It’s an unnaturally hot day for the middle of September, reaching a high of almost 30 degrees. The sky is a picturesque azure, proof that Spring has finally arrived. Dust swirls through the crowd and clings to sweaty bodies. A boy waits in line, a small clear packet tucked in the waistband of his underwear. A policeman and his sniffer dog eye him as they patrol the area, but the dog doesn’t sit and they walk on. Of the 30,000 attendees, 355 will be searched for drugs, 69 would be found to be in possession and 10 charged with supply offences.
The main stage lights up the island as twilight settles over the scene, streaking the indigo sky with hues of soft pinks, purples and blues. The excitement of the crowd is palpable; it seeps through the pores of their skin and rises above them, settling in a dome of euphoria. Electronic beats pound through the speakers, resounding through chests and bones, as if the music was emanating from the bodies themselves. The atmosphere is a frenzy of lights, smoke, bodies and sweat, and the air is aglow with the sense of camaraderie that seems to come hand-in-hand with inebriation. Rarely does humankind experience this kind of feeling, when all inhibitions are tossed aside and the extremes of the emotional spectrum allowed a public platform for expression.
The End Show commences and the crowd is at its peak once again with the final moments of the night. Laser beams pierce through the block of midnight blue sky in a feverish blur as fireworks erupt the roof of the euphoric dome. The seductive voiceover replays in the souls of the crowd like a mantra. We stand on the edge of a new decade of dedication. Together, as one tribe. United by the same passion. Screams are drowned out by the pulse of the music, and the crowd pushes and pulls against each other in a giant embrace.
By the end of the night, two people will have died from suspected drug overdose. Defqon.1 is clearly more than just a music festival; it is an unforgettable experience.
On 16 September, 2018, the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian stood in front of cameras and vowed to permanently shut down the dance music festival that claimed the lives of 23-year-old Joseph Pham and 21-year-old Diana Nguyen.
The backlash was considerable, and Berejiklian was forced to retract her initial promise, claiming that she had only meant she “never wanted to see that event in its [current] form come back.” A panel of experts comprising of NSW’s Police Commissioner, Chief Medical Officer and Chair of the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority was consulted and in late October 2018, the state government proposed three key areas of drug-related activities to target. It involved the introduction of a new consistent licensing regime for music festivals, strengthening drug and alcohol education, and a new category of crime that would hold drug dealers responsible for the deaths they may have inadvertently caused. Pill testing was ruled out from the start with Berejiklian stating, “Anyone who advocates pill testing is giving the green light to drugs.”
“If there was a way in which we could ensure lives were saved through pill testing we would consider it — but there is no evidence provided to the government on that,” Berejiklian said, despite the plethora of research that supports this initiative as an effective harm reduction tool. Her statement came in response to another suspected drug-related death of a 20-year-old man at the Beyond the Valley Festival earlier this year.
In Australia’s first ever pill testing trial at Groovin the Moo in Canberra last year, two potentially lethal substances were identified within capsules and were consequently disposed of. A report published by Harm Reduction Australia also found that of the people who had had their drugs tested, 42% had stated that they would change their drug consumption behaviour as a result. Almost two-thirds knew of others using the same drugs, of which 90% reported that they would share the results of the test. The trial was deemed a success and has been approved to be conducted again at this year’s Groovin the Moo.
Meanwhile, the NSW government continues to rely on draconian regulations embedded with the War on Drugs mentality that has been widely criticised and proven ineffective. Will* worked as a staff member for Defqon.1 from 2014 and 2017. He watched as the austerity of officials and increases in police presence matched the creative ludicrousness of the rumours spreading about the ways attendees were attempting to smuggle in drugs. In 2014, reports that people had been sneaking onto the island a month and a half in advance to bury drugs in the grounds forced police to secure the location earlier. The next year, people were allegedly swimming across to the island and the police employed speedboats to patrol the perimeter. The year after that, rumours that people were now using drones to drop drugs onto the grounds circulated. Regardless of whether any of those theories were substantiated, police presence almost doubled in 2018.
You can almost always tell when someone is on something. Dilated pupils, involuntary jaw clenching, uncontrollable body and eye movements, sweating, slurred speech.
“He’s fine,” one of his friends says. They all watch as he thumps his head violently to the beat of music only he can hear. His hands hold the sides of the table in case his enthusiasm sends him falling head-first on the concrete ground, which seemed a possibility. Every so often he leans back, head lolling, mouth agape, eyes a frenzy.
An hour ago, in the privacy of his own bedroom, he had taken two caps and snorted a line of coke. Afterwards, he walked downstairs back to his own 21st birthday party, a grin across his face as the drugs began to make their way through his circulatory system. He had waved off his sixteen-year-old sister’s accusing gaze as the E dissolved in his stomach and small intestine, its molecules absorbing into his bloodstream. From there, they would travel up to his liver and then to his heart, where each beat would send the molecules in and out of the lungs for oxygenation. Finally, it would arrive at the brain.
He is now in the peak of his high. Serotonin is bouncing within his synaptic spaces, blocked from returning to its terminals as the drug lures more of its colleagues to come join the party. Intense happiness is reigning his brain and an inexplicable feeling of love for every single person at the party is encouraging him to sporadically shout out, “Fuuuck.” When they bring out the cake, he blows out the candles and then proceeds to smash his entire face into it.
They all laugh.
Blue icing drips from his hair onto the glass table. The destroyed cake sits next to him, a few bite marks taken out of its sides. The party is beginning to settle down and a group gathers around the birthday boy as the side effects of their own inebriations begin to calm. Four hours in and he is still exhibiting the signs of someone having the time of his life. A piece of worn-out gum he should have spat out a long time ago continues to make its way around his mouth, not doing much to alleviate his teeth grinding. A friend passes him a fresh piece and he shoves it into his mouth without removing the first.
A designated driver arrives at the party. “Holy shit,” she says as she walks into the scene. Aside from the star of the show, there’s vomit patches over the grass from others who couldn’t handle their drink. She sits down with the group and they all continue to watch as he vigorously tests the limits of the range of motion in his neck. It is incredible, the dexterity and flexibility the human body is capable of when chemically enhanced. The audience collectively winces, trying not to think about the pain he can not feel yet.
“He’s fine.” His friends don’t want to give him too much water in case of water intoxication. They keep a close eye on him, as other guests begin to filter out, thanking the birthday boy who would not remember a single thing the next day. The designated driver stays longer than she originally intends to, just in case they need someone sober to sit with him in the ride to the hospital. When it hits 2 am, she and the friends she came to pick up leaves him with the others, who all assure them that this is not the first time this has happened, nor would it be his last.
The next morning, the newly minted 21-year-old will say he was fine, besides the fact that his neck and jaw are now in serious pain. He will spend the rest of the day recovering in bed, reminiscing the events of the previous night, many of which he has no recollection of. For the rest of the week he will feel depressed, which he will attribute to post-party blues rather than the fact that his serotonin levels are now lower than normal.
“You know, I think we should start taking ecstasy instead of drinking alcohol on nights out.” It’s a typical Saturday night and I’m with Michael* at Cargo Bar, both of us four to five drinks into the night. I laugh. “No seriously. It can’t be any worse for us.”
“You don’t seriously believe that,” I say, sipping on my double vodka with lemon lime and bitters.
“Well for one thing, it’s illegal.”
“Alcohol’s legal and that shit’s fucking toxic.”
“I know.” I continue to sip on my drink. “How often do people overdose on alcohol though?”
“More than you probably hear about.” He pauses. “Anyway, if ecstasy was also legal you wouldn’t have so much dirty shit out there and you wouldn’t have so many overdoses,” he says. “MDMA’s not the problem, it’s the fucked up gear they cut it with.”
“Right now, people going into say, Defqon.1, sometimes take too much without even knowing what’s inside because they want to take it before they see the cops. If it was legal that wouldn’t be a problem, they would pace themselves,” he continues.
“You could always not take anything,” I say.
Australia’s zero-tolerance drug stance has polarised opinion, with little legal or social progress in policy. Harm reduction activists arguing for policy reforms such as pill testing are accused of legitimising drug use, whilst those who support the war on drugs are fighting a losing battle. However, what the debate regarding legislation ignores is the fundamental individual, cultural and social values that drive drug use. Users report that ecstasy reduces inhibitions, and dramatically enhances mood and the perceived quality of social relationships.
“It’s an indescribable feeling,” Eva* says. “It’s like I never knew that kind of happiness was possible and I’m scared I’ll never be able to feel that happy again.”
Eva’s first time was on a road-trip up the coast, surrounded by a small group of friends who all knew she would be taking it. She recalls the way physical touch was its own form of ecstasy, and the way she felt a connection towards everyone, an intensity she had never experienced before.
“It’s like getting absolutely pissed, but 1000 times better,” Michael had once said to me. “No mess, no hangover, and it’s cheaper.”
Whilst pure ecstasy in small, infrequent doses is said to be one of the least harmful drugs available (and that’s including alcohol and tobacco), the misuse and abuse of MDMA can have significant effects. Depe nding on the cut, contaminates, and quantity consumed, it can lead to dehydration, hyperthermia, an increased or irregular heart rate, and seizures. The stigmatisation of illicit drug use in public discourse fosters a culture of ignorance and misinformation, leading to dangerous consumption habits where people lack knowledge of the detrimental and potentially lethal consequences. It’s easy to have a blasé attitude towards a truth no one is really willing to talk about without severe judgment.
“Once people get more educated about the harms of MDMA, they’ll start to take it less, and less frequently and when they do, far more responsibly,” Will says to me.
“You don’t get that here in Australia. There seems to be a race to the bottom, between who can get the most fucked up as fast as possible. There’s an element of heroism that seems to be a response to the prohibitive regulations in Australia.”
The unregulated and diverse nature of Australia’s drug market also means that new substances and drugs are always emerging into the scene. While the Australian Drug Trends 2018 report conducted by National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre found that there was a shift towards greater use of capsules and crystal forms of ecstasy, both of which are generally perceived to be of higher purity, there is still no way for the naked eye to be certain of what other substances they contain without tests. Capsule use increased from 19% in 2008 to 72% in 2018, while crystals almost doubled from 2015. Pills remained the primary form of use, with three quarters of Australians reporting use within the last six months. Of the quarter of participants that reported non-fatal overdoses, almost two-thirds nominated ecstasy as the main drug of cause.
In 2017, Dr David Pennington from The University of Melbourne proposed a new reform to drug policy that advocated for regulating access and supply to cannabis and ecstasy. Under the system, Australians over the age of 16 would be able to purchase limited quantities of ecstasy sourced from government-approved pharmacy suppliers. It was designed to dissuade users from turning to questionable and unknown sources, as well as connect users to appropriate forms of counselling and treatment. In an article for The Conversation, Pennington wrote, “Low levels of [ecstasy] use do not present a risk to health any more than modern and responsible use of alcohol.”
Earlier this year, Greens candidate Lilith Zaharias went to the extent to state, “If you could go to Woolworths and buy a pack of MDMA it would be much safer.” Zaharias has faced significant backlash since.
But users like Will seem apprehensive about such reforms. “I’m more hesitant when it comes to legalising ecstasy as opposed to decriminalising it,” says Will. “In terms of legalising it for commercial like you would with, say, alcohol, I’m far more sceptical with how that would play out.”
Indeed, it is downright disturbing to consider the consequences of normalising ecstasy in the same way excessive alcohol consumption has been in society today.
The night is young and so is she. A 17-year-old on her first big night out. She waves goodbye to the rest of her underage friends as they decide to call it a night. As she sits in the entrance of the restaurant-bar, exhilaration washes over her. She will be turning 18 in a little over a month, but the knowledge that she doesn’t quite belong here just yet incites a rare feeling of rebelliousness. The restaurant-bar she is in looks more like a club; it blasts dance music whilst patrons eat and drink under flashing lights and lasers. Alcohol of all kinds are served by the bottle.
Without checking her ID, the waitress leads the girl to a table where her legal-age friends are waiting for her.
“I told you you’d get in.” A boy grins, holding up a bottle of original flavoured soju and a couple of shot glasses. Another boy begins to pour the contents of an already open bottle into the glasses.
The next few hours pass by in a blur of alcohol-infused memories, some of which will later take her a while to distinguish between reality or dream. She taps out after eight shots, but will only remember the taste of the first three.
The following day in her hangover, the girl will only remember brief snapshots of the walk from the bar to the train station — the way she is entranced by the flashing neon blue elevator button, unable to keep herself from continuously pressing it; the feeling of security and comfortable helplessness as someone carries her through the streets of Town Hall, too drunk to stand on her own two feet, let alone walk; the pain that was absent but should have been there when her head bangs against the tiles of the station floor; and the brief moments of painful certainty that she is going to die.
When the United States introduced the National Prohibition Act in 1920, making the manufacture and sale of alcohol illegal, organised crime increased dramatically as people were forced to smuggle for access. The laws had been founded on Protestant values that deemed alcohol consumption a sin and a destructive force on the functioning of society. The Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
Today, alcohol is ingrained in our social and cultural identity. A social lubricant, access to alcohol is almost a given in most social situations. According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016, 26% of Australians consume 5 or more standard drinks on a single occasion at least once a month, a habit that will increase their lifetime risk of alcohol-related harm according to National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines. For both men and women, the NHMRC recommends no more than four standard drinks in one occasion. The normalisation of alcohol softens the problematic reality of “alcohol abuse”, acknowledging its existence whilst holding “normal” social drinking habits to a different standard.
Yet it is interesting to note that the number of young adults consuming more than five standards at least once a month dropped from 57% in 2001 to 42% in 2016. While further research is needed regarding the factors motivating this decline, it presents the possibility that shifts in attitudes towards alcohol, as mediated by education and changing cultural perspectives, have a correlational relationship. These statistics align with statistics from the 2017 Australian Secondary Students’ Alcohol and Drug survey which showed an overall decline in current drinking behaviour among high school students. Conversely, ecstasy use among 12 to 17-year-olds has doubled from 2% in 2011 to 5% in 2017. Though general prevalence remains low, the dramatic increase in proportion suggests the beginnings of a detrimental normalisation of ecstasy amongst high school students, fuelled by a disregard for health risks and ignorant consumption attitudes that amass public stigma.
When it comes to drugs, government policies and guidelines are influenced by interpretations of societal morality, rather than what objective evidence may dictate. To centre an argument exclusively on the reductive dichotomies of being either “for” or “against” drug use reflects a deep-rooted misunderstanding of what motivates and sustains youth behaviour. Rather, we need to consider destigmatisation through open discourse and decriminalisation as a viable alternative to reducing the senseless deaths that continue to haunt our headlines.
*Names have been changed