Party in a pill: common MDMA myths explained
(With files from CUP)
A previous staple of the rave scene, the chemical drug MDMA may be seeing a revival in Canadian nightclubs and in the systems of young professionals and post-secondary students.
“MDMA is a party in a pill,” said Kate S., a 25-year-old Calgary student who asked that her name be withheld. She’s a recreational drug user who has tried almost every drug on the market since high school, and now calls ‘M’ her drug of choice.
“Pills are the hip drugs right now and ‘M’ is definitely at the top of the list,” she said.
MDMA stands for methylenedioxymethamphetamine, and a large portion of its chemical makeup is identical to crystal meth.
The effects of MDMA include euphoria, increased sociability, self-confidence and decreased fear, as well as increased body temperature and blood pressure. It’s either taken orally or snorted, and the average dose, between 100 and 125 mg, costs users $10.
Alberta Health Services does not track the number of people requesting treatment for MDMA use. It’s lumped into a larger category in the electronic intake system.
However, in The Alberta Youth Experience Survey data collected from 2008, only 3.7 per cent of high school students admitted to using the drug in the previous 12 months. Its use increased with each grade, meaning that Grade 12 students were more likely to use it than those younger.
The students surveyed then would now be the age of post-secondary students in the province.
Cheryl Houtekamer, a program supervisor for Youth Addiction Services in Calgary, said past use may predict future use, but not necessarily.
“If someone used (MDMA) in high school and had a bad experience, they’re less likely to use it again,” she said. “I think if someone is using a drug and has a good time, they’re more likely to use it again.”
While statistics for Calgary MDMA incidents have not shown an increase, the nature of the drug makes keeping track of it more difficult.
“We’re on par with what we had for last year,” said Detective Collin Harris with the Calgary Police Service. “But our numbers are based on reports involving incidents and (drug) seizures only, so there could still be an increase, just not a reported one. Also, a lot of times when someone’s overdosing on a chemical drug like MDMA, they’re hesitant to call us about it.”
Further east, the Toronto Police Service has seized approximately 40 per cent more MDMA compared to last year.
Drug researchers like Dr. Stephen Kish, a senior scientist and head of the human neurochemical pathology laboratory in the neuroscience department at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says habitual users risk ruining their natural ability to feel happiness.
“If we know that serotonin affects mood, and we know that ecstasy damages serotonin neurons, we’re going to have a group of ecstasy users who will be developing depression,” he said.
“The come-down on M is shorter and not as extreme as other drugs, but it’s definitely there,” says Kate. “I just have to be aware that it’s a serotonin-releaser and that I’m gonna be really low on happy chemicals for awhile. A week after a good M binge, when I’m experiencing suicidal thoughts, I just have to remember that’s why.”
The misconception that MDMA is not as harmful as ecstasy is another main reason that keeps people coming back for more. Kate says she believes MDMA is a much more “pure” form of ecstasy.
But Houtekamer, who’s worked with youth experiencing addiction for over two decades, says that’s just not accurate. “You never really know what’s being used to create it,” she said, citing that some batches seized in Alberta contain crystal meth.
She says a lot of people claim to know their dealers well, and that they can trust the product. “The dealers probably aren’t making it,” Houtekamer said.
When the Toronto police have MDMA evidence analyzed by Health Canada, Staff Sergeant John Babiar said about half of the pills tested are found to contain other substances. Meth, PCP, MDA and Ketamine are among some of the drugs found in the analyzed samples.
“Regardless of your thoughts on the risks of MDMA, there’s no guarantee that (MDMA) is what you’re actually getting,” he said.
Though death from taking MDMA is rare, scientists have yet to understand why some people die from it while others don’t. Increased body temperature and blood pressure, two physical effects of taking MDMA, can cause overheating, which can lead to hypothermic death.
Based on a UK study published in The Lancet earlier this month, ecstasy was ranked 16 out of 20 on a list of drugs based on harm to the user and harm to others.
“I’ve seen a lot of other drugs get messy, but I’ve only seen one bad trip with M,” said Kate. “When we were at the Olympics, my friend was all whacked out on it and it scared me … But compared to the risks of coke, for example, M’s not really a big concern for me.”
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Dr. Kish says MDMA isn’t addictive, but MDMA users will develop a tolerance – although the scientific community isn’t sure how.
A tolerance shows something in the brain has changed. Not necessarily brain damage, said Kish, but something is different. What Kish does know is that there is still much to learn about MDMA and its effects on the brain and body.
“(MDMA) is still, in my opinion, an area of uncertainty,” he said.
Anyone experiencing issues with substance abuse in Alberta can call 1-866-332-2322 for help.