Drug use in Australia needs a bigger picture approach than just pill testing: Angela Mollard

Her name was Leah Betts and she’s a girl I’ll never forget.

She was 18, I was 27 and I’d been assigned to report from the hospital where she was on life support after taking an ecstasy tablet.

Just two weeks before, 15-year-old Anna Wood had died having taken ecstasy (MDMA) at a rave party in inner Sydney. That another teen, on the other side of the world where I was then working, was similarly fighting for her life made headlines around the globe.

RELATED: Death and ecstasy: Young lives lost on Sydney’s dance floor

Covering these stories is never easy. Walking the tightrope between intrusion and public interest often has to be judged in seconds. Any normal human response of horror or despair has to be boxed up, only to be let out on the tear-filled drive back to the office.

But that November day outside the utilitarian British hospital was different. Leah’s dad, Paul, was different. As his daughter lay in a hospital bed, slack-tongued and brain dead, a web of tubes coiled ominously over her face and chest, he decided to take a photograph of her and release it in the hope that other lives might be saved.

media_cameraTeenager Leah Betts died after taking ecstasy at her 18th birthday party in 1995. Picture: Supplied
media_cameraHer father, Paul, shared this photo of her in the hope others may think twice about taking elicit drugs. Picture: Supplied

The next day Leah’s life support was switched off. And that day I decided I would never take recreational drugs under any circumstances.

Nearly a quarter of a century later in Australia, ecstasy is still the party drug of choice, though users are taking it in higher purity form. In some states an ecstasy cap can be bought for the price of a flat white and last weekend a 13-year-old boy was charged with dealing the substance at an under-18s festival billed as a fun night with a “beanbag cinema” vibe.

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When it comes to drug consumption, we are ranked second highest among the 23 nations that collect similar data, beaten only by the US in our use of uppers. Cocaine use too is running at the highest level ever recorded.

There’s only one response currently on the table — that we need to test the pills our kids are taking. I agree. Minimising the harm caused by drugs cut with all manner of substances should be front and centre of any decisions being made.

media_cameraAnna Wood died from an ecstasy overdose at a Sydney rave in the mid nineties. Picture: Richard Dobson

If we are truly fighting “a battle between abstinence and pragmatism”, as campaigner Alex Wodak so succinctly put it, then this is the sane and safe thing to do. But we also need to challenge the growing expectation that drug taking is so commonplace it’s almost de rigeur.

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“Just say no” may seem like an antediluvian notion to the iGeneration raised on personal choice, “me over we” and instant rather than delayed gratification. But if we fail to rigorously examine some of the wider issues around drug taking then we are not equipping the very kids we are trying to save.

Youth is a time of risk-taking, of experimentation and fun. It comes in-built with low responsibility and high satisfaction but it’s also a time for working out what makes a good life.

When the usual pillars that produce a natural “high” — health, good relationships, gratitude, financial security and a sense of purpose — are overridden by manufactured stimulants it creates a false joy.

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Unfortunately, it is not one you can lean on when life becomes, as it will, challenging or miserable. You need real joy and resilience, manufactured in your own life, not in an illegal drug lab.

media_cameraDr Alex Wodak has been campaigning for pill testing at music festivals and also suggested MDMA should be regulated and distributed by pharmacies. Christian Gilles

Anyone who chooses to enhance or manipulate their emotions through the good times will arguably turn to the same stimulants through the bad. In doing so they rob themselves of the ability to cope.

Besides, nobody — except perhaps Keith Richards — gets to bypass the very necessary human skill of self-restraint. If you ride a motorbike too fast too often you will probably crash. If you eat chips and cheesecake every day you are likely to end up with diabetes. If you regularly drink to excess you run the risk of destroying your relationships.

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Drugs endanger your health, life expectancy and career prospects. Even if you get away with your liver and kidneys fully functional, you can’t guarantee these stronger, weirder iterations of ecstasy will leave you with your mental health intact.

media_cameraThree juveniles were charged with drug supply at the under-18 Good Life festival in Sydney. Picture: Facebook

There is no quality control on the dark web or in a drug den, and multi dosing on different drugs — as nine out of 10 ecstasy users report to do — surely has an impact on the vulnerable teenage brain.

While pill testing is the current cause célèbre, the impact of drug taking stretches far beyond the next headline. I’d like to thank Paul Betts for what he did all those years ago and the influence it had on my life. But in saving lives by showing what drugs did to his daughter, he put his own in danger. His high profile war on drugs made him the target of drug barons and he and his wife were forced to move to Scotland. There they mourn their child, all her tomorrows, their community and all they lost the night she reached for her own tiny tab of false joy.


Originally published as I will never forget Leah Betts. And neither should you

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