A Review of the Four Corners Dying to Dance documentary
Guest blog by Julia Fraczak
In this month’s guest blog, Julia explores the festival drug scene in Australia considering recent drug policy changes and the introduction of pill testing sites at Queensland party venues.
I have been scouring the internet for months to find interesting, realistic, and fair representations of drugs in dancefloor contexts in order to move away from the sensationalism, glorification or scaremongering that is often characteristic of these. During my search, I stumbled upon the documentary Dying to Dance. What struck me about it immediately was its portrayal of different perspectives on drug taking in dancefloor contexts, its inclusion of people who use drugs, and its advocacy for harm reduction, particularly pill testing, to promote safer drug use.
First released by ABCTV news in Australia in 2016, the Four Corners documentary follows the dynamic and developing scene of party and festival drug use in Australia, bringing in various speakers, including drug users, dealers, politicians, medics, and experts in the field. Drug-taking in dancefloor contexts appears to be growing in popularity in Australia. In 2015, it was reported that 400,000 young Australians aged 14-19 take ecstasy every year. For drug users, taking MDMA and other party drugs should be a happy occurrence, but for many it is not. Statistics show that MDMA-related deaths increased significantly between 2011 and 2016. In 2015 alone, 6 people died at music festivals, and 800 were admitted to emergency services – a doubling of numbers since 2010.
The documentary initially presents the audience with a run through of the typical effects and risks of party drug use. Doctor Gordian Fulde, an emergency medicine specialist at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, reflects on the numbers of party drug users who come into the emergency department, and explains the effects of MDMA. He presents a clear scientific depiction of the chemical processes in the brain under the influence of MDMA and explains why taking multiple doses over a short time period is dangerous.
The documentary places a strong focus on people who use drugs. Several drug users are interviewed, along with an anonymous drug dealer. The first two users are frequent festival attendees. They talk about their various experiences with drugs at festivals, how to smuggle drugs in without detection, their perceptions of risk, combining drugs, and how they feel under the influence. They both have fairly positive views on drugs, saying that they ‘’feel their best self’’ when taking drugs even after experiencing complications such as sleep paralysis. They say that known risks do not discourage them from further use. They do also, on the other hand, state that they are cautious of drug dosage as a way of controlling risks during a festival.
In a dialogue between them, user A says to user B: ‘…that’s heaps babe… we should test, we should be careful because I don’t know how strong this is… it will melt us quickly’’. They further express that they ‘… can’t actually get… easy access to good, clear, non-biased information… trust me I’ve tried.’ In this way, the documentary represents drug users fairly, by showing them as responsible in mitigating risks.
The film presents us with political views on on the development of drug harm reduction measures, interviewing an Australian minister, and setting this perspective against those of specialists in the field. Experts underline how, in Australia’s case, the safety decisions taken by party drug users are reduced to political manipulation and excuses. Nicholas Cowdry (former NSW director of public prosecutions) explains that:
‘you will have to ask policy makers why they have not instituted the drug testing actions’.
To this, Minister Grant answers: ‘Pill testing will not save a life’, even though it is stated by medics and experts that it would.
‘what you’re asking for is a government regime that will use taxpayer money to support a drug dealer’s business’.
In this last quote, the minister equates drug checking with supporting the expansion of drug markets. Such a position fails to take into account that drug use will occur regardless of whether harm reduction is provided, whereas a lack of harm reduction interventions directly affects the safety of drug users. People will still take drugs but will not be able to do so safely. In the words of Dr Alex Wodak (President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation & Director):
‘When you look at the arguments authorities trot out for why they can’t allow pill testing in Australia, they are so weak, it’s embarrassing.’
In 2015, there was a decline in the already few legal possibilities people could access to test their drugs, while varying strengths of MDMA pills were being spotted on the market. These varying strengths can cause severe reactions to users who are unaware of potency and cannot test their drugs. The manager of a forensic centre in Victoria urged for the data on drug purity and strength to be released to the public, as it is easily accessible to government officials. She urged for drug testing kits to be stationed at festivals to avoid more adverse effects after consumption. As all experts in the documentary confirmed, Australia has the technology to introduce drug checking sites and other strategies. Dr David Caldicott, a toxicologist, argued that there is
‘no doubt it reduces harm by presenting consumers with simple facts about what’s in their substances’.
While these harm reduction strategies would benefit drug users massively, the issue of funding is significant . In 2015, the Australian government allocated $1.26 billion on law enforcement (64% of total spending) while only $40 million (2% of total spending) was spent on harm reduction. As Greg Denham (former officer of the drugs strategy unit in Victoria police) asked
‘is the amount of money that we’re putting into law enforcement to deal with the drug issue working? No, I don’t think it is’. It’s an ‘expensive failure’.
Fast forward to 2023, and it is interesting to observe the shift in attitudes towards drug checking in Australia. Recently, Queensland announced the official roll-out of drug checking at fixed and mobile sites as a step towards reducing harm from illicit drug use, after the success of the ACT’s pilot sites launched in 2022. Such testing initiatives are a vital move towards safer drug use. I like to think that the documentary contributed to informing the public about this life-saving intervention, and perhaps changed a mind or two.