By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim
A bad batch of ecstasy is believed to be responsible for up to 20 overdose deaths in Melbourne’s inner south-east. Police are concerned the batch may still be in circulation, warning party-goers in the area.
The overdoses occurred near Chapel Street in Melbourne from Friday night to Sunday morning. Police suspect the MDMA was laced with GHB or other substances, and paramedics are bracing for more hospitalisations over the summer festival season.
“There’s a definite chance of there being more,” said Detective Acting Senior Sergeant Dave Newman. “A batch of drugs like this will take a long time to dissipate, or disappear from the scene.”
He urged anyone who experiences an adverse reaction to seek medical help immediately. “Unfortunately, with the nature of this drug, you don’t know what you’re taking,” he said. “And at the moment, there’s a heightened risk.”
Police are awaiting forensic testing to determine the cause of the overdoses – whether it be a high level of purity and/or the nature of additional substances used.
A 30-year-old man was arrested early on Sunday and charged with drug supply, drug possession and dealing with the proceeds of crime.
He will appear in the Melbourne Magistrates Court next Monday.
Rise in ecstacy use
The use of ecstacy is reported to have risen in recent years, along with an increase in the MDMA component of the drug.
The Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS), which surveys regular psychostimulant users each year, reports that nearly 60 per cent of users now take ecstasy in its purer crystal form.
Research from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre suggests that ecstacy use increased by six per cent in 2016 alone, with 93 percent of users reporting that it is either easy or very easy to obtain. The Centre reported a 70 percent increase over the past five years.
Professor Michael Farrell is concerned by the risks associated with fluctuating levels of purity and dangerous fillers, arguing for the introduction of pill testing at dance parties and music festivals.
“There may be the possibility that, as we did with needle exchange programs, you make sure that the police stand back and don’t interfere with certain things with the notion that it may confer some benefit and some reduce-to-harm around some people,” he said.
The drug liberalisation group Unharm has been calling for pill testing for years.
“Drugs that should be tested in laboratories are being tested on humans and this is the result,” says the group’s Facebook page. “Like the pollies and police always say, ‘you don’t know what you’re taking’, and that’s because THEY are making it almost impossible to find out”.
NSW government’s position
Earlier this year, NSW Police Minister Troy Grant rejected the introduction of pill testing in our state, stating:
“The number one problem is that what they are proposing is some sort of quality assurance measure for an illegal drug, for drug traffickers, to be conducted by police and the New South Wales Government. Well, that’s just not going to happen”.
Research suggests that a majority of Australians support harm reduction measures like pill testing and needle exchange programs.
The former has been highly successful in preventing overdoses in several European countries, while the latter in the form of the medically supervised injection centre in Kings Cross has resulted in ambulance callouts for drug overdoses reducing by 80% and zero reported fatalities.
Young people are particularly supportive of pill testing; with 82% of 2,300 young Australians aged between 16 and 25 years surveyed for the Australian National Council on Drugs in 2013 being in favour of its introduction.
While Mr Grant argues that harm minimisation measures “send the wrong message”, he seems to ignore the fact young people are taking drugs regardless of the penalties – indeed, drug use is on the rise – and are ending up in hospital or even dead in the absence of a sensible, pragmatic approach.