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Dying to Dance - 15 February 2016

SARAH FERGUSON, PRESENTER: Hello and welcome to Four Corners. I'm Sarah Ferguson.

You may be shocked to hear that Australians are the biggest users of the so-called 'party drug' ecstasy in the world.

The most recent figures show that 400,000 young Australians, aged 14-29, take ecstasy a year - and those are just the ones we know about.

Most do so recklessly, with no certainty about what's really in the pills - and it's a risk that can be fatal.

In 12 months, seven young people believed to have taken ecstasy have died; six at music festivals. And more than 800 ecstasy users were admited to emergency in New South Wales alone - double the number six years ago.

Tonight's investigation may change the way you think about how to deal with this youthful epidemic.

Filming through the summer festival season, our team went inside the pill-popping culture, with young drug users skilled at avoiding detection and the dealers selling pills that produce a cheaper high than alcohol.

You'll hear from senior police, medical and legal experts who say the response to this crisis in Australia is catastrophically wrong.

So is it time to consider more radical approaches? You be the judge.

Here's Caro Meldrum-Hanna with 'Dying to Dance'.

(Footage of young people walking towards dance festival)

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA, REPORTER: The 1st of January, 2016. On a hot summer's afternoon, 28,000 young Australians are ringing in the New Year.

The Domain in central Sydney is playing host to one of the country's biggest annual dance parties.

Outside at the entry gates, police and sniffer dogs are out in force.

POLICE OFFICER (to party attendee): We just want to do a bag? And pockets?

PARTY ATTENDEE: Yep. Yep.

POLICE OFFICER: Have you got any pockets, even?

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Inside: yet more police. Their presence is heavier than ever - but it's no deterrent.

Drug use is brazen. Our cameras catch revellers swallowing pills, right under the nose of the police.

Taking mood-enhancing party drugs - ecstasy and MDMA - is meant to be fun. But for some, it isn't a happy experience.

(Footage of party attendee sitting on lawn, vomiting)

As evening approaches, evidence of mass drug use is everywhere. The ground is littered with empty plastic bags, once filled with tablets of ecstasy and capsules of its key chemical component, MDMA.

The crowd is happy, non-aggressive.

But partying like there's no tomorrow has a dark side.

We can't show you, but in the middle of the dance floor right next to us, a young woman is so drug-affected, she loses control of her bowels.

By the end of this day-night festival in Sydney, 184 people will be charged with drug offences, 212 will be treated by emergency medics - and a young woman will be fighting for her life, here at St Vincent's Hospital.

(Footage of GordIan Fulde, a member of the nursing staff and Caro Meldrum-Hanna reading data on computer monitor)

GORDIAN FULDE, DIRECTOR OF EMERGENCY, ST VINCENT'S HOSPITAL: Ah, New Year's Day: we saw a mega-amount of people on New Year's Day. We set one of the records for this department.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: And she had had one MDMA capsule: is that right?

GORDIAN FULDE: That's the majority of people we see. This is just standard issue.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: So one is enough to make you sick? One's enough to, to bring you here?

GORDIAN FULDE: One is enough to put you off.

NURSE: But she went to, um, ICU, I think.

GORDIAN FULDE: So she got into trouble.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Professor Gordian Fulde has seen it all.

GORDIAN FULDE: ...she cannot protect her airway...

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: For three decades he's worked at the frontline of the country's busiest hospital.

GORDIAN FULDE: Each pill releases chemicals in your brain. But each chemical does it differently.

So you can have a whole lot of chemicals surging through your brain and you take another pill and that then releases all the rest of the chemicals in your brain. The brain can't handle it and what happens to these people: it's called serotonin syndrome and things.

Basically, you melt down. All your temperature regulation in your body goes and, really, you just basically overheat, overheat, overheat and your whole organs fail.

And if somebody's taken even three or more - it sounds terrible - is dicing with death. It really is very, very dangerous.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: How many people here do you reckon are on drugs?

PARTY ATTENDEE: Er... 100 per cent. A hundred per cent. Everyone's on it and if they say they're not on it, they're lying.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: It's a scene that will play out all summer long - and we've been there to record it.

CAPTIONS: Giorgina Bartter, 19; Tolga Toskov, 19; Jarrod Almond, 22; Nigel Pauljevic, 26; Anneke Vo, 23; Sylvia Choi, 25; Stefan Woodward, 19.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: In the space of 12 months, seven young Australians have died - all but one of them at festivals - after taking what's believed to be ecstasy or MDMA.

Young lives cut short.

With so many fatalities, the question is: could these tragedies have been prevented?

GORDIAN FULDE: No child, no teenager, no young person should die from ingesting a recreational drug or anything.

JOHNBOY DAVIDSON, FOUNDER, PILLREPORTS.COM: Hell, no. It's not acceptable for that to happen anywhere. It's not acceptable for any preventable death.

DAVID CALDICOTT, DR., TOXICOLOGIST, COLLEGE OF MEDICINE, ANU: What we should be doing is insisting that young people don't die because of making a foolish mistake. The alternative is: we just continue on and accept that deaths are an inevitable by-product of people's misdemeanours, their criminality.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Well, that's where we're at now?

DAVID CALDICOTT: Yeah. And hey, how's that working for you? Not particularly well.

MICK PALMER, FORMER AFP COMMISSIONER: We can't possibly be satisfied with the results and the outcomes we're getting, particularly in view of the deaths that have been occurring. There's a better way to do business.

(Footage of Caro Meldrum-Hanna with Brooke and Jesse in a camper van)

BROOKE: We can't actually get access - easy access - to good, clear, non-biased information about (laughs) the drugs you're taking. And trust me, I have tried.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Brooke and Jesse are on their way to a 'bush doof' - a five-day music festival in regional Victoria.

BROOKE: I plan to take a shitload of drugs. Yeah.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What do you plan to take, Brooke?

BROOKE: Um, planning to take, ah, pingers: so ecstasy. Speed, ketamine, weed, alcohol, dexies (dexamphetamine). I want to get my hands on some magic mushrooms when I'm there.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: That's an enormous amount.

JESSE: A smorgasbord.

BROOKE: Drug salad.

JESSE: Yeah, yummy, yummy. (Laughs)

BROOKE: Total drug salad this weekend. More of a drug bain-marie This weekend will be a drug bain-marie. (Laughs)

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What, so much on offer?

BROOKE: Drug buffet, yeah.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Using multiple substances is par for the course for Brooke and Jesse and, they say, for many young Australians who like to party.

BROOKE: Everybody talks about, like, "Oh, mixing- mixing different types of substances: ooh," like it's a big thing. But it's actually just really normal.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: As we approach the entry gates, one thing becomes clear: the festival-goers here - 16,000 of them - are completely isolated in a tent city the size of a small country town.

(Footage of Jesse inflating an air mattress)

JESSE: Now Brooke's gonna help me put it in. (Laughs)

(Brooke tosses pillows into tent)

BROOKE: Pillows.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Inside their tent, Brooke and Jesse are feeling relieved: there were no sniffer dogs at the entrance.

BROOKE: I was just like... was getting, like, overwhelmed....

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Both managed to smuggle their drugs in, but they went to extraordinary lengths to do it.

BROOKE: Um, I've got a bunch of caps here in my bag. Some of it's...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I've got some in my pants.

BROOKE: ...inside Jesse. (Laughs)

JESSE: It's inside Jesse's person.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: OK. And how you going to get that out?

JESSE: Umm, I'll have to s*** it out. (Laughs) It's a desperate measure for me, you know? Desperate times mean desperate measures.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: So you said you also had 'ket'. What does that look like?

BROOKE: Ketamine.

JESSE: Ketamine.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Ketamine.

BROOKE: We'll have to retrieve it. (Laughs)

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: So you've got to retrieve.

BROOKE: Yeah, and I've also got pills.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Can I see them?

BROOKE: Yes, they're in... (laughs)

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: They're als- they're inside you?

BROOKE: Do we want to just like cut to get those out?

JESSE: So much...

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Shall we?

BROOKE: All right. Cut.

JESSE: Cut.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: We wait outside while Brooke helps Jesse recover their bags of drugs.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Can I come in?

BROOKE AND JESSE: Yeah.

(Caro Meldrum-Hanna enters tent)

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: How did you two go?

BROOKE: Good.

JESSE: Yeah, good.

BROOKE: We retrieved (laughs) the drugs from, um, 'nature's pocket'. (Laughs)

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: OK. And so what was in 'nature's pocket', as you say?

BROOKE: Um, so this is a gram and a half of 'K'.

JESSE: Ketamine.

BROOKE: Ketamine.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What, what does 'K' do?

JESSE: It's a horse tranquilizer.

BROOKE: Um, it's this lovely powder that you snort: like, little bumps across the whole night. Um, and then, then you end up feeling as if you're inside a cloud.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: OK. What's this? What have you got in your hand here, Brooke?

BROOKE: These are some fancy pills. I haven't seen pills that have, like, a little circular shape, almost ever.

They're 'superman' pills.

Yeah, they've got the 'Superman' logo on them.

Yeah, so 'superman' pills.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Is that Ecstasy?

BROOKE: Yeah, ecstasy. Yeah, 'pingers'.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Stingers!

(Brooke laughs)

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Stingers?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Dingers in Queensland.

BROOKE: 'Dingers'? That's the word for condoms.

JESSE: No.

BROOKE: Dingers' is a condom. Stingers...

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: And have you had those before: 'superman' pills?

BROOKE: I've had one- yeah, I've had them before.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Do you ever worry that what you're taking could harm you or you could get sick?

JESSE: Of course.

BROOKE: Could get sick.

JESSE: Of course it worries you.

BROOKE: Nah, not really. Like, I've been taking heaps of 'pingers' for, like, the last two years. And, like, the times I've gotten sick is when I've taken, like, too many.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Brooke has found herself in trouble before.

After taking a batch of poor-quality pills, she developed sleep paralysis - a condition where the brain thinks it's asleep when you're awake, rendering you unable to move.

Brooke says the condition lasted a year. But it hasn't curbed her enthusiasm for taking drugs.

(To Brooke) Despite having those scary experiences, you still chase this stuff and you still like taking it?

BROOKE: Yeah. Like, sometimes you have a car crash and you still drive your car.

You know, like, why wouldn't I? It's the thing is that people are like, "It's so dangerous. You don't know what you're taking," blah, blah, blah. And it's like: well actually, we're taking it anyway! We're doing it anyway! It's happening! It's, like, so much f***ing fun!

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: By the end of this rave, four people will be arrested for supplying drugs, 40 more for drug driving. And almost 1,000 people will be treated by emergency medics: many for injuries, dozens for drugs.

It's an ugly outcome - but it's not an isolated one.

GORDIAN FULDE: The binge culture of taking more than one pill is definitely increasing and it is a real worry.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What are the risks associated with taking multiple pills in a short period of time?

GORDIAN FULDE: That is, really, overdose. Right? And these are very powerful chemicals.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: While Brooke and Jesse get ready for the night ahead, outside the party has well and truly begun for thousands of revellers.

PARTY ATTENDEE 1: It's a 'bush doof'. (Laughs) It's techno.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Yeah?

PARTY ATTENDEE 1: It's techno.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: You get high?

PARTY ATTENDEE 1: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Is everybody high here yet? Or not quite?

PARTY ATTENDEE 2: No comment. (Laughs)

PARTY ATTENDEE 3: Yeah, no comment. (Laughs)

PARTY ATTENDEE 4: I'm sober.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: By nightfall, Brooke and Jesse are raring to go.

BROOKE: I'm desperate to double-drop, quite frankly, personally. I don't know about Jesse.

JESSE: Um...

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What does 'double-drop' mean?

BROOKE: It's where you take two stingers at once. I had got here, was really in a bad mood, hadn't slept, felt really stressed, had a nap, woke up, felt like I was the most amazing human in the world, walked around and saw how amazing all the dance floors were and I was like, "I'm going to f***in' double-drop.

(Brooke shows two pills on her tongue)

BROOKE: Ahhhh.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The pills won't kick in for half an hour.

BROOKE: I become, like, the best version of me ever when I get high (laughs)

JESSE: That's what I was saying as well.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: While they wait for the ecstasy to take effect, Brooke and Jesse snort small amounts of the tranquiliser ketamine.

BROOKE: Oh, that's heaps, babe. I reckon we should test. We should be careful because I don't know how strong this is and I think it's really strong and it will, like, melt us out real quick.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: So you obviously think about what you're having and the quantities of things?

BROOKE: Longevity.

JESSE: Yeah.

BROOKE: Safety and longevity and partying.

JESSE: And Brooke does not want me to go into a K-hole because she wants me to party with her, so...

(Jesse snorts ketamine. Brooke follow)

BROOKE: Delish. (Laughs)

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Half an hour later, the drugs have kicked in.

(To Brooke and Jesse) How are you feeling?

BROOKE: Top-notch. Good. (Laughs) I feel good, I feel great.

Do what I do: I just get on the dance floor and I just stomp and stomp and stomp and stomp.

But I want to stay up 'til sunrise, 'cause my favourite part of the night is always when the sun comes up. It shines into the club. Oh, it's the best.

JESSE: My favourite part is...

BROOKE: It's the best: doesn't get better.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: We left Brooke and Jesse at midnight. They'll party for the next four days, but without getting sick or being hospitalised.

Others aren't so lucky. Four Corners has obtained these statistics from the NSW Department of Health.

In just six years, the number of ecstasy-related emergency department presentations for 16- to 24-year-olds has risen to almost double in 2015.

(To Alex Wodak) What does that say, then, about the state of play in Australia?

ALEX WODAK, PRESIDENT, AUSTRALIAN DRUG LAW REFORM FOUNDATION: Well, ah, I'm saddened to hear these figures, but clearly those figures show that what we're doing isn't working. The problem is getting worse, not better.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Australia is in the grip of an illicit drugs crisis.

We are losing the so-called 'War on Drugs'.

NICHOLAS COWDERY, FORMER NSW DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC PROSECUTIONS: Unless we make a major change - a change of direction - people will continue to die. People will continue to suffer illness as a result of drug use. Criminals will continue to profit inordinately from that drug use. We shouldn't be kidding ourselves: that will all just go on. So we do need to change.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The former head of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Palmer, says the country is awash with ecstasy and MDMA.

MICK PALMER: It almost is like the supply is inexhaustible. It is finger-in-a-bucket stuff. It doesn't matter how significant the seizures, how effective police are: supply continues, price doesn't move, ah, and demand doesn't reduce. So we're scratching the surface.

So despite the preoccupation with police and certainly the big language about focusing on the high end of town and... the vast majority of people arrested for drug crime in this country are just simply personal users, ah, and addicts.

Really we're, we're just, we're arresting the low-hanging fruit.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: In NSW, arrest rates for ecstasy and MDMA prove that point.

Over the past decade, arrests for personal use have more than quadrupled - while arrests for trafficking have barely risen.

Recreational drug users are increasingly being arrested for one or two pills, while the drug lords remain virtually untouched.

(To Chris) Ever get scared of getting caught?

CHRIS: I do have moments: ah, you know, I guess it's natural paranoia, but, ah, not majorly.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: It's late afternoon in suburban Sydney. I'm with a drug dealer, one of thousands selling MDMA on the black market.

CHRIS: I'm doing this for the love of it, not because I'm a big drug dealer. I don't want to be some kingpin: I just want to get my friends good quality drugs because I know there's so much shit out there.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: But do you ever worry with the stuff that you're selling - the MDMA that you're selling - that it could harm someone?

CHRIS: No, I don't worry about that at all.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The dealer, who can't be identified - who we'll call Chris - has agreed to take me on a drug run. He says the festival season is the busiest time of the year.

CHRIS: I know that my 'M' (MDMA) is - I'm going to say it's the best in Sydney. I mean, every dealer says that about their stuff, but it's... I would fight to the death over it. And if you told me that yours was the best, I'm not going to say not equal to, but it can't be better. You can't get better than the best.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: As we approach the designated drop-off point, Chris calls his client.

CHRIS: What's doin?... No, just got here. Um... Oh, yeah. Sweet as, I'll be right with ya.

CHRIS: (Inaudible) doesn't worry ya?

JOHN: No, man.

It's f***in'... how are they?

So you're saying the darker stuff is the new stuff?

CHRIS: The darker stuff's the new stuff. I haven't tested it yet but I've got, um, my mate with the testers coming back from holidays next Tuesday.

JOHN: Yeah, I saw... but the other stuff: was that the stuff I had last year?

CHRIS: Yeah, the usual stuff.

JOHN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I saw you test it up. That was f***in' sweet as. Has anyone come back with reports of the new shit?

CHRIS: I haven't given out the new stuff yet.

JOHN: OK. Cool. Well, I'll come back with the first report for ya.

CHRIS: No, mate. I'm waitin'. I'm waitin' for this testing kit and then we'll know.

JOHN: All right. Cheers, bud.

CHRIS: Too easy.

JOHN: Cool, man.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Do you ever get worried that perhaps what you are about to take: it's unknown and you could get sick?

JOHN: Oh, not w- It depends, obviously, who you're going through. You know, my man here: I trust him. Um, I've gone to him for years and he has tested the stuff in front of me. And I just know if it hasn't been tested, the old stuff was so I know it's quality.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: So do you think this drug - MDMA - is safe?

JOHN: In moderation, yeah.

CHRIS: Yes.

JOHN: Yeah.

DAVID CALDICOTT: They haven't a clue! Consumers haven't a clue what they're putting in their mouths. They're hoping that they're going to score something that they want, but the market is so variable and tainted, they have no idea.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: In Melbourne, Tom is on his way to buy an ecstasy testing kit.

(Footage of Tom entering shop)

TOM: That's fine. Yeah, I'll grab that. How much is that one?

SALESPERSON: Just the ecstasy one?

TOM: Yeah.

SALESPERSON: Yep. Ah, they're 15.

TOM: Just cash, thanks. Awesome. Thank you very much. Cheers.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Back at their apartment, Tom and his friends are getting ready for the night ahead. All of them have been taking ecstasy since they were teenagers.

(To Tom) So in front of you, Tom, there is a bag of, I don't know...

TOM: Twenty.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Twenty. Twenty - what are they in that bag?

TOM: They're called 'beige clovers'. They're known as pills - but ecstasy.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Why do you do it?

TOM: To let loose.

TOM'S FRIEND 1: To release. Same reason you have a beer.

TOM: And it's cheaper than alcohol.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: A tablet of ecstasy is now cheaper than a six pack of beer.

TOM'S FRIEND 2: That's it, yeah.

TOM'S FRIEND 1: Definitely.

TOM'S FRIEND 3: Absolutely.

TOM: Well, one pill's $20 and it'll last you four hours of just… not even thinking about what you're doing, just having fun. Whereas alcohol: we pay $8 for a bloody schooner of beer these days and you need six to eight beers to even start loosening up.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: All four of you are really relaxed about what you're going to be taking tonight. You're not worried? You trust where they've come from?

TOM'S FRIEND 1: Yeah.

TOM: Yeah definitely.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: A quick test will indicate whether these pills are clean or not: whether they're full of potentially lethal chemicals.

(To Tom) So do you want to find out what's in them?

TOM: Yep, sweet. This is just a single test, so you just... snap that. You only put the tiniest little bit.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: As far as tests go, it's elementary at best. It can tell you what the primary component of a pill is, but it can't measure a pill's potency or strength.

TOM: You can see the colour there: it's purple straight away. And purple on this says it's ecstasy.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Oh yeah. Right. It is, too. There. So that's what you were looking for?

TOM: Yep. That's straight away you know that's MDMA. You're fine.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: So what does this mean for you guys, now that you've seen that it's gone purple and it's ecstasy?

TOM: Well, that's what we've purchased. (Laughs)

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: So that makes you really excited?

TOM: Yeah.

TOM FRIEND 3: Ah not excited but…

TOM'S FRIEND 2: Relieved more than anything.

TOM FRIEND 3: I'd like to see that colour more...

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: If the colour came up green or yellow - indicating the presence of contaminants, including the dangerous psychoactive drug PMA - the pills would almost certainly make Tom and his friends sick.

TOM'S FRIEND 1: If it had've been a greenie-yellow, which on the chart is at the bottom end of the scale, that almost, I think you'd almost throw them out, wouldn't you?

TOM: You would throw them out. You don't…

TOM'S FRIEND 2: You wouldn't take them.

TOM'S FRIEND 1: You'd have to. You wouldn't take 'em. You wouldn't risk it.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Do you think that there is a need, then, for, for pill testing at festivals or pill testing at gigs? That it should be...

TOM'S FRIEND 2: A hundred per cent. If you're going to take the risk and take that sort of stuff, then you should know what you're having. Like, you should know what you're consuming. So you should test it just to be safe.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Tom and his friends say they'll continue to take ecstasy when they party. But they want to do it safely.

TOM: Prohibition is well and truly gone. We're in the 21st century and if the Government thinks that people are going to stop taking drugs...

TOM'S FRIEND 2: They're kidding themselves.

TOM: Yeah, because this isn't going away.

TOM'S FRIEND 1: So if they want to say that one or two people dying in a festival is a good win, well I reckon they're f***in' idiots. I think there needs to be a different approach completely.

TOM: Definitely. And let's stop targeting the user. How about you target the dealers, if you're really - if you're really serious?

TOM'S FRIEND 1: That's- go to the source, yeah.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Drug dealer Chris says ecstasy and MDMA drug testing kits are harder to find than they used to be.

CHRIS: You can't get these things in the chemist anymore. There used to be one at Kings Cross, ah, last year. They stopped selling it at Kings Cross - but that was under the, like, an under-the-counter sort of thing: like, you know, a bit of a hush-hush. Wasn't advertised. You had to know someone to suggest it to ya: "Oh, you go up to this one, you might be able to find one."

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: So the few legal ways of testing things to make sure they're safe, that people were using: what, they're disappearing?

CHRIS: You have to go online to buy it. I'm an 18-year-old kid living with my Mum. I don't want a parcel coming in my house with a drug testing kit, because my Mum is going to hover over me while I open that parcel. "What've you bought online?" You know? "Oh, a pill testing kit so I know I'm safe." Most parents don't want to know that!

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Hundreds of thousands of young Australians are swallowing pills blindly en masse, with little hope of knowing what's in them.

But one authority does know: here, at the Forensic Drug Branch of Victoria Police.

Unlike other states, every drug seized by police in Victoria comes here to be analysed and tested and entered into a database.

(To Cate Quinn) What is the most harmful thing about these pills and the pills that are on the market now?

CATE QUINN, MANAGER, VICTORIA POLICE FORENSIC CENTRE: I think the most harmful thing is: one, we don't know what's in them; we don't know what the purity is; and we don't know whether they're single drugs or multiple drugs.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: All of these pills were sold as ecstasy on the streets of Victoria in the past 12 months, but all of them vary wildly.

Some have no MDMA in them at all. Some are contaminated. Others are dangerously strong.

CATE QUINN: So at the moment we're seeing more ecstasy coming into the market, more ecstasy present in tablets: so the purity increasing of ecstasy within those tablets.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: OK. So purity is increasing: that's the trend. Does that then mean that harm is increasing if purity is increasing?

CATE QUINN: Well the more, ah, drug content in the tablet: yes, the more harm you could get from that, ah, because you're taking a higher dosage.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The higher the dose, the greater the risk of overdose.

Victoria Police figures, obtained by Four Corners, show some batches of ecstasy contain as little as five per cent MDMA; others, a massive 60 per cent - that's 12 times as strong.

Yet this critical information isn't released to the public.

JOHNBOY DAVIDSON: It's woeful. We don't know - until someone ends up in a body bag, we don't know there's a problem. That's our major problem.

The people collecting the data mostly are the police and they don't share it with anyone. The police want to do the right thing, but they're hamstrung most of the time by politics

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA (to Cate Quinn): One of the criticisms that's levelled against police is that you're sitting on an enormous amount of information about potency, purity, adulterants and yet you're not getting it out there t- to users - and potentially saving lives?

CATE QUINN: Look, I think it can be seen that way. But predominantly this laboratory functions for the purpose of evidential cases.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: So this one here...

(Voiceover) The head of Victoria Police's Forensic Drug Unit wants that critical information to reach users before they're harmed.

(To Cate Quinn) Would you like that to happen? Do you want to do that?

CATE QUINN: Yes, I think it's very valuable and I think law enforcement thinks it's valuable, you know. Th- law enforcement isn't just about, ah, the investigation of these things: they're about mitigating and reducing harm in the community. And one of those things is about information.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: There is another way we could be reducing harm.

Pill-testing machines could be introduced at every festival around the country to check ecstasy and MDMA before young Australians take it.

ALEX WODAK: Now, that's information that all people would want to have - and incidentally, all parents would want their sons or daughters to have or their brothers and sisters to have.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Do we have the technology, the capability, in Australia to start pill testing at events?

ALEX WODAK: Of course we do. We could start pill testing this year.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA (to David Caldicott): Does it reduce harm?

DAVID CALDICOTT: No doubt. So what it does is, by presenting, um, consumers with simple facts about what's in their, um, their substance, we can engage in a discussion that is based on the science of the hazards, rather than the morality of the hazards of their behaviour.

But the important thing: it's disrupting that decision to consume the pill at that point.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: But no government has taken that step and introduced pill testing at events.

Now, a chorus of eminent medical and law enforcement minds are pleading for that to change.

(To Nicholas Cowdery) Should Australia introduce drug testing at festivals; at dance parties?

NICHOLAS COWDERY: Yes, Australia should introduce drug checking, as I would call it, ah, at all public events where it is highly likely that people are going to be bringing drugs.

MICK PALMER: Well, I think it makes absolute sense to, to try to test the quality of the drugs that people are taking.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA (to Nicholas Cowdery): If we have the technology, if we have the capability, then why aren't we doing it?

NICHOLAS COWDERY: You will have to ask the policy makers why they have not instituted this action.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA (to Troy Grant): You would actually be open to...

(Voiceover) We did just that.

(To Troy Grant) Minister Grant, do you support the introduction of pill testing to reduce harm?

TROY GRANT: Absolutely do not.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Absolutely do not?

TROY GRANT: I absolutely do not.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Why?

TROY GRANT: Because pill testing... will not... s-save a life.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: How do you know that?

TROY GRANT: 'Cause a pill testing regime may well tell you what's in that pill, but it has no way to tell you whether it will kill you or not. And that's been demonstrated by the National Oversight Committee in the Netherlands, where they've had 14 deaths in my understanding in 2014; where they do have a pill testing regime.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Fourteen deaths from?

TROY GRANT: Drug use.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: No, what drugs?

TROY GRANT: I will get you all that information and you're free to have a look at it and, and qualify and justify, um, the material I'm referring to.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: We contacted the institute that authored the Netherlands report. It told us Troy Grant has misread their material, labelling the Minister's argument "wishful thinking, simplistic and rash".

Firstly, there is no pill testing regime in place at music festivals and public events in The Netherlands. And the 14 deaths the Minister refers to weren't just from ecstasy or MDMA: they were from a wide range of psychotropic stimulants.

But the NSW Police Minister won't be moved.

TROY GRANT: What you're proposing there is, um, a Government regime, um, that is asking for taxpayers' money to support a drug dealer's business enterprise. Um, that's not going to happen in NSW while ever I'm the Minister.

ALEX WODAK: When you look at the arguments authorities trot out for why they can't have- allow pill testing in Australia, they are so weak. I- I would be embarrassed to say things like that myself. And yet the politicians trot out this nonsense.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA (to Nicholas Cowdery): Seven deaths of young Australians in 12 months: do you think that fits the bill of a public benefit...

NICHOLAS COWDERY: You...

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: to introduce drug checking?

NICHOLAS COWDERY: You bet I do.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: This is how our governments are fighting the so-called 'War on Drugs.'

Around $40 million is spent annually on harm reduction, a mere two per cent of total spending; while policing and law enforcement receives an estimated $1.2 billion, accounting for 64 per cent.

But what is this massive investment in law enforcement achieving?

GREG DENHAM, FORMER OFFICER, DRUG STRATEGY UNIT, VICTORIA POLICE: Is the amount of money that we're putting into, um, law enforcement to deal with the drug issue working? And in my opinion: no, I don't think it is.

MICK PALMER: Huge waste of resources and are counterproductive. I mean, instead of reducing harms in that environment, we're aggravating them.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: But what does it actually do, this, this police presence?

MICK PALMER: What does it do? Um, well, I mean, I think it creates alarm and fear: ah, no question about that. It seizes some drugs. I don't think it deters many people from attempting to get drugs into a festival that intended to do so.

Ah, and it, er, publically embarrasses a lot of young people who happen to be busted in the process, ah, and obviously potentially gives people convictions for a crime that you have to argue should never be one.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: On that assessment, it's a failure?

MICK PALMER: I think it's a failure. Yes, yeah.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: In NSW, the dance party capital of Australia, the police presence at festivals is getting heavier and heavier.

But recreational drug takers are far from deterred.

JOHN: The key at a music festival: the dogs half the time don't smell drugs. The coppers can see the fear on your face.

CHRIS: Yeah, 'cause I've had dogs. I've walked in, they've walked straight past me - on more than one occasion.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: And you're carrying something?

CHRIS (laughs): Yeah. Yeah, I'm carrying plenty.

JOHN: Yeah.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: In Sydney, for Chris and John, the focus is all about outsmarting the police and the dogs.

(To Chris) How do you plan to get these caps here into...

JOHN: Don't tell 'em.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: ...the festival?

CHRIS: Yeah, I-I won't tell you the exact way, because it's a method that I actually came up with. Essentially, we'll sneak them in on our persons - but not inside our persons 'cause that's- nah, that's not going to happen.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What are some of the ways that you know people do it?

JOHN: A foolproof method right here: you wrap 'em up in foil, put them in your satty (sealed plastic bag), roll that up, chuck it in your chewing gum. You're walking through. If they pick you up: not hard to swallow your chewing gum. Walk back out, fingers down your throat: there's a ball of chewing gum, full of your drugs.

(Chris laughs)

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Vomit it up?

JOHN: I've done that before.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: To a lot of people, that would sound quite extreme: vomiting it up.

CHRIS: Well, I mean, that sounds extreme. But I can, I can tell you more often than not people stick it up their bum.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The methods of smuggling drugs inside festivals without police detection are many and varied.

CHRIS: There's the stock standard: the gooch. So...

JOHN: No, I never liked that one.

CHRIS: Yeah, well, I-I don't like it either because, you know, the dogs...

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What's the 'gooch'?

CHRIS: So obviously, you wrap it up. You always want to obviously hide the smell somewhat, so you maybe wrap it in a few sattys, a bit of cling wrap; maybe a bit of cologne on there. You know, it's something a bit different. And you literally: you put it... in your gooch. And you, you walk in there...

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Your crotch?

CHRIS: Yeah.

JOHN: Under your, under your balls: between your balls and your arse.

CHRIS: Between your - yeah. You get it in there and you just, you just pray it doesn't fall out.

(Footage of festival-goers walking down street)

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: It's festival day in Sydney.

CHRIS: Oh, yeah. This idiot just lost her drugs.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: John and his friends are concealing 17 MDMA capsules, hidden somewhere on their person.

The police - and the sniffer dogs - are waiting inside the festival gates.

For some, the day is over before it even began: arrested and charged on the spot.

Others make it through.

(To festival-goer) So where did you hide them?

FESTIVAL-GOER 1 (gestures): Here.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Where? in your jocks? Oh! So you walked right past the dogs?

FESTIVAL-GOER 1: Yeah.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Ah.

(Voiceover) While some panic, swallowing everything they're carrying before a dog can catch them.

GREG DENHAM: And that happens quite a lot. They can get very sick. People have died from that. And that's something which, um, obviously is an outcome from having PAD dogs around, so that's something which we should be...

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: So it's not out of bounds - it's not out of bounds or it isn't going too far to say that the police approach could actually be seriously harming or killing people?

GREG DENHAM: Well, part of it is. Part of it can be, yeah, certainly detrimental and certainly, um, have significant adverse health effects for people.

ALEX WODAK: This law enforcement effort is not only not effective, but is actually harmful. And I've come round to that view: that it's actually made a bad problem worse; that the focus on drug law enforcement has been an expensive way of achieving failure.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Now there are calls from Australia's former police and justice chiefs for the sniffer dogs program at music festivals to be abandoned once and for all.

(To Nicholas Cowdery) Sniffer dogs: do they have any value at all? Or should that programme be completely dropped?

NICHOLAS COWDERY: I think the drug detection dog programme should be stopped.

MICK PALMER: I think sniffer dogs: they're counterproductive in the current environment. If they were used simply to identify drugs, locate drugs and maybe take drugs away from people, without the second phase of arresting or taking criminal action against the people: as part of some purely protective measure it would make more sense.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Is this a provocative thing to do: for the former head of the AFP to publicly state sniffer dogs should be phased out?

MICK PALMER: Oh, well, I don't know. I just think you've got to say, you've got to be prepared to say what you believe. And I mean, I- I think there's a lot of things wrong with our, er, illicit drug policy at the moment. I think they desperately need changing, ah, for the benefit of the very young Australians that are trying to be helped at the moment by current policies, but I think in fact are being harmed. So you know, I guess in a sense: good men say nothing, evil triumphs.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Back at this music festival in Sydney, the police presence is ramping up.

Later, our cameras catch undercover police working their way through the crowd, nabbing partygoers one after the other.

Meanwhile, festival-goers are dancing the day away. We find John in the middle of the crowd.

(To John) Have you taken anything yet?

JOHN: Yeah, I've double-dumped.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: John has just swallowed two MDMA capsules at once. One hour later, he takes a third.

JOHN: You got to keep hydrated always: water and munt.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Soon after: a fourth.

JOHN: ...fantastic. Erick Morillo's played an awesome set and I just dumped another.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The amount of MDMA John has taken could be life threatening, but he's not fazed.

(To John) How are you feeling?

JOHN: How am I feeling right now? Great. Bit um, oh, I've got a bit of blurred vision but other than that I'm feeling happy.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: As far as quantity goes, four capsules in one day is nowhere near John's record, set a couple of years ago. He celebrated his 22nd birthday by taking 22 pills.

(To John) So you'd never do 22 in a day again?

JOHN: No. God, no. Everything's good in moderation. That's moderation: that's, that's gluttony.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: As the afternoon wears on, medics find a man passed out in the toilet, covered in his own faeces, leaving behind a cubicle to be cleaned.

Come nightfall, the mood in the crowd - and the music - is intensifying.

John and his friends are partying hard in the middle of the dance floor. For others, the party will kick on at home.

(To departing festival-goers) Did you have a good night?

FESTIVAL-GOER 2: Fantastic. We're going to go home and get f***ed up.

FESTIVAL-GOER 3: Ooh.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What does that mean?

FESTIVAL-GOER 2: Literally what it means.

FESTIVAL-GOER 3: You know what it means: maybe a bit of 'special K' (ketamine).

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: By the time this festival ends, 112 people will be charged with drug possession; another seven for supplying.

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.

MICK PALMER: More and more people in the community now are recognising our current policy doesn't work. To continue to do what we're doing is absolutely a failed experiment.

ALEX WODAK: The current policy clearly doesn't work and they're not prepared to have the flexibility to even try an approach which could reduce the harm to young people.

Personally, I think that's unforgivable.

SARAH FERGUSON: So do we have the balance right between policing drug use and preventing harm? Is there a better way of saving young lives?

Let me know what you think on our Facebook page (facebook.com/abc4corners). I'll see you there.

Good night.

END