Wash your hands, cough into your elbow and don’t take MDMA – advice for a pandemic

As COVID-19 progresses through New Zealand it’s important to understand how we all have a responsibility to help protect ourselves and others. We each have a responsibility to both stop the spread and flatten the curve, and part of that is being aware there are some ways that taking MDMA can increase your risk of infection.

How can MDMA increase your risk of contracting COVID-19?  

External: where you are and how you act  

  • The environment you take it in – crowded parties or packed festivals with close contact to multiple people around you makes disease transmission far easier. While we are at Level 4 this shouldn’t be a consideration, but remember one of the most effective ways to minimise the spread of COVID-19 is to practice social distancing.
  • The changes to your behaviour – empathogenic effects of MDMA can lead to feelings of closeness and craving for interpersonal intimacy. This makes social distancing harder to practice when using MDMA.

Internal: what happens inside your body 

MDMA is an immunosuppressant, meaning it temporarily weakens your immune system.

How? You can think of MDMA as changing the “chemical background” under which your immune system functions. It makes sense that a substance that would change your brain’s chemistry would also change the chemistry of other parts of your body. 

This change of the chemical background leads to suppression of the activity of disease fighting cells. It also alters patterns of release for chemicals that transport information around your body about where infection is, and the most effective way to fight it. 

Remember COVID-19 affects people with weakened immune systems more harshly. Weakening your immune system makes you both more likely to both contract and spread the virus.

The immunosuppressant effects of MDMA last for about the same length of time as the drug stays in your body – up to 48 hours.

Long term effects of MDMA on the immune system. 

People that take MDMA regularly tend to have higher rates of general illness and infection. A 2002 study from the Recreational Drugs Research Group of East London University found that 9% of people that took MDMA 10-99 times, and 35% of people that took MDMA over 100 times reported increased infections. If you take MDMA on a regular basis consider yourself more vulnerable to illness and make sure to follow the Ministry Of Health recommendations to keep yourself safe.

image, large number of yellow pressed MDMA pills in the shape of Iron Man's helmet
If you’re going to take them, save them for Level 1! Image by Know Your Stuff CC-BY-NC-ND

Harm reduction for the next few months 

Remember that the only way to guarantee safety from drug harm is to not use drugs. Due to COVID-19 this is especially true right now, as the risk of harm to both you and your community are increased.

However if you choose to take MDMA, we suggest you do the following:

  • Treat taking drugs similarly to preparing food: Wash your hands for 20 seconds, and wipe down all surfaces that will come into contact with what you are going to take
  • Avoid snorting MDMA. Sharing straws or banknotes is a surefire way of passing viruses on to your friends, as well as damaging the lining of your nostrils which makes you more susceptible to infection. Don’t share other equipment such as bongs, pipes, straws, etc
  • After taking MDMA, your immune system will be compromised for at least 48 hours. Be extra cautious and double down on Ministry of Health guidelines for safety. The highest risk to you is while you’re high, as this is when the effects on your immune system are strongest. 
  • Ideally you will already have the next day set aside for comedown. Consider extending and using this time to keep yourself socially isolated and let your body readjust. 
  • Remember that MDMA causes hypersociability, but now is not the time for group hugs, cuddle puddles or other forms of close contact with people outside your bubble. Social distancing is here to stay for the next little while, so avoid large crowds such as festivals or parties where you will come into close contact with large amounts of people.

Remember that this is not just about avoiding getting sick yourself. COVID-19 spreads very effectively from person to person, so risks you take are not just personal, but they could affect other people and members of your community. Stay in your bubble and look out for your friends, neighbours, and fellow humans. This will pass and we have to keep ourselves and the people around us safe until it does.

Sources and further reading
https://harmreduction.org/miscellaneous/covid-19-guidance-for-people-who-use-drugs-and-harm-reduction-programs/
(American/opioid based but still key points) 

Acute effects of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine alone and in combination with ethanol on the immune system in humans.

Ecstasy/MDMA attributed problems reported by novice, moderate and heavy recreational users.

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (‘Ecstasy’)-induced immunosuppression: a cause for concern?

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, ‘Ecstasy’): a stressor on the immune system

 

Media roundup for 2019/20 festival season

KnowYourStuffNZ has been in the news a lot this season, both here and abroad. We’ve collected all the news together for easy reference. Just follow the links below.

If you’re a journalist and want to talk to us, please head to the Media FAQ page for details on how to get in touch.

2020

Inside the drug-testing tent at Splore music festival – Josephine Franks, stuff.co.nz 25/02/2020

Drug testing openly available at Splore music festival – Nicole Bremner, 1 News 22/02/2020

Universities called on to make drug testing kits available during Orientation Week – Steven Walton, stuff.co.nz 16/02/2020

2019

Pingers, parties and politics: How festival drug testers are trying to save lives – Josephine Franks, stuff.co.nz 31/12/2019

 

Research into drug checking impacts – New Zealand Government press release, scoop.co.nz 18/12/2019

 

NZ First to reconsider position on drug testing – Jo Moir, rnz.co.nz 20/10/2019

 

The drug testing dilemma – how we are getting around it – The Detail, rnz.co.nz 16/10/2019

 

Legalising testing of drugs at festivals has overwhelming support, 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton Poll finds – 1 News 16/10/2019

 

Prohibition or preventing harm? Q+A debates festival pill-testing – NZQandA TVNZ, 07/10/2019

 

Poll: Do you support testing of drugs at festivals? – Newshub poll 07/10/2019

 

Three people critical after taking bad drugs at Listen In Auckland dance concert – Tom Dillane, NZ Herald 05/10/2019

 

Drug Testing w / Wendy Allison: October 1, 2019 – Radio interview, BFM

 

The NZ First MP’s bizarre campaign against ‘saving lives’ – The Spinoff

01/10/2019

Police minister’s plan to legalise pill testing at summer festivals derailed as NZ First says it encourages drug use – 1 News 29/09/2019

 

How Kiwis’ drugs are being tested before they have the chance to do harm – Ruby Macandrew, stuff.co.nz 23/08/2019

 

Festival care: Who’s looking after you – Leith Huffadine, rnz.co.nz 27/02/2019

 

O-Week testing shows 1 in 5 drugs not what buyer expected – rnz.co.nz 25/02/2019

 

Festival organisers wary of inviting drug-testing group – Charlotte Cook, rnz.co.nz 22/02/2019

 

Lee Suckling: Are music festivals unsafe? – Lee Suckling, NZ Herald 28/01/2019

 

What’s really in that pill? The festival drug testing debate – Te Ao Māori News, 25/01/2019

 

Free drug testing in spotlight as festival season kicks off – Laine Moger, stuff.co.nz 25/01/2019

 

Festival drug testing – Expert Reaction – Dr. Jez Weston, Science Media Centre 25/01/2019

 

Wendy Allison and Duncan Garner TV interview – The AM Show, TV 3 22/01/2019

 

Why New Zealand Needs Legal Drug Testing at its Summer Festivals – James Borrowdale, Vice 10/01/2019

 

Dr Cathy Stephenson: Telling your kids to stay away from drugs can backfire – Dr Cathy Stephenson, stuff.co.nz 08/01/2019

 

No room for vagueness in drug testing at music festivals – Russell Brown, rnz.co.nz 04/01/2019

 

Editorial: It’s high time for drug testing – stuff.co.nz 04/01/2019

 

Testing shows MDMA pills laced with bath salts – rnz.co.nz 03/01/2019

 

Summer festival drugs ‘designed to baffle tests’ – rnz.co.nz 03/01/2019 (Radio interview)

 

Minister backs festival drug tests – gisbourneherald.co.nz  03/01/2019

 

What is pill testing, and why is it so controversial? – Yan Zhuang, Sydney Morning Herald 03/01/2019

 

Police Minister Stuart Nash wants drug testing kits at all music festivals by next summer – Jason Walls, NZ Herald 02/01/2019

 

2018

Here comes festival season, where dodgy drugs thrive thanks to a dumb law – Wendy Allison, The Spinoff 25/10/2018

 

Drug testing at music festivals – Jesse Mulligan, rnz.co.nz 15/10/2018 (Radio interview)

 

High point: Drug test change at music festivals – Isaac Davidson and Tom Dillane, NZ Herald 30/09/2018

 

Festival-goers warned of drug testing kit effectiveness – Charlie Dreaver, rnz.co.nz 07/04/2018

Results from our static drug checking trial look promising

The results of our pilot drug checking service are in, and they show it’s a worthwhile service that people will utilise to make safer choices about their drug use.

There’s no such thing as completely safe drug use, we all know that. But that doesn’t stop some people – especially young people – from taking drugs regardless, without knowing what’s in them or the harm they could cause.

KnowyourStuffNZ volunteers have been carrying out festival drug checking for many years. But drug taking is not limited to summer or festivals, so last July we joined with the Drug Foundation to begin operating regular drug checking services at an inner city location – the Drug Foundation’s Wellington office.

The results of this initial phase are out, and we’ve collected enough information to say it’s worthwhile to continue and hopefully expand the service.

All drug use is potentially harmful. But the real harm comes from using an unknown substance, using too much, or using it in a harmful way.

Drug checking aims to clear the air. To get some information into the equation, and hopefully save lives. Attendence started out low, but numbers have risen steadily – and that’s important.

It means people want to talk about drugs, and they want to be safer. Drug checking is a unique opportunity to share tailored harm reduction advice so clients can make better, more informed, safer decisions about their drug use.

Here are the results, in a nutshell:

Since last July we’ve tested 112 samples, and we’re pleased to say that most of them (77 percent) were exactly what the client expected. But that means 16.5 were not. Three percent of those unknown substances turned out to be synthetic cathinones – two of them the highly dangerous n-ethylpentylone which left multiple people hospitalisesd in 2018.

Most clients thought they had MDMA (ecstasy). As always, upon discovering it wasn’t what they thought, most said they were no longer planning to take the substance.

Participants are reminded that the safest option is to not take a substance at all.

Full report below, click to magnify:

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Link to NZ Drug Foundation’s release and report

KnowYourStuffNZ is a not-for-profit social enterprise funded by donations from the community. If you value our work, please donate.

Another near miss with multiple hospitalisations

At KnowYourStuffNZ we believe that people should not risk death on a night out.

With four people hospitalised after the Listen In Auckland event we’ve had another near-miss. We’re relieved that the people affected are now stable, but this could have been much worse. What scares us is that this is going to keep on happening unless we take an effective approach to reducing the harm from drug use. We’ve been demonstrating that approach for the past five years – if someone can test a substance before taking it then they can avoid the most dangerous drugs. If that person does choose to take a substance after testing, we advise them about how to reduce the risk of doing so. That might mean taking less, waiting before taking more, avoiding mixing with alcohol, knowing  what to expect, and knowing when and how to seek help if they get into difficulty.

We were not at Listen In so we don’t know what the four hospitalised people took, nor do the people themselves, nor do the medics on the front-line of keeping people safe. We are not going to speculate what those people might have taken, but we are concerned for this coming summer about three big risks: people taking too much MDMA, people taking cathinones (“bath salts”), and people taking new and unknown substances.

Let’s clear up some of the misconceptions that we’ve heard in the last few days:

  • KYSNZ always advise that the safest approach is not to take drugs. That’s literally the first thing that we say to our clients.
  • We never describe a substance as “safe”. All drug use has risks. We discuss those risks with our clients. That conversation is informed by our testing.
  • We do not return the substance that we use for testing. The small amount used is destroyed as part of testing.
  • We are not the Government. We are not the Police. We are not funded by tax-payers. We are a volunteer group who run entirely off donations.

You can find out more about our techniques and operations in our FAQ.

Could we have stopped four people going to hospital on Friday night? That’s why we go to events, to reduce the chance of this happening. We know that what we do changes people’s behaviour, reducing the risk of drug-related harm.

We were not at Listen In because, in part, of the legal risk to the organisers. Where we go depends upon the organisers and whether they are willing to take a legal risk to have us at their event. RFA Auckland Stadiums are correct to say that having testing at their events would place them “in a very difficult legal position”.

We want the legal grey area about drug checking to be clarified so that we can help people stay safe at every large event this summer.

We want this law clarification to happen before someone dies.

KnowYourStuffNZ drug checking results for 2018/2019 festival season

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Testing by KnowYourStuffNZ at music festivals this summer reveals that more people than ever before are willing not to take dangerous drugs. When people discovered that their drugs were not what they were expected, 62% of them were willing not to take them.

In partnership with NZ Drug Foundation, KnowYourStuffNZ used FTIR spectroscopy and reagents at thirteen festivals to test 805 samples of illicit drugs brought in voluntarily by users, almost doubling the number of tests we did last year. 

Of those samples, 87% tested as containing the substances that were expected.

Our results showed a continuing trend towards more MDMA, with both more samples being brought to us for testing and more of those samples actually testing as containing MDMA. This summer, 90% of samples brought to us as MDMA actually contained MDMA. We also saw over thirty brightly coloured high-dose pills with a variety of shapes and logos, a risk that KnowYourStuffNZ warned about in March.

Unlike previous years when we saw a range of substitutions, this summer when samples believed to be MDMA were not, they were likely to be n-ethylpentylone. Last summer, we voted it 2018’s crap drug and this summer we saw it at many events. We also saw several samples of caffeine being sold as MDMA.

Just like every summer, we discovered new drugs. Of particular concern was eutylone, a new cathinone that has been responsible for several hospitalisation. We put out a warning in April after seeing it at events from the upper North Island to lower South Island.

For the first time this year, we surveyed our clients to find out more about what kinds of people use our service. The people we reach are young, but not as young as you might assume. Half were under 25, half over 25, and one in 20 were 45 or older. Most people have had no prior experience with drug testing or harm reduction services, showing that KnowYourStuffNZ reaches people that no other services reach. Most worryingly, three-quarters have experienced taking drugs that were not what they were supposed to be, with effects ranging from unpleasant to needing medical help.

Our survey showed that most people taking drugs understand the risks and will take drugs anyway. Our work is also showing that most people will make safer choices if they have access to good information that allows them to make those choices. Drug testing provides that information.

Full results for the 2108/2019 summer can be found here.

KnowYourStuffNZ is a not-for-profit social enterprise funded entirely by donations from the community. If you value our work, please donate.