What is PMA and why is it so dangerous?

I understand that PMA has been the cause of many ecstasy deaths around the world. What is it exactly and why is it so dangerous? Also, why would anybody who was making ecstasy put something so dangerous into the pills they are making and selling to people? It doesn't make any sense why people would want to intentionally hurt the people they are selling their drugs to - wouldn't they be damaging their 'brand' if they did? Thanks for taking the time to answer my question.

PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine) is an amphetamine-type drug similar to MDMA (ecstasy) or MDA, although PMA is much more potent and far more toxic.  It has no medical uses. It first appeared in North America in the early 1970s, usually sold as MDA, and became associated with a number of deaths soon after.  In Ontario, for example, the deaths of nine young people were confirmed to be caused by PMA between March and August 1973.

PMA has been linked to a number of Australian deaths over the years. Six people died in South Australia between September 1995 and January 1996 after taking PMA, either alone or combined with MDMA.  PMA deaths have also been reported in NSW and WA. We believe those that died thought they were taking MDMA alone and did not realise that PMA was present in the tablet they used. Increasingly it would appear that another substance, PMMA or para-methoxyamphetamine, is also often found in ecstasy pills containing PMA.

Although often sold as ecstasy, the greatest problem linked to PMA, even when combined with PMMA, is that it doesn't necessarily cause an 'ecstasy-like' effect. Users then think the drug is poor quality or weak or that their tolerance to the effects of MDMA has increased. As a result they then take more pills and subsequently overdose.

The major problem with PMA is that you only need to use a very small amount of it for something to go wrong. It has been estimated that PMA's negative effects may occur by taking as little as 50 mg of the substance. An ecstasy tablet can weigh anything from 150-200 mg and can contain up to 50% of active material, so it would not take many pills to cause a problem. The toxicity of PMA is related to excessive central nervous system stimulation.  The body temperature and blood pressure rises very quickly and users may experience delirium, agitation, muscle contractions, thrashing around and rigidity. If things go wrong with PMA and the person does not receive medical help very quickly they may not survive.

For many years I believed that the manufacture of PMA was accidental - those people making ecstasy simply got the recipe wrong - but it would now appear that this is certainly not the case. It is now believed that manufacturers are deliberately putting PMA into pills, usually combined with PMMA, to try to imitate the expected effects of MDMA as closely as possible (although all evidence suggests that this is not the case - users do not experience an ecstasy-like effect). One of the reasons for this is because it is extremely difficult to manufacture MDMA, due to the precursor chemicals needed to make the drug being hard to access. The precursors for PMA and PMMA on the other hand are widely available commercially.

What you must remember is that the people who make these drugs don't necessarily use them themselves - they really don't care what is in them. Ecstasy manufacture is a multi-million dollar business. In the past there were people who made the drugs for themselves and their peers - now it is organized crime gangs that make the pills and it takes considerable time for them to make their way down to the streets and to users. If the drugs are particularly dangerous - the manufacturers are not likely to know for some time and they're highly unlikely to care - they have already made their money!

The PMA (and PMMA) deaths that we have seen around the world highlight one of the major risks when using ecstasy.  No matter what anyone tells you, you simply never know exactly what it is that you are taking. If you do decide to use ecstasy and you don't get the desired effect – don't take more – you never know exactly what is in the pill!

First published: July 2016