The ill-effects of party pills
12 May 2007
by Carroll du Chateau
=====MP Jacqui Dean (right) opposes the legal sale of party pills. Photo / Wanganui Chronicle
Six years after the first BZP-based party pills drifted on to the local market, they are an entrenched part of youth culture. Legal for sale to over-18s, they are popular with kids as young as 12. They use them to have a good time, stay awake all night - and hook into something excitingly, deliciously dodgy. Because they are legal and therefore sanctioned by the state, parents, worried about children who lie around like zombies after a party staring gloomily at their cellphones, are mystified. Why are they so shattered after taking apparently healthy pills?
A 20-year-old musician who tried the pills before he graduated to Ecstasy
at around 19 says they are, in fact, learner-style drugs
. "Of course they are. They're mimicking something better," he says. "They're cheaper and they're nastier, but they give teenagers a taste for feeling a bit high, doing something a bit daring. And the pills work. You get talky, hyped up and feel in a really good mood."
But, says Jayde, a young dental assistant, the comedown
was so terrible she will never take party pills again. Which did not stop her and her friends from spending entire weekends on them when they were between 16 and 18. "One time, over New Year's, I was awake for about five days on end. My girlfriend and I lost about 9kg each which we thought was wonderful at the time. That's the thing, you lose all will to eat and the hangovers are horrific and make you dreadfully nauseous. We got so dehydrated. I hate to think what it did to our bodies."
By their 20s some party pill users have learned sense. Others have moved on to harder drugs - usually Ecstasy, Meth
or P. They cost more - E is at least $50 a pill - but the upside is better as well, says the musician. "And the comedown is much less drastic."
The serious problem, says Otago MP Jacqui Dean, is that party pills, formulated to mimic the psychoactive
effects of ecstasy, are normalising the face of a drug
culture. "Any level of public legitimacy is giving young people the message that psychoactive drugs are acceptable. "They have also drastically lowered the barrier to young people taking mind-altering drugs. As the latest research on lowering the drinking age suggests, legalise to 18 and the actual age of people taking substances drops to as young as 12.
But, say the businesspeople behind them, there have been no deaths linked to party pills. Manufacturers claim that while 20 million pills, with names like Legal X, Speed E and Wizzers, have been consumed in New Zealand, no significant harm has been done.
Not so fast, cautions Professor David Fergusson, who heads the Christchurch Health and Development Study which has studied 1265 children since 1977, "experts thought cannabis
was safe too". Now, he says, "everyone" [both in New Zealand and internationally] recognises that cannabis is a far more harmful drug than we thought 10 years ago. "It's a dirty drug that can have complications. And we need to bear that history in mind with the BZP story." Those "complications" can include memory loss and impaired brain function, hallucinations, paranoia, depression, impaired co-ordination, cannabis psychosis and psychotic episodes in those with mental illness.
The BZP story is already looking decidedly murky too. A rigorous study undertaken for the Ministry of Health and associate health minister, Jim Anderton, into the toxic effects of party pills showed 61 emergency patients at Christchurch Hospital experienced insomnia, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, palpitations, dystonia and urinary infections. Fifteen suffered toxic seizures, while two had life-threatening toxicity symptoms.
Meanwhile a Wellington-based major clinical trial on party pills and their active ingredients BZP and TFMPP, was pulled late last year after 35 of its planned 64 subjects reacted so badly it was too dangerous to continue.
"We were concerned about the nature and severity of the adverse events range of side effects
from anxiety to panic attacks, headaches and migraines, through to vomiting," says Professor Richard Beasley of the New Zealand Medical Research Institute who directed the trial - the first clinical trial in the world. As he explains, the product was originally used as a cattle wormer in the 1940s, and never designed to be taken by humans. The only research into its safety was 30 years ago, when drug companies found the effect of BZP on blood pressure and pulse were too marked and didn't take trials further.
"These drugs have been widely promoted, including in high doses in New Zealand, without the basic clinical trials ever having been done," says Beasley. "We think that's not acceptable and we think this is one of the lessons the government has to learn, or society has to learn - It's a real anomaly that you can sell millions of a pharmaceutical agent as a recreational drug whereas if that same drug was used for clinical purposes it would have to go under extensive testing." Are you surprised that it's taken Jim Anderton so long? "I won't comment on that."
But, say experts, criminalisation is not the answer. Throughout the world, conventional strategies to fight drugs have fallen on their faces. "Despite successive government attempts to prevent young people trying drugs and to control the demand for and supply of illegal drugs, drug policy appears to have had minimal impact on the overall use in the UK," blasted an April report into drug use in Britain, where party pills were made illegal last month. According to the intellectually lofty Royal Society, British law is driven by "moral panic". "The main aim of policy should be to reduce the harm that drugs cause, not send people to jail."
Ross Bell of the New Zealand Drug Foundation agrees. "In '98 the United Nations got together and said, 'by 2008 we'll have a drug-free world'. They're meeting in New York next year to evaluate their success against that goal. I don't think they've done that well." At 34, Bell has heard all the arguments before. He insists the legal status of a substance does little to reduce the harms it causes. Making substances illegal can increase their "daring and exciting" appeal, drawing teenagers into a criminal world where hard drugs are the next thing on offer. He gives his usual example: cannabis is an illegal drug, yet 80 per cent of people in this country have tried it - only when asked does he reveal that only 15-17 per cent of experimental users go on to regular use.
So what does turn people away from drugs? One useful tool is "preventative education delivered through schools, at the right age and done right," starting by talking to kids at primary level, giving them clear, honest information and definitely not trying to scare them with harrowing photos of cocaine
addicts. "We also know schools are expelling students for drugs - and we know one of the protective things around drugs is to keep them in education." They are hunting for funding for a drug strategy booklet for parents, who still, laments Bell, probably haven't finally figured out that party pills are not the herbal highs they've been marketed as.
His recommendation is that party pills remain legal, but are more stringently regulated. No mobile sales vans or enticing novelty stores like Cosmic Corner on the corner of Shortland and High Sts, which welcomes buyers with the other-worldly smell of a joss stick and displays party pills alongside bongs, pipes, grinders and coloured wrappers for cannabis smoking.
"Stronger regulation, rather than banning the drug altogether, provides the government with greater control," says Bell. "You're able to regulate all marketing: close down websites, outlaw copycat names like PureXTC, drive pills out of dairies, ban mobile shops and home deliveries, control manufacture, packaging and pill doses - they can also start fining the manufacturers. You can't do that if they're illegal." On the other hand, "Any law is useless if it's not reinforced."
The so-called gateway theory - that cannabis especially, and possibly party pills, are the gateway to harder drugs, worries both Bell and Professor David Fergusson who heads the Christchurch Health and Development Study. Since 1977 Fergusson has followed 1265 children, examining them for everything from their mental health to their response to divorce, diet and drugs. His research shows that 80 per cent of the 15-25-year-olds still in the study had tried cannabis and half of those had used other, harder drugs. "Certainly cannabis does have marked gateway effects,"he says. What is not so clear is how that gateway works. "We don't know whether the gateway effect is due to the people, the drug experience or to the drug dealers. It it could also be due to the physiological effects [of cannabis on the brain]." As Fergusson, who has just returned from a conference in London, explains, new research shows that if you give cannabis to rats they are much more likely to take up heroin
, "because cannabis changes the brain structure and makes you more susceptible".
But isn't this a case of lowering the boundaries for young people further and further so in the end they have none? Where do we draw the line? Outspoken British psychiatrist and writer Theodore Dalrymple, who has spent a lifetime treating drug addicts and was brought here last year by Garth McVicar of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, is adamant that legalising mind-altering drugs is putting society at the top of yet another slippery slope. As he says, "No society has had to contend with the ready availability of so many mind-altering drugs, combined with a citizenry jealous of its right to pursue its own pleasures in its own way."
According to Dean, party pills introduce children to mind-altering drugs taken orally - which in itself makes them look more legitimate - at a precarious, impressionable age. "Party pills were specifically designed to mimic the effects of methamphetamine
," she says. She is also convinced party pills work to get young people hooked. "What happens in practice is that people start with BZP bought legally from a shop, then are always looking for the next trip. We know they then start injecting it, then snorting
it - there's a very clear pathway."
Former drug squad detective Mike Sabin, who left to start his drug education group, Methcon, believes BZP should be criminalised because of the harm it does to the brain. "The argument that people won't use P or Meth because there's a safe, legal alternative is flawed," he says. "The chemicals in party pills alter the reward pathways in the brain, stimulating its 'pleasure' activity to around 10 per cent above what they'd get with Meth - and giving users the hunger for the ever-bigger hits that comes from Ecstasy, P and Meth itself."
Conveniently we already have a case study showing what happens when society makes a possibly harmful drug more available to young people. Data gathered after we lowered the drinking age to 18 in 1999 indicates the uptake age moved to about four years under the legal boundary. Children started drinking at 14.
New Zealand Drug Foundation research shows increased drinking among 14-17-year-olds, increased alcohol
-related hospitalisations, increased apprehensions and convictions of under 18-year-olds for disorderly behaviour and increased problems with young people drinking in public.
A Massey University study shows prosecutions of 18-19 year-olds for drink driving which had dropped to around 2000 for every 100,000 people by 1999, started to rise again after the law change. By 2003 that figure had risen to 2300.
This is backed by research from Professor Peter Gluckman of the Liggins Institute that proves the 18-year-old brain has not developed fully enough to provide the judgment needed for driving, let alone driving while under the influence of alcohol.
Although Anderton refuses to give a personal opinion on how best to turn young people away from drugs, he does take notice of his expert advisers. By the end of the month, he says, he intends to take a recommendation to his cabinet colleagues. Why, considering the dangers thrown up by Professor Beasley's clinical trial, has it taken so long? Why did Dean get so frustrated she instigated a Private Member's Bill to criminalise party pills? Because, says Anderton, we needed to make an informed decision. Despite the fact that party pills are already banned in Australia, Britain and the United States, he wanted clinical evidence. And only now that results from his three clinical research projects are in, with their recommendation to ban BZP by making it a Class C drug (the same classification as cannabis), the legally required consultation process is over, submissions have been analysed and the experts have met to discuss them, action is at hand. The gate will probably be shut, but has the horse already bolted? As Professor Beasley says, "All I can say is that I think the process of the Ministry of Health in obtaining scientific evidence on which to base their decision is a very sound one. Data's now in, so it would be timely for a decision to be made."