts say they will eject anyone caught in possession of drugs (or legal highs), while sniffer dogs and undercover officers patrol the site. Last year, £25,000 of drugs, including cocaine, ecstasy and diazepam, were seized at the three-day event.

At the same time, however, there is an acceptance that drug use is inevitable; as part of their licensing conditions, organisers have to provide a welfare tent where those under the influence can be looked after until their symptoms subside or be sent to hospital if their condition worsens.

Fears over the green Rolex pills also prompted Police Scotland to introduce amnesty bins at this year’s T in the Park, so anyone having second thoughts about their drug purchases could dump them without repercussions. Not only does this give festival-goers an easy opt-out, it means dumped drugs can be tested for evidence of contamination and evidence about trends in consumption.

“We are not trying to ruin anyone’s fun – we are anxious for people to go have a good time, enjoy the sunshine and watch the bands – but we are saying: ‘We want you to keep yourself safe,’” said Clarke. “If you dispose of drugs in the amnesty bins you could effectively be saving someone’s life because you are putting them out of the reach of other people.

“Obviously, we do have a heightened awareness around the supply of ecstasy at the moment and we are looking for as much information on it as we can get, so we are also encouraging members of the public to come forward with information – which they can give to us, to Crimestoppers – which is completely independent – or to the festival staff.”

Much more contentious is the issue of pill-testing which is used in some countries to help improve the purity of the supply and root out the kinds of dodgy pills which have caused the recent deaths. In Holland, for example, there are around 30 drop-in labs where users can come to have their pills tested free of charge.

If the drug is on the Drugs Information and Monitoring System database, then information on its contents and the dangers of all drugs is provided. If not, it is sent off to the Trimbos Institute, the Dutch National Centre for Mental Health and Addiction, in Utrecht, for analysis. If PMA or any other lethal substance is found then an immediate alert can be sounded.

The US-based organisation DanceSafe sells pill-testing kits online, using the income it generates to provide its own adulterant screening service, publishing the results online, while Spanish group Energy Control provides on-the-spot tests either within communities, or even, on ­occasion, at festivals themselves.

According to Austin Smith, policy and practice officer for the SDF, the impact of testing in other European countries has been to leave their drug supplies relatively uncontaminated with lower quality MDMA dumped in the UK.“These [fake] pills might not be in circulation if there was pill-testing here,” he says.

For some, the idea of introducing such a service in the UK is counter-productive because they believe it legitimises the use of drugs and could represent the thin end of the wedge towards legalisation.

“If you did introduce pill-testing what would you achieve?” asked Dr Ian Oliver, former chief constable of Central Police, and an adviser on drugs policy. “You would be saying, it’s actually ecstasy – but MDMA is in itself a hugely dangerous drug – so what message are you sending out?”

But Crew sees the Dutch approach as enlightened because it allows drug users to make more informed choices. Even those who support pill-testing here, however, concede it is no magic bullet and that there are considerable practical hurdles to be overcome. “Users would have to be taught to understand what the test was saying – it might not tell them something is 100 per cent MDMA, it might tell them it’s not A or B, but it could be a third thing we don’t know about yet. With all the new legal highs, there are substances we don’t have tests for,” Smith says.

There also would need to be a degree of public consensus and a legal framework for the move. In the short-term, Police Scotland is focused on warning potential users, seizing any fake ecstasy still in circulation and catching those responsible for supplying it. There has been speculation the green Rolex pills taken in Scotland could have come via east Belfast where the Northern Irish deaths occurred and the drugs trade is controlled by the UVF, but there are also established criminal supply routes between Liverpool and Glasgow, so their provenance is yet to be established. On Friday, however, 24-year-old Barry Rainey appeared in Dumbarton Sheriff Court charged under the Misuse of Drugs Act in connection with Demi Campbell’s death.

Meanwhile, organisations such as Crew continue to work with users, trying to build up a comprehensive picture of current trends and disseminating advice based on their findings. The organisation’s field workers at RockNess and Coloursfest discovered ecstasy use was still rife and that many young people were talking about 2C-B – a psycho-stimulant known to bring on tactile hallucinations which they said was widely available as tablets, capsules and on blotters.

The most pressing problem – other than the upsurge in PMA – however, is that a new generation of ecstasy-users are combining it with alcohol. “In the Eighties and Nineties, users might have been taking tablets that were contaminated with other products, but they weren’t using them with alcohol,” says Smith. The non-use of alcohol was a source of pride – an important part of the culture.

“These users were the parents of the current generation of users and they were taking ecstasy more safely. We have to educate those using it today to do so in a way that isn’t reckless.”

To festival-goers who are, at this very moment, dancing in the Slam tent or pushing their way to the front of the main stage, the idea that using less recklessly might one day involve queuing up to get pills tested probably seems far-fetched. Yet sometimes a clutch of deaths such as the one that has hung over this year’s event can result in a sudden shift in thinking. “Remember, there was a huge controversy around chill-out zones when they were first introduced,” says Smith. “You would need reassurance from the Lord Advocate that you weren’t going to be prosecuted, but if the Scottish Government got behind it, I think it would be possible.” «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1