Ecstasy or Dr Death?

In December 2012 and January 2013, five people died in North West England after taking ecstasy (MDMA) pills. Or, at least, they believed that they were taking ecstasy. There is a distinct possibility that the pills also contained Paramethoxy-amphetamine, or PMA – also known as Dr Death, Yellow Chicken and Pink McDonalds. They look like any other ecstasy pill, although they are often pink and sport the McDonalds ‘M’, hence the name. PMA and a similar chemical PMMA are hallucinogenic designer drugs that were created as substitutes for LSD. They are known to be responsible for dozens of deaths across the world, and many others have fallen ill.

Ecstasy has often been accused of being a dangerous drug, and it’s true to say that it’s not without its risks. But many people across the world are coming to the realisation that many deaths that are initially attributed to ecstasy are in fact a result of mixing PMA in with MDMA. For instance, a study in South Australia showed that between 1995 and 2000 there were 8 deaths attributed to PMA, but none attributed to ecstasy. The media in Britain often conflates PMA with ecstasy, and in so doing makes ecstasy out to be more harmful than it actually is. However the UK is now beginning to wake up to the existence of PMA.  

Hyperthermia (that is, overheating) and dehydration are the main causes of death when PMA is consumed. In one case a person had a temperature of 46 degrees Celsius, that’s 9 degrees higher than you should be. PMA takes a long time to take effect, so it’s common for people to take another pill out of impatience, increasing the risk of hyperthermia. Dancing and drinking alcohol as well can also raise the risk of overheating.

As well as hyperthermia, “shivering, hyperactivity, muscle spasms, convulsions, hallucinations, sudden collapse, cardiac arrest, coma and multiple organ failure, represent common symptoms of PMMA and PMA intoxication”, according to a Norwegian study. A twentieth of a gram is a potentially fatal dose. In some cases, people have mistakenly taken pills which were purely PMA.

The recent deaths in England have brought the failure of the war on drugs back into focus. Keeping ecstasy illegal only makes it harder for the authorities to track PMA pills down. If the government regulated the drug market in the same way it regulates the alcohol market, ecstasy-users would be confident that they knew what they were consuming. But unfortunately the case is that the market is controlled by people who are more concerned about profit than the health of their customers.   

Although PMA is rare, it pays to be careful. If you suspect you or one of your friends has taken PMA, get to a hospital as quickly as possible.