An online show called Drugslab gives viewers a first-hand account of what it's like to take anything from mushrooms to ecstasy.
AMSTERDAM — Rens Polman feels "so lekker" — Dutch for "pleasant" or "good" — on ecstasy. The young man is one of three people in the Netherlands who tests out illegal drugs on their YouTube channel Drugslab. When he goes on a substance-induced trip, others can see what the drugs do to his body.
Cocaine, mushrooms, ketamine, the YouTubers take whatever viewers request in the comments section of their videos. Some videos have more than a million views. "We test out drugs in the name of science," Polman explains. "We see how pulse and body temperature change. And we test motor skills and ability to think while intoxicated."
The YouTubers sit in a laboratory with a Dutch flag and test tubes on the desk. The room is bathed in green light. To the left, a marijuana plant sits just in view. They have scrawled the chemical compound of ecstasy on a chalk board. A flat screen television is at the ready to display pulse and body temperature.
Blond, hip and young, Polman and co-presenter Nellie Benner are today's hosts. Their colleague, Bastian Rosman, has the day off. Every week, two of the three YouTubers host the show. One "trips' (to use the appropriate jargon). The other watches.
The YouTubers play "rock-paper-scissors." Rens Polman loses — he will be the lab rat. Today's menu: ecstasy.
"You need about one to 1.5 milligrams per kilo of body weight," Polman tells his viewers. Ecstasy is illegal in the Netherlands. The pills that he has in his hand are from the black market. "There are 126 milligrams of MDMA in these pills. That is the active ingredient of ecstasy," says Polman.
Benner then splits the pill — half is enough — and hands Polman a test tube of water. The YouTuber swallows the ecstasy. Two hours later Polman begins to feel the effects of the pills. He had eaten a large meal beforehand, so the drug took a bit longer to kick in. The 25-year-old begins to feel a warm tingle in his body. His hands are clammy and his mouth dry, but he feels "so good" that he begins to dance.
"Many believe that ecstasy contains speed because you feel so energized while on the trip. But that's not true," Benner explains.
MDMA also has this effect. Polman holds out his arms and begins moving them in circles. His eyes are droopy. Techno music begins to play. What the ecstasy is doing to Polman's body looks like fun.
Why you love me so much
Polman suddenly feels such a sense of love that he needs to hug his co-host. "Ecstasy releases serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline in the brain," Benner tells the camera. "It's because of the serotonin that you have so much love for me right now."
Drugslab is a mix of explanatory video and a state-financed drug trip. The idea of broadcasting intoxication is not new in the Netherlands. Since 2005, the state media outlet BNN has aired a TV series called Spuiten en Slikken (injection and swallowing), in which the moderators try illegal substances.
What Spuiten en Slikken is for the old generation, Drugslab is for the new. "Young people want real people to do the real thing," says the inventor of the show, Jelle Klumpenaar. He calls the series a "pedagogical YouTube channel."
The idea came to him when he saw young people who were completely stoned at a music festival. "I asked myself: How can it be that these young people are in such a state?" he says. He believes that such accidents would happen less frequently if young people were well-informed about drugs. Drugslab is supposed to do this. But is it working?
It would be different if I met you at a party
The series shows true intoxication: It shows how "good" Polman feels but also how his mouth opens and at the same time his jaw moves left and right, his teeth grind and his eyelids droop so that you can only see the whites of his eyes.
"It would be a bit scary if I just met you at a party," says Benner. "MDMA users frequently experience uncontrollable grinding of the teeth and jaw movement, and the face muscles contract," she adds. Polman, in the meantime, looks as if he were in a state somewhere between facial contortion and orgasm.
The YouTubers say nothing about the dangers of consuming illegal substances. They simply advise their viewers to always have their drugs tested before consuming them. In the Netherlands, unlike in most Western European countries, there are state-financed sites where users can have their substances tested. In 2016, over 12,000 consumers had their drugs checked at the DIMS (Drug Information and Monitoring System), of which more than half were ecstasy pills.
The program isn't just for the benefit of users. It also helps Dutch authorities by letting them know which drugs are circulating on the black market. "We know which substances are contained in these drugs because of the tests. As such, we can issue warnings if there are additional hazardous substances in the drugs," says Daan van der Gouwe, who coordinates the DIMS program.
Last year Van der Gouwe started a national campaign to warn people about the ingredient PMMA in ecstasy. PMMA is cheaper that MDMA and, for this reason, is added to ecstasy. Its consumption can result in death because it can sharply increase body temperature and lead to internal bleeding.
"A second dangerous trend is that ecstasy pills have become increasingly stronger," he says. "A pill today contains on average twice as much MDMA as 10 years ago."
Just a half a pill will do the trick, in other words. And yet, many users continue to swallow the whole pill. This is risky, he explains, because overdosing can lead to heart problems and increased body temperature. Even clean drugs can be deadly, Van der Gouwe warns. "Doctors are always reporting more patients who have overdosed on powerful pills. People think that ecstasy is a harmless party drug, but that's not true," he says.
Is there such a thing as risk-free?
The YouTubers don't talk about the dangers of an overdose. Nor do they mention the dangerous ingredients that can be in illegal drugs or what happens when someone consumes adulterated drugs. In a place like the Netherlands, this is critical because, with the exception of marijuana and some other natural substances, most drugs are illegal. The state does not inspect them before they come on the market.
"We test only a very small portion of the drugs that are actually on the market. The majority of users continue to take drugs without having them tested beforehand. But all the same, they now have this possibility," Van der Gouwe explains.
Those that do make use of the DIMS program tend to be more educated, which is why the educational claim of Drugslab is not false. Still, people who watch the show admit that it makes them more curious to try the featured substances themselves. Viewers learn that Rens Polman can hardly catch a tennis ball while under the influence. But they also see how "good" the host feels when he eats a popsicle while on MDMA. The YouTubers calls this "scientific testing."