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January 20, 2019
Some recent media coverage has described ‘monkey dust’ as a deadly new drug on the rise in Australia. But this drug is not new, and we have no reason to believe its use is on the rise.
Also known as ‘bath salts’ or MDPV, it first appeared on the drug market in the mid-2000s.1
‘Monkey dust’ is a synthetic cathinone – a New Psychoactive Substance (NPS) that is chemically similar to a naturally occurring drug, cathinone, which is a mild stimulant. There are several synthetic cathinones which are all similar but different to natural cathinone and produce much stronger effects.
Those effects can be like MDMA or cocaine, such as feeling happy, energetic, talkative and having an intense connection to music. There are also similar side effects including muscle tension, reduced appetite, restless sleep and enlarged pupils.
There is the potential for more harmful side effects to occur, especially at higher doses, which may include paranoia, anxiety and stomach pains.2
It’s important to remember that drugs affect everyone differently and individuals cannot always predict the effect a substance or dose will have on their body, so caution is advised when taking any substance.
The most recent information from the Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS), which provides information about emerging drug trends, reports no increase in MDPV consumption in 2018. EDRS data shows a steady decline in the use of any synthetic cathinone use since 2010.3
While that reporting is dependent on people who use drugs knowing what they’ve purchased or consumed, it seems likely that recent reports about a potential ‘epidemic’ of ‘monkey dust’ in Australia are overstated.
It would not be the first time that new psychoactive substances, specifically synthetic cathinones, have received misguided media attention. In the UK several deaths were misattributed to another synthetic cathinone, mephedrone or ‘meow meow’, where later toxicology reports revealed the deceased had not consumed the substances at all.4
‘Monkey dust’ has been linked to several deaths in the UK,5 however it has not been linked to any of the recent deaths at music festivals in Australia.
Despite the lack of evidence that there has been an increase in consumption of ‘monkey dust’, people who use drugs should still exercise caution.
People are likely to be in danger of greater harm if synthetic cathinones are mixed with other drugs such as alcohol.6 If people are unknowingly consuming ‘monkey dust’ or other synthetic cathinones, the effects may be stronger than desired. When drugs are taken together it changes the way that each drug acts on the body, so accidentally or intentionally consuming synthetic cathinones alongside other drugs can produce unpredictable results.
This is one of the reasons that drug checking, also referred to as pill testing, needs to be trialled in Australia at festivals or music events as a harm reduction tool. If people know what’s in their drugs, they can make a more informed choice about how much they might choose to take, or to not take the substance at all. Talking with the staff in a drug checking tent is a great opportunity to have a chat about a person’s drug use (including where to get help if they need it) and to get harm reduction advice to help them stay safer on the day.
Drug checking also gives us valuable information about what exactly is circulating in the market, how potent drugs are, what’s being used as filler, and what the trends are – like if synthetic cathinones are showing up more often.
While there is no safe level of drug use, and it’s critical to communicate accurately about the risks and potential harms of any drug use, overstating the issue can sometimes do more harm than good.
An evidence-based policy response to concern about drug trends is to learn from the successful European model and to trial drug checking in Australia.7