By Matthew Gibson

The demand for certain illegal drugs raises a relatively obvious question: why spend money on something that could kill you? The recent case of high-dose ecstasy pills in the UK can be used to answer this question. The UK example reveals that issues of culture and information are key to understanding why illegal drugs are consumed recreationally, and as such should be central to drugs policy.

Over the summer of 2016, ecstasy pills were found containing over 250mg of MDMA (the short name for the active chemical component in ecstasy). This is more than double the previous peak of ecstasy strength in the UK during the 1990s. The pills appear most often at music festivals and in cities such as Manchester, which have a strong clubbing scene catering to people in their late teens and twenties. These pills have been directly linked to a number of deaths and hospitalisations from drug overdoses.

To answer the initial question, it is important to understand the motives of the typical ecstasy user. While instances of ecstasy addiction are relatively low, it is possible to build up a tolerance to the effects of the drug with regular usage. Generally, those with a tolerance of ecstasy take pills at a higher quantity, rather than a higher dosage. As such, the existence of high dosage pills is not solely a product of addiction or resistance to the drug. A profile of those using the high strength pills emerges: younger people, who have not used the drug to such a large degree that they have become strongly resistant to its effects and are basically just looking to have a good time.

If we think about an individual purchasing drugs as traditional microeconomic models suggest, they are simply trying to utility maximise. Around 75mg of ecstasy is a safe amount to consume, while studies show that individuals without a resistance to ecstasy report the best feeling from the drug when having consumed 80mg. The amount needed to maximise utility is close to the amount which minimises risk. This raises a further question: why spend money on a drug that is more likely to kill you, and less likely to give you the intended effect?

A simple answer is culture. There still exists in the UK a “big night out” culture, where consuming more drugs is equated with more enjoyment. While for many that drug is alcohol, this culture translates into the drug scene, where consuming large quantities of ecstasy is perceived as the way to enjoy a night out or a music festival. This culture redefines what we see as utility maximising; it is not just pleasurable effects of drugs that are being sought but the experience of high levels of intoxication.

A lack of proper information about what the effects of drugs are and information about particular drugs helps to reinforce the demand. In the British education system there is a strong avoidance of talking to students about the effects of drugs, and treats students as though they were current or potential drug users. There is no explanation on the effects of drugs and how this can be pleasurable, or what constitutes a pleasurable drug taking experience. Rather the sole focus is upon explaining potential negative side effects of drugs. While this is useful, it fails to practically inform young people about how to most enjoyably and safely approach consuming drugs like ecstasy.

Second, while internet forums such as PillReports offer information about particular pills, this information is both slow to include information about new pills and is often vague. As such, some pills are only described as being strong rather than how much MDMA was contained within the pill. In a culture where strength, rather than an exact amount is valued, the lack of information creates a situation where the most highly valued pills are those that are most likely to lead to overdoses and are far away from the utility maximising does. Creating a platform for more up-to-date and precise information about pills currently in circulation would lessen the risks of individuals buying pills that were of a far stronger strength than they intend to consume.

These answers ignore fully one side of the equation: those who manufacture pills and competition within supply of drugs. This competition is fought out over not just the price but also the quality (i.e. strength) of pills. However, the competition on strength of pills would not exist if a culture, supported by a lack of clear information, did not exist which created a demand for high strength pills.

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