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Ecstasy loses its shine in Australia and worldwide; but newer synthetic drugs are cause for concern

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Date Published:
9 May 2011
Contact person:
Marion Downey
+612 9385 1080 / 0401 713 850

Ecstasy, one of the most popular “recreational” drugs in Australia over the past two decades is becoming less popular with regular users, consistent with global trends, say the authors of a new report from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of NSW.

The bulletin from the Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS) – Australia’s largest central monitoring system of the use of ecstasy and related drugs – found the number of ecstasy users nominating it as their drug of choice had fallen significantly since 2005 and the number using the drug weekly had halved.

Chief investigator of the EDRS, Dr Lucy Burns, says that while the declining use of ecstasy was welcome, Australia, like Europe, is already seeing the emergence of an increasingly diverse range of synthetic chemicals.

“We have not to date seen any evidence of widespread use in Australia of these newer synthetic drugs, many of which are available on the internet,” says Dr Burns.

“However the sheer rate at which these and other chemicals could be synthesised and distributed presents significant challenges from a health perspective and a law enforcement perspective.”

Designer drugs which have been picked up by the survey, albeit in small numbers, include mephedrone and BZP, a central nervous system stimulant which reportedly has more side effects than amphetamines.

“In our 2010 survey, 16 per cent of users reported recent use of mephedrone, a synthetic stimulant closely related to amphetamines but with hallucinogenic properties,” said Dr Burns.

Use of mephedrone was particularly high in Tasmania (42 reports) and Victoria (28 reports), said Dr Burns.

“Other synthetic chemicals being picked up in our survey include DMT, a hallucinogen similar to LSD, BZP and other psychedelic phenethylamines such as 2CI, 2CB and 2CE,” says Dr Burns.

Regular ecstasy users have also indicated that there has been a marked drop in the purity of ecstasy, with a significant number of tablets containing no MDMA, the active ingredient of ecstasy.

Well over half of those interviewed for the 2010 EDRS survey reported low, or very low, purity in 2010 – double the number reporting low purity the previous year and six times the number reporting low purity in 2005.

The EDRS monitors drug trends among regular users of ecstasy and related drug users, as an early warning system for policy makers and health professionals. It surveys around 700 regular ecstasy users across Australia every year.

Key findings

  • Nationally 56 per cent of regular ecstasy users reported low purity in 2010, compared with 9 per cent in 2005
  • In 2008/09 the median purity of tablets analysed in NSW was 22 per cent MDMA (the active ingredient in ecstasy), with a significant number containing no MDMA
  • 26 per cent of users reported ecstasy as difficult or very difficult to obtain – up from 13 per cent in 2009 and four per cent in 2003
  • Nationally 37 per cent of regular ecstasy users nominated ecstasy as drug of choice – down from 42 per cent in 2009; 31 per cent in Victoria (down from 42 per cent); 32 per cent in NSW (down from 44 per cent); 37 per cent in Tasmania (down from 56 per cent)
  • Weekly or greater use of ecstasy fell to 23 per cent in 2010, compared with 37 per cent in 2005
  • Among the general Australian population (National Drug Strategy Household Survey) ecstasy used increased only 0.1 per cent between 2004 and 2007 compared with 2.3 per cent between 1995 and 1998
  • The use of the synthetic stimulant, mephedrone, showed up in the 2010 EDRS in significant numbers for the first time in Victoria ( 28 reports) and Tasmania ( 42 reports)
  • The use of the synthetic “psychedelic “ stimulant DMT was reported by 15 users in Victoria and about half that number in NSW and Tasmania
  • There were 15 reports of psychedelic phenethylamines, 2CI, 2CB and 2CE, in South Australia;13 in Tasmania and 13 in ACT;
  • Use of the psychedelic phenethylamine, DOI (Death on Impact) was reported by 13 out of 92 users surveyed in South Australia
  • Use of BZP was reported by 25 out of 100 regular ecstasy users in Western Australia
  • Significant decreases in use of ecstasy and significant increases in use of cocaine in the UK from 1996 to 2009/2010 (British Crime Survey 2009/2010)
  • Prevalence of ecstasy use has been declining in Sweden since 2000; Spain since 2001 and Germany since 2004.

Ecstasy and Related Drug Trends Bulletin, April 2011.

Australian Drug Trends in Ecstasy and Related Drug Markets 2010.