I heard of a case recently where a drug dealer’s system to avoid detection of his activities by police was to tell his customers to ask for “cheeseburgers” if they wanted ecstasy, an order for one cheeseburger being code for one ounce (about 28.4 grams) of the drug. The code for cocaine was “drinks”, and “one fries” meant one ounce of methylamphetamine. The dealer joked that buying all three would be a “meal deal.”

Ecstasy is especially popular with young adults in Australia. Despite slowly declining use, ecstasy, also known as ‘MDMA’ short for 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, remains one of the most widely used illicit drugs in Australia second only to Cannabis. In 2013, around 2.5% of Australians used ecstasy, compared with 0.1% who used heroin and 2.1% who used methylamphetamine. As studies that rely on self-reporting tend to under-report usage levels, the true figures may be greater. After a brief drop in Australian border detections of ecstasy between 2009 and 2011, since 2012 there has been a resurgence of seized imports, including seizures of more than 100kg overall in 2013/14 the most significant of which involved consignments from the Netherlands, Canada, and Hong Kong. The imported ecstasy was found hidden in products like furniture, protein powder, baby powder, bath salts and shampoo. Ecstasy was first outlawed in parts of Australia in the late 1980s, and eventually became illegal in all states and territories.

The continuing popularity of ecstasy perhaps relates to its tablet form, making it easy to store and measure, and perhaps also because it is perceived as low risk. Unfortunately, that perception is wrong. One of the biggest problems with ecstasy is lack of purity, with the ecstasy content of some samples being as low as 9%. In practical terms, this means that an ecstasy tablet is likely to contain very little ecstasy, and a lot of other substances that can be seriously harmful or even deadly. These substances may include caffeine at toxic levels, ketamine, pseudoephedrine, paramethyoxyamphetamine which is also potentially lethal, GHB powder and the cough suppressant dextromethorphan. Sometimes a tablet sold as ecstasy contains no ecstasy at all, just methylamphetamine and additives. Little surprise then that consuming these tablets has a wide range of adverse physical and neurological impacts. However, even the consumption of pure ecstasy has been associated with increased incidence of suicide, death from hyperthermia or hyponatraemia, liver damage, kidney failure, seizures, coma, and long term visual deficits. In simple terms, while ecstasy is probably less risky than heroin or methylamphetamine, using ecstasy may nonetheless have long term impacts, and can sometimes kill.

The other big risk for individuals involved with ecstasy is being charged with possession or supply of the drug, which can lead to imprisonment. The maximum penalty for possession of ecstasy in NSW is imprisonment for up to 2 years, while potential jail-time for indictable non-commercial offending is up to 15 years, indictable commercial offending up to 20 years, with the possibility of much longer sentences in some circumstances such as where children are engaged in the drug enterprise (Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985, NSW).