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Cannabis and Driving: The Unfairness of NSW Drug Driving Laws

On 6 June, the ACT Legislative Assembly Standing Committee on Health tabled its report on Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson’s private member’s bill to legalise the personal possession and use of cannabis in the capital territory.

And the committee outlined that it overwhelmingly supports the legislation, subject to a number of recommendations, the ninth of which being that the “ACT government collaborates with ACT Policing to adopt a cannabis drug driving test that determines impairment”.

The ACT has a similar method of roadside drug testing to the highly derided NSW regime. In this state, NSW police test drivers for the mere presence of a select four drugs, one of which is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC): the psychoactive component of the cannabis plant.

Roadside testing does little for traffic safety, as officers have no way of gauging whether a driver is actually intoxicated. But, it does act as a backdoor method of penalising people for drug use. And as THC remains in the body for a long time, penalties can relate to consumption weeks prior.

But, over in the States, where cannabis use is increasingly the norm, authorities aren’t concerned with penalising people over what’s an accessible legal medicine in 33 states, while in 10 states and the District of Columbia, it’s a lawful recreational drug that a quarter of the population can use.

Instead, the US government and policing agencies are now focusing on how THC affects an individual’s driving capacity, and whether these effects make drivers more prone to causing traffic accidents.

Two very different drugs

“That marijuana usage increases a driver’s risk of crashing is not clearly established,” wrote David Randall Peterman, a US analyst in transportation policy. Some studies, he found, estimate “a small increase” in the risk of crashing, while others “estimate little or no increase in the likelihood”.

Mr Peterman detailed his findings in the Congressional Research Service report Marijuana Use and Highway Safety, which was tabled in US Congress on 14 May this year. The Congress-commissioned report provides a summary of relevant research into driving after cannabis use.

The analyst points out that as the legal use of cannabis grows, so too do concerns over its impact on road safety in a similar way to alcohol. Although, he determines that the differences in the effects of the two drugs, may challenge the assumption of simply treating cannabis and drink driving the same.

While alcohol is a depressant absorbed into the blood and metabolised quickly, with almost no traces within 24 hours, THC is a stimulant that’s metabolised rapidly as well, however it’s stored in the fat cells, so traces can still be present several weeks after consumption.

Difficult to pin down

As of last month, 18 US states have enacted laws that test for specified levels of THC in a driver’s body. If these are exceeded it constitutes driver impairment and is therefore unlawful. This is similar in the way that driving with 0.08 blood alcohol content or over is illegal in the States.

However, despite these laws, Peterman finds that determining THC impairment levels is not as straightforward as it is with alcohol. While the psychoactive part of THC drops dramatically after an hour of use, due to the way it’s metabolised the non-psychoactive traces remain for weeks.

Other reasons why the effects of THC on driving performance are relatively unknown is the until recently complete illegality of the drug, the fluctuating THC potency between plants, as well as the different effects it can produce through various methods of ingestion.

And the results from studies on the association between cannabis use and crash risk are also “inconsistent”. Peterman cites one study that found the increased risk of crashing after its use was 1.83 times that of an unimpaired driver, while another study found no association at all.

Safer than alcohol

A 2017 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration driving simulator study found that cannabis-dosed drivers took fewer risks than when they weren’t under the influence of the drug. And it was surmised that drivers conscious of their state drove more carefully to compensate.

The NHTSA researchers also found that drivers who had been drinking “tended to drive faster than the speed limit”, drove closer to the car in front of them, and in general, took more risks than when they weren’t under the effects of alcohol.

Although, a 2017 National Academy of Science report and a 2018 National Institutes of Health study both found that cannabis use increased the risk of motor vehicle accidents. The NAS report found there was substantial statistical evidence to support the heightened risk.

A standard still eludes

Peterman recommended that the US Congress continues to invest in research on “whether a qualitative standard can be established that correlates the level of THC in a person’s body and the level of impairment”, as well as collecting better data in regard to cannabis and driver use of it.

“The concentration of THC in a person’s blood rises rapidly after consumption, then drops rapidly, within an hour or two,” Peterman concluded towards the end of his report. “Impairing effects appear rapidly, but may remain for some time.”

And due to this, the analyst states that the amount of THC in a person’s body is a poor indicator of impairment, or, indeed, whether the individual has actually used it recently or whether they were “simply exposed to second-hand smoke”.

An unjust drug war tactic

Recently, Lismore Magistrate David Heilpern ruled that Nicole Spackman was not guilty of drug driving, because the THC in her system was due to passive smoking. And in 2016, he found Joseph Carrall innocent of the same charge because he last smoked a joint nine days prior to testing.

Throughout the state, there’s a growing awareness that the NSW roadside drug testing regime is a flawed system that’s unjustly punishing people for cannabis driving whilst they’re not actually under the influence of the drug.

And while the US report sets out that there’s no clear way to determine the effects of cannabis use on driver performance as yet, it’s very clear in the assertion that THC is a substance that stays present in the body for weeks after it no longer has an impairing effect upon an individual.

So, the only conclusion to draw is that regardless of its initial aim, today, roadside drug testing in NSW is being used to penalise a great many drivers for using medicine legally, or having traces of an inactive illegal substance in their body, which in some cases is through no fault of their own.

Drug Prohibition in Australia: Power, Politics and Prejudice

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

The NSW government is continuing its hard-line approach towards the use and possession of illegal drugs, increasing the presence of police at music festivals and refusing to implement harm minimisation initiatives such as pill testing.

Premier Berejiklian and her cohorts continue to spout the rhetoric used by prohibitionists for generations – that drugs are illegal due to the fact they are dangerous, and harm reduction measures will send the message that taking these substance is permissible, thereby encouraging their use.

But the fact of the matter is that drugs are not criminalised due to their dangers, but for reasons based in power, politics and prejudice.

Lack of correlation between harm and criminalisation

A study by Professor David Nutt, Dr Leslie King and Dr Lawrence Phillips on behalf of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs conducted a ‘multicriteria decision analysis’ of 20 drugs, applying 16 criteria to determine the harm they pose, nine of which related to harms to the user and seven to harms towards others.

The criterion included damage to health, economic cost and links to crime. Each drug was given an overall harm score, and the results came as a surprise to many.

The study found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most harmful drug overall is alcohol. And despite the vast number of deaths every year due to illnesses caused by cigarettes, with all their contaminants, tobacco came in at sixth. Of course, both of these drugs are legal.

Illegal drugs took the second to fifth positions, descending from heroin at number two, to crack cocaine, methamphetamine and cocaine.

However, it is notable that many illegal drugs – such as MDMA (‘ecstacy’), ketamine and LSD – were assessed to be less than one-seventh as harmful as alcohol and, perhaps more importantly for prohibition purposes, were less than one-twentieth as harmful to others as alcohol.

Brief history of criminalisation

Australians in the nineteenth century were among the world’s largest consumers of opiates, in the form of patent medicines. Laudanum, for example, was a mixture of opium and alcohol and was administered to children.

And before federation in 1901, very few laws regulated the use of drugs in Australia.

The first Australian drug laws were patently racist in nature. A law in 1857 which imposed restrictions on opium was expressly aimed at discouraging the entry of Chinese people into the country.

Further restrictions were passed in 1897 which prohibited any use of opium by Indigenous, while other members of the population were allowed to possess and smoke the drug until 1908.

More restrictions came about to maintain relations with the United States. Influenced by temperance activists, US President Theodore Roosevelt convened an international opium conference in 1909, which eventually resulted in the International Opium Convention.

Australia became a signatory to the convention in 1913, and by 1925 the Convention had expanded to include the prohibition of opium, morphine, heroin, cocaine, and cannabis.

The initial criminalisation of marijuana also had a racist element, and was a poor excuse for curing a social ill.

Powerful media magnate William Randolph Hearst claimed that “marihuana” was responsible for murderous rampages by blacks and Mexicans, and disrupting the fabric of traditional society, and Hearst ensured his newspapers propagated those views.

Of course, alcohol prohibition was tried and failed in various parts of Australia around the time of the Great Depression. The Temperance Movement which led to greater regulation and, in some places, prohibition led to an increase in criminal activity and was eventually abandoned – with the power and influence of the Aussie drinking culture winning in the end, despite the drug’s harms.

The first wave of broader drug criminalisation in Australia was unconcerned with recreational drugs, which only became used more commonly used in the 1960s.

Drugs were primarily regulated under the various Poisons Acts of the states, reflecting the need to control the use of medicinal substances, rather than criminalising use.

But by the 1970s, all Australian states had enacted laws that made distinctions between possession, use and supply.

Start of harm reduction strategies

In 1985, the federal and state governments adopted a National Drug Strategy with a view to addressing the issue of drug misuse.

The strategy placed a heavy emphasis on prohibition and policing, but also recognised the need for harm reduction initiatives.

Australian governments, however, have invested the vast majority of resources into prohibition and enforcement, with a recent study finding that just 2% of funds go towards harm reduction, while a whopping 66% are spent in law enforcement alone.

Failure of the war on drugs

Drug prohibition has failed, however, to reduce consumption.

In fact, a substantial 43% of Australians admit to having tried an illicit drug at least once in their lifetimes – technically making them criminals, albeit undetected ones.

Professor Nicole Lee, from the National Drug Research Institute remarked 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.”

Other countries, including Portugal, have moved away from a prohibitionist model and reaped enormous financial and social benefits as a result.

But as Australia continues to invest hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars a year on drug law enforcement and incarceration, the above study is a salient reminder that prohibition is an irrational policy dictated by considerations other than the harms created by particular substances.

Cannabis Legalisation Must be Accompanied By Overhaul of Drug Driving Laws

By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

The ACT looks set to be the first jurisdiction in the country to legalise recreational cannabis use, which will bring the capital territory into line with ten US states, as well as the entire nations of Canada and Uruguay.

ACT Labor MLA Michael Pettersson introduced the Personal Cannabis Use Bill that legalises the possession of up to 50 grams of cannabis and the home cultivation of up to four plants. This legislation is currently before a parliamentary inquiry, which will table its report by 6 June.

“The committee is undertaking it’s work diligently. And I’m confident that the bill has the in-principle support of a majority of MLAs,” Mr Pettersson told Sydney Criminal Lawyers on Tuesday. “I have watched the testimony so far and am confident we are able to legalise cannabis for personal use.”

The Labor backbencher added that “the inquiry has generated a lot of interest from the public and that’s reflected in the submissions”. And one of these, which is from the ACT Law Society, has raised the issue around cannabis legalisation and the unfair drug driving laws in Canberra.

The association that represents the local legal profession has pointed out that drug driving laws, as they stand in the ACT, aren’t justifiable when it comes to cannabis, as, just like in NSW, police aren’t testing for driver impairment, but rather they test for the mere presence of the drug.

Minute traces in saliva

Section 20 of the Road Transport (Alcohol and Drugs) Act 1977 (ACT) (the Act) provides that it’s an offence to drive with “a prescribed drug in a person’s oral fluid or blood”. Under the current regime, ACT police test drivers’ saliva for the presence of a drug, meaning minute traces can read positive.

The dictionary of the Act outlines that there are three prescribed drugs that police are testing for: MDMA, amphetamines and THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis. This is the same as what NSW police were doing until it added cocaine to its testing regime in July last year.

Section 19 of the Act stipulates that a driver has broken the law if they have a “prescribed concentration of alcohol” in their “blood or breath”. This relates to police randomly breath testing drivers for levels of alcohol in their blood scientifically proven to lead to impairment.

The four levels of prescribed alcohol concentration are set out in section 4E of the Act. Most licence holders are permitted to drive with level 1 – up to 0.05 – in their system. But, no individual can drive with the higher levels in their blood. And as the concentrations increase, so too do the penalties.

In its submission to the inquiry, the ACT Law Society put forth that “that drug driving laws should apply in circumstances where a person is impaired and/or intoxicated by cannabis”. And it further recommends that section 20 be amended to reflect this is the case for that drug.

The “harshest” in the land

The ACT Law Society further asserts that the territory has the “harshest drug driving penalties in Australia and that the penalties imposed for committing a drug driving offence are more punitive than those for drink driving”.

An example of this, the Society points out, is that a first time offender “with a small amount of cannabis in their system” – which doesn’t mean they’re impaired – is subject to the same maximum penalty – a fine of $1,500 – as a repeat level 2 drink driving offender.

Further, a first time offender caught with a level of cannabis in their system that may not mean they’re under the influence whatsoever, automatically has their licence disqualified for 3 years, which is the same penalty a first time level 4 drink driving offender receives.

“The penalties imposed for committing a drug driving offence are disproportionate because they do not account for levels of cannabis impairment and intoxication,” the authors of the submission made clear.

Not impaired, but charged

“In our view,” the Society continued, “the higher penalties for committing a drug driving offence may be justifiable in circumstances where a person is impaired and/or intoxicated due to consuming a ‘hard drug’… but not when a person drives with a low-level of cannabis in their body.”

There have been cases in the past where people have gone before the courts under extraordinarily suspect circumstances. A senior ACT public servant tested positive for THC after being pulled over on her motorbike back in 2013.

The woman risked losing her job and the strict national security clearance that came with it. She was eventually given a non-conviction order after spending nine months in court claiming the low levels of THC in her system resulted from some muesli she’d been eating that contained hemp seeds.

And then there was the 2016 NSW Joseph Carrall case. Lismore magistrate David Heilpern found that Carrall was not guilty of drug driving after he’d tested positive for THC in a roadside test, as the man hadn’t smoked any cannabis for nine days prior to testing on the advice of a police officer.

Calls from the AFP union

Australian Federal Police Association president Angela Smith told the ABC that the technology the police are using can only give a positive or negative reading. And if the technology “could be developed, drug driving should be treated with low and high range tiers similar to drink driving”.

And there’s good news in this regard, as this technology does exist. The police in Norway are currently utilising it. In that country, authorities have been testing drivers for impairment levels in regard to 20 licit and illicit non-alcohol drugs since February 2012.

This includes the three illicit substances that ACT policing are presently testing local drivers’ saliva for traces of, as well as a range of prescription benzodiazepines that have been shown to be present in the bloodstreams of more drivers who cause crashes in NSW than THC.

So, it seems that it’s high time for police in the ACT, and indeed, right around Australia, to invest in technology that can test for drug impairment levels. This would not only improve road safety, but it would also stop authorities using this backdoor method to punish the public for illegal drug use.

NSW Government Continues its War on Music Festivals

By Ugur Nedim and Zeb Holmes

Despite a spate of drug-related deaths at music festivals in Sydney and other parts of New South Wales, the state government remains staunchly opposed to introducing harm reduction measures such as pill testing which have proven remarkably successful in several European countries – to the point where they are now part of the European Community’s best practice guidelines.

Instead, Premier Berejiklian’s solution appear to be pricing and regulating the events out of existence.

Organisers of the cancelled Psyfari music festival posted on their website that the Berejiklian government has “shown no mercy in wiping these events out in order to make a political point”. The festival was set to celebrate its tenth anniversary this year, but could not meet the additional $200,000 required of them at the last minute for additional ‘user pays policing’ fees.

Police are currently charging $127.80 per hour, per officer to ‘service’ festivals and demanding to have large numbers of officers attend – numbers that are unnecessary in the eyes of many.

The Bohemian Beatfreaks festival was similarly hit with a last minute $200,000 policing bill, after previously being quote $16,000 for the 3,000 person event.

And the Rabbits Eat Lettuce festival was forced to relocate across the border to Queensland after being priced beyond viability.

The Director of Byron Bay’s iconic Bluesfest is also foreshadowing a move out of NSW due to exorbitant compliance costs, potentially ending a 30 year tradition.

Yet another victim

Mountain Sounds is a music festival held annually in the Central Coast of NSW since 2014.

It was scheduled to be held this weekend but had to be cancelled due to the “impossible” restrictions and costs imposed by the state government, including (you guessed it) $200,000 in user pays policing costs levied just a week before the event.

“The combination of excessive costs, additional licensing conditions and the enforcement of a stricter timeline left us no option but to cancel the event,” event management advised.

Organisers had already agreed to downsize their site and cancel more than 20 acts to ensure compliance with newly-imposed safety, licensing and security costs.

The final straw was being advised they would need to pay for the constant presence of 45 police officers, despite being advised on 18 January 2019 that they would only need to pay for 11.

Pay up, or ship out

NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge has been a vocal critic of the government’s war on music festivals.

“I’ve had a number of festival organisers speak to me about the way in which the NSW police are increasing putting these exorbitant charges on,” he advised. “They’ve described it as effectively a shakedown by the police demanding obscene amounts of money.”

He explained that in recent years, Local Area Commanders have been treating the user pays policing services as a “cash cow”, and that the Berejiklian government’s festival safety review is now being used “as a means of shutting down music festivals they don’t like”.

Government response

Premier Berejiklian has publicly stated that “I don’t think it’s fair for organisers to blame anybody but themselves.”

There are rules in place,” she remarked. “The festival organisers just have to obey the law. It’s not just about making a quick dollar, it’s also about keeping the people who turn up safe.”

The Premier failed to make mention of the unrealistically short notice given to festival organisers.

Interestingly, Berejiklian seemed to change her tune when it came to Bluesfest, saying she was hopeful the rules would not disrupt the iconic event.

“That festival has been going for 29 years, it’s a fantastic festival, it’s low risk so they don’t have anything to worry about,” she remarked. “I don’t want anyone who’s holding a festival for a long time to be worried, this is not aimed at you.”

Police response

Predictably, NSW Police Minister Troy Grant put the blame for cancellations squarely on festival organisers, calling their logistics “inadequate and incomplete.” This is despite the fact many of the festivals ran perfectly well for many years prior.

Mr Grant went so far as to claim organisers of Mountain Sounds failed to respond to police requests for information. Event management has strenuously denied the claim, stating “Mountain Sounds has never in its six years of operating not responded to the police,” they said.

Those who disagree with the way festivals are being treated point out that part of government’s role is to promote social and cultural events, and that the unrealistic costs and demands placed upon festival organisers are contributing to the state’s regression into the nation’s social wasteland.

Warnings Over Potentially Deadly Party Drug

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

With the festival season in full swing, several reports have emerged about a rise in the use of the party drug ‘monkey dust’ or MDPV, the scientific name for which is 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV.

Monkey dust is reported to have similar effects to stimulants such as ‘ecstacy’ or MDMA, but there are concerns that a ‘hit’, which can cost as little as ten dollars, can have severe adverse effects.

Bath salts by another name

Monkey dust is not new. It is derived from a South African plant called Khat, which can be chewed like a gum and thereby absorbed through the mouth.

It is what’s known as a synthetic cathinone, which is commonly known as concentrated bath salts.

MDVP was developed by pharmaceutical firm Boehringer Ingelheim in the mid-1960s as a central nervous system stimulant. But the drug’s development never got far enough for it to be tested on humans.

It first appeared in internet drug forum discussions around 2005, and its use became increasingly prevalent in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, where it has caused heart attacks, episodes of psychosis and violent behaviour.

While users report euphoria, feelings of empathy (although less than MDMA), increased sociability, mental and physical stimulation, and sexual arousal, the side-effects can include anxiety and paranoia, delusions, muscle spasms, and an elevated heart rate.

In extreme cases, the drug has been linked to rhabdomyolysis – a process whereby the body’s internal organs overheat and shut down.

It has also been linked to brain injury and death. However, the more serious side-effects are likely to result from high doses.

Monkey dust is illegal in Australia

MDPV has been illegal in Australia since 2010, around the same time in many other jurisdictions including the United States, Canada, and much of Europe.

A year after its ban, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported that it has been responsible for thousands of visits to emergency room in the United States. In 2011 alone, there were 22,904 reports of MDPV use during emergency room visits. About two thirds of those visits involved combinations with other drugs.

In addition, poison centres took more than 6,000 calls about exposures to the drug in 2011.

The numbers had declined significantly by 2016, with NIDA reporting 266 reported exposures in the first half of the year.

In its pure form, MDVP is a white crystalline powder, but it can be any shade from off-white to pale brown. It is usually sold as a powder, powder-filled capsules or tablets.

MDVP tends to arrive in Australia from China, where it is legal to produce. It is most commonly used as a filler in ecstasy pills, but it can be ingested on its own – snorted, smoked, taken orally or injected.

Young people are being warned that while the drug might produce a ‘nice high’, it can have serious effects.

Pill testing technology can identify monkey dust

The good news is that MDVP can be identified through mass spectrometry or infrared spectroscopy, which is used in pill testing.

As the pill testing debate rages on, the fact remains that testing substances has the potential to save lives by advising users of the contents of their drugs and allowing them to make an informed decision about whether or not to take them and, if so, how much to take.

And importantly, pill testing tents create a valuable opportunity for health professionals to talk to drug users and better educate them about what they’re putting into their bodies, and even guide them to support services.

So far this season, five young people have died from drug-related causes at Music festivals across the country.

It’s important to remember under all circumstances that possessing, selling and using illegal drugs are criminal offences, with penalties that include prison time.

One night of fun can significantly impact on a person’s future, whether through apprehension and prosecution or by the effects of taking unknown substances.

So stay safe, look after your mates and have a great festival season.

Pressure is Mounting for Pill Testing

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

Summertime in Australia is synonymous with music festivals.

Tragically, it has also become synonymous with preventable deaths at outdoor music events.

Following the deaths at Defqon.1 and Knockout Games of Destiny Festivals in Sydney two more young men have died and several others are in hospital when festival-goers in Coffs Harbour took an ‘unknown substance’.

A Melbourne man has also died after ‘loading up’ on drugs prior to entering an event, hoping to avoid detection by police.

As the drugs being taken are unregulated, the quality and strength can vary enormously, and suppliers will often fill them with potentially deadly ingredients – which cannot be detected without testing.

Pill testing saves lives

Pill testing that is conveniently located inside music festivals proven to drastically reduce or even eliminate deaths from overdoses in European countries.

It first emerged in the early 1990s in the Netherlands – where it is now part of national drug policy – and services are routinely available in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Spain, Portugal and France.

Since it was introduced in Portugal, for example, there have been zero deaths from overdoses. Like other countries, Portugal allows risk-management services to attend major festivals to provide advice about drug use through psychologists, mental health assistants and medics, as well as pill screening services.

And research from Austria  has found that half of the people who use the drug testing service said the results influenced their drug use behaviour. Two-thirds decided not to consume drugs that were shown to have impurities, those who said they took them anyway consumed less, and an overwhelming number said they would warn friends over a drug batch that generated negative results.

Research from New York published just last month showed similar positive results from a campaign of ecstasy testing.

Pill testing works by analysing a small sample of the pill. Results are generally available within half an hour and those working from the tent can provide invaluable advice and guidance to young users.

Pamphlets are often also provided, with advice about seeking help and support for drug use and underlying issues.

Pressure is mounting on Politicians

Despite the proven benefits, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian continues to reject calls for pill testing, making it clear any advice from experts will do nothing to change her stance.

But immense pressure from experts and community groups has some mainstream politicians entertaining the possibility of introducing the life-saving measure.

The New South Wales Labor Party has committed to a ‘drug summit’ if elected in March. Although falling short of saying it will introduce pill testing, the party says it is open to understanding how it could actually work.

In Queensland, the State government has also announced it is open to considering pill testing, partly based on the positive results of a trial at the Groovin’ the Moo music festival in Canberra last year.

Queensland’s opposition party has also announced it would be open to the policy if there was conclusive evidence pill testing would save lives.

Meanwhile, the Greens Party has long been in favour of pill testing.

Even former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer has spoken out, saying “enough is enough” and that clearly the ‘Just Say No’ campaign is not working.

“In responding to tragedy we must sometimes face hard truths. Decades of a punitive approach where we arrest young people has not worked. It is time to take practical steps to make parties safer for our kids,” he told Sydney Criminal Lawyers in a recent interview.

And now, outspoken Anglican priest Rod Bower has weighed into the debate, recently tweeting a photograph of the billboard outside his Gosford church which reads: ‘Just test the damn pills’ (pictured).

Open letter to NSW Government

But it’s also clear that the community is tired of politicians treating young people’s lives as an election platform.

The national campaign for drug reform, Take Control, has written an open letter to the Government which is now circulating online urging a reconsideration of the issue. The letter is currently doing the rounds on social media, attracting thousands of signatures in support.

Indeed, research from the Australian National Council on Drugs (ANCD) suggests that the overwhelming majority of young people are in favour of pill testing.

The controversy remains

But despite the research, pill testing remains controversial for many reasons – mostly due to the old conservative line that it encourages the use of illegal substances.

And some have pointed out that the measure is not completely ‘fail-proof’, because it is not able to identify all substances and cannot force people not to take their drugs.

There are also human factors at play – people can react differently when it comes to ingesting substances.

But the results of Australia’s first pill testing trial at the Groovin’ the Moo Festival in Canberra last year proved the merits of pill testing locally.

Of the 128 festivalgoers who had their drugs tested, five people tossed theirs into the amnesty bins provided, thinking it was best not to take the chance on consuming them, after they’d received the test results provided by the medical staff onsite.

Drugs belonging to two revellers were actually found to contain N-Ethylpentylone, an often lethal stimulant responsible for mass overdoses in Europe. So, the pill testing service potentially saved these individuals’ lives.

And for many Australians, this type of evidence together with the success of pill testing in other countries is enough to work towards minimising the harm here.

Legalising Cannabis Does Not Lead to a Rise in Crime

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

An extensive study conducted in the United States suggests that legalising cannabis has not led to a rise in either property crime or violent crime.

The research adds further credibility to calls for cannabis legalisation in Australia, helping debunk the conservative myth that cannabis use leads to criminality.

Imprisoning the indigent

The US currently imprisons nearly 2.3 million people, which is the largest prison population on earth.

A significant portion are behind bars for low level offending, including repeated low level drug offences such as drug possession.

The nation disproportionately imprisons the poorest and most vulnerable, including African and Latino Americans, and mandatory sentencing policies such as ‘three strikes’ laws ensure low level felonies lead to lengthy prison sentences, even life imprisonment.

The study

The recent study, published in the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization, used crime rate data from 1988 to 2013 from states which initially decriminalised medicinal cannabis, many of whom proceeded to legalise the use and possession of the drug.

Researchers compared that data with year-by-year averages from states which did not legalise the plant, finding no discernible difference.

The Californian experience

California was the first jurisdiction in the United States to legalise medicinal cannabis in 1996, with 30 states and the District of Columbia later following in its footsteps.

Over the period of the study, violent and property crime rates have dropped by 20%.

It is important to note that, as is the case in NSW, these types of crimes have been falling throughout the US for over 30 years – and it is certainly not suggested that legalisation is a primary reason behind the reduction.

However, it should also be noted that crime rates in California have fallen at a faster rate than states that did not legalise the medicinal or recreation use of the plant, and that research has found that legalisation has now all-but destroyed the black market for the drug in the state, crushing a number of Mexican drug cartels and even leading some go out of business – with their violent crimes going with them.

The law on drug possession in New South Wales

Drug possession remains a crime in our state.

The maximum penalty for possession a prohibited drug, such as cannabis, is two years in prison and/or a fine of $2,200.

For a person to be found guilty, the prosecution needs to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he or she:

  • Had physical possession or control of a prohibited drug,
  • Knew or reasonably believed it was there, and
  • Knew or reasonably believed the substance was a prohibited drug.

If a person pleads guilty or is found guilty of cannabis possession, the magistrate can exercise his or her discretion not to impose a criminal conviction (criminal record) but, instead, dismiss the charge under section 10(1)(a) of the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999 (NSW) or place the person on a Conditional Release Order without conviction for up to two years.

Cannabis cautioning scheme

Since the year 2000, NSW has had a cannabis cautioning scheme which allows police officers to exercise their discretion in certain situations not to send people to court for possessing cannabis.

Police can only issue a cannabis caution to adults who have not previously been convicted of a drug offence, a sexual offence or an offence of violence.

A caution is only available for possessing under 15 grams of cannabis, and only two cautions can be administered upon any person.

Medicinal cannabis in New South Wales

Although laws have been passed in our state to legalise medicinal cannabis, it has proven to be far more difficult to access than in places like California, not to mention much more expensive.

In NSW, both the cannabis prescriber and product itself are required to go through the arduous process of registration and licensing.

It is legal for those suffering certain medical conditions to access medicinal cannabis under clinical trials or the Special Access and Authorised Prescriber Schemes administered by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TPA).

As of October 2018, the TPA has approved the following medical conditions:

  • chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
  • refractory pediatric epilepsy
  • palliative care indications
  • cancer pain
  • neuropathic pain
  • spasticity from neurological conditions
  • anorexia and wasting associated with chronic illness (such as cancer).

Just legalise it

Neither of the major political parties, whether on a state or federal level, support the broader legalisation of cannabis.

The Greens is the only party with seats in federal parliament to have announced a policy to legalise the use and possession of the plant across Australia.

The plan is to make cannabis available through an “Australian Cannabis Agency”, which would have the sole responsibility for distributing the product.

The new Agency would issue licendes for production and sale, as well as monitor retailers.

It would also be responsible for collecting a tobacco-style tax from consumers, which would then be used for education and treatment programs.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has criticised the, asserting the (widely disproven) claim that cannabis is a “gateway drug” to other “harder drugs”.

“We do not believe it is safe, responsible or something which should be allowed”, Mr Hunt stated.

Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has accused the Greens of generating “political clickbait”, making clear he does not support broader legalisation.

Bumper Summer for Music Festivals, but Still No Pill-Testing in NSW

The summer season of music festivals about to start across NSW, and the state continues to attract big name acts and high profile events like the Rolling Loud Hip Hop Festival, which is expected to bring thousands of fans to Sydney early next year.

In the meantime, despite acknowledging that music festivals are a strong part of Australian culture, and benefitting from their money-making potential, the State Government continues to beef up police numbers and resources including sniffer dogs to stop drug use. And there is still no sign of pill testing.

Instead, two months ago, the NSW State Government announced a range of new initiatives for combatting drug use at music festivals including on-the-spot fines of up to $500 for drug possession and tougher penalties for dealers who supply drugs to people who die.

At this point the Government says it us working through other issues with the legislation such as the penalties for someone who gives drugs to a friend.

‘Throwing the book’ at dealers won’t help

Many pill-testing advocates are angry that the plan simply ‘throws the book’ at dealers and does nothing address the idea of reducing risk and minimising harm for those people who will take drugs.

This is because when the Government had an opportunity to listen to pill-testing experts it didn’t do so.

After the deaths of two people at Defqon1late last year, the New South Wales Government went into ‘damage control’ and assembled a panel of experts briefed with the task of making music festivals ‘safer’. At the time, many hoped that it heralded a change in mood by the state politicians, but Premier Gladys Berejiklian swiftly made it clear that the panel would not be considering the merits of pill testing because the Government didn’t support it.

In recent weeks NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller has further inflamed the situation by saying that the belief that pill-testing was going to save lives is a ‘myth’.

But in fact, results from Australia’s first sanctioned pill-testing trial at the Groovin the Moo Festival in Canberra earlier this year proved that not only could free pill testing services actually be provided without encouraging more people to take illicit substances, but it prompted some to throw their drugs away.

Of the 128 festivalgoers who had their drugs tested on the spot by laboratory-grade equipment, five people tossed theirs into the amnesty bins provided after receiving the test results provided by the medical staff onsite.

Pill-testing can save lives

Drugs belonging to two revellers were found to contain N-Ethylpentylone, an often lethal stimulant, responsible for mass overdoses in Europe potentially saving these two individuals lives.

Pill testing has been available in several European countries including the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Spain and France for some time, and was more recently introduced in the UK. And the results show that not only does pill-testing have the ability to save lives, it has positive effect that goes beyond saving lives.

Outcomes of pill testing over seas

The experience in some parts of Europe has been that over time, pill-testing has actually changed the black market in positive ways – potentially lethal ingredients which were the subject of warning campaigns were seen to leave the market.

Specific research from Austria shows that 50% of people who had their drugs tested said the results affected their consumption choices. Two-thirds said they wouldn’t consume the drug and would warn friends in cases where there were negative results.

In the UK, two-thirds of users consulted by not-for-profit testing service The Loop said they would not take drugs found to contain harmful substances. More than half said test results had affected their consumption choices and many said they intended to dispose of their drugs or take less of them.

Another less measurable benefit is that pill-testing booths provide an opportunity to reach an otherwise unreachable, but high-risk group of recreational drug users and provide both communication and education about their lifestyle choices as well as information about drug support services. According to testers and healthcare professionals, pill testing not only gave users a chance to know what they’re really taking but also to engage with health professionals about their drug use outside of a very formal medical setting.

In Europe, pill testing has also facilitated the capturing of long-term data about the substances in drugs as well as drug use.

Meanwhile in NSW, the Government is still doing what it has always done in response to this issue – throw more resources and tougher problems – an approach that has so far, had little effect on solving the problem.

When will the Government listen?

Of course, harm minimisation programmes like pill-testing are not a panacea by any means. They are highly controversial, mostly because people think that they will encourage more drug takers or remove the stigma’ that’s associated with taking illegal substances, and that by agreeing to pill testing is turning a ‘blind eye’ to those who break the law.

But in NSW, the traditional ‘zero tolerance’ approach is not working, and many believe that we will continue to have, more tragic and unnecessary deaths from drug taking at music festivals unless we try a new approach.

Experts are frustrated that despite all the proven benefits of pill-testing, the NSW Government flatly refuses to even trial it. And the community is getting weary too – many young Australians

are highly supportive of pill testing; a finding consistent with young people’s overall views about drugs: they want better information in order to make informed choices.

Defies Logic: Premier Will Intensify the War Against Drugs to Make People Safer

By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

Following the tragic drug-related deaths of two young people at the Defqon.1 festival in September, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian tasked an expert panel with investigating how to improve safety at events like music festivals.

And in true Coalition style, Ms Berejiklian announced last week that her government had accepted in-principle the recommendations made by the panel in its report, which means she’s going to double down on failing drug war tactics.

The premier explained that in order to create a safer environment for young people at festivals, the government will be creating a new offence that will make dealers responsible for the deaths of people who buy drugs from them and subsequently die.

As well, to “ensure that offenders face swift and certain justice”, the government will be trialling on-the-spot fines of up to $500 for festivalgoers found in possession of illegal drugs.

Although the initial reaction to the announcement was disbelief, it’s hardly too surprising. The expert panel was comprised of NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller, NSW chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant and Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority chair Philip Crawford.

And what’s more, the panel made clear in their report that Berejiklian had told them prior to their investigation that her government “has no tolerance for illegal drugs and pill testing is not within the terms of reference”.

Counterproductive policing

President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation Dr Alex Wodak stressed that increased policing won’t achieve its stated aims. He outlined that “senior and experienced police” have been asserting that “saturation policing doesn’t have a significant effect on drug availability”.

The doctor said that initially this admission came from retired police, including commissioners. But, these days, serving officers are beginning to admit saturation policing doesn’t work. “The political elite have also known this for at least a decade or two,” he added.

Indeed, there’s a growing number of former high-level police officers calling for a different approach to be taken to illicit substances than the one the NSW premier advocates for. The list includes former AFP commissioner Mick Palmer and ex-NSW police commissioner Ken Moroney.

And Dr Wodak further pointed out that “the two deaths that sparked this reaction occurred when saturation policing – plus sniffer dogs – had already been provided”. There was a huge police presence at the Defqon.1 festival in September, with 180 police officers deployed at the event.

Increased penalties = increased profits

The expert panel’s seventh recommendation was that a new offence of drug supply causing death be introduced. The premier said she believes the maximum penalty for this crime should be set between 10 years, and the 25 years for manslaughter.

But, Dr Wodak warns that this proposed law is likely to make selling drugs more profitable. “Dealers will raise their prices to compensate for the increased risk,” he explained. “If drug prices rise, so will profits.”

And in his estimate, once the profits increase, then they’ll be more “wannabe drug dealers” lining up as “the higher profits justify the increased risk”. And as more drug dealers appear on the scene, the obvious result would be that more drugs are sold.

“The drug market is the Achilles heel of drug prohibition,” Dr Wodak added. “That’s why political conservatives were so prominent in early support for drug law reform.”

Increasing the harms at festivals

The use of highly-ineffective drug detection dogs at music festivals has long been criticised, as their presence actually leads festivalgoers to partake in dangerous drug taking practices.

These include preloading, which is when an individual takes all of their drugs prior to an event to avoid being found in possession of them. And another detrimental effect is panic overdosing, which is when a person consumes all of their drugs at once on seeing a sniffer dog operation.

There’s been at least two recorded incidents panic overdosing in NSW, one of which was the death of James Munro at the Defqon.1 festival in 2013.

Now, if some young people attending a festival are aware that there will be police officers making the rounds of the event issuing $500 fines for drug possession, it might seem like a good idea to take all of their drugs before arrival, which, of course, could lead to overdose.

And it also seems very likely that the immediacy of an on-the-spot fine could further compel an individual who’s holding drugs at a festival and spots a drug dog to take an amount of drugs at once that could prove fatal so as to avoid the penalty.

An evidence-based approach

“Drug law enforcement has a poor record. It’s usually ineffective, often counterproductive and always expensive. In contrast, harm reduction is just the opposite,” Dr Wodak continued. “So, pill testing has a much better chance of saving lives and money.”

These days, the majority of Australians support the roll out of pill testing services at music festivals. These setups allow festivalgoers to have their drugs tested by laboratory-grade equipment and then make an informed decision about whether to take them.

The first government-sanctioned Australian pill testing trial took place at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival in April this year. The drugs of two individuals who used the service were found to contain a substance that can prove lethal, meaning the service potentially saved both their lives.

European nations have been employing this life-saving method for decades now. In countries like the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain individuals can have their drugs checked at events or at permanent sites. In fact, the European Union has produced pill testing best practice guidelines.

So, many were dumbfounded when the state’s top cop Mick Fuller got on the microphone last week and stated that pill testing was a “myth” and there was “no science behind” it.

The broken law enforcement approach

Dr Wodak said that Ms Berejiklian antics were reminiscent of the famous nursery rhyme, where extra resources were thrown at something that cannot be fixed. “The Premier will now double the King’s horses and double the King’s men to see whether she can put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

“This isn’t a policy,” the doctor went on. “It’s a political strategy.” And he questioned whether it was her lack of support in the Coalition or her imminent defeat in the next election that was leading her to conduct this “drug policy grandstanding”.

“Whatever the reason is it’s hard to believe she really expects this is going to make any difference to protecting young people,” Dr Wodak concluded.

Canada Legalises Cannabis, But There’s Not Enough to Go Around

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

Less than a week after Canada legalised recreational cannabis, the country is running out of weed.

Licensed dispensaries are struggling to keep up with demand, with some forced to post “out of stock” signs and close shop.

Canada is only second country in the world behind Uruguay to legalise (rather than just decriminalise) the use and possession of cannabis, and the world has been watching with interest as legislators rework laws, as the economy gets a boost, the black market shrinks and the government begins to reap the financial benefits of new types of taxes on private suppliers, taxes on purchases, general income tax from private cannabis-related businesses and income from state-owned businesses.

New laws

Canadians over the age 18 or 19 (depending on the province) are now allowed to possess up to 30 grams of cannabis, while households can grow up to four plants.

Canadians can also purchase the drug and related products at dispensaries, and order them through websites or shops. Some suppliers are state-owned while others are owned privately. Anyone caught selling the drug to minors will face up to 14 years in prison.

The new laws also effectively pardon those with convictions for possessing less than 30 grams of the drug.

Despite cannabis being legalised on 17 October, it’s understood that some customers began pre-ordering supply as early as September.

Statistics suggest that 5.4 million Canadians will buy cannabis from licensed dispensaries this year – which is about 15 per cent of the population.

Demand exceeds supply

A study released earlier this year by the University of Waterloo and the CD Howe Institute foresaw a supply shortage, predicting licensed producers would only be able to meet about 60 per cent of demand in the first year of legalisation.

Many who’ve missed out are angry, and growers have been unable to say exactly when they will be able to meet the demand. There are now concerns about what will happen over the coming months, as only 111 stores of a planned 250 opened their doors in time, and many of those that opened have now had to shut down due to a shortage in product. The remaining stores are set to launch by 2019, provided there is enough stock.

The Canadian cannabis market is estimated to be worth around $4.2 billion a year, and the government projects collecting nearly $300 million in taxes as a direct result of legalisation.

The government also expects to make hundreds of millions of dollars through saving money that would otherwise be spent on enforcing laws and putting offenders for small possession and limited cultivation through the judicial process.

But, the government has always maintained that one of the major reasons for introducing reform has been to bring black market operators into a regulated system, and to prevent younger people from accessing cannabis.

Implementing legalisation

Medicinal cannabis has been legal in Canada since 2001, with the Trudeau government spending the last two years working towards legalisation for all purposes. This required amended existing laws, enacting new ones, setting up a licencing scheme and formulating guidelines for distribution and sale.

Licensees are subject to strict advertising rules, similar to those relating to tobacco, and the plant can only be sold in plain packaging of a single, specified colour.

Other countries

Uruguay became the first country to legalise cannabis use and possession in 2013. In the United States, nine states and the District of Columbia have legalised the plant.

But despite moves in Australia to make medicinal marijuana legal, there are no plans by the major parties to legalise the plant for recreational use – as jurisdictions continue to criminalise the possession, cultivation and sale of cannabis.