Deadly drug cocktails

21 January 2009 - Good times at the disco can sometimes mean alcohol- or drug-fuelled binges where ecstasy, methamphetamine and amphetamines are the clubbers' drugs of choice. Today, the use of synthetic drugs significantly exceeds the use of heroin and cocaine combined. But do people know what they are taking? Serious problems arise when users mix drugs which have different effects or when they take drugs which are "cut" (mixed) with other substances.

Take ecstasy for instance. In Europe, ecstasy is usually fairly pure. But in East and South-East Asia and other parts of the world, it is often adulterated with methamphetamine or other drugs like ketamine.

When people take ecstasy, they expect certain effects. The problem comes when effects do not kick in. They may take another pill, by which time the first one might have just started working. "People have died as a result" says Jeremy Douglas, a UNODC expert. "All over the world there have been reports of overdoses or bad reactions"

There are two reasons for mixing synthetic drugs. The first one is profit. "In East Asia," Douglas explains, "ecstasy is harder to find than in Europe and drug traffickers have to import it. Traffickers and dealers can command a higher price by passing mixtures off as ecstasy and they basically double their profit". The second reason is supply. "If demand for ecstasy outstrips supply, traffickers will put something together, market it as ecstasy and sell it".

Even though the trend for mixing synthetic drugs is on the rise, a comprehensive international strategy is lacking. Douglas calls for greater vigilance. "We need better forensic information collected and shared by countries so that we can understand what drug combinations are being produced and trafficked and ending up on the market."

Part of the problem is that there are no specific figures on mixed synthetic drugs, although it's occurring almost worldwide. Furthermore a lot of countries lack the capacity or resources to test drugs for the purposes of compiling data.

To help vulnerable countries obtain more accurate data, UNODC has launched the Global Synthetics Monitoring: Analyses, Reporting and Trends (SMART) Programme , which aims to reduce the world's information deficit about amphetamine-type stimulants and other synthetic drugs.  It will help countries improve their capacity to gather, analyse and share information on ATS products, their use and trafficking routes.


More information on the SMART Programme (pdf).