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.
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.