Party pills also known as social tonics, herbal highs, or just herbals – commonly contain the chemical benzylpiperazine (BZP) and a combination of other additives, such as amino acids. They also often contain triflouromethylphenylpiperazine (TFMPP).
Products containing BZP can be sold legally to anyone aged 18 or over from a variety of retail outlets, including specialist party pill retailers, sex shops and some 24-hour convenience stores, dairies and service stations. They are required to be packaged and labelled and typically include recommended dosage limits and health information.
Most of the BZP and TFMPP sold in New Zealand is imported in bulk form and the retail products are then manufactured here.
Products containing BZP are designed to mimic the effects of amphetamines and MDMA (ecstasy), though at a lower level of potency and without the addictive qualities and known health risks of illegal drugs (see also the section in this booklet on amphetamines).
BZP first appeared when it was created synthetically in 1944 to combat internal parasites in cattle. Later it was found to have antidepressant properties and amphetamine-like effects, which led to its popularity at all-night rave parties in the 1990s.
Effects of party pills
They are popular among New Zealand’s young partygoers because their effects over a few hours – if taken in recommended doses – commonly include euphoria, increased energy, enhanced senses and alertness. On the down side, short-term negative effects can include dehydration, a loss of appetite and inability to sleep.
Consumption of large doses, or using it in combination with alcohol and other substances, can produce feelings of anxiety, headaches, nausea and vomiting.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration says that although BZP acts as a stimulant in humans and produces euphoria and cardiovascular effects namely increases in heart rate and systolic blood pressure it is about 10 to 20 times less potent than amphetamine in producing these effects. However, “experimental studies demonstrate that the abuse, dependence potential, pharmacology and toxicology of BZP are similar to those of amphetamine. Public health risks of BZP are similar to those of amphetamine.”
A Massey University study conducted early in 2006 – The National Household Survey of Legal Party Pill Use – found widespread use of party pills. Of the respondents surveyed, one in five people between the ages of 13 and 45 had tried party pills at least once, and one in seven had used them in the past 12 months.
Other findings were:
- They are most popular among the 18-24 age group.
- One in 18 users had used legal party pills weekly or more often over the last year (at least 50 times in a year).
- The mean number of legal party pills taken on a typical occasion was 2.6 pills. When asked what was the greatest number of legal party pills they had taken in a single occasion, four out of 10 users said four or more pills, one in five said six or more pills, and one in nine said eight or more pills at one time.
- About one in three users said they drank “more” alcohol when using legal party pills.
- Nearly nine out of 10 party pill users said they used other substances with their party pills. The most common substance was alcohol, followed by tobacco and cannabis.
- About one third of legal party pill users indicated they usually used other substances to help them recover from their legal party pill use – most commonly so-called “recovery pills”, cannabis, tobacco and alcohol.
- Nearly all the legal party pill users (97.2 percent) had used other drugs in the preceding 12 months. Legal party pill users generally had much higher levels of illicit drug use than the wider population. For example, 15.9 percent of legal party pill users had used amphetamines in the last year compared to 3.7 percent of the population in 2003.
Don’t mix with other substances
Despite the evidence in the Massey study that party pills are commonly taken in combination with alcohol and other substances, users are advised not to do so because of the possible negative health effects. They should also take care not to use them with prescription and/or illegal drugs. Party pills should not be taken if you have a medical condition such as seizure disorder, psychiatric illness or coronary disease. Stay away from them if you are pregnant, intending to become pregnant, or while breast-feeding.
The official New Zealand view is that knowledge of the full physical and mental effects of using BZP-based products is incomplete. Because it is not clear what effects the long-term or chronic use of party pills might be, the Government has commissioned several research projects to investigate.
Some countries have already banned the sale of these products. In the United States, BZP is classified under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which means the Drug Enforcement Administration believes:
- it has a high potential for abuse;
- it has no currently accepted medical use in treatment
in the United States;
- there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under
Drugs included in the same schedule are heroin, LSD and cannabis.
Parents concerned about their children using party pills should be aware that it is illegal to sell or supply BZP to anyone under the age of 18.
In 2004, New Zealand’s Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs, in its report on BZP, recommended that the age restriction be included in legislation as a control measure to protect young people. The Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act 2005 added a new part to the Misuse of Drugs legislation and also a new schedule for Restricted Substances. BZP was placed in this schedule.
The restrictions on selling and supplying restricted substances to people aged under 18 years and the other restrictions contained in the legislation including a ban on advertising in major media and restrictions on free-of-charge distribution and using them as prize giveaways – were formed during the policy and parliamentary processes. They were included to ensure a level of control on the substances.
The Alcohol and Drug Association of New Zealand also has a very useful brochure outlining basic safety and health information on party pills at www.adanz.org.nz//content/documents/42/PartyPills.pdf