Ecstasy users are unwittingly taking other potentially more dangerous substances including P, as drug dealers become more reckless, officials warn.
The trend is increasing the chance of accidental overdose and causing concerns for law enforcement and health authorities.
Testing of what was believed to be ecstasy (MDMA) tablets by Environmental Science and Research, revealed a cocktail of other substances, including P (methamphetamine), BZP and mephedrone – linked to the death of a British 14-year-old girl last month.
The tests were carried out on a number of illicit pills this year with results showing the majority contained BZP – the main ingredient in party pills made illegal in April 2008 – and mephedrone, a new substance in New Zealand similar to ecstasy.
ESR forensics general manager Keith Bedford said the results showed there was a "blurring of the boundaries" between different drugs, as traditional markings on pills became less reliable.
"The risk is much broader and there are quite unusual and new substances appearing [with] minimal information about their toxicity or long-term risks."
A United Nations report on drug trends in East and South East Asia, issued last month, showed ecstasy was now New Zealand's most popular drug, behind cannabis. It showed 25,806 tablets seized in 2008 compared with 4123 the year before.
National Drug Intelligence Bureau coordinator Detective Inspector Stuart Mills said the trend of mixing substances was among the police agency's main concerns.
"We are aware that tablets that are being sold as MDMA or ecstasy tablets don't actually contain ecstasy, or only a very small amount, or they may contain other ingredients such as BZP or other types of drugs," he said.
The rise of new and untested substances also created difficulties in judging potential effects, particularly toxicity and the level of risk the drugs pose, Dr Bedford said.
According to the New Zealand Drug Foundation, ecstasy use is on the rise in New Zealand. The UN drug study found around 8 per cent of the population age 15 to 45 had used the drug.
Wellington Hospital emergency physician and drug expert Paul Quigley said P was being sold as ecstasy as it had wider appeal as a party drug and could usually be sold for more.
"You can show people a pill and they'll go, 'Oh, it's ecstasy', and it's not. It could be anything. It could be ketamine, it could be milk powder, it could be Ajax.
"There is no such thing as the Consumer Guarantees Act for buying pills off some bloke in a leather jacket in an alleyway."
He said when authorities carried out a drugs bust it did not deter manufacturers. "They just start making any old rubbish, whatever they've got surplus of, press it into a nice tablet, add some food colouring and put a symbol on it and everyone thinks it's 'E'."
Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said people now appeared to be more inclined towards stimulants, rather than relaxing drugs such as cannabis.
Mr Bell called on police to make substance information available to potential drug users in a "discrete manner" such as advertising in nightclub toilets and educating bar managers.
THE MYTH OF ECSTASY
According to Dr Quigley, pure ecstasy is a myth.
When it burst on to the scene in the 1970s it was pure MDMA and its reputation as an uncomplicated party drug exploded. However, once MDMA was made illegal in the late 1970s, ecstasy's make-up changed.
The legend of the "round shiny tablet with a logo on it" had grown out of proportion.
"It's an image," he said.
Ingredients such as Ajax, a cleaning product, and paracetomol have been used in order to help press the powder into pills.
Dr Quigley said P being sold as ecstasy is not new to medical professionals - it has a wider appeal as a party drug and could be sold for more.
It also opens up a new market - affluent professionals rather than P addicts - and is used as a gateway drug, with dealers then encouraging regular customers to try other drugs.
Dr Quigley said methamphetamine use appeared to be decreasing as a result of concerted police efforts and bad press, but along with increased ecstasy use was also being replaced by hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD.
"If you go on a bad LSD trip it's not at all good. They're really, truly frightening," he said.
Along with LSD, new designer drugs such as mephedrone were appearing, which health experts had little or no knowledge about.
Home-based chemistry labs were being used to make new drugs such as synthetic cannabis and capsicum-based hallucinogens, Dr Quigley said.
This was concerning as party drugs had generally been developed in the first instance to target specific health problems, he said.
Viagra, for example was originally developed to treat angina but it eventually became used to treat erectile dysfunction. BZP was experimented with as a way to treat depression and vets trialled it to treat worms in animals.
Health authorities therefore had data and information about the drugs and there intended or unintended effects.
As people developed drugs specifically for recreational use there was no laboratory analysis and "that's caught everyone by surprise", he said.
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