Renewed calls to legalise MDMA as synthetics begin to dominate New Zealand's market

There are renewed calls to legalise and regulate pure MDMA to help keep Kiwis safe as synthetics begin to dominate the New Zealand market.

Many experts say the pure form of MDMA is relatively safe, but issues arise when synthetic cathinones are sold in its place.

Some cathinones would be known to most as 'bath salts', but one called eutylone is dominating the New Zealand market.

It first hit our shores in 2019 when Customs seized 6.9 kilograms. That amount nearly doubled last year to 11.2 kilograms. This summer, around 40 percent of MDMA samples tested by Know Your Stuff were actually eutylone, renewing the calls for legalisation and regulation of pure MDMA.

Festivalgoer Ben, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, believed he had taken MDMA as he was ringing in the New Year. Since he had taken it before, he knew what to expect, but this wasn't it.

"My fingers started going numb and I was finding it really hard to move them. They started going a bit red and purple and then I realised I couldn't quite move my feet," he tells Newshub.

"I remember walking to the other campsite and I passed out on the way."

His friends took him to see a paramedic who believed his MDMA had been cut with something else. Ben then ended up on an IV drip in hospital.

"It's definitely the scariest experience like that that I've had."

But it's happening more often. Police say that's because 90 percent of pure MDMA comes from Europe, and supply is still being hampered by the pandemic.

"With China being back up on its feet and being able to supply cathinones across the world, I think we are seeing those fill a void," says Detective Inspector Blair McDonald of the National Drug Intelligence Bureau.

They're cheaper to make, easier to make, and some of the ingredients aren't illegal overseas. 

"In the past two years, it was a cathinone called n-ethylpentylone. This year it's a drug called eutylone and these labs can very quickly adjust to any international laws that get changed," Det Insp McDonald says.

Drug testing agency Know Your Stuff has seen its effects first hand. 

Newshub was the first media allowed inside the testing tent - up to half of what they tested at some festivals last summer turned out to be eutylone. 

"We had hundreds of messages over New Years from people who had bad experiences with this stuff," says Wendy Allison, Know Your Stuff managing director. "It has been associated with a number of hospitalisations this year."

Renewed calls to legalise MDMA as synthetics begin to dominate New Zealand's market
Photo credit: Getty Images

Anxiety, vomiting, insomnia, and seizures are just some of the symptoms.

A few users said their experience was so bad they thought they were going to die. 

Eutylone, just like MDMA, is sold in powder or pill form, and it's impossible to know the difference without testing. 

"The effect is similar to MDMA but it's very mild and it wears off quickly, so people will think that they've had weak MDMA and they'll take more. That's where they get into trouble," Allison says.

Drug testing at festivals was only made legal late last year, but the team of 80 volunteers at Know Your Stuff are run off their feet and there's often a waitlist at festivals.

The high levels of fake MDMA they're picking up are renewing calls to legalise and regulate the real thing.

"MDMA itself at the appropriate doses is actually relatively harmless," says toxicologist Paul Quigley.

He called for the legalisation of MDMA back in 2015 and still believes it's the right thing to do.

"Even in acute use, it doesn't tend to cause the problems that we see with alcohol. You don't get violent outbursts, you don't get people with injuries because you don't get incoordination or stumbling."

Even a new police report released to Newshub says MDMA is "unlikely to cause people to act violently".

Quigley says to become legal, it would need to be moved from the Misuse of Drugs Act and into the Psychoactive Substances Act. 

"It would go through the same safety trailing that a prescription medicine would do, and then if it passed, it would then be available and there would already be the associated regulation present, so R18, etc."

That would require public backing like a referendum, and that didn't go well for another drug last year.

"I think for agents apart from cannabis, we're still decades away," he says.

However, psychology professor Susan Schenk believes legalisation would imply the drug is completely safe.

"MDMA produces many of the same sorts of harms that we see with a drug like methamphetamine. It produces damage, brain damage, that some say is irreversible," she says.

But Know Your Stuff says something has to change. 

"Informing people and giving them factual information about drugs isn't going to make everybody rush out and get addicted to drugs," Allison says.

"I think that's propaganda that has survived this long because we're not having this conversation."

They fear keeping Kiwis in the dark won't keep them safe.