Festival Season Special: Why are more people dying at festivals?

Music festival at night

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.

Ecstasy has been used by revellers at raves and festivals in Sydney for almost 30 years, but rather than its use becoming safer over time, more young people are dying now than ever before. In years past, deaths from ecstasy were almost unheard of, so what has changed?

It can’t simply be the ecstasy, or the active component of MDMA itself, because it is used everywhere from nightclubs and pubs to house parties and in the privacy of homes. The deaths attributed to ecstasy seem to be isolated to festivals.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge has said the increasingly “aggressive police response” and “barrage of drug dogs” is a contributing factor.

The last few music festivals in NSW have had the heaviest police presence ever seen at any time in this country and it has backfired terribly

David Shoebridge

This is because when young people head towards the entrance of a music festival and see a bunch of drug dogs and police this can cause them to panic, and in that panic, they may ingest any drugs they are carrying,” he said.

At a Coronial Inquest into festival deaths, counsel assisting Peggy Dwyer told the Coroner at least one of the festival deaths occurred following a young person seeing police, panicking about being caught by sniffer dogs, and taking two-and-a-quarter pills impulsively to avoid police detention.

A number of participants reported that their risky behaviours were driven by fear of police, including taking drugs prior to arrival at the event and avoiding the medical centre or open disclosure of substance use,” Peggy Dwyer told the Coroner.

A Sydney paramedic told the Daily Mail Australia that the use of sniffer dogs at festivals was a contributing factor to festival deaths.

Drug dogs add to the problem,” he said. “Kids will take all their drugs at once rather than risk being caught by a drug dog. They will pre-load or double or triple dose rather than spacing it out over the course of the event. That leads to them overdosing. They become over-active and in turn they dehydrate, their body overheats. By the time they realise they’re in trouble, it’s too late.”

Sniffer dog demonstration in Melbourne

A recent study based on data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime showed that per capita Australian adults are leading the world in ecstasy consumption. But in European nations like the Netherlands, where party drugs are notoriously popular, similar stories don’t seem so common.

Former head of the NSW Police Drug Squad, Nick Bingham, believes increased local manufacturing had contributed to the spate of recent deaths.

In terms of pills that are marketed as ecstasy, 20 years ago most of those pills would have come from Europe, mainly the Netherlands or Belgium,” Mr Bingham told Daily Mail Australia.

A significant amount is still coming from Europe, but unlike heroin or cocaine which is still strictly imported from other countries, MDMA is now also being manufactured here so it’s far more prevalent and therefore there is more chance of harm.”

Nick Bingham

A recent report on findings from Australia’s first official pill testing trial at the Groovin’ the Moo music festival last year found nearly half the pills tested were of low purity. Some 84% of people who had their pills tested thought they had bought MDMA but only 51% actually contained any MDMA.

Some of the more dangerous contaminants found in pills include PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine), which is more toxic at lower doses than ecstasy; N-Ethylpentylone, a cathinone which is a lot more potent than MDMA, making it easier to take too much; and NBOMes (N-methoxybenzyl), which is more toxic at lower doses than other hallucinogenic drugs and can cause heart attack, renal failure, and stroke.

According to Dr. David Caldicott, senior lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine at the Australian National University, contaminated drugs aren’t the risk we might think. “The problem of contamination, I certainly don’t think is the problem that it was ten years ago,” he said. “But the problem of purity is more significant than it has ever been.”

Another factor is that, whilst historically ecstasy was a drug consumed at raves overnight and with cooler temperatures, festivals tend to be held during the day in the hot summer months. Such conditions amplify the risks associated with heatstroke, water intoxication, and serotonin syndrome.

Ecstasy users are at greater risk of heatstroke or hyperthermia (dangerously high body temperature) because MDMA increases body temperature and sweating. Where people are engaged in heavy physical activity (such as dancing) in a hot environment (such as a crowded venue or in the summer heat) fluid loss is exacerbated and the body may be unable to cool itself. The effect can be compounded by alcohol, which increases dehydration and therefore the risk of heatstroke also. Heatstroke can cause brain, heart, kidney and muscle damage, and if left untreated can cause serious complications or death.

Crowd of people as a blur

Whilst it is recommended that anyone had a festival remains hydrated, the other side of the coin is water intoxication, which occurs where a person has too much water and the ratio of salts and water in the body becomes unbalanced. This is known as hyponatraemia.

MDMA is an anti-diuretic, so it makes you retain water, which can increase risk of water intoxication. People with water intoxication may feel nausea with vomiting, confusion, severe fatigue, muscle weakness and cramps.

Serotonin syndrome occurs because the main action of MDMA in the brain is an increase in serotonin. It typically occurs when other drugs that also raise serotonin levels (other stimulants, antidepressants) are taken together with MDMA. These drugs are sometimes mixed with the MDMA itself. Signs include high body temperature, agitation, confusion, problems controlling muscles, headache and the shakes. It can be fatal if the symptoms are left untreated.

Ultimately, if you choose to take ecstasy, it’s best to take a small amount, wait at least an hour to make sure there are no ill effects; drink about 500ml per hour of water if active; and don’t mix ecstasy with other drugs, including alcohol.

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

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

NYE 1999 – The Year When Police Praised Ecstasy Users

How do we stop deaths at festivals?

The law: Possessing prohibited drugs

The law: Supply prohibited drug

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