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How worried should parents be about ecstasy and dance festivals?

If you were one of the many parents that watched ABC TV’s 4 Corners episode ‘Dying To Dance’ who have never had anything to do with the nightclub or dance festival scene I’m sure you were quite confronted by what you saw. Since it aired a couple of weeks ago I have received a number of emails and phone calls from parents so disturbed by the program that they made contact to try to establish if the program truly represented what was happening at dance festivals across the country. Most of them had sons or daughters that were regular festival-goers and many found it extremely hard to believe that they could be involved in the kind of activity that they saw on the program.

Let me start by saying that I thought the program offered a unique insight into a culture that is rarely examined in such detail. Gaining access to dance events is incredibly difficult for the media – no promoter wants a television crew wandering around their event, particularly if the producers are trying to identify and discuss illicit activity. At the very least it could lead to the event receiving bad publicity when the program goes to air and at worst potentially being shut-down. How they got promoters to agree to taking part in the program is beyond me! Getting young people to open up about their drug use on TV (whether or not they are identified) is fraught with problems for all concerned (but not necessarily difficult to do), but finding a dealer to not only speak about what he does but also take a reporter on a drop-off of drugs to a customer is a real coup! As I said, a remarkable insight …

Over the years I have attended, organised, worked at and consulted for dance events both here and around the world. Nothing on the program surprised me and the drug activity shown was certainly representative of a particular type of festival-goer that attends such events, but were Brooke and Jessie (the two young ravers attending a five-day ‘bush doof’) your ‘average’ kids going to Good Vibrations or the like? No way, those guys were extreme (they were planning on using ecstasy, speed, ketamine, cannabis, alcohol and ‘dexies’ and were also hoping to find some ‘magic mushrooms’) … they weren’t the norm and that’s why they were selected for the program. I can totally understand why they didn’t use a couple of regular kids who were taking a few pills to a day out at a Sydney festival – they’re not that interesting. Brooke and Jessie made great television!

The day after the program aired I was at a school and one of the teachers asked me for my thoughts. She had watched it with her two children (both in their early 20s, both regular festival-goers) and simply didn’t believe what she had seen. Brooke and Jessie were the major problems because they were so extreme and they just didn’t match what she saw in her own children and their friends. Her children had told her that they had seen drugs at festivals but they didn’t take them and most others didn’t either, and, not surprisingly, she believed them. Now whether they have used illicit drugs or not is beside the point, but when I told her that many attending festivals actually do use (and available evidence suggests that it the case) and that most ecstasy users are not as extreme as those shown on the program, it all became a lot more real for her …

My major problem with 4 Corners is that they rarely provide a context to their drug stories. They are able to gain incredible access to people and tell their stories with great honesty and without judgement (something tabloid current affairs shows can’t do!), but they are usually extreme stories and not necessarily the ‘norm’ – that’s what makes them so compelling and why they get so much attention when they air. Nothing that was said on the program was factually incorrect (4 Corners is known for its fact-checking – in fact, I was called by the producers the week before the program aired to check a figure that was quoted in the script) but it would have been so simple for them to have just said something like – ‘But not everyone attending the event had taken illicit drugs’. I know it would have been a big ask but a statement like ‘Australia has the highest rate of ecstasy use in the world but still 89% of our population have not tried it’ would have acknowledged there is an issue but at the same time provide some context.

My other major issue was one of the closing statements of the program – “Australia’s current strategy against illicit drugs ecstasy and MDMA is
failing. Powerful voices tell us we are heading for a catastrophe: we
must act now.”
Now you’re not going to get an argument from me that our current strategy in this area is failing, the program clearly showed that. Millions of dollars being ploughed into policing is not seeing any positive outcomes, but ‘heading for a catastrophe’, what does that mean? Yes, we have had deaths and everyone of those is a tragedy and we should do our very best to ensure that we don’t have any others but are we really heading for an abyss and life is going to end as we know it?

So how worried should parents be about ecstasy and dance festivals?

Historically there is a strong link between ecstasy and the dance culture – you can’t get away from that! The drug’s popularity increased through the 80s and 90s as the international dance scene grew. A significant proportion of those who attend music festivals, dance events and nightclubs certainly use ecstasy and other drugs to ‘enhance’ their experience – altering their perception and giving them energy to dance for long periods of time. This does not mean that all people who are part of this culture use illegal drugs. However, it is important for parents to know that, at the very least, their child will come into contact with drugs such as ecstasy if they regularly attend such events. Talking about drugs and letting your child know how you feel about drug use will play an important part in helping your child make good decisions in the future.
As someone who worked at these events for many years, I do not believe that the vast majority are suitable for those under 18 years, in fact, it is only quite recently that many of these events even allowed underage patrons. I’ve had huge arguments with some young (and not so young) people about this is in the past – but that’s my experience and based on what I’ve seen over many years. To each their own! That said, there are some very young people who do just want to be there for the music – I get that – and parents have to make their own decisions about whether or not their child should be allowed to attend.
If your child is going to these events I believe there are a few things that you can do to make it just a little safer for them and make you feel a little better at the same time:
  • If you are concerned about drug use, let them know and tell them why you are worried. Keep the lines of communication open and let them know at every opportunity that they can come to you and talk about anything at anytime.
  • Let them know that you are happy to be part of a plan if something goes amiss. For example, if they are out and have no way of getting home let them know that they can catch a taxi and you will pay. If anything goes wrong with them or their friends, you want them to know that you will be there for them – no questions asked!
  • Discuss what to do in an emergency. Basic first aid skills, as well as simple information such as how to call 000, may help save a life.  Reinforce to your child that in a drug-related emergency the ambulance officers do not have to call the police unless the person is refusing to seek treatment or there is the risk of injury to them.
  • Ensure that they know about the legal consequences of taking drugs such as ecstasy. Most of them would be aware of drug detection dogs but very few know a lot about mobile or roadside drug testing.

As much as some parents would love to think ‘not my kids’, the reality is that if your child is going to dance festivals, at the very least they are exposed to drug use. Of course, not all young people who go to dance events will use illicit drugs but a significant number will and there is the chance that things can go wrong. Death is not the norm, although, not surprisingly, it those tragedies that attract a great deal of media attention. There are a range of other harms that festival-goers are far more likely to experience, particularly around the legal consequences of being caught with illicit drugs, that are not often discussed as much as they should.

The 4 Corners program provided a confronting insight into a potentially high-risk youth subculture that is heavily policed. Should parents be concerned for their children who attend dance festivals and are potentially using illicit drugs like ecstasy? Absolutely, there are a range of risks associated with this culture! Are we heading into a ‘catastrophe’? I don’t think so … Let’s be level-headed here and try to address the issue in as sensible way as possible … We know the best way for parents to keep their kids safe is to stay connected and keep talking. If you did watch the program and your child does go to festivals, use what you saw to have a healthy discussion with them – that’s most probably the best way forward. If you didn’t see it, take a look – it’s well worth watching. Just remember that not all festival-goers are the same and that what you’re watching is not necessarily representative of all those who attend these events …

Looking for information or support services on alcohol or drugs?

If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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