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Health, psychology & science stories


Ecstasy & our 'polydrug' culture

18 September 2000


Published in the Byron Shire Echo
That unmatched form and figure of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy.
Tobacco and alcohol have long been Australia's leading drug problems, and alcohol dominates our drug treatment system. To compound this situation, since the late 1960s there has been an astonishing growth in illegal drug use.
Most users probably consume drugs (licit and illicit) in moderation. However there is a very dark underside to our drug culture - characterised by dependence, illness and crime.
‘Polydrug' use
Since the early 1960s, when alcohol and nicotine reigned alone, we’ve increasingly been in a ‘poly drug culture’. And, while the danger of ‘mixing drinks’ has now been disproven, ironically mixing drugs has emerged as a major cause of death worldwide.
In US cities, alcohol and cannabis are often used with crack and cocaine hydrochloride. In New York, ‘criss-crossing’ involves inhaling lines of cocaine and heroin alternately. In Chicago, tobacco and crack are smoked together in a ‘bazooka’.
Compounding this is the booming entrepreneurship of distributors. Tobacco companies have access to marketing expertise, media and government - which may explain their pre-eminence in the world drug market. Yet even relatively small players are displaying bold innovation: Washington State’s metamphetamine producers connect mobile laboratories to electricity poles.
In US cities, joints are laced with crack to introduce the user to a more serious form of addiction - and the supplier to a more consistent revenue stream. In Chicago, fierce competition among crack dealers has led to marketing schemes such as 2-for-1 deals, and free samples.
Liquor companies worldwide attract young consumers with sweet low-alcohol drinks such as Coconut Rum Cola, Vodka Raspberry Drink and Two Dogs Lemon Brew - to gently lure youngsters off soft drinks and on to alcoholic ones. Employing the same ‘gateway’ strategy, ecstasy pills are sometimes ‘topped up’ with cocaine, amphetamine or heroin, to sway users to more lasting use-patterns.
New hybrids of cannabis, such as Northern Lights and Early Pearl, are marketed on the strength of their dramatically elevated THC levels. These new cannabis strains are putting increasing numbers of young people into hospital emergency wards in the US.
The club drugs
All this, so the thinking goes, makes the ‘club drugs’ look pretty good. Ecstasy - the most popular - doesn't lead to addiction, bad behaviours or ‘other’ crime. Ecstasy parties and doofs are usually alcohol-free and peaceful. Ecstasy is not only a stimulant, but a mild psychedelic. No wonder it’s attractive.
But it would be wrong to romanticise what is, after all, a neurotoxin: ecstasy can also cause confusion, depression, sleep problems, anxiety, impaired memory, and paranoia - even weeks after taking it.
Because there aren’t yet many clinical studies of the drug, it would be foolhardy to conclude that ecstasy is ‘safe till proven unsafe’. This is not a logic we (in this region) are currently applying to genetically modified food.
Chronic ecstasy abuse appears to cause long-term damage to neurons containing the neurotransmitter serotonin - which helps regulate emotion, memory, sleep, pain, and cognitive processes. Because of this, it’s speculated that ecstasy use may increase depression in later life.
Pregnant ecstasy users produce babies with congenital abnormalities at five times the average.
Higher ecstasy doses increase body temperature (notably in hot, crowded dance venues), which can lead to kidney and cardiovascular system failure.
There were 60 ecstasy fatalities in the UK rave scene till 1996. Unpredictable pill doses, and contaminants - both of which are common - probably contributed to these.
‘Techno bunnies’ (younger kids) often attend rave parties. According to one survey, ecstasy has been used by a disturbing 1.7% of Australia’s 12-year-olds. Half of them take it monthly.
There’s little doubt as to ecstasy’s pluses: it can enhance empathy, self-esteem and mood. Ecstasy parties are favoured by girls because males are less predatory. And, although jaw-clenching, sweating and post-dose depression are common enough, the majority of E users do not experience lasting ill-effects.
Because of this, ecstasy remains one of our most popular underground drugs.
Ecstasy is illegal - which some research suggests makes it more attractive; and which leaves quality control up to criminals. 
Law enforcement is sometimes counter-productive: for example, police roadblocks near raves cause ravers to swallow all their drugs in the car - increasing the risk of drug-affected driving.
Police, too, sometimes close down rave parties - forcing people who are ‘peaking’ to drive home, often with a car full of people.
How to return some sense of reality to our public policy on drugs such as ecstasy? 
Strangely enough, we probably need to begin by tackling cannabis - the least harmful and most popular illicit drug.
Legalising cannabis would reduce consumption of alcohol, the nation’s most lethal drug - and would make an annual $5 billion hole in the cashflow of organised crime. The GST on cannabis would earn us half a billion dollars annually.
But way above this, cannabis legalisation would provide us with invaluable lessons on how to revise our policies on ecstasy, and the whole spectrum of drugs now taken by such large numbers of Australians.



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