It’s a mild Saturday afternoon and, after working all week, Max* is all keyed up for a night on the Mornington Peninsula with his mates.
He’ll go down to the local bottle shop, buy a six-pack of beer and that will be polished off at one mate’s house before they go to a club for some fun.
After waiting in line, he and his friends are let into the club without a problem. They walk into the bathroom, go into one of the stalls, open their sachet of MDMA (ecstasy) and have a capsule or two before partying until the close.
This is standard practice for Max, a 20-year-old living on the Peninsula. Max says he uses MDMA and ketamine “because it’s fun. It’s hard to say no.” In his experience, party drugs are “so easy” to get hold of.
He started using ecstasy at 17, ketamine at 19 – initially almost every second week. Now he says he’s reduced the intake to once a month, because “the more you do it, the more your body builds a tolerance to it”.
Increased usage “takes away from the fun of it, you start to lose your sense a little bit”.
The Alcohol and Drug Foundation warns that a ketamine overdose can trigger paralysis, convulsions and even death, whereas long-term use of MDMA can cause depression.
One of the biggest problems surrounding the use of these substances is the lack of recorded data or the understatement that the data presents.
According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey, 2.2 per cent of Australians aged 14 years or older have taken MDMA in the past year and 0.2 per cent of those in the same age group have used ketamine.
On the Mornington Peninsula, though, between 70 and 80 per cent of the people Max knows are using these drugs.
Lisa Abbott is the AOD (Alcohol and Other Drugs) ‘catchment-based planner’ for Frankston and the Mornington Peninsula. She cannot give a more precise estimate of hard-drug use, saying: “We are really not aware of the prevalence of recreational drug use as it is hard to get that data.”
Ms Abbott took up her post back in 2014, her job being to look at local data and broader needs surrounding drug and alcohol trends so as to help health and community services reduce the harm flowing from their usage.
The main obstacle she cites for the dearth of data on party drug use is a reluctance by users to heed the requirement to self-report to the authorities responsible for compiling such statistics.
“When people use party drugs,” she says, “it’s often contained, there’s not many that develop [an] addiction that then impacts on other elements in their life.”
The other main source of data on such substances is ambulance call- outs. But Ms Abbott says they alone don’t give a reliable picture of the frequency and volume of usage.
Without reliable data on the prevalence of recreational party drugs, she explains, funding geared to education and behavioural change is withheld, in turn leading to unsafe use.
Max admits that he’s only “somewhat knowledgeable” about the substances he takes. This uncertainty is due to MDMA tablets containing “fillers” that aren’t necessarily pure ecstasy, and to buying ketamine from unreliable sources that could be substituting the product with other substances.
“A lot of the stuff out there apparently is bad,” says Max. “A lot of the time you have no idea what you’re putting in your body.”
Ms Abbott thinks a possible way to counteract this is to establish pill-testing sites on the Peninsula where these substances are taken.
“If these kids knew what they were using, it would help them prevent a lot of harm,” Ms Abbott says, emphasising that this testing should not be done under police supervision.
Max feels the same way, saying it would “100 per cent” be a safer way of controlling party-drug use. Ms Abbott: “We have to focus on reducing harm … Harm reduction strategies are essential to reduce damage associated with drug and alcohol use.”
Frances Taylor, a nurse at Peninsula Health’s emergency department, adopts a different attitude on the issue of safe use: “My stance as a nurse is ‘Don’t go there’ …[For] any health professional, I imagine, their stance is ‘Don’t go there.’ ”
Mrs Taylor says that, on an ED shift anything from one to five inpatients will be treated for incidents related to party drugs.
She says younger people using these substances are generally “out to have a good time and not really caring about [consequences]”.
Nurses and doctors will usually not test for what other drugs patients may have taken, only compounding the lack of data on party-drug use.
Mrs Taylor says not identifying the particular drug that has been taken is not crucial because “management is still sort of the same” regardless of the harmful substance, and treatment is more important than such specifics.
One change Ms Abbott wants to see is a more open-minded approach to drugs education in the school system. As well as teaching students what the drugs are, and the consequences of using them, she would like them to be taught the safest usage procedures.
“Teenagers are risk-takers, ” she says. “They don’t want to be told what to do.”
Frankston has the highest percentage of alcohol-related hospital admissions in Victoria, according to the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association.
The 2015 drug catchment plan also shows that methamphetamine use has continued to increase incrementally across the Peninsula.
With these areas of concern at the forefront of the Peninsula’s drug concerns, Ms Abbott says, issues with ecstasy, ketamine and other party drugs “continue to fly under the radar”.
*Matt’s real name has been suppressed at his request.