More young people than ever are turning to ecstasy to party harder and longer.
It is the perfect setting for a spring music festival; blue skies, lush scenery and a blistering sun, but looks can be deceiving. Amidst the festival-goers, amongst the heat of the mosh pit, a girl sits, dehydrated and shocked, her body shaking, as paramedics rush to her attention.
This is a testament to the festival’s notorious reputation of ecstasy use, and unfortunately it is not only at festivals that ecstasy rears its poignant head, as the drug is one of the most commonly abused substances in Australia.
Scientifically known as methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), but also referred to as ‘E’, pills and disco biscuits, ecstasy is often made in backyard labs and contains a combination of methamphetamine, such as speed, combined with a synthetic hallucinogen.
While the seedy manufacturing of the drug has caused many health and drug organisations to warn against the risks and dangers of ecstasy use, it seems young people are not deterred, as it enables them to party harder and longer.
According to the 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, 2.3 million young Australians had used an illicit drug in the past 12 months, with ecstasy being the second most common.
The survey also found that those aged between 15 and 24 used ecstasy around twice as much as the proportion of people aged 25 years and over.
Tom* was 19 and at a house party when he first started using ecstasy.
“It was available and I wanted to keep partying harder and longer,” he says.
“All my friends had done it, so I thought why not.”
This is not surprising, with the National Drug Strategy Household Survey accrediting peer pressure with 43 per cent of first-time ecstasy use.
With young people so blasé about using the drug, it poses the question, is ecstasy all that bad?
According to Marina Bowshall from the South Australian Drug and Alcohol Service, there are numerous side-effects involved with the drug which young people are unaware of or choose to ignore.
These include “increased blood pressure and heart rate, increase in body temperature and difficulty concentrating,” she says.
“Combining ecstasy with amphetamines increases the effect on the heart [and] combining ecstasy with alcohol increases the risk of dehydration.”
However, it is not just the short-term effects that pose the greatest risk, in the long term, users face the possibility of experiencing a number of psychological problems associated with the drug.
Ms Bowshall explains that these include “depression, anxiety disorders and memory and cognitive impairment.”
But, Tom is unperturbed, as he explains the “uplifting, confident [and] energetic” feeling ecstasy gives him outweighs the potential dangers.
“It’s fairly safe if you know what you’re doing and what you’re taking,” he says.
Yet, this is at the core of the problem – do users genuinely know what they are taking?
As Ms Bowshall explains, the manufacturing process of ecstasy leads to wide variations in drug quality.
“The unknown nature of the contents, contaminants and dosage of drugs sold as ecstasy is probably the greatest source of risk,” she says.
“When substances like ParaMethoxyAmphetamine (PMA) are substituted for MDMA the consequences can be fatal.”
However, it seems this notion of complacency and invincibility causes users to continue taking the drug, which has led to overdoses.
Ms Bowshall describes this as ‘drug dependency’, a process where the body adapts to the presence of the drug, so that more of the drug is needed to get the same effects as before.
Thus, the user’s body becomes tolerant to ecstasy, causing them to increase their usage at any one single time. “Dependence means that ecstasy has become central to a person’s life, they may spend much of their time thinking about ecstasy and obtaining it, they may have trouble controlling their use, or continue to use ecstasy despite experiencing problems,” Ms Bowshall says.
This, combined with the drug’s effects of overheating and dehydration, amplifies the possibility of overdosing. As Ms Bowshall explains, adverse reactions to ecstasy are most likely to occur “when ecstasy use takes place in a hot environment (such as a club) and is combined with physical activity (such as dancing); and by not drinking enough or drinking too much water,” she says.
Unfortunately, the majority of users take ecstasy in these situations.
Tom says he takes the drug at festivals, in clubs, and on significant events such as birthdays.
“I take more pills at music festivals, but I do it more often when I’m out in town,” he says.
“And I’m not the only one, most people in clubs or at festivals are on, or have taken, ecstasy.”
Whether it is naivety, the notion of being invincible or simply the rush of trying something new, the continuing growth of ecstasy begs the question, why is the drug so popular?
Tom believes it is because it is cheap, accessible and the ultimate party drug.
“Gen Y parties a lot, what with all the musical festivals and clubs in town, so users are always looking for something that will enhance their party experience,” he says.
“When it’s easy to get and even easier to find, people won’t think twice about trying it.”
Ms Bowshall agrees, saying the energetic feeling ecstasy gives users may cause them to continue taking the drug. Yet this increase in popularity has seen many experts and government agencies create strategies to reduce ecstasy use.
“It is important to continue to support the current range of strategies that are in place to reduce illicit drug use in Australia, based on the harm minimisation framework of supply, demand and harm reduction,” Ms Bowshall says.
“It is also important that ecstasy users are aware of services available should they want to seek help to address their use,” she says.
Ms Bowshall acknowledges that while young people may take ecstasy, many are also aware of the dangers and make a conscious effort to stop. For those who are unsure of where to start, she recommends contacting the Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS).
“ADIS is a 24-hour telephone information, counselling, and referral service for the general public, concerned family and friends, and student and health professionals,” she says.
As Tom says, many users he knows have plans to stop taking the drug eventually.
“I know that as I get older I won’t want it anymore and the excitement will fade,” he says.
“And when you want to start a family and get ahead in your career, it’s obviously for the best.”
However, by then would it be too late? The stark reality is that ecstasy will always be present in Australian society through its accepted reputation in the world of youth partying.
From music festivals to city venues, ecstasy will once again rear its poignant head, yet through education and prevention strategies, that head may one day be not so poignant.
*name has been changed