Brexit and COVID contribute to nearly 50 per cent of ecstasy sold containing none of drug

Many pills and crystals are instead bulked up with caffeine and cathinones

The amount of substances being sold as ecstasy in England that contain none of the drug is close to 50 per cent, a new study has found.

In the first peer-reviewed scientific study of the trend, researchers have discovered that almost half (45 per cent) of substances sold as MDMA/ecstasy at music festivals last year didn’t contain any of the drug. They instead comprised ingredients such as cathinones – a new psychoactive substance – and caffeine.

A combination of Brexit, COVID lockdowns and police operations against supply chains has led to a sharp and potentially harmful increase in fake MDMA, the study published in the Drug Science, Policy and Law journal claimed.


Festival goers are therefore being warned about an “unprecedented shift” in the UK MDMA drug market, which has seen huge changes between 2019 and 2021 when Brexit was enacted and COVID lockdowns came into force.

In a Drug Science blog post outlining the study that was conducted by drug-checking charity The Loop in partnership with British universities, it noted that the “biggest surprise when comparing 2019 and 2021 samples tested by The Loop lab was the large decrease in the detection of MDMA”.

The Loop attended three of the same summer music festivals in the summers of 2019 and 2021, before and after Brexit and COVID lockdowns.

Research chemists analysed more than 2,000 substances of concern surrendered to amnesty bins and obtained by on-site support services. The chemistry team compared the identity of substances known or reasoned to be purchased as MDMA, in tablet and crystal form, between the two years.

Some users in the study reported ill-effects such as panic, psychosis and prolonged insomnia.


In 2019 when the research was carried out at the same festivals, only seven per cent of the pills tested did not contain MDMA.

Additionally, research from the harm reduction project Wedinos found that about 15 per cent of products sold as MDMA that it tested in 2021 contained only cathinones and 14 per cent only caffeine. Two-thirds of the product sold as MDMA that it analysed did contain it.

Michael Pascoe, a research associate at Cardiff University and co-lead author of the study, said: “This is the first peer-reviewed article that confirms there was an unprecedented shift in the quality of UK ecstasy following Brexit and the lockdowns. As well as noticing this effect at festivals, the study also presents wider UK data that confirms the same effect was seen across the whole country.

“During this unprecedented turbulence in the drug market, substances that look like MDMA were mis-sold to unknowing customers.”

The study also suggested that the dismantling of criminal and dark web platforms may have also disrupted the availability of MDMA.

The impact of Brexit, ranging from lorry driver shortages to fluctuations in currencies, was said to have contributed to the changes as well.

“This study highlights a period of unprecedented turbulence in the UK drug market. We suggest the shortage may be linked to Brexit-related disruptions to legal and illicit supply chains, combined with the stalling of MDMA production,” the study concluded.

Meanwhile, last year the UK government was urged to back substance checks at festivals after a report warned that a surge in drug deaths could take place during the summer.

For more information on drug-testing or to speak to someone confidentially about drug use, visit The Loop and FRANK.

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