How Dunedin Became New Zealand’s MDMA Capital

Every three months New Zealand Police release a map showing the ratio of drugs found in sewage testing across Aotearoa.

By Baz Macdonald

In most of the country, methamphetamine dominates. In the fourth quarter of 2021, methamphetamine made up nearly 100% of the drugs found in North Waikato.

But in the south, it’s a different story.

In 2020, MDMA accounted for 95% of the drugs in Dunedin’s wastewater.

Dunedin students say the drug has become so common that people give it to each other as a birthday present and take it before going out to dinner.

Nick Guilford, a student at the University of Otago and a local music producer, said MDMA was mostly reserved for a niche of people who partied at festivals and electronic music events.

But as drums and bass have become more popular in Dunedin, so has MDMA, Guilford said.

As it has become more mainstream, Guilford said it has been integrated into parts of the student body that celebrate binge culture.

“There’s how many bongs you can smoke, how much piss you can drink, but also how much gear you can carry,” Guilford said.

Wastewater analyzes show that the use of MDMA has increased by 40% in the last three years in the South region.

Jai Whelan is a PhD student at the University of Otago studying MDMA culture in New Zealand.

Whelan said the majority of people he interviewed are reasonable about their use, and that the problems resulting from this surge in popularity are due to poor education about the drug and its safe use.

“For the most part, people should check the drug more, they should check what their substance is,” Whelan said.

Nearly a quarter of MDMA samples tested last year by drug control organization Know Your Stuff were actually synthetic cathinones, commonly known as bath salts.

Although the effect of bath salts may be similar to that of MDMA, they are much more powerful. This increases the risk of overdose when users do not know what substance they are taking.

Other problems that arise include MDMA users drinking too much water, or not enough water, and hyperthermia (being too hot).

But Whelan said the biggest problem was how often young people were taking MDMA.

“There’s a rule floating around the internet that it’s the absolute maximum recommended, if it should be recommended, that three months is a good time to wait. [between usage]“said Whelan.

“However, people will do more than that. I’ve had people say on a big week that they could do it multiple times that week. But they are aware that on this last day it barely works, if at all.

MDMA is a party drug that works by flooding the body with serotonin, a chemical that regulates your mood.

When the brain is full of serotonin, it often makes the person feel uplifted, energetic, and happy, along with heightened feelings of empathy and connection with others.

For many people this is followed by a crash – an after use crash where the person may feel depressed, tired and anxious for days after use.

One theory for the downs is that MDMA depletes serotonin levels, and the down is the period it takes to replenish.

However, too frequent use of MDMA has been associated with long-term effects on memory, concentration, and mood.