NDARC Technical Report No. 209 (2004)
‘Ecstasy’ (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA) was originally synthesised in 1914, but has recently gained popularity as a drug often associated with the nightclub and dance party scene. The prevalence of ecstasy use has been increasing steadily within Australia since 1995 when 1.7% of people aged over 14 reported ever using the drug. In 2001, 6.1% of Australians aged 14 years or older reported lifetime ecstasy use, and 2.9% reported recent use. One in 10 (10.4%) of 20-29 year-olds and 5.0% of 14-19 year-olds had used ecstasy recently (AIHW, 2002).
Research has shown that ERDs are mostly taken in the dance/nightclub environment where the stimulant and hallucinogenic effects are best appreciated (Degenhardt et al., 2004, White et al., 2004). The majority of these venues have limited opening hours and as some of the effects of ERDs can last for a considerable amount of time it can be assumed that patrons may still be under the influence of drugs at closing time and as they head home . This is supported by the practice of post clubbing ‘chill outs’ or ‘recoveries’. Once a venue closes, groups of friends/clubbers congregate at a designated person’s home. Softer ‘chill out’ music is played, often in conjunction with further drug taking (Mixmag, 1999).
There is little literature on the effect of ERDs on driving, with much more research required in order to increase understanding of the impairing effects of these drugs. Therefore reviews undertaken so far have focused on studies which have investigated prevalence in various other populations or which have looked at the effects of the drugs on cognition, and extrapolate from these to the likely effects on driving (Akram and Forsyth, 2000, European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 1999). However, given the known side effects of these drugs, particularly their perception and cognition altering effects (often regarded as positive by ERDs users), it is likely that they constitute a danger where driving is concerned, particularly during the initial intoxication period.
Both impaired driving and being a passenger of an impaired driver appear to be common occurrences among dance party attendants. A recent Australian study of 216 ecstasy users found about half of the sample (49%) admitted to having driven a motor vehicle shortly after ecstasy use, and half of this subgroup (49%) believed that the drug had a detrimental influence on driving ability (Gascoigne et al., 2004).
In response to concerns about the occurrence of illicit drug use among drivers, in December 2003, the Victorian Government passed legislation that would allow the conduct of random roadside testing. This was to be completed by means of a saliva test, for two illicit drugs: THC (the main active ingredient of cannabis) and methylamphetamine (a drug variously sold as “speed” methamphetamine powder, “base” methamphetamine, or “crystal” methamphetamine).
The test is designed to detect the presence of drugs recently consumed (rather than, for example, metabolites of the drugs that might remain in the body after the user’s driving performance may no longer be affected). Roadside saliva screening for illicit drugs was begun in Victoria in late 2004. To ensure that a review of the new legislation is undertaken, the provisions in the legislation provide that the new drug driving offences will sunset on 1 July 2005. Prior to this date, a review of the operation of the roadside drug screening process is being conducted.
Although the legislation allows for random testing, in fact Victorian Police operational guidelines will target drug screening at locations where high-risk drivers are likely to be present. Targeting operations to times and locations where there is a high risk of drug impaired driving, such as nightclub areas in the early hours of the morning, is believed to minimise impact on the average responsible driver.
In anticipation of the introduction of roadside saliva testing in Victoria, this study was conducted in April-July 2004 to examine the prevalence of illicit drug use among nightclub attendees in Melbourne, Victoria; their transport methods; and their histories of drug use and driving. A subsidiary aim of this study was to establish a “baseline” against which future studies might be able to compare drug use and driving behaviour after the introduction of testing.
In total, 273 persons were interviewed for the study. Two thirds of the sample was male (63%) and they were, on average, 22 years old (Table 1). Most were single (84%), with 15% reporting that they were currently married or in a defacto relationship. Eight in ten of the sample (81%) reported that they had completed high school.
Drug use was common among this sample. One in five of the sample reported that they had or intended to use cannabis (22%) and ecstasy (18%) on the night of interview. One in eight (13%) reported speed use, and 6% reported either having used or intending to use crystal/base methamphetamine. Almost two thirds reported they had or intended to consume alcohol (61%).
Participants reported a variety of means of transport to the venue in which they were interviewed. Most commonly, another person was reported to be the driver, both to (53%) and from (45%) the venue. Around one in three, however, reported that they had driven themselves there and would drive themselves home from the venue. Other modes of transport were nominated in a minority of cases, with taxis slightly more often caught home (16%) than to (6%) a venue.
Overall, around one in ten participants reported that on the night of interview, they would knowingly either drive or be driven by someone under the influence of alcohol (10%), cannabis (11%) and/or methamphetamine (8%).
Seven in ten (70%) participants reported that they had heard of roadside drug testing (Table 6). Many participants correctly thought that the test would detect methamphetamine (48%) and cannabis (59%). There was some error in the drugs that participants thought could be detected by the test, however: around one in three thought that the test could also detect heroin (38%) and cocaine (30%). The majority of the sample reported that they supported the concept of roadside drug testing, with two in three reporting that they supported it (65%).
All participants were asked if roadside drug testing would change their clubbing and driving behaviour. Four in ten reported that it would change their behaviour: 10% reported that they wouldn’t use drugs if planning to drive, 10% reported that they would wait 2-3 hours before driving after taking drugs, and 19% reported that they would not drive if they were clubbing. Among the 19% who would not drive if taking drugs, 9% reported they would catch a taxi, 4% reported that they would get someone else to drive them, and 3% said that they would catch public transport.
The Victorian Government supports a ‘harm minimisation’ approach to drug use. This legislation is designed to focus on road safety and prevention, rather than drug detection, aiming to deter Victorian drivers who have recently used cannabis and methamphetamine from driving a vehicle, based on the possibility of getting caught. This model is based on that of the RBT for alcohol. Research has shown that a successful RBT campaign relies heavily on its ability to be highly visible and threatening to the general community. It must be unpredictable, difficult to evade, rigorously enforced, have consequences, and be coordinated with supporting mass media campaigns. Unlike RBT, roadside saliva screening is more labour intensive and costly, as a result it is highly doubtful that the campaign will have the reach and visibility of its predecessor. The Victorian Police plans to target operations to areas such as nightlife entertainment precincts or close to rave/dance party events to ensure greater visibility is far more likely to have an impact on clubbers and their behaviour than random testing.
The findings of the current study suggest that the introduction of roadside drug testing in Victoria may have positive impacts upon drug use and driving risk behaviours among a sample of young persons attending nightclubs. It will be of interest to examine whether such persons’ intentions to change their behaviours are borne out once such testing is introduced in the coming months.
However, the success and continued impact of the campaign amongst young clubbers will be dependent on ensuring that testing is just part of the overall program. Information provision and increasing the transport options for young people will also play a part in reducing the number of young clubbers who use drugs and drive.
Citation: Degenhardt, L., Dillon, P., Duff, C. and Ross, J. (2004), Driving and clubbing in Victoria: a study of drug use and risk among nightclub attendees, Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.