I’ve been taking ecstasy and MDMA on and off since I was 18. I’m now a 24-year-old casual user and don’t consider myself irresponsible. I’m part of the 11.4% of males aged 20 to 29 who have indulged in the last 12 months. I’ve always had fun and I’ve never needed medical attention. My personal experience of ecstasy has been incredibly positive.
For these reasons I’ve always been bemused by the coverage of ecstasy-related issues in Australia, until a tragedy like the death of Gemma Thoms at Perth’s Big Day Out festival in 2009 — the inquest played out last month — is broadcast into my living room. Then the bemusement turns to frustration and sadness.
Thoms was not the first young person to experience the panic of carrying ecstasy into a swarm of sniffer dogs. And still the “debate” remains the same. Coroners, policy makers, bureaucrats and police spokesman all handing down rhetoric that’s completely out of touch with the experiences and attitudes of recreational drug users.
The inquest into her death was told the 17-year-old took two pills (after already having had one) because she was afraid of being caught by sniffer dogs. Without fail, every year authority figures appear on TV and in newspapers issuing warnings before festivals or music events. The lead-up to last year’s Melbourne Big Day Out was a good example. Senior sergeant Mark Pilkington was reported as saying: “There are heavy penalties associated with drug use and trafficking and a drug conviction does not go away.”
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What is a teenager left to think? The rhetoric plays on the vulnerability of young people. Confiscation and punishment doesn’t encourage safe use or practice. The proof is that it encourages unsafe use. A wag of the finger or a dire warning is certainly no disincentive.
We’re all familiar with the argument sniffer dogs are more of a threat to recreational drug users than they are a procedure for harm minimisation. Although there’s a thousand statistics or research papers that could be pulled to support either side of the debate, none of this gets to the disastrous culture of policing ecstasy.
When I see authority figures like senior sergeants threatening from the soap box, I feel like they’re urging their troops to wage war. The measure of their success is the number of people they fine or the warnings they hand out, and the amount of drugs they confiscate. The more drugs the police find, the greater the success. It seems like an overzealous game.
More often than not this policy of confiscation works in the very face of safe practice.
I use an online resource called Pill Report. It’s a real-time tool which reports on good or bad pills with user-generated content and separate scientific testing. I’ve been in the situation where police have confiscated my drugs and this has led me to source ecstasy from within the festival which I wasn’t able to research on Pill Report. (Keep in mind a recreational drug user will not simply give up the search if their stash is confiscated. To think and expect otherwise is fantasy.)
So, what’s more dangerous? This same scenario would be played out time and time again. Pills you know are good, which have been used by friends who’ve had a positive experiences, are confiscated and then replaced via a deal with a shadowy figure hanging out near the urinals.
The logic of replacing confiscated drugs and dealing with strangers might not be foolproof, but neither is the logic of senior sergeants whose actions and rhetoric get a free pass as something noble and righteous.
Terms like “harm minimisation” can be explained much better by professors of public policy and effectively implemented by police. I do, however, put into practice my own methods for reducing the risk of using ecstasy. Why does the law do everything to counteract it?
Tragedies like the death of Gemma Thoms are preventable and now is not a time for the voices and experiences of recreational drugs users to be shunned or penalised. It’s users who are most aware of the dangers posed by ecstasy — we don’t need convincing. Police mustn’t destroy the safe spaces we’re trying to create for ourselves.
CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated Gemma Thoms died at this year’s Big Day Out festival. Her death occurred in 2009; the inquiry was held this year. We apologise for the inadvertent error.