Author Archives: Paul Gregoire

About Paul Gregoire
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on civil rights, drug law reform, gender and Indigenous issues. Along with Sydney Drug Lawyers, he writes for VICE and is the former news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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.”

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.

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.”

Police Raid Another Medical Marijuana Producer

Police have raided another medicinal cannabis producer, who gives away her products free to help patients suffering from chronic pain and seizures. On January 4, South Australia police raided the home of Jenny Hallam and seized products and equipment related to the production of cannabis oil.

Ms Hallam is said to have been producing the medicine for two years and been supplying about 200 patients nationwide.

The 44-year-old’s criminal defence lawyer said her client would be appearing in court at a later date.

The lawyer questioned whether Ms Hallam committed a crime, as her client produces the product for people who need it, she doesn’t grow the cannabis she uses to make the oil, and nor does she sell her product.

A spokeswoman for SA police confirmed the home of a 44-year-old woman in the northern Adelaide suburb of Hillier had been raided and said police had seized “a quantity of chemicals and other substances from the address which will be forensically analysed.”

Concerned parents

Since the raid, parents of dozens of sick children have spoken out about the effect it’s going to have on their kids.

Steve Peek from Brisbane has an eight-year-old daughter Suli who relies on medicinal cannabis to control her seizures. He told the ABC that he’d contacted the SA police who told him they had “done the wrong thing but they had no choice because a complaint had been made.”

The police suggested Mr Peek contact the South Australian ombudsman about the matter.

An unlikely advocate

Since the raid, One Nation leader Pauline Hanson has stepped up as an unexpected advocate for medical marijuana. She announced on Sunday that she’d been in contact with prime minister Malcolm Turnbull calling for an amnesty for producers and users of medicinal cannabis.

Ms Hanson declared on her Facebook page that she has been a long-time advocate of the medicine, “due to its effective relief for so many ailments, conventional drugs can’t offer.”

Ms Hanson is not the only conservative politician to have thrown their weight behind legalised medicinal cannabis. A turning point for many was when then-prime minister Tony Abbott supplied a letter supporting medical marijuana for radio presenter Alan Jones to read on air in September 2014.

Legalising medical marijuana

In February last year, federal parliament passed the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016 allowing for the legal cultivation, manufacture and distribution of medical marijuana.

Under the new system – which came into effect on October 30 last year – businesses can apply for a licence to grow the plant for medicinal purposes. However, many in the community are asking what current medicinal cannabis patients are meant to do while they wait for the legalised products to be rolled out.

The raid on a Newcastle medicinal cannabis dispensary

Last week’s raid follows a similar incident in December when NSW police raided a medical marijuana dispensary in Newcastle. Two hundred and fifteen plants were seized from a hydroponic operation run by a local group called the Church of Ubuntu.

Co-founder of the church Karen Burge told Sydney Criminal Lawyers at the time that they’d been supplying small plants for cancer patients and parents of children with epilepsy to grow at home.

The church was one of the largest suppliers in the country with 2,000 patients.
Ms Burge added that the authorities were well aware of their two year long operation as they’d contacted premier Mike Baird about it in early 2015.

The Hemp party weighs in

Secretary of the Australian Hemp party Andrew Kavasilas said that the raid on Jenny Hallam’s house was terrible. But he expects the police will continue carrying out operations like these.

“It seems this is a sign of the time. This is obviously going to happen more and more over the next ten to twenty years,” Kavasilas told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “Because that’s how long medical cannabis will take to get up and going.”

Kavasilas said a situation will arise where more and more courts and police are going to be wasting their time in pursuing medicinal cannabis producers. “You’ll find that courts find no criminal activity, no criminal intent. So by and large, the criminal justice system doesn’t apply to them and they’ll be treated with leniency,” he outlined.

According to Kavasilas there are around 1,000 medical marijuana supply outlets around the country, and more than 100,000 patients using the medicine at the moment. He added that the laws that have been changed and the amendment of the Narcotics Act has done “nothing to address” these patients concerns.

Advocates call for immediate access

Medicinal cannabis advocates in Queensland are calling on the government to legalise the medicine immediately. In October last year, legislation was passed before state parliament that will allow Queensland doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to patients as of March.

But advocates are saying the wait could actually cost lives.

While in NSW, the state government is conducting several medicinal cannabis trials on chemotherapy patients and children with epilepsy. But again, advocates point out that these programs are slowing down access to the products for patients who need them now.

Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, has questioned why certain trials need to be carried out when a 2012 study identified 82 favourable controlled trials had been held around the world, and only nine unfavourable ones.

However, the doctor has also pointed out that there is a need for continued trials into areas that haven’t been thoroughly researched as yet.

The federal government’s medical marijuana adviser

Questions have also been raised over the appointment of doctor Andrew Southcott to the chair of the new Australian Advisory Council on the Medicinal Use of Cannabis. The former Liberal MP has previously said the drug is “not safe.”

In 2011, when Southcott was the opposition’s spokesperson on primary healthcare, he criticised the “normalisation” of the plant, in response to a Food Standards Australia New Zealand review of the use of hemp as food.

Interim measures

The answer to the current medicinal marijuana access problem is interim measures, according to Kavasilas. He believes the government should sit down with advocates like the HEMP party and discuss what measures could be taken now.

Then the government could take these guidelines to the United Nations and explain that this “is what Australia intends to do in the interim while companies materialise and produce these medical cannabis products,” Kavasilas said

“Bearing in mind that years or decades of medical research in the future may just show that conventional raw cannabis products are far superior to pharmaceutical ones,” he concluded.

Another Preventable Drug-Related Death Occurs at NYE Bush Rave

One man died and two others were on life support after they took an unidentified drug at a New Year’s Eve rave on a remote Mount Lindesay property on the Queensland and New South Wales border.

Queensland police were called out to the YewbuNYE rave at around 10.20 am on Sunday morning due to reports that people were acting erratically after having taken an unknown substance.

Police located five people with adverse reactions and paramedics were called out to the two-day event.

The toll of the unidentified drug

Daniel Towson from the Queensland Ambulance Service told the ABC that one man in his 20s went into cardiac arrest when they arrived. And “they were unable to resuscitate him at the scene after working on him for a very long time.”

Two others were airlifted to the Gold Coast University Hospital and were still in a critical condition on Monday evening. And the last two men who were suffering a bad reaction refused treatment and rushed into the bush. Police were searching for them at the time.

Police confirmed on Monday afternoon that the deceased was 26-year-old Nimbin man Jake Monahan, while the two that have been hospitalised are a 29-year-old Clothiers Creek man and a 25-year-old Nimbin man.

“Demonically possessed”

Up to 500 people were attending the YewbuNYE rave party over the weekend. DJ Zee Nagual, who played at the event on New Year’s Eve, said he’d noticed bizarre behaviour from dozens of revellers.

The DJ said that as he was leaving the event he saw a group of four partygoers acting out of control and looking like they were “demonically possessed.” And others at the festival reported seeing a man thrashing and clawing at the ground.

The police response

Police responded to the incident by setting up roadside drug testing sites on either side of the event. Senior Constable Scott Tragis said five positive drug tests had been returned just after setting up operations.

On Monday, Queensland police announced they were waiting to interview the organisers of the event. They also said that the toxicology test results could take up to anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

The incident on the Gold Coast

A similar incident occurred in October last year when paramedics were called out to treat 21 drug-affected people who were acting erratically on the Gold Coast.

After overdosing on what they thought was ecstasy, 16 people were hospitalised, two of whom were place in an induced coma.

Initial reports indicated that the substance was the so-called zombie drug flakka. But after 27-year-old Victorian football player Ricki Stephens died, toxicology results revealed that he’d taken a cocktail of MDMA and a New Psychoactive Substance, known as NBOMe.

New substances sold as ecstasy

Canberra emergency physician Dr David Caldicott told Sydney Criminal Lawyers at the time that NBOMe is a drug that’s been linked to poisoning, heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure.

Caldicott – one of Australia’s leading harm reduction experts – believes there’s a very real danger with a drug like NBOMe being mixed with MDMA, as people expecting the effects of ecstasy will be confronted with a very different experience.

“If they’re all in the same pill that is absolutely something we need to know,” he said, because what happened on the Gold Coast “could be replicated in anyone of the music festivals all over Australia.”

And sadly, this may be what actually happened on the border of Queensland and New South Wales last weekend.

Calls for pill testing

Sunday’s tragic death prompted Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, to publicly call for pill testing at events like music festivals.

“We should have the courage to test things, like we tested the legal syringe program in the late 1980s, methadone, car seat belts, a whole range of harm reduction measures,” Dr Wodak told the ABC.

Wodak – along with Caldicott and Unharm’s Will Tregoning – announced plans early last year to introduce pill testing trials at NSW music festivals.

This was in response to a tragic spate of six deaths attributed to drug overdoses at festivals around the state over the twelve month period beginning November 2014.

It’s been available in Europe for decades

Per capita Australian adults lead the world in the use of the drug ecstasy, according to UNODC data. But in the Netherlands – where party drug use is also prevalent – stories about people dying are less common.

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

Five reasons to implement pill testing

Writing in the Conversation Professor Alison Ritter of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, listed five reasons why Australia should be implementing a pill testing program.

The first is that it works as a quality control system for the black market. If substances are identified as particularly dangerous – such as the case with NBOMe on the Gold Coast – they will eventually not be found within the contents of drugs being produced.

And overtime the contents of the drugs being produced begins correspond to what’s expected within them.

While the third reason was that research has shown pill testing changes consumers’ behaviour. In Austria, 50 percent of those who had their drugs tested said it had affected their consumption choices.

Another reason is that pill testing services create an opportunity for drug users to come into contact with counsellors who can discuss their substance use with them. And they also allow researchers to capture information about what kinds of drugs are available on the market.

The response of NSW authorities

However, NSW premier Mike Baird dismissed pill testing plans as “ridiculous” in February last year. He told reporters that “we are not going to be condoning in any way what illegal drug dealers are doing.”

While last month, NSW police were slammed for seizing seven pill testing kits during a raid of a shop in the Sydney inner west suburb of Newtown. The testing kits are not illegal under NSW law, but the police took them along with other drug equipment they were seizing.

It’s high time

Drug use is going to continue. Over fifty years of the war on drugs has proven that. The general public has been calling for a system of pill testing that will prevent the deaths of the nation’s young for some time now. And the system has proven effective in Europe for decades.

It’s only the authorities that are preventing this life-saving harm reduction method, which if in place could have prevented the tragic death at last weekend’s bush rave.

Dob in a Dealer or Go to Prison

Queensland paramedics were called out to treat 21 drug-affected people on the Gold Coast over the weekend of October 15-16.

Sixteen people – who’d overdosed on a drug they believed was ecstasy – were hospitalised, two of whom were put into induced comas.

Crime watchdog joins police

Amidst cries of an epidemic of the so-called zombie-drug flakka, Queensland’s crime watchdog announced it was teaming up with Queensland police in their pursuit of drug traffickers and suppliers.

Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) is now utilising its coercive powers to help police detect the suppliers of “a dangerous drug which has caused people to hallucinate and act violently.”

“The timing of it, and that separate groups were impacted, is consistent with an organised crime distribution model,” Kathleen Florian, the CCCs executive director of crime told the ABC.

This is despite the fact that novel psychoactive substances (NPS), such as flakka, are often purchased over the dark web, using cryptocurrencies and sent through the post in small amounts.

Two men have since been charged with drug supply.

The CCCs coercive powers

But what of the CCCs coercive powers? Well, what they mean is that people who’ve been hospitalised after taking drugs can be forced to give evidence about who they got them from.

And if these individuals don’t comply, they can be charged and face the prospect of prison time.

“The idea that the solution is coercive questioning is just disgraceful,” said Canberra emergency physician Dr David Caldicott. “Because there is no place for coercion in drug treatment and management at all.”

He feared people will stop “dropping off their mates at hospitals,” when they’re having an adverse reaction to drugs, because they’ll “be afraid to seek help.”

The “limited amount of collaboration between consumers and any authority: health or law enforcement,” will be driven “further underground,” Caldicott told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.

The long-time harm minimisation advocate says he’s sure no one involved in the healthcare profession in Queensland has been consulted on the issue.

NBOMe

Tragically, Ricki Stephens was pronounced dead last Friday. He was one of the two individuals put into an induced coma after being taking to hospital suffering an overdose.

The 27-year-old Victorian football player thought he was taking an ecstasy pill. But toxicology results indicate he’d taken a cocktail of MDMA and an NPS, known as NBOMe.

NBOMe has been linked to the death of Tasmanian backpacker Rye Hunt, as it is believed he took the drug before dying in Rio Di Janeiro in May this year.

In June 2013, Henry Kwan jumped from a third-floor balcony in the Sydney suburb of Killara whist under the effects of NBOMe.

His friend was cleared of a charge of supplying the synthetic drug, because it wasn’t illegal in Australia at the time.

NBOMe is often described as a synthetic LSD, but it is not. It can produce similar hallucinations, but it’s considered to be a much more dangerous drug.

According to Dr Caldicott, it is a mistake to equate the two drugs, as there’s never been a death attributed LSD, but it’s a different matter for NBOMe.

Dr Caldicott is an expert on the drug, which has caused poisoning, heart attack, strokes and kidney failure.

Novel psychoactive substances

NPS’s have been flooding the market for at least half a decade now. They’re produced in a number of countries, including India and China.

They often mimic the effects of illicit drugs like cocaine, amphetamines and MDMA – and are being produced because the more traditional drugs are illegal.

Although they’re much more common in Europe and the States, a lot of Australian drug consumers are now taking NPS, sometimes unwittingly.

But it’s hard to gauge how many people are taking the drugs, because it’s difficult to detect synthetic substances and new ones are being produced all the time. As soon as health professionals become aware of the makeup of one, another substance becomes available.

NPS’s weren’t illegal when they first entered the Australian market. The government would identify a new synthetic substance and then ban it.

Then a chemist overseas would alter a molecule of the substance, and a new product would be legally presented on the market.

In recent years, Queensland, New South Wales, and South Australia have enacted ‘blanket bans’ on possessing or selling any substance that has a psychoactive effect.

But in some states, authorities still have to identify each individual substance before it can be outlawed.

So while at lot of attention has been focused on “new” drugs such as flakka and NBOMe, they’ve already been around for quite a few years, which is a long time on the NPS circuit.

Dr Caldicott says he first detected flakka – or alpha-pyrrolidinovalerophenone – in Canberra fifteen months ago.

It could happen again

A real danger, in Caldicott’s view, is that if a drug like NBOMe is mixed with MDMA in the same pill, people who are expecting the effects of ecstasy are going to have a very different experience.

“If they’re all in the same pill that is absolutely something we need to know,” he said, because what just happened on the Gold Coast “could be replicated in anyone of the music festivals all over Australia.”

And this is where Queensland law enforcement has got it all wrong with its focus on further criminalising personal drug use and threatening people with imprisonment for not informing on a supplier, who could be a friend, partner or even a family member.

The need for pill testing

There are alternatives that could save the lives of young people who are going to continue to take drugs regardless of what the law says, and that is drug checking, or pill testing as it’s more commonly known in Australia.

More than a decade ago, the Australian Medical Association passed a resolution backing the practice of drug checking, and in March of this year, the Australian Drug Summit produced the Canberra Declaration, which also called for pill testing.

“When you’ve got the entirety of specialists in Australia saying one thing and a group of politicians and their law enforcement colleagues deciding to do something else,” Dr Caldicott said, “that’s disgraceful.”

According to the doctor, drug checking shouldn’t just be relegated to music festivals. As in the Netherlands, people should be able to take their drugs to have them tested at centres in their local area.

The New Zealand model

But there have been other alternatives to dealing with novel psychoactive substances. Take the much lauded and shortly lived New Zealand NPS regulated market.

It came into effect on July 18, 2013 after legislation was passed that created an interim regulated marketplace with 150 licensed retailers selling NPS’s.

The products were subject to recall, based on any adverse reports to the NZ Poisons Centre, and during the time it ran, no deaths were reported.

But on May 8, 2014 the NZ Parliament revoked the interim licences, stating that NPS’s must be proven safe before being made legal.