From 2000 to 2007, the party drug BZP was legal to buy and available from your local dairy. What happened?
"This is what movies say drugs are like," says Jim (not his real name), remembering how he felt when he took six party pills in one night. He was a musician, student and regular drug-taker – he'd munted his body and mind plenty of times. This was different, and he hated it.
His body split into one very hot half and one very cold half, and he hallucinated a crow in his living room. It was 2007 and streaming services didn't exist, so he watched a Napoleon Dynamite DVD on loop for five hours with the sound off, pacing around his Dunedin flat and doing character voices. "I felt like if I stopped moving, I would die," he says.
He went to the bathroom, locked the door, and turned both of the taps on full – hot and cold. "I was splashing water on my body trying to force it to adjust its temperature. Like, 'I've got to get normal again'."
It wasn't the first time he'd taken party pills, but it was the most he'd taken at once. And it was totally legal.
Once upon a time, you could buy a pack of the recreational drug benzylpiperazine, better known as BZP, for $25. In 2006, one survey found a massive 40 per cent of 19-29 year olds had taken it at some point in their lives. That's a lot of people, and yet pill producers say no one ever died from taking it. The first official BZP death happened after its ban.
"I think it would have been nigh on impossible to take enough in a way that would harm you chemically," says Jim. "It would be very hard to die just from that. But did I feel it was possible to take enough to have a heart attack? Yeah, absolutely."
Dr John Kerr, a Cambridge-based academic, wrote his masters' thesis on the history of BZP. He also took some of it as a broke Otago Uni student. He still can't quite believe it ever happened.
"Even in Amsterdam, weed isn't technically legal," he says. "Portugal has decriminalised drugs, but they're not legal." In New Zealand in the noughties you could go to a proper shop, in broad daylight, and buy recreational drugs. Jim bought his first pack from a dairy in Gore. "It was New Zealand's moment in the sun for weird drug policy," says Kerr. "The rest of the world turned around and went, 'What? What are you doing?'"
What we were doing was listening to the advice of rock musician and godfather of legal highs, Matt "Starboy" Bowden. He stands by his invention.
"Crystal meth was going crazy," Bowden says, speaking to The Spinoff from his garden on the North Shore. "Back then, if someone had some speed on a Friday, they'd snort it and go up, and come down, and be back at work on Monday." With crystal meth, which was growing in popularity, the effects were much worse. "You'd had three times as much as you used to have in a weekend, and it's only half-past f***n' Saturday."
Bowden's cousin was the third person in New Zealand to die after taking ecstasy, and he thought something like BZP could be a safe alternative for meth and ecstasy users. He approached the government, which was taking public suggestions on the methamphetamine crisis.
"I identified myself as a representative of the dance community, that cultural group of humans who dance regularly all night as a means of hooking up with another person, or just having a good time, in a ritual that's been going on for many thousands of years," he says. "In order to sustain our energy levels and reduce our inhibitions we use substances from plants, chemicals, or minerals to do that."
One substance with untapped potential was BZP, which was initially researched as a treatment for depression in 1973 and then shelved when it was discovered to have a similar effect to dexamphetamine.
"At the time, they thought, 'that means this drug's evil and has potential for abuse'," says Bowden. "But looking back in 2000, methamphetamine was causing the real problem – if this is less toxic and people are going to substitute this, it's a real tool.
"It was meant to be a gateway drug, a gateway off harder drugs."
The government agreed, and Bowden launched Stargate International. Over the next eight and a half years it would sell 26 million party pills to 400,000 consumers.
"I didn't think to patent them," he says. It didn't seem to matter. He bought a clifftop mansion complete with a lighthouse, started a clothing label, and filmed a three-part space opera based around his music. Even before he became a millionaire he looked the part: eyeliner, immaculately swooshed hair, and steampunk blazers. He might own the occasional laboratory, but Bowden will always be a rock star.
He was the subject of a 60 Minutes documentary, then a Vice one, and most recently a video from Re: where he spoke from self-imposed exile in Thailand. Dressed like a space dandy and carrying a guitar, he mentions to the Vice cameraman he doesn't want close-ups on his hands. "Because I can't play this, it's too f***in' hard."
He says the money wasn't the point of it all, just an incidental bonus. "I wanted to make money, but really I was trying to do this experiment," he says. BZP was banned in 2007, but when one empire died another rose from the ashes: synthetic cannabinoids.
Bowden didn't invent these in the same way he did BZP, but he'd built the market and manufacturing pathways they'd use. He got into the business of producing synthetic cannabinoids, allegedly designed to be safe alternatives to marijuana, which is already broadly safe. Safer than synthetic cannabinoids, anyway, which killed people.
'A tweaky buzz'
Kerr says that from an academic perspective, the BZP experiment's success isn't clear. "There was a question around whether BZP was a gateway drug, and in what direction," he says. Most surveys showed that, at least, no more people were taking meth than before.
Kerr believes Bowden's intentions were true, but party pills morphed into something he couldn't have predicted. "A lot of people who didn't consider themselves drug users were taking BZP," he says. "Most users of BZP probably weren't meth users."
One BZP user, Steve Mathieson, recalls the drug as "really horrible". He wasn't a regular, but he dabbled. "If you were broke, it was the cheaper option," he says. "But you would always regret it, and it was such a tweaky buzz."
Mathieson was the lead singer of alternative band Collapsing Cities during the party pill era, and he remembers a lot of it floating around one Homegrown festival. "We had some after we played, and they were just – I mean, they were never a good time."
Someone from another band – a headliner he wouldn't name – wanted to take some too. "We were like, 'No, don't do it before you play, just wait until you get off stage – they're horrible, you'll instantly regret this'. And then he had them and completely ruined his gig," he says.
"We didn't feel bad about it because we told him about five or six times. But he was like, 'No, I'm a seasoned drug-taker, man'. He single-handedly ruined their gig."
Collapsing Cities wrote a song, Those Party Pills, about falling in love over BZP. It makes Mathieson cringe a little. "Oh God, that song," he says. "It used to give me a vulnerability hangover, but now I just think it's funny. A couple of years ago I would have been embarrassed."
Mathieson remembers meeting Bowden at a songwriting workshop on the North Shore back in the day. He was there to teach a little and, eventually, advertise his own music. Mathieson remembers him as very charismatic. "There was something quite charming about him," he says. "He's a good public speaker."
He didn't take much away from the workshop, but he wasn't looking for it. "It's cool that we got a free workshop and lunch and stuff like that."
Mathieson is sober, a solo musician, and working in mental health these days. "[Party pills] should never have been legal," he says. "I'm anti-drugs these days, but back then I was probably not honest with myself about drugs. There's an easy trap for songwriters and musicians, thinking that drugs are good for songwriting, and that's probably where I was at back then."
Jim says BZP put him off all drugs for almost a decade, and it was the smell that finally turned him off that particular one. After his big night in with Napoleon Dynamite he reeked of chemicals. "Compressed herbs and minerals and binding agents. That's what I smelled like. That's what was seeping out of every pore."
There was a rumour that party pills built in an artificial hangover to make its users feel like they'd had a big night. Bowden denies this. "It was a manageable hangover," he says. "You wouldn't feel like taking it every day."
"That experience was so bad it put me off doing drugs for the better part of 10 years," says Jim. "I couldn't take multivitamins." Mathieson calls it "the most debilitating comedown ever".
Kerr feels the same. "The overwhelming majority of people, including me, found the after-effects horrible." Did anyone find them so horrible they died? "People have certainly died with BZP in their system," says Kerr. "But it was there alongside other substances like cocaine, alcohol, and ecstasy."
End of an era
The most common side effects were insomnia and headaches, but a few BZP users ended up in hospital. They usually had other drugs in their system, too.
A 2005 study assessed BZP-related admissions into a Christchurch hospital emergency ward over a five-month period. There were 80 admissions, and 15 toxic (non-epileptic) seizures were recorded. A similar study was conducted at Auckland Hospital, where over a three-year period only 26 BZP-related admissions were noted, and no seizures were reported.
This is the problem with BZP research – the studies just aren't comprehensive enough to be very useful. In 2007 an expert advisory committee chaired by a young Dr Ashley Bloomfield recommended BZP be made a controlled substance, but also found several studies into the drug were flawed or at least questionable.
"None of the information we had was conclusive," says Bloomfield, casting his mind back. "The committee as a whole agreed it posed a moderate risk of harm, but there were mixed views among members."
He says the choice to ban the drug was tough. "Given the mechanisms available to us at the time, it was the only effective way we had to address the health risks," he says. Context, he adds, is important.
"BZP could be manufactured by anyone who wanted to, so quality of manufacture was unknown, the dose was not necessarily known, and the manufacturers weren't necessarily interested in making a lot of effort to manage the risks of the products."
He says one option they discussed was a regulatory system that made suppliers responsible for the effect of the pills. "As we do with medicines, and indeed food," he says. "That was the impetus behind the later Psychoactive Substances Act."
The Psychoactive Substances Act came too late to save BZP. "The government created an opportunity to regulate BZP, and they didn't," says Kerr. "They could have limited the amount you could buy, limited the people who could sell it, etc."
"I bet that drove Matt Bowden crazy."
He's had to move on, but Bowden stands by BZP. "We made these pills, and everybody sort of loved them, and they made you pretty crook the next day. But if you had an overdose, you weren't too badly off," he says.
He says that despite party pill overdoses ending up in the newspaper, those who'd experienced them were usually back at work by Monday. "One person says they were an addict, but they posted on Facebook that they were joking, so."
Eventually the law came for synthetic cannabis, as it should have, and Bowden had to sell his $5 million property portfolio and liquidate his business in an experience he described at the time as "more difficult than dealing with meth addiction". He'd taken the fall for an entire industry, and would spend the next five years in Thailand and Europe to avoid jail and creditors.
But he never gave up on his progressive policy dreams, and came back to New Zealand during the first lockdown. Now living in Browns Bay on Auckland's North Shore and continuing his research into legal alternatives, he reckons the after-effects of the pandemic are ripe for substance legislation.
"The next wave of illness we should expect is trauma-related illness such as PTSD, addiction, anxiety and depression, which are currently being treated by medicines that simply suppress emotions," he says.
He points to global trends toward researching psychedelics. Even here in New Zealand, where we've since overcompensated for the noughties' cowboy drug policies, there are studies on how drugs like LSD can help with depression.
"I think that's going to be the next major need for humans pharmacologically," says Bowden.
Bloomfield has alternative advice: "If any of your readers are planning to take a recreational drug, I would suggest they don't.
"If they do I would very strongly encourage them to get it checked beforehand by Know Your Stuff NZ."
Jim says if BZP came back, he would consider taking it again. "If you came to me and said 'here's some BZP', I would take it," he says.
"I would not pay for it."