“It made my nose tingle when I snorted the dust off my finger,” my best friend Heli called as she emerged from a toilet cubicle. “Weird.”
At the time, the significance of those words vanished like a swirl of cream into the soup of my consciousness. I remember thinking, importantly, that it looked as though the soft bloom of a golden exoskeleton was covering her torso and that I’d never loved her more. And that we must grab our metaphorical croutons like rafts and sail out onto the dance-floor. “Fuck it, it’s definitely hitting me. Let’s find the others.”
FINDING THE OTHERS
Despite, or perhaps in some spiritual way because of the psychedelic connotations, “finding the others” proved difficult at successive points throughout the night; in fact, “lost and found” turned out to be the theme of the evening. My friend Lisa searched for her jumper; I felt her loss with all the keenness of somebody on an empathogen and searched alongside her- for the best philosophical analogy to explain how jumpers are conceptually different from nights…
And then I had a sudden realization that we were not, perhaps, on MDMA. Everybody’s antennae looked amazing; I could understand what it would be like to be a hummingbird and there was an enormous amount of fun to be had in flinging slithers of green ether at one another as we danced.
TESTING IS TRENDING
It was December 2014 – two years before the harm reduction organization The Loop piloted an on-site drug-testing service legally at the Secret Garden Party festival, a historic victory for those involved in reducing the UK’s drug-related harms. The scheme was a great necessity as well as a success: the tests revealed a variety of unwanted surprises, ranging from the bleakly comic (concrete pellets sold as ecstasy pills!) to the downright bleak (actual ecstasy pills containing enough sufficiently pure MDMA to cause a fatality as a single dose).
Many festival-goers who tested their drugs chose not to use them: “Bad drugs being taken out of circulation is pure evidence of a good outcome,” said Steve Rolles of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which helped make the UK’s first drug testing possible despite its draconian drug laws. Testing was a giant leap for the UK’s harm reduction capabilities, but a tiny step relative to many other European countries with public-health focused drug policies.
In Spain, the pioneering multi-agency safety testing service Energy Control has offered festival-goers and clubbers the chance to test their drugs since 1998. The premise of providing this service is simple: it effectively prevents deaths and accidents from toxic substances in every country where it takes place. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the distribution of drug-deaths in Europe in 2015 from the notorious “superman” pills.
The red pills pressed with the iconic “S” were first identified as toxic when European clubbers had them tested. Their toxicity was broadcast nationwide on daytime TV in both Spain and the Netherlands and nobody died from ingesting them in either country as a result. Subsequently that summer, pills later identified to be from the same batch went on to claim four lives in the UK. These people were casualties of the UK’s dated drug laws, under-the-carpet attitude to drug use, and correspondingly luddite provision of services that are proven to save lives: it’s no wonder that the UK plays host to 38% of the drug-related deaths in Europe.
2C-B OR NOT 2C-B?
I often mull over the differences between the high from “that” night out, with its amusingly perplexing colorful complexity, and the straightforward gurning euphorics of MDMA. I’ve spent the succeeding years periodically revisiting my memory of it in relation to scientific papers on various “party” drugs – and I’m fairly confident that the “MDMA” we’d been offered was in fact the novel psychoactive substance 2C-B.
Synthesized by Alexander Shulgin in 1974, 2C-B is favorite on the global drug market due to its empathogenic qualities and its psychedelic and euphoric properties. Whilst Shulgin called it his favorite trip (“extraordinarily comfortable and quite erotic”), pharmacologists are still unsure whether it is a stimulant (like speed or cocaine), a hallucinogen (like LSD or psilocybin) or an empathogen (like MDMA). No one has discovered exactly how it produces its compendium of effects.
A 2015 study investigating the acute effects of 2C-B on emotions found that it precipitates a “worsening of the affective perception of faces.” This tallies with my memories of peeping impishly between people’s ankles in hot pursuit of my seemingly irretrievable boyfriend (“Please don’t step on him!”), and struggling to describe him to a group of fellow revellers who’d offered to help, other than as “a man with eyes.”
Bae, meanwhile, had tired of traversing what he perceived to be the Sahara Desert. Taking advantage of the mystery substance’s low negative impact on his verbal fluency – another characteristic effect of 2C-B – he left the club and asked a taxi-driver to take him home. Or rather, to the address that had been “home” some three years previously. (Luckily, some friends still lived there and were delighted to have a surprise visitor, even if he did spend the next few hours nuzzling the carpet with an eroticism positively off the Shulgin Scale.)
IGNORANCE NOT NECESSARY
Ironically, I recently returned to the scene of my probable 2C-B experience- a venue in London’s Crucifix Lane – having delivered a presentation about the harm reduction platform that I now co-run at Breaking Convention 2017, the largest interdisciplinary psychedelic research conference in Europe.
We launched our scientific information website, drugsand.me, in 2016, to fill the void left by UK universities’ reluctance to provide practical safety education on drugs. My presentation was part of the “Drug Policy and Activism” track, also featuring Karin Silenzi de Stagni, founder of Kosmicaid which assists people having challenging psychedelic experiences at UK festivals.
Slowly but surely, we are dispelling the British misconception that when it comes to the drugs one might use, relative ignorance is a necessary evil. Specialised harm reduction services like Kosmicaid become all the more important when you consider that many people at UK festivals this summer will be tripping totally unintentionally. The Loop are testing drugs at six festivals across the nation over the season and one thing their work demonstrates abundantly is that it is exceedingly commonplace to be mis-sold substances.
Mix-ups between 2C-B and MDMA prevail: “the amount of 2C-B being sold at Parklife this year was surprising,” an anonymous source tells me. “What was most worrying was the similarity of 2C-B pills to MDMA pills. It’s likely that many people took high doses of 2C-B expecting it to be MDMA, totally unprepared for the more psychedelic effects of the drug.” If you’re at a festival without drug-testing facilities, Google your pills before you take them.
The increasing popularity of pills over powders adds new dimensions to the importance of on-site drug testing. Perversely, in a climate without widespread practical drug safety education, experienced users of MDMA are more likely than anyone else to notice if the substance they are handling is floury like 2C-B when it should be crystalline. Pills render everybody equally unequipped to make informed decisions: an untested pill is a prize from a deadly lucky-dip.
Many people who are mis-sold substances face much graver consequences than a bonus psychedelic experience like mine. The value of the global drug market is so large that it surpasses the gross national product of most countries. Only through legalizing and regulating the sale of all drugs worldwide can we ward away the majority of the potential deaths and accidents that result from people unwittingly ingesting dangerous substances. In the meantime, let’s work on increasing the prominence of science-based information about drugs and access to drug-testing services.