Wild One Weekend, Brain-Dead the Next

Australia's sky-rocketing ecstasy use fuels fear for future generations' health.

March 20, 2008 -- You can call them "round ones," "biccies," "pills" or "pingers," but to Australians you're saying just one thing: ecstasy.

It's the drug that has swept this land of party-prone post-colonials. Australia is now the world's leading consumer of the illicit substance and the place where the nasty long-term effects of this drug may soon be reproduced en masse.

Ecstasy fills a special position in the stomachs and minds of Australian party-goers. Unlike its chief competitors, ecstasy is cheap and accessible, possibly explaining why more than 650,000 Aussies, or about 3.2 percent of the population, have "popped a pill" within the last 12 months, Jennifer Johnston of the Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre in Melbourne told The Australian newspaper.

But for those seeking the soothing highs of the drug chemically known as MDMA, the writing is on the wall — even though most don't care to look at it.

Recent reports from the medical world paint potentially dire outcomes for frequent users.

A study by a team at the Australian Catholic University found that ecstasy causes memory loss, not just in the recall of events, but also in the completion of every-day tasks. Scientists worry that this will affect the day-to-day lives of users, especially seeing as memory damage seems to appear in even moderate users.

Memory loss constitutes one of the many types of cognitive impairment that scientists are able to link with the drug. Researchers also believe a connection exists between regular use and long-term brain changes such as chronic depression.

Given that the current National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) found 22 percent of Australians aged 20 to 29 have consumed, future Australia might well be inhabited by many muddled minds.

"I think a lot of them think it's a low-risk activity," says Professor Steve Allsop, director and project leader at Australia's National Drug Research Institute.

Because the drug has become so popular over such a short period of time, researchers are only just coming to terms with the likely long-term consequences of heavy usage.

"People believe that no evidence is evidence of safety. But as more research is emerging we're becoming aware of a range of adverse outcomes," Allsop says.

Concerns Over 'Dirty Drugs'

The outlook isn't any cheerier over the short term, where consumers face the danger of dirty drugs — those cut with a variety of additives, often toxic. And then there's the lengthy list of deaths from other complications, such as dehydration or unexpectedly strong tablets.

Still, government efforts to stem the tide of consumption seem to have fallen on techno-deafened ears as more and more young Australians dabble in the drug each year.

For many, it's just a part of the Aussie party culture.

"Lots of my friends go out and take pills on a weekly basis," says Laura, a university student in Canberra, who didn't want her name published for fear of career consequences.

Laura says her friends have been taking ecstasy for around six years.

"It's just a normal part of our culture for young people, I don't find it troubling," she says.

Others interviewed by ABC News said they have some minimal concern, but also said their fears dissolve just days after one party and in anticipation of the next.

"Even though people suffer depressed moods afterwards, come downs, the next time a party comes up they still want to do it," says Fiona, a health support worker in the nation's capital.

Fiona tells how she discovered ecstasy while traveling overseas, but claims to have used heavily since returning to Australia. Even so, she worries about the consequences for some of her accomplices.

"I am concerned about some friends … [in one friend] you can already see the consequences in her severely depressed moods after she takes pills, and I think she might be predisposed to some sort of mental illness. I think she might be heading in that direction," Fiona says.

And that's exactly what has researchers so concerned — the likely long-term effects on mental health.

Enduring Problems for a Quick High

In terms of death rates, ecstasy does not come close to the big killers, smoking and alcohol, but scientists fear this has contributed to the impression that ecstasy is a safe alternative.

"There is a concern that a lot of people who are using ecstasy are doing so outside of any knowledge of what the risks are," says Allsop. "I think that there is a potential for people to have enduring mental problems — the evidence is sufficient to say that is a serious risk, and how that pans out in the long time remains to be seen."

Relaxing after a set at one of Canberra's top night spots, Ed Cregan, renowned under the DJ name "Drop Dead Ed," tells of his experience playing music for drugged-up dancers.

"These kids are going pretty wild," says Cregan. "At pretty much every place I play, it's the same. At the start of the night it's always pretty laid back, but once everyone starts getting drugs into them, things really start to hot up."

Cregan says he has witnessed a worrying trend during his time working behind the DJ decks. Although he doesn't take the drug himself, he believes ecstasy use to be rising, a view supported by Allsop and various research reports that showa increasing use throughout the last decade.

"I think it's becoming more prevalent. I've been playing for a few years now and you're really beginning to notice how much younger the kids are getting and how much more people seem to take. It's a trashbag culture, really," Cregan adds.

Laura agrees. She's noticed the same changes.

"It's getting younger and younger. Now I know people who are 17 doing pills, whereas I would never have considered it at that age," she says.

Dangers of Drug Cocktails

Another risk factor is the indulgence in drug cocktails, when partiers mix a variety of substances to suit their moods — or create them. For those who "dump," a few rounds of alcohol and the occasional cigarette are also commonplace additions. Sparking up a marijuana joint is also common, according to Allsop.

When chatting with revelers, many talk about administering a wide range of different substances.

"There's a lot of mixing of drugs whilst taking it — speed, coke, ketamine and other stuff," Laura says.

And it's not just mixing. Other behaviors are just as hair-raising. "Binging" is a popular approach to ecstasy consumption. This is where revelers use ecstasy and other drugs for more than 48 hours without sleep in a single session.

According to the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre's (NDARC) 2006 report on ecstasy use and trends in Australia, half of the national sample of users had binged within the last six months.

The NDARC also reports that a little under half of the national sample were using ecstasy between bi-weekly and monthly, while 23 percent of those questioned used more than once a week.

Statistics of this variety have led to some troubling conclusions by the nation's drug experts.

"Certainly within some groups, popping a pill is considered to be on par to having a drink," Jennifer Johnston, an authority from the Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre in Melbourne, told The Australian newspaper.

Judging by current attitudes, trying to dispel the myths about ecstasy and minimize use will be a problem facing the Australian society for some time to come.

The biggest hurdle facing governments and researchers alike is how to convince a population of the dangers of ecstasy when very little evidence exists about long-term effects. The small number of deaths from ecstasy also means the drug is not frequently in the headlines.

But scientists are adamant that the drug represents a serious risk.

"If you simply look at the number of deaths it's small," says Allsop. "If you look at the potential impact on how well people will do in careers, the long term effects, the unknown effects, it's not worth taking the risk."