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No drug is 100% safe. Wes Mountain

‘My friends are taking MDMA at raves and music festivals. Is it safe?’

My friends are taking ecstasy at raves and music festivals. Is it safe? — Anonymous

Key points

  • no drug use, including ecstasy, is 100% safe
  • festivals can present unique risks
  • look out for friends, know the risks and where to get help.

What is ecstasy or MDMA?

Ecstasy is a slang term for drugs meant to contain 3,4- methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), a stimulant that can also cause mild hallucinations at high doses. While ecstasy was traditionally sold as tablets, it’s increasingly sold in crystal, capsule and powder forms.

According to the most recent data, only 1% of Australians aged 12-17 said they had tried ecstasy. However, studies suggest young Australians who attend music festivals are much more likely to have tried it.

So, is it ‘safe’?

There seems to be a common perception ecstasy is “safe”. But no drug use — legal or illegal — is completely safe. While drug experts rank ecstasy as less harmful than other drugs, such as “ice” and alcohol, there are still significant risks involved:

  1. given ecstasy is illegal, the market is unregulated. As a result, drugs sold as “ecstasy” commonly do not contain MDMA and may contain something far more dangerous. This means the effects can be unpredictable

  2. even if your drugs contain MDMA, the dose or potency can vary hugely. Recently, very high purity ecstasy has been detected in Australia. This can significantly increase the risk of overdosing or having serious side-effects

  3. even pure MDMA at normal recreational doses can be risky in the wrong conditions (for instance, when it’s very warm)

  4. common short-term effects also include increased heart rate and body temperature, teeth grinding and anxiety. While evidence on the long-term effects of taking MDMA is still emerging, there may be lasting impacts on memory, mood, cognition and sleep.

What are the risks when taking it at festivals?

In recent years, there have been more reports of drug-related deaths at festivals. While the media typically describes deaths involving ecstasy as “overdoses”, most ecstasy-related deaths are not the result of simply taking too much.

Drug experiences can be influenced by lots of different things and music festivals can sometimes result in a “perfect storm” of risk factors. For example, an experienced male taking an ecstasy pill at a quiet gathering at home is likely to have a very different experience to an inexperienced female taking her ecstasy pills at a crowded festival on a 35°C day.

Females, those with lower body weight, and/or those who haven’t used ecstasy before, and therefore haven’t built up any physical tolerance, should use a smaller dose.

Drug experiences can be affected by lots of different things.

Some key risks at music festivals include:

  • hyperthermia aka heatstroke: MDMA affects the body’s ability to regulate temperature (it can increase body temperature and also make it harder to cool down). Environmental factors at festivals such as warm weather, crowds and dancing can significantly increase the risk of overheating (see tips for staying cool)

  • hyponatremia aka water intoxication: MDMA can disrupt the body’s water/electrolyte balance (can make your body retain water). While you need water to avoid dehydrating, drinking too much can also be dangerous. Read up on these guidelines on dehydration and overhydration for more information

  • dodgy on-site sellers: UK research found people buying drugs on-site (inside the festival grounds) were more than twice as likely to buy drugs that did not contain what they thought. There have been cases where festival goers thought they were buying MDMA but actually bought N-ethylpentylone (a riskier stimulant linked to psychosis and deaths)

  • policing or legal problems: festivals often have a heavy police presence with sniffer dogs and being caught with drugs can lead to possession or supply charges. However, it’s very important not to panic and swallow your drugs if you see sniffer dogs. This has been linked to at least three festival deaths in Australia.

Worried about your friends?

If you’re going to a rave or festival and suspect some of your friends might take illicit drugs, it’s important to be aware of the risks, look out for your friends and know where to get help. Here are some tips:

  1. make emergency plans with friends: download the festival map, have a meeting point, make sure mobiles are charged, stick together and know where on-site support services are

  2. look out for red flag symptoms (for instance, feeling hot, unwell, confused or agitated) and never be scared to seek help from on-site medical or support services. They’re there to help you, not judge or arrest you

  3. be informed: Drugaware, Dancewize and Boomtick all have great information about drugs and how to keep safe.

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