We sometimes call them MWP – mystery white powders. This sample was brought to us in the central North Island as “MDMA” but someone who took it reported extreme and rapid anxiety. That doesn’t sound like MDMA.
Testing indicates that this MWP isn’t a mystery any more. This one is MDMB-5Br-INACA. What the hell is that alphabet soup, you ask?
MDMB-5Br-INACA is a new synthetic cannabinoid. There are no reports of it before this year and this is the first finding in Aotearoa.
It is not related to cannabis but it does hit the same receptors in the brain, producing similar effects to THC. It may hit those receptors much harder than cannabis, causing the negative effects reported by the one person that we know of who has taken this.
As this is so new, there is no information about how potent or risky this is. However, this substance is part of a huge family of synthetics that includes -INACAs, -BINACAs, -FUBINACAs, and -PINACAs.
These synthetics have killed more than 70 people in Aotearoa. KnowYourStuffNZ recommends not taking MDMB-5Br-INACA. If you have what you believe to be MDMA, come and get it checked at one of our clinics and make sure it is what you think it is before you take it.
The legal whack-a-mole of the drug trade
The bigger picture is that when governments criminalise substances, the illicit market doesn’t just go away. Alcohol prohibition a century ago showed what lengths people will go to for their chosen substance of intoxication, and it doesn’t seem like the legal system has actually learned anything from that whole experience.
Much like moonshiners, underground chemists simply make different drugs. Those new drugs will be designed solely to get around laws and restrictions so people can manufacture and sell them legally, rather than designed to be lower risk or more enjoyable.
This means that these new substances might not have the same effects or the effects at the same strength as the drugs they’re trying to emulate.
We’ve seen this over and over again with all the new cathinones, nitazenes, and benzos that have become available over the last few years. Cannabis gets banned? Chemists make synthetic cannabinoids. Those cannabinoids get banned? Chemists make different, more potent synthetic cannabinoids. And so it goes on.
This opens up a whole can of unpleasantness when the new substances are sold under a trusted name, like when cathinones or synthetic cannabinoids are sold as MDMA. If you know what you’re taking, you know what you’re doing and can make the right calls about risk, doses, activities, and so on. If you don’t know what you’re taking, you can mis-measure your dose or accidentally take something that doesn’t gel with your set or setting, and things can go sideways real fast. With some substances, this can end very badly.
Most of these dodgy substitutes are being sold as drugs (like MDMA) that have been in use for decades. With these better-known drugs we understand the health risks, and often those risks are relatively low compared to all the new substances being developed right now.
Right now we’re in the Fuck Around part of the Fuck Around and Find Out process when it comes to synthetic cannibanoids and novel cathinones. Which is fine if you knowingly consent to being part of that experiment. It’s not fine if you didn’t consent and Found Out when you bought ‘MDMA’ which is actually something that’s more harmful when taken in MDMA-level doses.
This whack-a-mole game sucks. Can we try something else?
We have centuries of data from all over the entire goddamn world proving that prohibition-style laws are ineffective when it comes to reducing harm, whether it’s alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, or any other activity that would make your Nan make I’m-Not-Angry-I’m-Just-Disappointed face. It just doesn’t work.
Read about alcohol prohibition in Aotearoa on the NZ history website
Read about alcohol prohibition in the US on the Guardian website and the Atlantic website
Read about the failure of the War on Drugs on the Civilrights.org site
Decriminalisation, on the other hand, has been proven to reduce harm. Most famously, Portugal has been taking a human-centred approach to drug laws for 20 years, with overwhelmingly positive results. It’s still not perfect – under decriminalisation supply is still illegal, so the illicit market still exists and dangerous substitution still happens. But it’s a good start.
Closer to home, some states in Australia have decriminalised possession of substances with positive harm reduction results, and this year British Columbia has moved to decriminalise possession of personal-use amounts of methamphetamine, MDMA, cocaine, and opioids to help reduce drug-related harms.
Read about the Portuguese decriminialisation program on the drugpolicy.org website
Read about the Australian decriminalisation program on the University of New South Wales website
Read about the Canadian plan for decriminalisation on the Wired website
In reality, decriminalisation would not solve the problem of dangerous substitution in illicit markets that KnowYourStuffNZ exists to address. The only thing that would solve that is legal regulation, where suppliers are required by law to provide quality control.
But it’s likely Aotearoa won’t be ready for that for a few years yet – we still have too many people who have been indoctrinated into a prohibitionist mindset. And if decriminalisation is reducing harm in other countries, then it’s clearly a step in the right direction. Why not try it here too?