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Why deaths won’t stop the party: Drug test kits gain popularity as festival overdoses soar

Why deaths won’t stop the party: Drug test kits gain popularity as festival overdoses soar

February 15, 2016

“ONE pill’s $20 and it’ll last you four hours.” As party drugs continue to claim lives, there’s a simple reason why the deaths won’t deter users.

Paramedics care for a woman who collapsed outside the Stereosonic dance festival in Brisbane. Two punters died at Steresonic concerts last year.Source:News Corp Australia

SYLVIA Choi was just 25 when she overdosed on pills at Stereosonic festival in Sydney last November. Stefan Woodward, 19, died in exactly the same way a week later.

Yet as hospital admissions for ecstasy and MDMA use soar in Australia, the chilling stories are failing to stop young people risking their lives.

“People are like ‘it’s so dangerous, you don’t know what you’re taking’, and well actually, we’re taking it anyway,” one user tells Four Corners in tonight’s report.

“If the government thinks that people are going to stop taking drugs, they’re kidding themselves,” adds another.

Australia now has the world’s highest number of ecstasy and MDMA users per capita, and the number of emergency admissions for so-called “party drugs” to NSW hospitals has doubled in five years.

Drug policy experts say it’s time to follow in the steps of the Netherlands and introduce free drug testing facilities, so festival-goers can see exactly what they are consuming.

The owner of Australian drug testing business EZ Test, Steven Bourke, told that pharmacist Sylvia could still be alive if she had used one of the company’s kits, after she reportedly died from a super-strength dose of MDMA, the pure chemical component of ecstasy.

“If she had used one of the MDMA purity kits, she may still be with us,” Mr Bourke said. “It may have told her what was in it and she could have worked out that she had a very high dose of MDMA on her, and only taken half of what she did.”


Four Corners reporter Caro Meldrum-Hanna said pills were now more appealing to young people than ever because they were so cheap and readily available. An ecstasy pill might cost $20 and keep the user high for four hours.

“A pill is cheaper than three schooners at the pub,” she told after visiting Victoria’s forensic drug-testing lab. “For uni students, it’s cheaper to get high than get drunk. The strength of ecstasy has gone through the roof. It was 5 or 10 per cent purity, now it’s up to 60 per cent, super-strength MDMA.

“There’s a common theme — ‘I trust my source, nothing’s gone wrong before’. These kids have blind faith in swallowing pills en masse.

“A few deaths don’t deter experimentation, and if you’re going to experiment, you need to be sure you don’t die.”

One party drug user told Four Corners: “It’s cheaper than alcohol. One pill’s 20 bucks and it’ll last you four hours.”

Not only is the dosage higher, young people are mixing ecstasy with a lethal cocktail of drugs such as ketamine, cannabis, LSD, mushrooms, GBH, speed, prescription drugs and alcohol.


But frighteningly, some Aussie festival-goers are willing to take whatever they’ve got, even when they learn it isn’t the substance they thought they had bought.

Pop culture website Vicevisited an Australian music festival armed with EZ Tests and helped festival-goers test their drugs.

According to reporter Dan Roxanne, one man thought he had bought a gram of ketamine for $200, but it was actually Ritalin, a drug commonly used to treat ADHD.

When asked whether he would still take the drugs, the man replied: “Yes … because they’re fun.”

Mr Roxanne encountered several people who thought they had bought ecstasy pills, only to find out they were actually made from speed.

“The most concerning event of the day was getting a result that didn’t match anything in the [colour coded] manual. It was supposedly MDMA but after mixing a sample it went sort of orange but with a black tinge,” he wrote.

According to EZ Test’s colour chart, black indicates a presence of DXM or Dextromethorphan, a hallucinogen usually used in cough medication as a cough suppressant, which can also shut down your respiratory system.

The man who donated the drug to be tested “didn’t seem surprised” his sample had this result.

“The guy I bought it from is a douchebag and shady as hell,” he said. “I was going to take it without any thought, but now this has got me a little scared.”


Drug testing isn’t perfect. Not only will some people take what they have anyway, some might be allergic to a substance in the drug and not know it.

But senior figures including former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer say they 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,” Mr Palmer said.

Most experts agree the government’s “war on drugs” isn’t working.

Emergency physician and drug expert David Caldicott told 7.30: “(The saying) ‘don’t use drugs’ is perfectly acceptable for primary school kids and the people who aren’t already using drugs.

“But for this group of people, they’ve already decided to use drugs and we need to be far more nuanced in our approach to illicit drugs than we currently are.”

Sniffer dogs and a strong police presence at festivals have failed as measures to stop the problem, say experts.

Ms Meldrum-Hanna said she watched young women at dance parties writhing on the ground vomiting, their eyes rolling back in their heads, their friends too scared to take them to the medical tent because they feared an encounter with law enforcement.

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.

Arrests for personal possession have quadrupled in the past few years, whereas arrests for supply have barely risen. The authorities are focusing on “low-hanging fruit”, said Ms Meldrum-Hanna, while our borders remain incredibly porous when it comes to ecstasy smuggling.

“The government headline stance on drugs is preventing people getting what they need,” she added. “It isn’t just harming, it could be killing people. No one should go out and come home in a body bag.”

Former heads of the AFP and DPP even told Four Corners we needed to talk about legalisation.

Mr Bourke sells tests for MDMA, cocaine, ketamine, LSD, heroin and opium, which are imported from Amsterdam, but says he doesn’t condone drug use.

“You take a 20mg sample of your drug — roughly the size of a match head — put it in the test tube, shake it and measure the colour against the chart, then you throw the tube away,” he said.

The tests are sold as singles ($7.95-$12.95) and multi packs ($21-$79.95) online and in tobacconists around the country. It reveals how pure or strong a substance is and what other products the ‘pure’ drug has been cut with.

“We have the MDMA purity test that tells you the strength of the MDMA you’re going to take,” Mr Bourke said. “And we have an ecstasy test which tells you what other chemicals are in your pill. It can list about seven-eight different chemicals. And we have a ketamine test, because ketamine can find its way into ecstasy [pills] sometimes

“We have a cocaine purity test that will tell you if what you have is 20-40 per cent, 40-60 per cent or 60-80 per cent pure cocaine. We have a kit called cocaine cuts, which can list up to 10 substances that the cocaine could be cut with.”

Mr Bourke has now asked his supplier to make a kit that tests for ice, in the wake of Australia’s burgeoning ice epidemic.


But NSW Police Minister Minister Troy Grant said drug testing was “not going to happen in NSW while I’m the minister.”

“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.”

With seven ecstasy deaths in 15 months, users are becoming more aware of the drugs they consume. Mr Bourke said he’d seen a “massive increase” in sales over the past year.

“About a year ago we were selling 15-20 kits a week. A couple of nights ago we had to fill around 35 orders overnight. We’re out of stock of several kits right now,” he said.

But he can’t see Australia introducing drug testing facilities.

“Can you imagine people bowling up to a festival with their drugs in their hands and happily testing them outside the gates? They’ll have to do it before they get to the festival. I can never see that happening in this country.”