How does corona affect the drug scene? How do young people keep themselves safe from unknown substances? In this Poppi series, drug researcher Hayley Murray investigates and shares the users’ perspective on how they cope with their drug use during corona. This time: drug testing services.
Let me share with you a particular story told to me by Mila, a recreational drug user living in Amsterdam who encountered a strange white powder on her latest drug purchase. I do so because it speaks to the country’s eternally fascinating and continuously changing drug culture, but also because it is a brilliant example of Amsterdam’s efficient harm reduction infrastructure and its sensible ability to empower people who use drugs to do so in safer ways.
Mila (31) had placed an order via WhatsApp a week before New Year’s Eve for her and her girlfriend: speed (10 euros) just to have on hand, and ketamine (35 euros), to cushion the hard landing of their planned ecstasy comedown. Although this number had been used before exactly one year previously, the fresh faced early 20-something who was standing in their house an hour later was unfamiliar. I know it was NYE and it’s a pandemic, but an hour delivery time?! Instead of the standard 20 minutes? Damn guys, ya’ll were eager to leave 2020 as high as possible! (why? was it, like, hard or something?). Two bags of white powder were exchanged for two 20s and a 5, and within 30 seconds, the deal was done. Both bags went into their fun box in the fridge and remained there until the early hours of January 1.
After the NYE party it’s the afterparty
Mila describes transitioning from her friend’s New Year’s party and into a little after party with in her partner their living room: “We came home around 4:00 and were looking forward to taking a few lines on the couch and going to bed before the sunrise. It’s a nice way to unwind from the ecstasy we had used earlier and kind of encourage sleep, I guess.”
And so, their ritual began: tea was made, blankets were unfolded, a nice set was chosen, individual straws were rolled, and the book with all the ancestral white ashes was plucked from the bookshelf and via her HEMA card, white powder became white lines. Everything about this felt familiar… except one thing. Where were the visualizations? The mental confusion and disconnect? The woozy and heavy feeling in the body? Why did the lines look more like a powder than like fine crystal?
Don’t try this at home
“It was really odd; we didn’t feel what we were expecting to. We looked at each other a few minutes after the first line and I could tell we had the same thought: ‘I’m not feeling anything…should we try this again?’ And we just kept repeating that 5 or 6 times over a few hours. It was concerning to snort so much without really feeling…anything. I was simply neutral and care-free.” She acknowledges that this ‘let’s just take more and see what happens’ wasn’t her brightest idea and could have easily led to the at times confusing, out-of-body experience known as a k-hole. But they had both a pretty solid understanding of ketamine’s effects, had stopped drinking alcohol four hours earlier, and generally felt quite safe being together on their couch. “Especially when we weren’t feeling much from what we were taking…we weren’t too bothered, but sure, looking back, knowing what we know now, it was reckless.”
So, the late night turned into early morning and before they knew it, after hours of sniffing this mysterious white substance with minimal — and no noticeable ketamine — effect, it was mid-afternoon. Armed with a joint, curtains, and a mindless movie, sleepiness finally crept in.
Mysterious white powder
The next day, still bewildered at what they had taken, Mila decided to make an appointment with the drug testing services not far from her house. Having used Amsterdam’s public health (GGD) testing services before for some pills they bought during 2017’s Amsterdam Dance Event, she knew this would be a safe way to get to the bottom of what they had taken.
Currently, due to COVID-19, the Netherland’s drug testing services work by appointment only. Thankfully, Mila was able to make an appointment the following day. I say thankfully because for stretches of time during the different phases of the pandemic, the country wide drug testing services were closed. A word, may I? If coffeeshops were allowed to remain open throughout the pandemic providing the essential item that is cannabis, let me argue that drug testing services that many people rely on should also count as an essential service. Especially if we are concerned about keeping hospital rooms and their staff free to attend to COVID-19 related emergencies, in the interest of public health, it only seems logical to keep this service open. But it is clear that economic interests are first served here.
The 30-minute appointment was straightforward, safe, and even, Mila noted, enjoyable. She mused, “talking openly about my experience with professionals who were both interested and non-judgmental felt pretty unique. A rational conversation with adults about drugs. Imagine that.” One staff asked questions relating to the purchase: (where did you buy it? had you used this dealer before?) and to the effects and experiences (how did it make you feel? had you used other drugs or alcohol beforehand?). The other staff took a sample of the white powder and added a drop of Marquis reagent and waited for a reaction indicating what the sample might contain. To all three of their surprise, the test indicated that the white powder appeared to be not ketamine but 3-MMC.
Trip reports and researching
Mila still had to wait a week for the lab to send the complete results, including strength and composition of the sample, back to the testing location. In the meantime, she was busy with one, looking up what 3-MMC was and two, figuring out how she had got it. Mila found herself in the undesirable position of looking up the effects, risk, and advised dosage of a drug after having used it. She did some digging on the trusted peer run sites of Erowid and Bluelight and saw this designer drug is similar to another relatively popular, and recently illegal party drug, 4-MMC, also known as miauw miauw or mkat. In fact, it was formulated as a response to 4-MMC becoming illegal (currently, 3-MMC is a legal high and does not currently fall under Netherlands opium law, but that too will change). Mila was surprised to read that users often describe the effects of these two designer drugs as a mix of an amphetamine and MDMA. Sure, she felt at ease. But euphoric, elevated, and energic? After more research, Mila understood why: both MDMA and 3-MMC work on your serotonin receptors and after an ecstasy pill quartered out over 6 hours, hers were tapped out.
Combining the two are not advised, as at some point, as Mila discovered in the early hours of the new year, they cancel out each other’s’ working mechanisms. Beyond that, little is known about the effects of their co-consumption, in part due to 3-MMC being a recent designer drug.
Like most white powders, ketamine and 3-MMC look a lot alike. So much so that dealers have wisely colour coded their transparent baggies to avoid a mix up: 3-MMC has a blue stripe while ketamine has green. This system however, if you are keeping up, is not foolproof. While Mila wasn’t breaking the physical distancing rules by having one person come in their apartment, it was for an illegal transaction and it was with someone who goes in and out of houses all evening long without a mask. Can you blame her for speeding (…) up this interaction? Turns out, the dealer can!
Mila texted the dealer, explaining the mix-up situation, complete with photo evidence of his ticket from the testing service and the half empty baggie of 3-MMC, and politely asked them to fix their mistake and replace the 3-MMC, also 35 euros a gram, with ketamine. Now this may seem to you like quite a gamble; some would say it’s unthinkable to contact your dealer and file a complaint about the illegal exchange. And some would be right. Apparently not in Amsterdam, where the (loyal) customer is always right. The dealer was not entirely understanding of the request, originally putting the blame on Mila for not noticing the mix-up as it happened. Had she reported it that night, a switch could have been made, no questions asked. But 10 days later? Difficult; how could the person higher up the drug chain know which young dealer to penalize for the mistake? But the person that Mila was texting with saw from their chat history that she had ordered from them before and saw the value to maintain a profitable customer. “They said they would give us the gram of ketamine for free but that we had to pay 10 euros for the delivery costs. And we thought, ‘well, if they are coming here anyways…’” So, they decided to order 2 ecstasy pills at 5 euros each. Cheeky Mila. But not so fast, there is a 25 € minimum order…did they maybe want to order something more…? Fineeeee, a gram of MDMA (25 euros) for the summer. Sorry, what was that? 2021 Summer fun is also cancelled? Cool.
When all was said and done, the second transaction went smoother that the first. For those of you keeping track, here’s the breakdown in euros: she paid 80 (first 45, then 35) euros for a gram of speed, ketamine, 3-MMC, MDMA and 2 pills, a grocery list which normally would have set her back 115 euros. With that headspace, Mila likes to think she’s 35 euros richer.
This experience gives Mila much to reflect on, especially considering the current pandemic: “corona makes us think so much about our health and staying safe, it’s reassuring to have access to health care services that are there to prevent possibly dangerous outcomes.” And she made sure to share what she drew from this testing experience with her network of friends. She’s also been reminded that drug dealers are human and that mistakes can be made. And that a little inspection of the merchandise from her side, just to be safe, might be worthwhile. And of course, she is now educated on the do’s and don’ts of a new drug.
…So, what was that familiar sounding number of 35 euros going towards?
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For those of you who already have shared with me: you are great, thank you.
Check back in with Poppi’s blog regularly as, with your help, I’ll continue to explore what this new reality means for recreational substance use(rs) in the Netherlands.