Festival Season Special: NYE 1999 – The Year When Police Praised Ecstasy Users

New Years Eve fireworks in Sydney

By criminal lawyer Joseph Harb. Mr Harb is a specialist drug lawyer whose results include securing non-convictions for supply of 560 ecstasy tablets and possession of 88 ecstasy tablets at festivals in Sydney.

It was the dawn of the millennium and the biggest New Year’s Eve party that Sydney had ever seen. Ecstasy and MDMA had infiltrated mainstream youth culture and were no longer parts of a fringe sub-culture comprised of smaller raves, off beat clubs, and bush doofs. Sydney had fallen in love with ecstasy and city folk were putting their drinks down for an assortment of coloured, imprinted pills that created love, not war.

Across Sydney’s three biggest festivals on New Year’s Eve 1999, almost 40,000 people partied together without a single reported arrest, altercation or overdose.

In the days that followed, police praised the tens of thousands of revellers who had partied under the effects of ecstasy rather than alcohol.

It was quite amazing,” a senior Bondi police officer told the Sydney Morning Herald shortly afterwards. “The big topic of conversation among the officers on the night was how the widespread use of ecstasy has really calmed things down. It has changed the whole scene.”

Fireworks at a festival

One police officer talked about being on duty at Mobile Home, a branch-off of the Sydney superclub Home that took over Bondi Beach for New Year’s Eve in 1999. The scene he described was as follows: “Dozens of bored police” established a prominent presence expecting the usual drunken rioting and excessive violence but instead were greeted by “thousands of partygoers with smiles beaming from faces with dilated pupils”.

Another former senior officer with the NSW Police, retrospectively, told the Daily Mail that he remembered New Year’s Eve 1999 as a turning point. “For years prior it was a complete s***fight each New Year’s [Eve],” he said. “I also remember that after 2000 it quietened down dramatically.”

Other members of the NSW Police hierarchy, who were not present at the 1999 festivals, labelled the claims that ecstasy use had improved behaviour as “absolute rubbish.”

Doctor Professor Gordian Fulde was the head of emergency at St Vincent’s Hospital on New Year’s Eve 1999. About that time, he is recorded as saying that he too noticed a change within the city. His emergency department – normally full of drunk patients or those who had suffered injuries in acts of violence on New Year’s Eve – was deserted in the early hours of the year 2000.

There has been a major cultural change where the young of today would rather pop a pill, hug each other and dance until dawn – it has certainly cut down the violence,” Professor Fulde told the Sydney Morning Herald in January 2000.

People realise there is another way to have fun other than going out and getting smashed on alcohol. For a start, the hangover is nowhere near as bad.”

Professor Fulde

Professor Fulde, who is now at Sydney Hospital, subsequently told the Daily Mail that 1999/2000 must have been “blip on the radar.

Person in inflatable bubble over crowd

So, where does the truth lie? Was New Year’s Eve in 1999 a blip on the radar?

According to an article in The Conversation, to understand the truth, there needs to be an understanding of how alcohol and ecstasy affect the body and mind.

As people drink alcohol, they experience reduced functioning of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, a part that plays an important role in how people regulate behaviour and make decisions. When people drink, they tend to make poor decisions and are more likely to react emotionally to situations in which they might normally respond with more reason and reflection. When people drink, they are also less likely to consider the possible consequences of their actions,” the Conversation article said.

“MDMA (“ecstasy”) works in a different way. It leads to a release of serotonin in the brain, so people tend to become empathetic towards others and emotionally open. So, MDMA is rarely associated with violence. That’s the case unless people take it with other drugs such as alcohol or stimulants, or they take what they think is ecstasy but really is a new or otherwise harmful drug.

It seems, according to the science, alcohol is far more likely to be associated with violence than MDMA, and New Years Eve 1999 may be further evidence of that.

Click below to read other articles in our festival season special:

Caught with drugs at a festival? Here’s what to do

Why are more people dying at festivals?

How do we stop deaths at festivals?

The law: Possessing prohibited drugs

The law: Supply prohibited drug

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