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Australian Medical Association President Calls for Drug Decriminalisation

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

The Australian Medical Association’s Western Australian president says it’s time for a new approach to illegal drugs, calling for personal drug possession to be decriminalised.

Dr Andrew Miller believes it’s time to heed the success of countries like Portugal, and treat drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal law problem.

Situation in WA

Western Australia is said to be in the midst of a ‘ice epidemic’, with emergency departments seeing significant increases in admissions by ‘ice’ users in recent years.

While the national average of daily methamphetamine consumption is about one ‘hit’ for every 28 people, in Perth it’s about one per 17 people.

The 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey suggested that 3.8% of the WA population had used methamphetamine in the prior 12 months, well above the Australian average of 2.1%. And frontline doctors believe the last few years have seen a rise in these figures.

Proposed model

Dr Miller says that at the very least, there must be a “mature debate” on how the state treats drug users.

He wants the WA government to consider trialling the Portuguese model, where possession and use of illicit drugs remains illegal, but anyone caught with small quantities is fined and/or sent for treatment, instead of to court for punishment.

“The AMA’s position is that illicit drug use is bad for people and it’s bad for the community and we need to look again at what the best ways are to minimize the harm that drug addiction brings to families in WA every day”, the doctor said.

He added that decriminalisation would save the community millions of dollars, allow more resources to be invested in prevention and diversion, and lead to better outcomes for both users and the community.

“The current situation’s not working, there’s a lot of harm from drugs and there’s a lot of harm from people going to jail,” the doctor remarked. “The one thing we’re not seeing enough of is money spent on rehabilitation, money spent on health intervention.”

Political response

Despite the chorus of health experts calling for decriminalisation, West Australian Premier Mark McGowan is adamant that no such thing will occur in his state.

“We’re not going to decriminalise drugs in Western Australia, full stop,” Mr McGowan declared, adding that while he supports treatment programs for users, decriminalisation is not the answer to the issue of drugs.

“You need to have a mix of solutions, and what we want to have is that mix of education, treatment, as well as the force of law,” he stated. “Our focus is using our prison system as a punishment mechanism but also providing opportunities for people to get off drugs.”

Federal Justice Minister Michael Keenan went even further, claiming that moves towards decriminalisation would be “reckless and dangerous”.

Broader effects of drug law

Portugal reformed their drug laws 2001, treating drug addiction as a health issue rather than a crime. The move has not increased drug use as predicted, but it has significantly lowered deaths and injuries from overdoses, the spread of HIV and other infections, and the costs of enforcement.

A joint Australian and UK study in 2010 looked into the effect of the reforms, finding that in addition to the above, the move has led to fewer school students using drugs. The model has been hailed as a resounding success around the world.

Premier McGowan was recently asked about the Portuguese experience, and admitted being unaware of it. He then went on to speak about the Perth Drug Court. The admission almost beggars belief in the context of his responsibilities and proposals, and he would be well-advised to at least look into the country’s success.

Details of the Portuguese experience

Before drug decriminalisation, one percent of the Portuguese population was dependent on heroin and the nation had the highest number of drug-related HIV/AIDS deaths in the European Union.

Sixteen years later, the current drug-induced death rate in Portugal sits at three per million residents, which is one-fifth of the European average. Drug-related HIV infections plummeted to just 40 in 2014, compared with 1,016 in 2001. Meanwhile, drug use recorded in the categories of ‘past-year’ and ‘past-month’ were lower in 2012 than 2001.

As the Transform Drug Policy Institute found during its analysis of Portugal’s drug laws, “The reality is that Portugal’s drug situation has improved significantly in several key areas. Most notably, HIV infections and drug-related deaths have decreased, while the dramatic rise in use feared by some has failed to materialise.”

There is no reason other developed countries like Australia could not reap the same benefits through a sensible, evidence-based approached.

Heavy-Handed Police Raid Sydney Nightclub, but Find No Drugs and Press No Charges

NSW authorities continue their assault on Sydney’s nightlife. This time the police raided Club 77 in Darlinghurst. At around 11.30 pm last Saturday night, a group of NSW police officers, with a sniffer dog, entered the nightclub and began searching clientele and staff.

Club owner Matty Bickett broke the news of the police raid in a Facebook post that went viral on Sunday. He reported that the officers made no arrests and found no drugs. Bickett wrote that the “over the top policing” had left him with “a bad taste” in his mouth.

“We had 15 police just storm the venue, out of nowhere. There was probably about 100 to 120 kids in the club. We’re only 180 capacity,” Bickett explained. He went on to say that the officers began strip searching people, some in public and others in the toilets.

The police prevented people from entering the club, as well as dragging others out.

Strip searches and a lack of respect

Bickett was particularly upset that the headline act – who’d flown in from Melbourne to DJ – was himself strip searched and then barred from re-entering the venue. “They wouldn’t let him back in the club, which is pretty terrible PR,” he told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.

According to Bickett, the police didn’t want to talk to him, or his business partner, who’s the licensee. The officers didn’t serve them with any paperwork, or explain the legalities of what they were doing.

Some club-goers reported being searched as they were making their way to the venue from the train station that night. The officers carried out strip searches in the toilet cubicles in the club. And one man was allegedly tasered in the back alley.

After the raid, the police left, only to return about two hours later minus the dog. They began removing punters from the club that they believed were intoxicated.

Cracking down on nightlife

The raid on 77 is part of a new policing approach, Bickett said he’d been told. He explained that the Saturday night incident is to become “pretty standard” police behaviour, and the venue is “to expect more of this.”

But the club owner can’t understand why, as the atmosphere of the venue has changed over recent years. They’ve recently renovated and are catering for an older crowd these days.

“We weren’t doing anything dodgy. We just run a business,” Bickett said, and added that many of the venues in the local area have shut down due to the effects of the lockout laws. However, his club has “managed to stay on,” since the lockout and last drink restrictions were introduced into Sydney’s CBD back in February 2014.

More of the same

This is not the first time NSW police have taken a heavy-handed approach to Sydney’s nightclubs. Last December, about 40 officers stormed Candy’s Apartment in Kings Cross. At the time, the police imposed a 72-hour temporary closure order on the venue.

The raid took place after a three month investigation into drug supply in the Kings Cross area under Strike Force Roby. On the night of that raid, a 21-year-old man was arrested outside the club for allegedly being in possession of 60 MDMA capsules.

Charlie Mancuso, the owner of the nightclub, said at the time that police had to show they were doing something otherwise they were going to lose their jobs. He called on patrons to fight for their rights and show their displeasure.

Increasing the harms of drug use

Taking drug detection dogs into late-night venues and music festivals is a dangerous approach for police to take. Harm reduction experts have long pointed out that using sniffer dogs actually leads people to partake in hazardous drug taking behaviours.

These practices include preloading, which is when a person takes all of their drugs before arriving at an event to avoid detection. And another common practice is panic overdosing, when a person takes all of their drugs at once on seeing a drug dog.

The death of James Munro at Defqon 1 in 2013 is believed to have been a case of panic overdosing. The young man is said to have taken all his drugs at once on seeing a drug detection dog operation.

People attending nightclubs do partake in drugs. This is well-known. And walking sniffer dogs through venues late at night is only encouraging people to take dangerous quantities of any drugs they might possess, so as to avoid detection.

High Alert

Since late in April, Victoria police have taken a similar approach under Operation Safenight. On Saturday nights in Melbourne’s nightclub precincts, officers are currently using sniffer dogs, searching people and raiding venues.

In response to the police operation, the High Alert campaign has been set up to build public awareness about the approach police are taking, as well as providing legal advice to those who’ve been affected by police tactics.

High Alert is run by a group of harm reduction advocates, health practitioners and legal professionals. They’re concerned that the police operation is not only an attack on people’s civil liberties, but it’s also making Melbourne’s nightlife more dangerous.

An evidence-based approach

Victoria police launched the crackdown in response to the drug-related deaths of three people due to a deadly batch of MDMA that was being sold in Chapel Street nightclubs in January. The MDMA capsules were not pure. They’d been mixed with the more dangerous drug NBOMe.

However, the tried and tested way to reduce drug-related deaths is not more law enforcement. It’s pill testing – or drug checking – a method that’s been used in European countries for decades. It allows a drug taker to make an informed decision about what they’re about to ingest.

Drugs can be tested at booths at music festivals, or at a High Street service in a nightclub precinct. A trained professional uses laboratory equipment that allows them to tell the owner of the drugs what they’re made up of. And if they’re found to be dangerous, then the person can refrain from taking them.

Back at 77

Bickett and his business partner have been left wondering whether police are going to take any further steps in regards to Saturday night’s raid. “There’s been no discussion between us and them. They just come in and treat you like a criminal.” he said. “There was people in tears. It just doesn’t look good.”

“To have that on a Saturday night is a bit of a kick in the teeth, especially when they didn’t make any arrests or breach us,” Bickett concluded. “Haven’t got a fine. Haven’t got anything.”

Sensationalist Reporting of Drugs is Irresponsible and Dangerous

If you were walking to work and saw a stranger shooting up heroin, what would you do?

If you’re like most people, you’d probably ignore them and keep going. If you were feeling particularly Samaritan, you might even stop and make sure they’re ok.

Unfortunately, the journalists of The Daily Telegraph aren’t like most people. Instead, it seems their natural reaction is to pull out their camera, take a photo, and use it in yet another scare campaign against drug users.

Indeed, this is what happened last Friday when the paper published a photo on its front page of a man shooting up in Surry Hills, with the headline: “A Shot In The Heart”.

It’s quite a confronting image. Heroin is a potentially dangerous drug – it’s highly addictive and many of us know someone who has had their life adversely affected through its use. And perhaps it’s normal to be concerned about its use in our neighbourhoods, or near our families.

However, twenty years of scaremongering for harsher drug possession penalties hasn’t helped overcome the issue of drugs. And for us to have a sensible conversation about the way forward, headlines like this are not helpful.

Dr Marianne Jauncey, medical director at the Kings Cross Supervised Injecting Centre, recently told reporters that clients that are distressed about the tabloid newspaper’s treatment of the issue. The doctor is particularly worried that such portrayals could prevent drug users from seeking help.

“There’s very much an issue about continuing to demonise (problem drug users), as it doesn’t help anybody. All of us want to fix it, no matter what side of the debate you’re on. All of us want less problem drug use, but emotions and morals can get in the way,” Dr Jauncey remarked.

She believes the effect of reporting like this, and calls for harsher drug possession penalties generally, is that habitual users are less likely to come forward and get the assistance they need.

“We all want them to get better and have the courage to seek help. Stories like this have the exact opposite effect that everybody would want. When you splash their face all over the front page of the paper, people become vulnerable, upset and tend to turn inwards. Why on earth would you say yes, I’m like that person? It absolutely further stigmatises people who are users and (makes them) less likely to seek help.”

The Press Council agrees. Under its guidelines, publications should “avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest”.

Those like Dr Jaucey know all-to-well that this guidance hasn’t stopped the tabloids in the past. The Supervised Injecting Centre is one of the few victories achieved by harm reduction advocates in recent times, but it came with a struggle. Although the centre was opened in 2001, it took almost 10 years for it to gain permanent approval – no thanks to tabloids and radio shock jocks stoking opposition to it.

“It’s been said before, but it needs to be said again and again until it is done – this place needs to be shut down now,” published The Daily Telegraph in 2006. That headline was accompanied by photographs of around 100 “potentially deadly blood-tainted needles” dumped near the clinic, inferring that this was a consequence of having the centre there.

There was just one problem, the claims were untrue. Although someone had dumped the needles there, there was no evidence they had come from the injecting centre. In fact, the evidence was to the contrary.

“They were most certainly not syringes used by drug users.” Dr van Beek, former head of the Centre, said at the time “They were also not the brand of syringes distributed in this area.”

These inconsistencies did not stop critics of drug reform from the exploiting the report. Later that day, former-opposition leader Peter Debnam called a press conference arguing for the closure of the centre, and assuring that “… no other injecting rooms will be opened up in any other suburbs.”

A decade later, we now know the centre has been a resounding success, especially when compared to the effects of harsher drug possession penalties.

The annual cost of the Injecting Centre is about $3 million, roughly equivalent to the annual cost of imprisoning 30 people. While the benefits of incarceration are questionable at best, the Injecting Centre produces larger financial savings than it costs to run – while fears of increased crime and usage have been disproven.

Harm-reduction approaches can only work if governments and policymakers alike recognise the complexity of the “drug problem”. No single solution exists for all kinds of drug users, or all kinds of drug use.” writes Gideon Lasco, a drug policy expert at the University of Amsterdam.

Mr Lasco uses Portugal to demonstrate his point. In 2001, the nation bought in new

drug possession reforms that see drug users sent to three-person local committees, rather than handed a criminal conviction, if they’re found in possession of small quantities of drugs.

These committees consider a range of interventions depending on the person before them. Many are encouraged to seek treatment, while others may be handed a fine to discourage further use.

Ten years on, drug use rates have not increased, while drug-related deaths, as well as problematic and adolescent drug use, have decreased.

This is the kind of sensible, evidence-based approach is hard to ignore. However achieving sensible reform is made more difficult while tabloids sensationalise the issue of drugs, and demonise drug users.

It’s High Time! Hemp Seed Food Will Soon Be Legal

In a landmark decision, Australian federal and state food ministers have agreed that hemp seed food will soon be legally available for consumption. The Australian and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation approved the move, at a Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting in Adelaide last Friday.

The decision comes in the wake of a Food Standards Australia and New Zealand meeting in March that gave the green light for the sale of foods derived from hemp seeds that are low in THC – the psychoactive component of the cannabis plant.

A communique released after the COAG meeting outlined that the ministers had received a Swinburne University of Technology report regarding the consumption of low-THC food and the effect they could have on roadside drug testing operations.

The report found that it “is highly unlikely” that the consumption of hemp seed food would result in any positive saliva, blood and urine tests. “In light of these findings ministers supported the draft standard that will allow low-THC hemp seeds to be sold as a food,” the communique reads.

The change is expected to come into effect in six months, in both Australia and New Zealand. A range of state and territory legislation that currently outlaw the sale of the food will need to be amended. This will open up the international hemp seed food market, which is estimated to be a billion dollar a year industry.

A globally accepted food

Up until last Friday, Australia and New Zealand were the only countries in the world where the consumption of hemp seed food was prohibited. Under standard 1.4.4 of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, all species of cannabis have been prohibited from being added to or sold as food.

Hemp seeds are produced by the hemp plant, which is low in THC. While both marijuana and hemp are strains of Cannabis sativa, hemp has been specifically cultivated to produce industrial fibre, oils and seeds. You can smoke hemp till the cows come home, and it won’t get you high.

Hemp seed foods are widely available throughout Europe and North America. In the States, the consumption of hemp food is legal but the production is not. Australian producers see this as a lucrative market to step into.

Currently, China is the largest hemp seed producer in the world, followed by countries such as France, Canada, South Korea, the Netherlands and Chile.

A boom for the Australian hemp industry

Secretary of the Australian HEMP Party Andrew Kavasilas welcomes the long overdue decision. “I’ve been growing under hemp permits since 1999,” he said. “In NSW, it wasn’t until 2008 that we actually had a Hemp Act, but it was only related to fibre.”

Those in the Australian industry have been “itching” for the food to become legalise, Mr Kavasilas said. He’s also the founding director of Vitahemp Australia. “We’ve actually had to accelerate our plans on winter cropping,” he told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “We’ve got in excess of 30 hectares going.”

The Australian hemp industry has stagnated due to the ban on hemp foods, Kavasilas explained. He pointed to a 2013 Tasmanian government inquiry into the state’s industrial hemp industry, which found “the ban on hemp seed food was holding the entire industry back.”

The beneficial seed

Hemp seeds are said to be the most nutritionally complete food source in the world. They have a balance of omega 3 and 6, along with Iron, Vitamin E and all of the essential amino acids. They’re high in protein, and can be eaten whole, pressed as an oil or ground into a powder.

The seeds can produce a variety of different foods. They can be eaten as a grain as part of muesli or cereals. They can be used to produce non-dairy milk and ice cream. And they can be added to a wide variety of different meals to reap their nutritional benefits.

So then why are hemp seeds illegal in Australia?

Well according to Mr Kavasilas, unlike marijuana and its products, hemp was not prohibited under the various United Nations drug control conventions. It’s continued to be utilised in countries like India, China and Russia.

However, it was the United States that banned hemp in the early twentieth century. This was done amidst the “reefer madness” anti-marijuana hysteria of the time, and many believe it served the interests of big business to be rid of the versatile plant.

The US ban influenced other western nations to follow suit. So what we’re seeing now is the reintroduction of industrial hemp in the western world.

Roadside drug testing

The Australian hemp industry has been campaigning for hemp seed food to be legalised for decades. However, authorities have been hesitant to allow this to happen, over concerns the low-THC foods may interfere with the results of roadside drug testing programs.

The problem with roadside drug testing in Australia is that a positive reading can be registered for tiny traces of certain drugs in a driver’s system. Along with THC, police test for MDMA and amphetamines, via a saliva test.

When police carry out random breath testing for alcohol, they’re testing for levels of driver impairment – hence the categories of low, mid and high range drink driving. This is an approach based on research that’s shown certain levels of alcohol in a driver’s blood lead to increased risks when they’re behind the wheel of a car.

However, roadside drug testing does not test for impairment.

A grey area

As it was announced at the COAG meeting, the Swinburne University report said it was “highly unlikely” that someone who had been consuming hemp seed food would test positive for roadside drug testing.

But, there have been cases in the past where an individual has been charged with drug driving, and the driver has claimed that they hadn’t been smoking marijuana, but rather they’d been eating hemp seed products.

Mr Kavasilas agrees that it’s unlikely that traces of THC in hemp seed food would show up in police saliva tests. But he said that if it did happen to detect the traces, “it’s highly likely” that a supplementary laboratory test would show up positive.

An Australia 21 report on drug decriminalisation released in March this year, recommended that the roadside drug testing programs be reviewed, as “the purpose of such testing should be to ascertain whether the driver is unsafe or unfit” to drive, not to see whether they’d consumed an illicit substance.

Until a program that actually tests for driver impairment is introduced, it would be advisable that THC is removed from roadside drug testing, and then people can go about eating their highly nutritional hemp seed food products without concerns about testing positive.

Police Boast of Another Win in the War Against Drugs

Crystal methamphetamine, also known as ‘ice’, with an estimated street value of $101 million has been seized off the coast of NSW and five men have been charged with commercial drug importation.

It has been reported that the AFP, NSW Police Force, Australian Border Force and Chinese authorities worked together for several months to intercept the 100 kilograms shipment.

Chinese authorities raided a shipping container being used to send two tonnes of steel to Sydney. The drugs were allegedly hidden inside the floor of the container. A Fijian man, an Australia, and three other men, believed to be Central Asian, have been arrested.

The Fijian and Australian have already faced court and were refused bail. They will appear in court again next month.

Police say they delayed announcing details of the bust due to ongoing inquiries, and out of respect for visiting Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, who departed Australia yesterday.

Recent drug busts

Police suggest that further arrests may occur, and have praised the co-operation between local and international law enforcement agencies.

Police say that last November, they broke up a $54 million ice operation on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, seizing three barrels containing around 90 litres of liquid methamphetamine at Palm Beach. A fishing vessel off the coast of Hervey Bay in Queensland was also intercepted. Eight people were arrested.

Since November 2015, almost 7.5 tonnes of illicit substances have been seized, worth an estimated street value of $2 billion.

Authorities attribute the busts to intelligence exchanges with other international drug agencies, which they believe is crucial to detecting and arresting offenders.

On Christmas day 2016, 500 kilograms of cocaine was seized at Brooklyn on the NSW Central Coast. Police allege the same syndicate was attempting to import another 600 kilograms of the drug into Australia, but the shipment was intercepted by the French Navy.

And just last month, six men were arrested after $300 million worth of cocaine was found in a boat moored off Jervis Bay.

Ice and Cocaine are Australia’s ‘biggest problem’

New research facilitated by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) in conjunction with university researchers, suggests that cocaine use is widespread in Sydney, and that the use of ‘ice’ is on the rise in many rural areas.

The research is based on data obtained from sampling wastewater at 51 sewage treatment plants — which service 14 million Australians — in city and ¬regional areas across the country.

Of the 13 drug types tested, NSW topped the list for cocaine with double the amount of the party drug used in Sydney compared with other capital cities.

Much of the previous research relied on self-reporting by users, police arrest data and medical and emergency department statistics to determine the extent of drug use. The move to wastewater analysis promises to paint a more accurate picture of trends in drug manufacture and usage.

Decriminalisation in Portugal: 15 years of Success

This year Portugal commemorated the 15th anniversary of its 30/2000 law – the law that decriminalised the use of all drugs for personal use. The law states that the possession of small amounts of for personal use is no longer considered a crime, but a regulatory offence instead.

The reasons behind the move

Portugal suffered from a heroin-epidemic in the mid-1990s, before the new law came into effect. By 1999, nearly 1% of the population was addicted to heroin, and drug-related deaths from HIV were the highest in the European Union.

The number of people dying from overdoses and HIV transmissions via shared needles was on the rise, as were crime rates across the country.

The state of affairs led the government to initiate crisis talks, and ultimately form an anti-drug commission to tackle the problem. That commission recommended the introduction of a band new regime – one which treats drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal law problem, and within that paradigm focuses on education and treatment rather than punishment.

The new law

The new regime started by determining the average 10-day supply of drugs for personal use; whether cannabis, heroin, esctacy or any other prohibited drug.

It decreed that a person found in possession of less than a 10-day supply would be sent to a three-person ‘dissuasion panel’, typically made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker.

That panel could recommend treatment or, in some cases, a minor fine without a criminal record.

Change in perspective

One of 11 experts on the panel was Joao Goulão, a family physician from Faro, located on Portugal’s Algarve Coast. Mr Goulão has been the chief of Portugal’s national anti-drug program since 1997 and helped to shape the new law. He is now chairman of Portugal’s Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction.

“Drug users aren’t criminals, they’re sick,” Mr Goulão has remarked.

Drug manufacture, supply and importation

While habitual users are offered the support they need, drug manufacturers, suppliers and importers continue to face harsh penalties.

There are criminal sanctions for growing a small number of cannabis plants, all the way to severe penalties for suppliers and traffickers.

Results

Despite decriminalising personal drug possession, rates of drug use have not skyrocketed as many predicted.

As this chart shows, drug use increased slightly when measured in 2007 (a trend in line with other, similar countries), but fell thereafter.

Rates of drug use graph

Decriminalisation in Portugal: 15 years of Success

By two out of three measures, adult drug use is now lower than it was in 2001, when the new regime was introduced.

“I think harm reduction is not giving up on people,” said Goulão. “I think it is respecting their timings and assuming that even if someone is still using drugs, that person deserves the investment of the state in order to have a better and longer life.”

The number of deaths from drug overdoses has fallen dramatically to just 3 for every million residents. The rates in other countries are 10.2 per million in the Netherlands to 44.6 per million in the U.K., all the way up to 126.8 per million in Estonia. The E.U. average is 17.3 per million.

Decriminalisation in Portugal: 15 years of Success

One of the most startling trends in Portugal is the fall in deaths from HIV and AIDS. In 2001, the country’s drug using population was in the midst of a public health crisis, with rates of HIV and AIDS rapidly increasing.

The emphasis on harm reduction has been instrumental in reversing this trend. As depicted in the chart below, there has been a huge reduction in the number of drug users diagnosed with HIV and AIDS.

The rate of new HIV infection fell dramatically from 1,016 cases to only 56 in 2012.

HIV and AiDS with drug use graph

Decriminalisation in Portugal: 15 years of Success

The Portugese experience demonstrates that decriminalisation does not have the disastrous consequences predicted by conservative detractors for the approach, many of whom have since changed their views.

As the Transform Drug Policy Institute says in its analysis of Portugal’s drug laws, “The reality is that Portugal’s drug situation has improved significantly in several key areas. Most notably, HIV infections and drug-related deaths have decreased, while the dramatic rise in use feared by some has failed to materialise.”

There is no reason other developed countries like Australia could not reap the same benefits.

Drug use is a health issue, and should not be treated as a crime

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

The authors of an article published in the Medical Journal of Australia have joined the chorus of health experts calling for an emphasis on harm reduction measures and government regulation when it comes to drug use, rather than trying to arrest our way out of the problem.

The peer-reviewed article, titled ‘Beyond ice: rethinking Australia’s approach to illicit drugs’, argues that drug use should be classified as a health issue, rather than a criminal law problem which is dealt with through greater investment in law enforcement and harsher penalties.

Easy access despite punitive measures

The article’s authors, Matthew Frei and Alex Wodak, cite figures which suggest that the demand for ‘ice’ has continued to rise despite the implementation of punitive measures.

The report’s findings are consistent with what many have been saying for years – that the ‘war against drugs’ has been lost.

Surveys suggest that between 2009 and 2014, the percentage of drug users who found it “easy” or “very easy” to obtain ice increased from 65% to 91%. This is despite a concerted effort by law enforcement to stop the manufacture and importation of drugs, which has contributed to drug seizures rising from 160 kg in 2011–12 to almost 1500 kg in 2012–13.

The 2014 Illicit Drug Reporting System found that the mean age for ice users is 40 years, that they are more likely than the general population to be unemployed, and that they generally engage in multiple or polydrug use. This suggests there is a strong demand for the drug amongst seasoned users.

Failure of punitive approach

The focus of the 2016 National Ice Taskforce Report was to evaluate preventative and diversionary initiatives and make recommendations, rather than criminalisation strategies.

Former Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay acknowledged during the taskforce’s deliberations that “we can’t arrest our way out of the problem”.

“Over the past two decades in Australia we have devoted increased resources to drug law enforcement, we have increased the penalties for drug trafficking and we have accepted increasing inroads on our civil liberties as part of the battle to curb the drug trade”, he stated.

“All the evidence shows, however, not only that our law enforcement agencies have not succeeded in preventing the supply of illegal drugs to Australian markets but that it is unrealistic to expect them to do so.”

Skewed priorities

In an attempt to address the issue of drugs, Australian governments have allocated two-thirds of spending on law enforcement, and only 21% on treatment programs, 9% on preventative programs and 2% to harm reduction measures. And importantly, these figures do not take into account the enormous amount of money spent on keeping drug offenders behind bars.

Professor Nicole Lee, from the National Drug Research Institute, told MJA InSight that “while we focus on the use of drugs, we will continue to implement ineffective strategies, such as arresting people for use and possession”, adding, “if we focus on harms, we start to implement effective strategies, including prevention, harm reduction and treatment.”

Prison populations have continued to increase as the war on drugs continues, surging by 16% over the past two years, with the rise primarily attributed to more arrests, tougher bail laws and longer sentences.

And sadly, prison has proven to be an ineffective means of breaking the cycle of crime – with 48% of NSW inmates returning to prison within just two years of release, according to 2014–15 Productivity Commission data.

The way forward

The MJA article calls upon governments to regulate drugs, citing Australia’s success in reducing tobacco consumption through regulatory measures.

Matt Noffs, CEO of the Noffs Foundation, agrees with this approach.

“We banned tobacco advertising, and we’ve done this better than any other country. We made it harder to get and harder to smoke, we made it more expensive, and all of these measures have led to a decrease in smoking and, therefore, a decrease in people being harmed by it”, he remarked.

Dr Wodak believes an important first step is to view drug use as a health and social problem, rather than something we need to punish. “People who need help don’t just need health assistance; they need social help with housing and training in employment,” he said.

Harm reduction

While conservative politicians gawk at a regulatory framework, measures such as methadone programs and injecting rooms have proven to be extremely successful in reducing the harm associated with the use of heroin.

As observed by Professor Lee, “[h]arm reduction strategies such as pill testing, needle syringe programs, early closing for venues selling alcohol and safe injecting facilities significantly reduce harms to people who use alcohol and other drugs and the community”.

The MJA article’s authors note that, “British politician Denis Healey was fond of saying ‘if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging’. It’s time Australia took his advice when responding to illicit drugs.”

‘Lost’ 34 Bags of Cannabis? Police Want to Hear from You

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

Thousands of people are talking about a cheeky social media post by the NSW Police Force depicting 34 garbage bags of cannabis plants, found in bushland in a northern Sydney suburb.

Facebook post

Police published the post on Facebook after finding the cannabis over the weekend.

LOST & FOUND
Does this belong to you? Northern Beaches LAC – NSW Police Force are looking for the owner of 34 garbage bags full of cannabis found in bushland at Terrey Hills. Attend your local police station to claim ownership. We’d love to hear from you.

The post has received more than 30 thousand comments and over 6,000 shares.

A local man who regularly walks in the area said the bags appeared between Friday and Saturday. He originally thought someone had unlawfully dumped garbage, but contacted police after he looked more closely and realised it was cannabis.

Police arrived to find a mixture of mature plants and seedlings, along with some potting mix and other substances.

Ongoing investigation

The items have been seized for forensic examination. While the bags were only metres from busy Mona Vale Road, it is believed they were dumped from a quiet street behind.

NSW Drug Squad officers are appealing for anyone with information to come forward or to call Crime Stoppers.

Drugs on Sydney’s Northern Beaches

Illicit drugs have been prevalent on the Northern Beaches in recent years, with large hauls of cannabis and other drugs found over the past few months.

Two men were allegedly caught doing a drug deal involving cocaine just prior to Christmas, and the subsequent search of a home in Freshwater is said to have yielded more than $55,000 in cash and small bags containing white powder.

And last November, police reported finding a hydroponic set-up, 18 cannabis plants, cocaine, amphetamines, GHB and cash at a home in Narrabeen. They charged a man with 10 offences, including four counts of possessing a prohibited drug and three counts of drug supply.

In June last, year police allegedly seized nearly 1000 cannabis plants in simultaneous raids at industrial premises at Brookvale and Cromer, with an estimated street value of $3 million.

ABC’s Ice Wars Documentary – Sensationalist Reporting Which Stigmatises Users

The ABC’s Ice Wars documentary purports to illustrate the realities of crystal methamphetamine – or ‘ice’ – use in Australia, but many have expressed concerns about the sensationalism of the programme and its negative portrayal of users.

An ‘Ice Epidemic’?

The first criticism of the documentary is that it exaggerates the impact of ice on society, claiming Australia is “under siege” by the increasing use of a drug that is “tearing at the social fabric” of the nation.

Fleshing out that criticism, drug experts including Dr Nicole Lee, who is an associate professor at the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University, point out that ice is just one of many forms of methamphetamine (or ‘meth’). They emphasise that there has been no overall increase in the use of meth over the past 20 years.

“In fact,” Dr Lee explains, “[the number] has come down, from a high of about four per cent in 1998, and it’s around about two per cent of the population now.”

It is estimated that 2.1% of Australians over the age of 14 have used meth in the last year, and about half of those prefer ice over the powdered form of the drug known as ‘speed’.

This means an estimated 1% of the Australians in that age bracket have used ice over the past year, which critics of the ABC programme suggest does not amount to the country being “under siege” by the drug.

An Addiction Epidemic?

Of the estimated 1% who have used ice over the past year, three-quarters used it less than 12 times during that period. Only 0.25% of the population used the drug at least once per month.

Like many other drug experts, Dr Lee suggests we treat habitual use as a health issue, rather than criminal law problem – an approach which has paid dividends abroad.

Ice-Fuelled Violence Epidemic?

While accepting the use of ice can lead to psychosis and increased aggression, critics of the ABC documentary accuse it of exaggerating the risk.

They point out that that 75% of people who regularly use methamphetamine never experience a psychotic experience, and the same percentage never become aggressive as a result of using the drug.

Obstacle to Reform

Media organisations can wield significant power when it comes to shaping public policy.

There are concerns that exaggerating the dangers and risks associated with the use of drugs will impede the formulation and implementation of policies which reduce harm to users and the community.

It is feared that by pointing the finger at ice and claiming it is “tearing at the social fabric” of society, the media makes it less likely that governments will implement meaningful reforms which, again, have proven in other countries to benefit both users and the general community.

A recent study by the Australian Journal of Psychiatry found that those who use methamphetamines respond at least as well to treatment programs as those who use other types of illegal drugs. Reporting which exaggerates the threat posed by illegal drugs can decrease the likelihood of funding for rehabilitative programs, and lead to an increased emphasis on punitive measures.

Effect of Stigmatisation

Portraying drug users as “the enemy’ and a danger to themselves and society has proven time and again to be counterproductive to rehabilitation.

Indeed, such negative stereotyping makes it less likely that habitual users will seek help to overcome their health problem, and can reduce their self-worth which can, in turn, isolate them from society and make the problem worse.

As Dr Lee points out, a compassionate and understanding approach more likely to reap results.

“Remember it’s not the whole story. And know the people who use methamphetamine and their families are, first and foremost, people. Compassion and a clear head is going to solve this problem. Not fear and stigma”, Dr Lee says.

“When the public come at the problem from compassion, and not fear and voyeurism, it is clear that investment in treatment and support provides far better economic, health and social outcomes than policing, courts and prisons.”

Most Australians Want Pill Testing, but the NSW Government Won’t Budge

Twenty one people were taken to hospital in Melbourne last Saturday night, after overdosing at the Electric Parade Music Festival on what is suspected to have been the powerful depressant gamma-hydroxybutyrate, commonly known as GHB.

This occurred a little over a month after three people died and at least 20 were hospitalised after overdosing on a toxic batch of MDMA pills being sold in nightclubs around Melbourne’s Chapel Street.

Not surprisingly, both these incidents have led to renewed calls to implement trials of drug checking services, or pill testing, at music festivals and nightclub precincts.

In response to last Saturday’s incident, Victorian health minister Martin Foley said the state government had no plans to introduce drug or pill testing.

The minister then suggested the government needed to “ramp up” its harm reduction efforts, which strangely is exactly what they’d be doing if they invested in pill testing.

The public call for pill testing

But the health minister’s sentiments fly in the face of what the majority of the public actually wants, according to Will Tregoning executive director of Unharm. He points to the findings of an Essential Media poll released on Tuesday.

The results reveal that 57 percent of Australians support a roll-out of pill testing services, while only 13 percent of those polled opposed the idea. And support was highest amongst those aged 55 and over.

Tregoning was one of the key harm reduction advocates calling for pill testing to be trialled in NSW during this current music festival season. But, with NSW police minister Troy Grant at the helm, there was little chance of this happening. The minister has rejected the idea from the start.

The poll results show that the electorate are a lot more progressive than the government they voted in, Tregoning suggested. And added that the figures represent a “shift in the dynamics of the issue,” as what used to be seen “as a fringe proposal,” now has widespread mainstream support.

“It’s a sign that this makes sense to people. They understand why it’s important,” he explained. “Regardless, of what you think about illegal drugs, it’s important that people who are using these substances can actually find out what’s in them.”

How pill testing would work

Pill testing is relatively easy. Drugs can be checked on the spot at booths set up at music festivals, or at services run on the High Street in areas of town where drug taking is known to be prevalent.

A trained professional takes a minute sample of a substance that’s being checked, and it’s tested using laboratory equipment. The owner of the drug is then provided with information about its contents.

They can then make an informed decision as to whether they want take the drug. Bins are provided for those who wish to safely dispose of what they’ve decided not to ingest.

European nations like the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and Germany have had official pill testing services for decades now. Indeed, the European Union has actually produced pill testing best practice guidelines.

Five reasons to implement this evidence-based approach

As Professor Alison Ritter, leading drug policy researcher at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, outlined in the Conversation there are five vital reasons why pill testing trials should be rolled out.

The first is that pill testing changes the black market. If a bad batch of drugs is out on the streets, word gets around, and people avoid them. The toxic drugs can become the subject of warning campaigns, and eventually dealers stop trying to sell them.

And following on from this, the research shows that the ingredients within drugs being sold on the street begin to be what they’re expected to be. In this way pill testing works as a quality control mechanism. Those making drugs start to become more careful about the quality they produce.

The professor’s third reason is based on research from Austria that shows these services change consumer behaviour. It outlines that 50 percent of people who had their drugs tested said the results affected their choice of whether to consume them.

Two-thirds of these people stated they wouldn’t consume a dodgy drug, and would also warn their friends against doing so.

And another important window of opportunity pill testing opens up is that it provides people utilising the service with access to advice and support that’s provided by the trained professionals in charge.

These people often aren’t experiencing drug problems, and therefore health professionals usually don’t come into contact with them. This initial contact can lay down foundations with these recreational drugs users, which may help them avoid issues further down the track.

And lastly, pill testing allows for the capture of long-term data about the substances that are present on the street. This can create early warning signs for those outside of the drug scene itself, which is important as new psychoactive substances (NPSs) begin to flood the market.

NBOMe

If pill testing had been trialled this festival season, one NPS that would have come to the attention of health professionals would have been NBOMe. This is the hallucinogenic that was mixed with MDMA in caps being sold on Chapel Street that led to the deaths of three partygoers last month.

This NBOMe/MDMA mix is the same concoction that led to the death of footballer Ricki Stephens and the hospitalisation of sixteen others on the Gold Coast last October.

As Will Tregoning put it, the presence of NBOMe is one of the “scariest” developments on the Australian drug scene over recent years.

He’s heard from people involved in European drug checking services and they’ve never heard of NBOMe being mixed with MDMA before. It seems this is a uniquely Australian phenomenon.

“The reason why it’s so dangerous is because NBOMe is often present in very pure forms and the effects are very different from what people would expect from MDMA,” Tregoning explained. He added that people often report having a terrifying sense they’re going to die while under the influence of the drug.

Some positive movement interstate

But while Tregoning holds no hope for pill testing to be trialled in NSW until there’s change of government, he does think that other states such as Victoria and Queensland are more open to the possibility.

Unharm, along with harm reduction campaigner Adriana Buccianti, launched the Tests not Arrests website in October last year. It allows people to email a letter to their local MP informing them as to why they should support pill testing.

Will said they’ve had some rather constructive feedback so far. In particular Queensland health minister Cameron Dick responded to his letter by identifying certain issues that need to be addressed before a pill testing trial can be rolled out.

The minister discussed these ideas “in a way that was constructive and thoughtful, rather than dismissive,” Tregoning concluded. “And that was really exciting thing to see.”