A NEW phenomenon of young people ''switching'' to the increasingly cheap party drug ecstasy has been fuelled by rising alcohol prices, according to drug researchers, nightclub owners and the people themselves - the nightclubbers.
The rise in alcohol prices was in part fed by federal Labor's 2009 alcopops tax.
''It is cheaper and convenient to use pills,'' said Professor Jake Najman, director of the University of Queensland's Alcohol and Drug Research and Education Centre. ''A lot of young people are making that choice to switch between alcohol and ecstasy. Pills can be cheaper, there is no question.''
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The Age has found that while alcohol prices have risen sharply since 2005, ecstasy prices have fallen across Australia by close to the same amount.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that a shot of scotch in a public bar increased 25 per cent in five years. A 285 millilitre glass of beer is 23 per cent more expensive. Slabs of heavy beer cost 15 per cent more. Some Melbourne boutique bars now charge up to $14 for a single bottle of Smirnoff Ice Double Black, a flavoured vodka alcopop.
Meanwhile, ecstasy prices have fallen 21 per cent across Australia in the same period.
A 21-year-old student teacher said ecstasy was as common as ''buying drinks''. She said four years ago she would have been shocked to learn friends were using it but now it ''doesn't surprise me at all''.
Another student, aged 22, said pills were affordable and pre-mixed drinks at music festivals were ''sugary'' and very expensive. ''By the time you've had a few drinks you don't even have enough money left for a bus fare home,'' she said.
A spokesman for federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon told The Age the government was concerned about ecstasy use among young women. It would spend $21 million over four years on an anti-drugs message through social networking.
But the spokesman denied the alcopops tax - which raised the price of pre-mixed drinks by 70 per cent in a bid to curb binge drinking - encouraged the use of cheap drugs.
''We are not aware of any documented research evidence,'' the spokesman said. The minister's office did not respond to questioning on whether a risk-assessment of the tax was done before it was introduced.
Dr Jenny Chalmers, drug and alcohol senior research fellow at the University of New South Wales, said the issue was untested.
''It could be the case that young people might use more ecstasy or start using it when the price of alcohol increases. However, the evidence from the very few studies worldwide on switching from alcohol to illicit drugs is inconclusive.''
But veteran Melbourne nightclub owner Martha Tsamis, of Chasers in South Yarra and Inflation in King Street, said the higher costs of running venues were passed on to customers through door and drink prices.
''Why would you buy a $10 bottle of Smirnoff when you can buy cheap drugs?'' Ms Tsamis said. ''If it's too expensive to buy alcohol they'll look to different ways to entertain themselves. I've had 300 people in the club and there has been fewer than eight people at the bar. People are doing drugs everywhere. It has become normal.''
Data from the University of New South Wales' National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre shows the average price of an ecstasy pill in Victoria in 2009 was $25. In South Australia, NSW and Queensland that average price was only $20. Buying larger quantities of pills, according to the data, reduced the price to as low as $12 per pill in South Australia and $17 per pill in Victoria.
A Bacardi Breezer alcopop drink cost $10 at Chasers. Before the alcopop tax was introduced they charged $7. Venue owners also faced higher costs from recent rulings ordering them to pay more to music and liquor licensing bodies. Manager of Prahran nightclub onesixone, Andrew Szoeke, said one of his music licensing fees rose by $14,500 in the past year. Bubble nightclub owner Peter Iwaniuk said his liquor fees rose by $25,000 in two years. The club paid nearly $5000 a week in liquor and music licensing fees.
The Age has also established that a disturbing new array of chemicals are being used to make ''fake'' local and imported ecstasy.
Harm minimisation expert John Davidson, of Melbourne lobby group Enlighten, said purity levels were low and there had been a ''drought'' of real ecstasy (MDMA) in Melbourne for two years. ''Exotic'' chemicals had taken its place. ''The situation is way more dangerous than ever,'' he said.
The University of NSW National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre study found that most regular ecstasy users took it to ''feel great'' from the ''high'', the ''rush'' or the ''buzz''. It found most bought it from friends at their homes and used it in nightclubs at an average age of 18. Most users took two pills in a night. Around 40 per cent took more than two.
But rather than an ecstasy culture, said John Davidson of Enlighten, there was a ''pill culture'', where cheap MDMA surrogates were used to make pills or put in capsules. Some include chemicals in the piperazine family, used mostly in plastics manufacturing.
Victoria Police drug and alcohol strategy unit's Acting Inspector Tom Ebinger said more police were patrolling dance events and licensed premises ''to address the increasing occurrence of anti-social behaviour, alcohol related violence and illicit drug trafficking.''
Chris Johnston and Ashley Argoon
October 23, 2010
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