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GDS 2017 and the Media: Cocaine, MDMA, and Mushrooms

The Global Drug Survey 2017 brought some results that the internet found more interesting than others. For instance, some mainstream media outlets—even those without prior knowledge of the Global Drug Survey—wrote about the study’s findings on mushrooms. Another one, changes in MDMA’s average purity interested not the media, but even some of the core research team behind GDS.

As mentioned above, mushrooms captured the attention of even the mainstream media. And just to clarify, “mushrooms” is in reference to “magic mushrooms” or simply mushrooms containing psilocybin, the prodrug responsible for the associated “trip.” GDS 2017 showed that, over the last 12-months, only 0.2% of people who used psilocybin sought emergency treatment. For comparison, almost every drug covered by the survey hit 1%, and methamphetamine reached 4.8%.

Perhaps the greatest risk with mushrooms comes with picking or ingesting an incorrect mushroom by mistake. There are numerous safe mushrooms, psychedelic or otherwise. Researchers have discovered roughly 200 species of mushrooms containing psilocybin within several genera. But toxic mushrooms are not uncommon. One genus in particular, the Galerina, is most known for looking much like the psychedelic mushrooms in the Psilocybe genus and perhaps poses the true greatest threat to mushroom users.

One reason mushrooms are safer than other drugs, according to the report, could be “the smaller dosing units (a single mushroom v an LSD tab) and a greater understanding of how many mushrooms may constitute a typical dose for a desired effect.”

For the complete opposite reason, many news outlets covered the increased purity of cocaine and MDMA. Cocaine purity levels drastically increased over a 12-month stretch. And, to the surprise of many, this increased purity level contributed to more hospitalizations.

The very notion of adulterants carry a negative stigma amongst communities of drug users. And often for a sensible reason. The amount of cutting agent in a drug (“drug” = an amount of the psychoactive ingredient in question +/- any level of unwanted substance) directly controls the true amount of the desired drug paid for. And consequently this makes the “drug” weaker or stronger.

With cocaine, for example, Levamisole was frequently identified cutting agent. In 2011, 82% of the cocaine seized by the DEA contained Levamisole. It looked similar to cocaine and could pass street tests. And while some users washed their product, the overwhelming majority of users did not. Thus, an average cocaine user needed more “cocaine” in order to reach a desired effect.

“Even shitty cocaine in the UK now is 30-40%,” Dr. Adam R. Winstock wrote in a post about the increasing cocaine-linked hospitalizations. “Get your wallet out pay £100+/gram and you might be hitting 60%-70% or more. […] And this increase in purity has extended across the whole cocaine market with the purity of crack cocaine in parts of the UK hitting 80%.

“Since 2015, the study found there had been a 50% increase in cocaine users being admitted to A&E,” the GDS press release explained. High quality cocaine should not have caused an increased number of A&E visits. This, Dr. Winstock concluded, indicated a need for increased drug education regarding purity/potency/quality.

Across the internet, the cocaine findings segued into the MDMA findings. In a general sense, cocaine and MDMA findings resembled each other. MDMA quality (I.e., purity/strength/potency) also increased. And it has increased for some time. Global Drug Survey 2016 revealed that 2015 – 2016 was “the worst time to use MDMA in a generation.”

Last year’s survey also found that there were growing fears over an increasing potency. GDS 2017 pointed out that some ecstasy pills contained up to 300mg of MDMA. The concern played out: “of the roughly 25,000 MDMA users from around the world who took part in GDS2017, 1.2% sought emergency medical treatment (EMT) in the previous 12 months.”

As I wrote, cocaine and MDMA showed similar trends, generally speaking, throughout the last 12-months. But the details caught the eye of some. Incidentally, I heard from one of the members of GDS’s core research team who had a specific interest in the MDMA findings.

In an email about what findings stood out to her, Dr. Monica Barratt have me a couple examples: “The increased risk of emergency medical treatment following the use of MDMA and cocaine globally – and that the risk of emergency medical treatment following MDMA is pronounced for young females compared to other groups.”

“There is some suggestion that without knowing it, people are taking too much and therefore more likely to report ending up needing medical treatment following use,” she continued. “This points to the importance of wider access to services that provide purity testing for people who use drugs.”

The UK may be a prime example of drug education paying off. Several UK organizations ran awareness campaigns that encouraged safe use. Few picked up the popularity that Mixmag and GDS’s “don’t be daft, start with a half” campaign. And, possibly coincidentally, the UK “bucked the trend” with regard to MDMA hospitalization. “The rate of UK admissions from the drugs has dropped from 1.2% of all use to 0.7% in just 12 months, perhaps indicating that UK users are learning how to more safely use the drug,” the press release pointed out.

The darknet likely played a role in the increased potency levels of MDMA; 49% of users said they bought some from a crypto market; It was the most frequently purchased drug on the darknet; and in some countries, more than 25% of drug users reported that they used the darknet within the last year.

Drug crypto market results interested Dr. Barratt too. “It was interesting that among last-year drug users, the rate of last-year crypto market use (obtaining drugs from the darknet markets) has stabilized, rather than increasing as in previous years,” she wrote.

“I’m not sure we can read much into this until next year – e.g. it could be that the stabilization continues, or not.”

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