Ecstasy-Like Drug Tied to Multiple U.S. and European Deaths

Pills containing PMMA, a synthetic stimulant that produces effects similar to MDMA (popularly known as Ecstasy), have been implicated in multiple deaths and hospitalizations in Chicago, Florida and Ireland since September.

The drug, which causes spikes in body temperature and blood pressure, can remain in a user’s system for up to two hours before effects commence, potentially leading users to assume that a double dose is needed. Because of these factors, users of the drug open themselves up to an extremely high risk of overdosing.

The recent rise in popularity of PMMA and other synthetic drugs is possibly linked to their intense mental and physical effects coupled with a relatively low likelihood of detection through standard drug screenings. Some of the most common synthetic drugs currently on the market, known as synthetic cannabinoids (the most common of which is referred to as Spice, or K2), are only detectable through highly advanced testing approaches such as gas chromatography or liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry – both of which are expensive methods.

“Testing is a big problem,” says Dr. Duccio Papanti, a psychiatrist at the University of Trieste studying contemporary drugs. “From a clinical point of view, do you need the test to make a diagnosis of intoxication, for following up an addiction treatment or for forensic purposes? With the new drugs, maybe taken together, with different pharmacology, we are not very sure about this yet. If I want to have confirmation of a diagnosis of SC intoxication, I need two weeks as an average in order to obtain the result. Your patient has been discharged by that time, or in the worse case, he is dead.”

Papanti says healthcare providers are typically unacquainted with, and trying to learn more about, the compounds that make up many of these new synthetic drugs. Another roadblock toward successful testing of these drugs, according to Papanti, is that testing technology requires continuously updated sample libraries in order for the given testing apparatus to identify a particular compound – and sample accumulation requires time and money.

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