The number of ecstasy users appearing at NSW hospitals has almost doubled in the past six years, as pressure builds on the Government to rethink its tough stance on party drugs.
A study of patient data from 59 NSW emergency departments shows a steady increase in the number of ecstasy-related presentations for people aged 16 to 24, whose admissions rose from 413 in 2010 to 814 by 2015.
Last year saw one of the worst starts to the music festival season in recent memory, with four suspected ecstasy deaths between September and December.
It brought the total ecstasy-related deaths for the year to six, including 25-year-old Sylvia Choi who died after attending the Stereosonic festival in Sydney and Stefan Woodward who died after the Stereosonic festival in Adelaide.
The rising death toll has put pressure on the NSW Government to reconsider its hardline approach to party drugs, which includes high-visibility operations with drug-detection dogs at festivals across the state.
Doctors and drug campaigners have urged the Government to consider ecstasy pill testing — a practice used in parts of Europe to give drug users a way of testing their pills for contaminants and other drugs before using them.
NSW Police Minister Troy Grant has rejected this approach.
Pill testing ‘would reduce danger’
Four Corners has spoken to former law enforcement and judicial officials who say police should introduce pill testing at festivals to help keep young people safe.
At present, there are very limited options for ecstasy users, and few agencies in Australia with good intelligence on the purity and make up of ecstasy pills.
Victoria Police is the only law enforcement agency in the country to test all its drug seizures.
Catherine Quinn, who heads the Victoria Police’s forensic lab, said her recent tests have shown a marked increase in the purity of ecstasy pills.
Ms Quinn said the purity of individual pills can still vary wildly with as little as 5 per cent or as much as 60 per cent of the active ingredient MDMA in each pill or capsule.
“The higher the purity of drug within a tablet the greater the risk or the more potent it could be for an adverse effect,” she said.
Ms Quinn said she would support moves to release the information she collects on ecstasy, to the wider public.
“Yes I think it’s very valuable and I think law enforcement thinks it’s valuable — law enforcement isn’t just about the investigation of these things, they’re about mitigating and reducing harm in the community and one of those things is about information,” she said.
The campaign for pill testing has some high profile supporters.
Former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer told Four Corners he would support pill testing to reduce the danger for young people who choose to take ecstasy.
“I have no problem with it at all, I think it makes absolute sense to try to test the quality of the drugs that people are taking,” he said.
Former NSW director of public prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery said the current approach, of searching young people as they entered festivals, might be causing more harm than good.
“There can be some harmful effects for example if somebody sees a sniffer dog coming along they might rather stupidly swallow whatever they’ve got and there have been some examples of that and that can lead to very serious physical harm,” he said.
But NSW Police Minister Troy Grant told Four Corners there was no hard proof pill testing saved lives and said the current approach would not change on his watch.
“A pill testing regime may well tell you what’s in that pill, but it has no way to tell you whether it will kill you or not,” he said.
“What you’re proposing there is a government regime that is asking for taxpayers’ money to support a drug dealer’s business enterprise — that’s not going to happen in New South Wales while ever I’m the minister.”
– with Mario Christodoulou, Caro Meldrum Hanna, Jaya Balendra and Elise Worthington