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Variability in content and dissolution profiles of MDMA tablets collected in the UK between 2001 and 2018: a potential risk to users?

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Lewis Couchman, Anca Frinculescu, Catarina Sobreira, Trevor Shine, John Ramsey, Max Hecht, Karin Kipper, David Holt, Atholl Johnston

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1172-1182
Number of pages11
JournalDrug Testing And Analysis
Issue number8
Early online date22 Apr 2019
Accepted/In press15 Apr 2019
E-pub ahead of print22 Apr 2019

King's Authors


3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA, Ecstasy) tablets are widely used recreationally, and not only vary in appearance, but also in MDMA content. Recently, the prevalence of high-content tablets is of concern to public health authorities. To compare UK data with other countries, we evaluated MDMA content of 412 tablets collected from the UK, 2001–2018, and investigated within-batch content variability for a sub-set of these samples. In addition, we investigated dissolution profiles of tablets using pharmaceutical industry-standard dissolution experiments on 247 tablets. All analyses were carried out using liquid chromatography−tandem mass spectrometry (LC–MS/MS). Our data supported other studies, in that recent samples (2016–2018) tend to have higher MDMA content compared to earlier years. In 2018, the median MDMA content exceeded 100 mg free-base for the first time. Dramatic within-batch content variability (up to 136 mg difference) was also demonstrated. Statistical evaluation of dissolution profiles at 15-minutes allowed tablets to be categorized as fast-, intermediate-, or slow-releasing, but no tablet characteristics correlated with dissolution classification. Hence, there would be no way of users knowing a priori whether a tablet is more likely to be fast or slow-releasing. Further, within-batch variation in dissolution rate was observed. Rapid assessment of MDMA content alone provides important data for harm reduction, but does not account for variability in (a) the remainder of tablets in a batch, or (b) MDMA dissolution profiles. Clinical manifestations of MDMA toxicity, especially for high-content, slow-releasing tablets, may be delayed or prolonged, and there is a significant risk of users re-dosing if absorption is delayed.

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