01 October 2007

Few thrills with party pills

“Party pills”, legal recreational drugs banned in several countries, recently became available on our shelves. What are they and should they be legal? Health24 investigated.

Health24 assembled a crack team of professionals – no less than three psychologists, a neurologist and a health journalist to record the effects of legal recreational drugs on two users, whom we’ll call Subject A and Subject B. The product in question, “Push”, was bought quite easily at a local bottle store. Four pills cost R120.

Strong reference to street drugs
“Push” is one of a suite of four similar products with names reminiscent of street drugs; the others are named “Charge”, “Red Hearts” and “Ice Diamonds”.

The packaging and the manufacturer’s website are also clearly designed with strong reference to recreational drug and youth culture. The Push container, for example, depicts a young woman in ecstatic pose on the dance floor, and promises to “push the boundaries and experience energy with an elevated state of mind. 1 or 2 Push will have you feeling elated and energetic for 5 to 6 hours.”

“Taking Push is a mind-altering experience with all the energy to match,” adds the web site.

Despite such dramatic effects, usually associated with illegal drugs, the makers of party pills claim that their products are quite safe, if taken as recommended, and that they are non-addictive.

Buyers will be disappointed
Dr Andrew Rose-Innes, a neurologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, said that the products are “a rip-off” in terms of what they were promising:

“People who try these are going to be disappointed if they think they can pop a pill and have some amazing experience. If you take loads of them – way over the ‘recommended dose’ – certainly you’ll notice some effects, in the same way that if you overdose on many over-the-counter pills you’ll have side-effects, often risky and unpleasant.”

This was borne out by the effects experienced by our subjects. Subject A, who followed the Push package instructions to “take 1 - 2 pills at a time and wait 3 hours”, took one pill. She reported that: “It was very boring; really nothing happened. I kept thinking something was happening and then realising I was just imagining it. The only thing that I noticed for sure that was different was that my lips felt a bit numb, and when I took my pulse, it was faster than usual.”

Subject B took two pills, with alcohol, and when he experienced no effects, took a third pill. After a few hours, he said he felt “a buzz”:

“I felt quite energetic, tingly, and keyed-up. My heart rate went up. I quite enjoyed it, but it could make some people feel anxious, even panicky.”

What’s in them?
The active ingredient in Push and similar products is Benzopiperazine or BZP. Jaco Lotriet, Health24’s pharmacist, says that BZP has a similar action to drugs like ecstasy and methamphetamine (“speed”).

“The dosage used in party pills is very low, maybe a tenth of the strength of illegal drugs, but it still has abusive potential,” says Lotriet.

“A New Zealand trial showed that 2.2% of people using party pills felt they had become addicted to them. And the higher the dose, the higher the risk of addiction.”

A run-through of BZP’s side effects makes it clear that it’s no innocent: “At lower doses, side effects are rather like a hangover, with headache, nausea, insomnia and fatigue. At higher doses you could get confusion, agitation, dizziness and irregular heart-beat. The most serious symptoms would be seizures and renal toxicity.”

Lotriet feels strongly that party pills should be better controlled. “They should at least be scheduled – as a schedule 2, which means that, like diet pills, they can only be sold at pharmacies and not at bottle stores. But the scheduling should probably be higher than that – especially if it’s shown that they’re being abused.”

Party pills not the primary problem
Health24’s Teen Expert, Dr Neil McGibbon, who has an adolescent psychology practice in Cape Town, says that party pills are becoming fairly popular with South African youth, many under the age of 18.

“In fact, they seem to appeal more to the under-18s”, says McGibbon. “For many teenagers, alcohol is typically the entry-level substance. They see party pills, which they know are supposed to be like ecstasy, when they go into the bottle store to buy alcohol. If they look old enough to get away with buying alcohol, then they sometimes buy the party pills too. And they’re likely to combine them with alcohol, and other substances, rather than use them on their own.”

McGibbon feels, however, that party pills are not the primary problem. “I’m not convinced there’s going to be an epidemic of young people using these products; the availability of alcohol and illegal drugs such as dagga and tik is of far greater concern.”

“It’s hard to say whether party pills will act as ‘gateway substances’ to harder drugs; the ‘gateway’ theory is controversial generally. But they shouldn’t be on the shelves, because they’re serving no positive purpose, and they’re perpetuating the message that people need to keep putting substances in their bodies to have a good time.”

- Olivia Rose-Innes, Health24, June 2007

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