Hard News by Russell Brown


Nasty mixtures

I guess one should avoid the obvious, but flippant, response to yesterday's claim in the Herald that ESR has found actual ecstasy and methamphetamine in party pills and concentrate on what the story actually says.

Which is:

Keith Bedford, ESR forensic programme manager, added: "Tests conducted by ESR scientists have quite clearly shown that two of the more common 'ecstasy-type' pills being distributed in the party drug scene contain methamphetamine and MDMA plus other potentially harmful, illicit active ingredients.

"The tests have also revealed pills that contained BZP plus a variety of other ingredients including MDMA and other harmful illicit active ingredients".

Police warned there were heavy penalties for people caught and found guilty of distributing pills containing illegal substances.

What ESR doesn't say - although you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise when you read the first paragraph of the story, apparently quoting police - is that branded party pills for sale in the shop around the corner from you contain these illegal substances. If they did, the police would be around promptly enough.

The Dominion Post went even further with the original police press release, claiming that "Party pills marketed as being legal have been found with illegal drugs in them, police say," and spawning a discussion on "banning BZP party pills".

Radio New Zealand actually got the story right later in the day:

Mr Bedford says the pills that were tested were not the BZP-based drugs that can be bought from shops, but pills obtained by police from people making their own illicit substances.

So it's not illicit drugs finding their way into legal party pills, but the BZP from legal party pills finding its way into illicit drugs, along with other, unnamed substances. It would appear that there are some nasty little mixtures circulating in clubland.

This isn't trivial. It is just as important that illicit drug users have some idea of what they're taking as it is for consumers of any legal variety. It's possible that both the young man who collapsed last week in Greymouth - it still seems unclear just what he took - and the man who died in Levin after taking "unknown pills" (any other contributing factors have not been reported) took one of these grey market mixtures.

Last week's study in the New Zealand Medical Journal of BZP-related emergency admissions to Auckland hospital found nowhere near the degree of acute problems as a similar one in Christchurch. The incidence of BZP overdose doubled from 2002 to 2004, from 0.7% of all overdoses to 1.58%. (By comparison, 60% of overdoses in 2004 involved alcohol, 6.4% were GHB, 3.69% amphetamines and 2.86% ecstasy.) Most people who came in with BZP problems basically needed reassuring.

What's the difference? It may be that Aucklanders were taking the branded, retail party pills of known potency, and Christchurch party people were necking the home chemistry version. In this light, it's hard to disagree with STANZ's call for better regulation.

Meanwhile, the Australian government has been quick to claim credit for a new study suggesting that cannabis is going out of fashion. It was a bit quieter a few months ago when another survey found Australia to have the world's highest rate of Ecstasy use.

The summary of the new report has some interesting parts: parents object to pot as much because it's smoking as because it's drugs, and they favour a public health approach over a criminal justice approach. On the other hand, the first comment in a news forum on the report is actually quite alarming: speed has replaced marijuana as the weekend drug of choice in Australian mining towns because it clears the bloodstream swiftly enough to beat workplace drug tests on Monday morning. That'll end in tears.

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