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Monday 08 November 2010

Are BZP party pills a problem?

Posted in: Health & HIV
By Matt Akersten - 22nd February 2007

When a bundle of Auckland Hero Festival 2007 guide booklets arrived at gay nightclub Cruz in Christchurch, club owner Bruce Williamson sent them right back to where they came from.

His email to the festival organisers explained the decision. “Unfortunately, despite our support for the aims of the Hero festival, we are part of a group of venue-owners and promoters in Christchurch who are enforcing a total ban of any sponsorship by, or association with, the BZP-based products known rather wishfully as ‘party pills', which feature heavily in your printed material,” Williamson typed.

Along with ads promoting safe sex, vodka and cameras, BZP ‘Party Pill' ads in the guide say the products ‘Make Fun Better', and encourage Festival goers to ‘Let Yourself Go.”

The debate around whether or not party pills are safe has been playing out in mainstream media for as long as they've been on sale. You know how it always goes – a young person (usually from around Christchurch) ends up in hospital. Their family appear in the national media with a heartfelt plea to ‘ban those party pills immediately'. Anti-drug campaigner and Associate Minister of Health Jim Anderton's calls for investigation and clarification of the party pills issue are repeated. Then Matt Bowden from his ‘Social Tonics Association' says the pills are a safer, legal alternative to other drugs.

None of Bowden's reassurances cut any ice with Williamson, who has plenty of stories to share of his and other Christchurch nightclub owners' bad BZP experiences – all with the same moral: “the sooner BZP is banned, the sooner we can start cleaning up this city.”

Here's the worst story. “I know of one venue in town where the number of people losing bowel control through BZP use reached such a peak that the dance floor literally smelt like shit! Vomiting punters in toilets and corners of the venue has reached a level that I have never experienced in 40 years in this industry. It is, in a word, foul.”

Yikes. So are there other venue owners with similar experiences? Dairies all along Auckland's K' Road dispense party pills of many different brands and strengths. ‘Family' guy Wayne Clark says, “I don't really like them myself – I just don't think they're necessary. But it's each to their own. I've got no real adverse view against them.”

iMerst event manager Daniel Williams says he sees quite a few empty party pill packets at the end of a night in the Wellington's biggest gay bar, but isn't aware of any serious problem with their use. “It doesn't really effect what we're doing. It's just up to them, doing what they want to do.”

Andy Boreham, co-editor of Wellington's ‘Proud' glbt newspaper, says he hits the bars and clubs each Saturday – and usually takes party pills on his nights out. “I've been doing so for about four years now with no ill-effect, except for being pretty tired the next day – but it's Sunday so I can easily stay in bed!” he laughs.

“When I'm on party pills I just have more energy than usual, as well as not needing to drink alcohol - which is great since I usually get pretty sick and hung over on alcohol alone. I'm usually a whole lot more personable and out-going, which is similar to the effects of alcohol, except that with party pills I am totally in control and think clearly.”

Banning the pills would have unfortunate consequences, says Boreham. “I think a lot of people would seek BZP through dealers, much like those who sell ‘P' and marijuana. I don't believe that people who take party pills would be forced to move on to 'harder' drugs, as has been suggested, because I think BZP users are largely an intelligent and conscientious bunch who see party pills as a safe and legal way to have a good time."

“Party pill users usually also see BZP as a harmless substance, which is proven by the fact that no one has ever been killed or even harmed taking party pills with moderation," he adds.

The production of BZP should also be put under stricter quality control, continues Boreham. “You might notice that the number of people admitted to hospital for use of party pills largely comes from Christchurch, where smaller stores create their own
party pills and package them onsite. These stores don't have strict control of the amount of BZP in each pill, as well as other ingredients.”

Indeed, forensic tests on party pills this week showed that some contain illegal substances such as ecstacy or MDMA. "There is now scientific evidence that the line between illicit drugs and what are deemed as 'legal party pills' is becoming increasingly blurred,” the Police's National Crime Manager told the NZ Herald.

Back to Christchurch then – where Bruce Williamson has followed the stories of locals' nights out on pills and alcohol landing them in hospital, and has made up his mind: “The people who use the stuff [BZP] are usually incredibly ill-informed about what they are taking, and their behaviour therefore is far more unpredictable, dangerous and unpleasant, than what we are used to dealing with either with alcohol or the recreational drug users ‘of old' - and I am talking through the 90's and until two or three years ago."

“For all the harm that is done by alcohol, at least we have the training and knowledge to dispense it in reliable doses and to do our best monitor the safety of the drinker, both while on our premises, but also when they start walking out the door with someone and into a situation that we can see is just plain hazardous. We know what ten beers will do to a typical punter, and can try to intervene to minimize the risks that they might take. But we cannot hope to monitor or secure the safety of people taking party pills.”

Williamson describes himself as ‘speechless' over Hero accepting sponsorship from pill purveyors. “How can Hero organisers not be aware of the enormous rise in HIV infection rates in Australia and the USA that are being squarely attributed to the unquestioning acceptance of recreational drugs among the gay party scene in those countries? How do they rationalize their giving encouragement to use BZP as distinct from the devastating effects of Crystal Meth? The country is different, the particular flavour is different, but BZP and Meth have one thing in common: they are euphoric stimulants, which inevitably lower inhibitions and cause people to do what they otherwise might not."

“Those with a vested interest in peddling BZP will say that their drug is a world away from Meth, but in the respect most relevant to HIV, it is nothing more than a question of degree. When people are disinhibited, they do dumb things!”

Hero party organiser and guide producer Michael Modrich responds by first reminding us that, “at this point in time, the BZP pills are a legal alternative to other recreational drugs,” he says.

“Even though they have sponsored the Hero guide and party, we've ensured some balance – there's a ‘safe partying' section included in the Hero Festival guide. That's gone out well in advance, so people have the opportunity to read it and understand some basic guidelines for the use of party pills, or the use of any illegal substances people may consume at the party.

“We know people are going to take party pills, so we might as well be part of the process of educating them.”

St. Johns' trained medical staff will be present at the Hero party, Modrich assures us. “So help will be available if anyone consumes too much alcohol or anything else. Any financial support we get from party pill companies goes to offset the costs of those precautions.”

The official line from the Community Alcohol and Other Drug Service (CADS) is that there are risks in believing a substance is always safe, just because it's legal – no use is the safest choice.

Good advice from CADS includes not mixing pills, avoiding alcohol (booze can lead to dehydration, which puts extra strain on the liver), and stick to the recommended dose printed on the packaging. Another tip: eat well before taking the pills – as this helps ease the ‘crash' the next day.

Within hours of the above article appearing on, Jim Anderton's office sent us this statement amplifying his position on party pills:

"As I am sure you are aware there is a quite sharp division of public opinion over whether or not these pills are harmful and the extent to which there needs to be regulation. People are entitled to their opinions but I cannot proceed on such a basis nor would I wish to. My approach is evidence based and relies on the work of independent professionals in the medical, pharmaceutical and scientific fields involved.

There is a fairly straightforward procedure for me to follow which is set out in the Misuse of Drugs Act. I am bound by law to comply with the steps laid down in that Act if a substance appears to be harmful or subject to abuse. I am following that process in this case. We have already taken some steps to legislate on this issue by imposing a preliminary cautionary regulatory regime under the Act.

These law changes were a result of a 2004 report, which was completed by the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs (EACD) on Benzylpiperazine (BZP), which is the most common active ingredient found in party pills, and which has been legally available in New Zealand for some time, in particular as a veterinary medication (it has been used as a cattle drench). The EACD recommended that there should be more regulation and controls over BZP (restrictions were placed on the age of sale and on print and electronic media advertising). But the committee did not recommend at that juncture on the evidence available that BZP be classified as a controlled drug, and therefore made illegal. They did however recommend that more research into BZP should be commenced with a reassessment of BZP once the research was completed.

The results from the four research projects which I commissioned arising from this recommendation have now become available. They have been assessed and, as I am required to do under law, I am consulting with other agencies and stakeholders involved in the sale and after effects of the use of BZP based party pills.

My aim is to have this consultation process completed by April, and to have any amendments to the law which may be required following the consultation ready for Cabinet consideration by May 2007. In the meantime I have released the available research so that the public at large has the best possible information on which to make any decision to use ‘party pills' as these are currently legally available. Some of this research can be accessed through the website now, and I am advised that the balance will be similarly available within the next two weeks.

When I have recommendations to make as to where we should take this issue I will be making an appropriate announcement, but in the meantime although restrictions are in place on the availability of these pills, no ban has yet been imposed.

Hon Jim Anderton
Associate Minister of Health
MP for Wigram and Leader of the Progressive Party

Matt Akersten - 22nd February 2007

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