A new approach to ecstasy is needed
Several young people have died recently after taking ecstasy at youth music dance events across Australia.
These tragedies attracted saturation media coverage. However it is important to point out that 15 Australians die each day from alcohol. Tellingly, one in eight deaths of Australians under 25 are caused by alcohol.
The sad reality is that illicit drugs are a helpful distraction for the liquor industry. Some commentators express astonishment that young people want to take drugs. But young people with everything to live for use drugs, including ecstasy, for the same reason that others drink martinis or smoke cigarettes: they consciously or unconsciously estimate that the pleasure of taking drugs is worth the risk.
Almost 11 per cent of Australians aged 14 years and over have taken ecstasy at least once in their lives, while 2.5 per cent of Australians aged 14 years and over have used ecstasy in the last 12 months.
A National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre report in 2010 estimated that there had been almost 100 deaths from ecstasy in Australia between 2000 and 2008, an average of about a dozen deaths a year. More than 90 per cent of the deaths were attributed directly to ecstasy while other drugs were present in 75 per cent of fatalities.
Yet in 2009 Professor David Nutt, the highly respected chairman of an important British government advisory committee, estimated that riding a horse was more dangerous than taking ecstasy!
Ecstasy can cause death on its own, often from under- or over-hydration associated with extremely high body temperatures. Some ecstasy deaths are due to an interaction with other drugs recently consumed. Deaths sometimes occur from the drug supplied by the black market being contaminated with toxic chemicals from the manufacturing process , especially PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine) and PMMA (paramethoxymethamphetamine).
The community finds it hard to accept that we cannot stop people taking drugs like ecstasy. It’s certainly not for lack of trying. Yet, at best, governments might be able to slightly decrease the number of Australians taking ecstasy every year and reduce the frequency of their consumption. Governments have been trying to reduce the supply and demand for ecstasy for over two decades with very little to show for it.
However governments are able to reduce the risk from taking ecstasy and this is what they should primarily focus on. These harm-reduction efforts would be similar to the highly successful needle syringe programs, including the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre at Kings Cross in Sydney.
For years, saturation policing with sniffer dogs has been the main response to concerns about drugs at youth music events. But police have been unable to identify evidence of success from this approach. In contrast, it is easy to find evidence of significant harm from these efforts.
Often, young disadvantaged Australians from minority groups feel that police have picked on them. Many young people recount that they were terrified by an encounter with police sniffer dogs.
This style of policing costs a lot of money. Moreover resources tied up in these operations are unavailable for other policing, such as reducing alcohol-related violence. Sniffer dogs sometimes appear to detect drugs that are not there and miss drugs that are present. There are many reports of young people sighting sniffer dogs and then swallowing all the drugs in their possession to avoid getting caught. Some have ended up in hospital and a few have died.
More than twenty years ago, half a dozen European countries began allowing drug checking. Small samples of bought drugs can be tested at youth music events (on-site) or sent in advance to specialised laboratories (off-site). These can be tested to try to identify the major ingredient, the quantity of the main ingredient and the presence of known toxic adulterants.
One of the benefits of this approach is that ecstasy suppliers started to have an incentive to provide safer products. Moreover there is some evidence that safer ecstasy is provided when drug checking is available.
Police always have a potential role at events attended by large crowds. But violence is rare at youth music and dance events. So only a minimal police presence is required. There is no place for sniffer dogs at such events. Savings from eliminating saturation policing and sniffer dogs should be allocated to stepping up enforcement of our liquor laws, where there is a much more effective and measurable return.
Continuing the failed and expensive policy of saturation policing and sniffer dogs suggests that government and older generations do not have the best interest of young people at heart. If we believe that a particular drug policy “sends a particular message”, then this should be determined scientifically rather than by intuition.
Allowing drug checking to take place might suggest that governments are prepared to admit policy errors and evaluate more effective approaches.
At best, drug education usually only delivers small reductions in drug use for brief periods. To be effective in the long term, drug education has to be honest, credible and based on science, not primarily focused on messages of shock and awe.
People in all countries and in virtually all cultures have used mood-altering drugs. Young people experiment with drugs as they experiment with many other behaviours.
Ecstasy use is likely to continue in Australia for many decades with government efforts to reduce demand and supply likely, at best, to have only marginal results.
Governments should focus on reducing the possible harms from ecstasy by allowing high quality drug checking to occur. It’s time Australia trialled an intervention that for decades has been used successfully overseas.
Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 38 books, including his memoir ‘My name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.’
The Canberra Times, December 8, 2015.
Also in The Brisbane Times, December 8, 2015.