The impact COVID-19 had on MDMA this festival season

The impact COVID-19 had on MDMA this festival season
Photo credit: Getty Images

Days without sleep, hallucinating, vomiting and extreme paranoia is not what festival-goers were expecting when they consumed MDMA over the summer. 

High levels of synthetic cathinones are continuing to appear in drug testing across the country, several months after Know Your Stuff NZ issued a warning about their danger. 

It is a trend that has been common throughout the recent festival season, with people throughout New Zealand experiencing the unusual effects of the dangerous substance. 

The impact COVID-19 has had on the international drug trade has led Police to believe the shortage of MDMA could be why the synthetic product, also known as bath salts, are appearing here in such large quantities. 

"The issue has been the supply chain. Mail and air cargo are our two predominant sources of drugs, and there's been a number of issues with availability to get freight down to New Zealand," Customs northern ports manager Mark O'Toole says. 

Despite Customs intercepting a record-breaking 750kg of MDMA in 2019, that number dropped by 55 percent last year, meaning less was likely to have made it into the community.

In 2018, only 96kg worth of the drug was stopped, proving how popular the party drug has become in New Zealand in a short period of time.

"Young adults are predominantly, but not exclusively, involved in the use of MDMA. Individuals as old as 60 have been charged with MDMA possession," police say.

The majority of the world's MDMA is manufactured in the Netherlands, before transiting through Europe to reach here. Police admit it is "rare" for the drug to be made domestically.

However local dealers could be the ones responsible for the rise in the dangerous eutylone levels, in order to boost the quantity available for sale. 

"People who deal these types of drugs are in it for profit above all else and do not consider the health and well-being of others." 

The impact COVID-19 had on MDMA this festival season
Photo credit: Getty Images

With more than 25,000 people in attendance at the weekend, Electric Avenue was the last major concert of the summer. 

The Canterbury District Health Board confirmed 24 people arrived in the emergency department due to drug use, with it being likely cathinones were involved in some instances. 

A full data report looking at the December to February period will be released by volunteer drug testing organisation Know Your Stuff NZ later in the year. 

However, the group says "in broad terms, we've seen significantly more substituted MDMA this year than we have since we started operating".

Despite a lack of funding, resources and staff, the company was able to test drugs legally this summer after the government passed legislation in December. 

"We were mostly booked up for the summer before the change even occurred, resulting in us having to turn down 22 events this season".

The organisation says further financial support will be essential to continue and meet demand for the sought after service. 

Major festival Rhythm and Vines drew criticism from attendees for not having drug testing on offer, however delays to the law being changed prevented the group from being able to prepare in time. 

After seeing the effects of COVID-19 on the drug trade, Customs are seeing MDMA numbers starting to rise again.

"Things are starting to return to not quite the same numbers, but they are certainly starting to pick up again in the drugs that we're intercepting," O'Toole says.

Police also confirmed MDMA levels are starting to increase after recent wastewater data signalled more may be in the community.

In a recent study, Know Your Stuff NZ says three-quarters of young people would dispose of a substance after testing, if it was not what they paid for.