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Drug Supply Charges for Cough Medicine Ingredient Dismissed

By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

Matthew Woods and his co-accused Phillip Kandarakis were arrested in April 2014, and charged with the supply of a prohibited drug under section 25(2) of the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act (DMT Act).

Officers from Strike Force Taipan executed a warrant at Barrack Heights, where they seized 4,993 grams dextromethorphan. The weight was not less than the large commercial quantity of the drug.

The pair were charged with supplying the drug between 20 March and 2 August 2013. The maximum penalty for the offence of supplying a large commercial quantity of a prohibited drug is life imprisonment and/or a fine of $550,000.

Dextromethorphan is a common active ingredient in over-the-counter cough medicine. On the streets, the drug is known as “dex,” or “poor man’s PCP.” The drug can produce a euphoric or hallucinogenic effect on those who use it.

The quantity found at Kandarakis’ property had been sourced in India, and then forwarded to Sydney. It was claimed the drug was going to be used in a salted mix for cows.

Dextromethorphan is an isomer of the drug methorphan. An isomer is a molecule that has the same molecular formula as another molecule, but has a different chemical structure.

Disputing the charge

Before a jury was empanelled, Mr Woods’ lawyers made an interlocutory application to NSW District Court judge Helen Syme to quash the indictment on the basis dextromethorphan is not a prohibited substance under the DMT Act.

Section 3 of the Act outlines that a prohibited drug “means any substance, other than a prohibited plant, specified in schedule 1.” A substance “includes preparation and admixture and all salts, isomers, esters or ethers of any substance and all salts of those isomers, esters and ethers.”

Schedule 1 lists the traffickable, small, indictable, commercial and large commercial quantities of all prohibited plants and drugs. Methorphan, along with levomethorphan (another isomer of methorphan), are listed in the schedule. However, dextromethorphan is not.

Schedule 1 of the DMT Act also includes an analogue provision.

This subsection states that a prohibited drug also includes any unlisted related drug if it is either “a structural isomer having the same constituent groups as the drug,” or if it is “a structural modification obtained in one or more of the following ways…” And a long list of ways is outlined.

“Under the analogue provision, where a substance that is not a prohibited drug has psychotropic properties, and is structurally similar to a prohibited drug in specified ways, it is treated as a prohibited drug for the purpose of the Act,” explained Liberal MLC Matthew Mason-Cox in 2013.

The findings of the trial judge

Both the prosecution and defence tendered statements from experts. And there was little disagreement between them.

They agreed that an isomer can either be a structural isomer or a stereoisomer. A structural isomer has the same molecular formula as another molecule, but a different bonding arrangement between atoms. Whereas, a stereoisomer has both identical molecular formula and arrangement of atoms.

Dextromethorphan is a stereoisomer of methorphan, but not a structural isomer.

Judge Syme concluded that as dextromethorphan is an isomer of methorphan, but not a structural isomer, it is not capable of being included in the analogue provision of schedule 1 of the DMT Act.

However, Her Honour found that dextromethorphan does appear in the Poison and Therapeutic Goods Act 1996 as a restricted substance. And this Act contains offence provisions for the supply of restricted substances.

The judge ruled the drug was prohibited, as she found no conflict between the two Acts.

The Crown concedes

Mr Woods appealed Judge Syme’s interlocutory judgement to the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal (NSWCCA) on the sole ground “that her Honour erred in finding that dextromethorphan is a prohibited drug under the DMT Act.”

On 31 August last year, the Crown conceded that dextromethorphan was not a prohibited substance for the purposes of the DMT Act, and that Her Honour had made an error.

The Crown’s concession was that the definition of a prohibited drug in section 3 of the DMT Act “means” any substance specified in schedule 1, including the analogue provisions.

Both parties agreed that the definition of substance is the “preparation and admixture and all salts”, which means the total weight of the substance found, not merely the weight of the drugs contained within that substance.

So, for example, if the total weight of a white powder is 1 kilogram, but an analysis of the substance finds that it is only 25 percent heroin and the rest is something else, the accused will be charged in respect of 1 kg of heroin for a NSW state offence such as possession or supply, not with 250 grams of the substance.

The Crown conceded that substance is not meant to work as a “catch-all” for all substances that are not listed within schedule 1, or covered in the analogue provisions.

This was consistent with the argument made by Mr Woods’ lawyers.

The NSWCCA was told that that if the trial judge was correct, then the list of chemicals specified as prohibited substances would expand “far beyond those considered to be prohibited drugs under either the explicit list included in the schedule or those brought within the schedule by the analogue provisions.”

The NSWCCA findings

The NSWCCA agreed with this line of argument. They therefore allowed the appeal, vacated the judgement, and quashed the indictment. On 2 February this year, the court also ordered the state to cover Mr Woods’ legal costs.

“The effect of this court’s decision is that the applicant had been charged with an offence unknown to law,” the NSWCCA justices found. “No further proceedings under the DMT Act can be brought against him for the supply of dextromethorphan, as it is not a prohibited drug.”

Moves underway to ban the substance

Following the findings of the NSWCCA, NSW attorney general Mark Speakman announced the government was looking into classifying dextromethorphan as a prohibited drug.

A spokesperson for the attorney general said dextromethorphan had been referred to the government’s committee that makes recommendations about adding substances to the DMT Act list.

“Although it is a substance that can be abused, it also has legitimate medicinal uses,” the spokesperson remarked.

Dextromethorphan has not yet been not listed in schedule 1 of the DMT Act, although it remains a ‘restricted substance’ and is heavily regulated under the provisions of the Poisons and Therapeutic Goods Act.

Reaping the Benefits of a Regulated Cannabis Market

Developers in the US state of Colorado announced last month that if they receive the final approval from the city council, they’ll be opening the world’s first marijuana mall. Chris Elkins and Sean Sheridan said they’ve already obtained city permits and a building has been purchased.

The mall, which will contain five cannabis dispensaries, is set to open next April in the town of Trinidad. Recreational marijuana in Colorado is now a billion dollar a year industry that generated $198.5 million in tax revenue last year.

Colorado and Washington were the first two US states to legalise recreational cannabis on November 6 2012. And since that time, six more states have legalised recreational use, which means one in five Americans now live in a jurisdiction where they’re free to take pot for pleasure.

Get with the times

Many are heralding the economic benefits the burgeoning legalised weed markets are bringing to these states as a “green rush,” much like the mid-nineteenth century Californian gold rush. But unlike gold, cannabis isn’t a scarce resource, and the growth industry is unlikely to run dry.

And as Australian authorities continue their decades-long heavy-handed law enforcement approach to the recreational cannabis, the experience in the States is leading many local commentators to question the government’s continuing marijuana prohibition stance.

Reaping the benefits

The legal cannabis industry in the US was worth $6.6 billion last year, according to New Frontier Data. That included $1.9 billion for recreational sales, as well as $4.7 billion via the medicinal cannabis market. The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes is now legal in 29 US states.

The states of California, Massachusetts and Maine all voted to legalise recreational cannabis use last November. The sixth-largest economy in the world, California is set to commence retail sales on January 1 next year, while Massachusetts and Maine are following in mid-2018.

And with the addition of the Californian market, it’s estimated that the US cannabis industry will be worth $24.1 billion by 2025.

However, even before these additional markets begin, it’s been estimated that as of January this year, there were 122,814 full-time jobs being supported by the legal cannabis market. And 57,958 of them have been created by the retail sale of recreational marijuana in the five states where it’s available.

These figures include those that cultivate the plant, along with retail outlet owners and employees. But, they also take into consideration lawyers advising cannabis businesses, realtors specialising in commercial cannabis real estate, and electricians consulting grow operations.

Viva Las Vegas

Nevada was the last big player to set up a recreational marketplace. On July 1 this year, it began legal sales. However, it got off to a rocky start, as the first licence to transport the product from the farm directly to the store was issued two weeks later.

This left retail outlets concerned that they were going to run out of marijuana products as demand was better than expected during the first fortnight. Dispensaries in that state raked in more than $27 million in the first month of recreational sales, which generated $3.6 million dollars in taxes.

The largest cannabis store in the world opened its doors in downtown Las Vegas this month. NuWu Cannabis Market is an initiative run by the region’s Indigenous Paiute people. While taxes on their products are the same, the revenue is going towards funding health services for their community.

The Colorado experience

The first legal recreational cannabis purchase in the United States this century took place in Denver, Colorado on January 1 2014. And ever since, the Mountain State’s regulated market has been held up as the shining example of the benefits recreational marijuana can bring.

Victorian Reason MLC Fiona Patten advocates for legal recreational cannabis in Australia. She paid a visit to Colorado in July to get a firsthand experience of the state’s regulated market.

Ms Patten said she was “incredibly impressed” by what she witnessed. Whilst there, she met with a whole range of organisations, including the departments of health and finance, along with the police, to find out how the industry is fairing.

“Everyone’s fear is that the legal industry seeps into the illegal industry. And there are protections on that,” Ms Patten told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “They believe that 85 percent of all cannabis that is sold in Colorado is sold through the legal system. We can’t say that for tobacco in Australia.”

For the wider community

The tax revenue generated by recreational cannabis sales in Colorado has been funnelled back into community healthcare services, including drug rehabilitation, as well as providing the funding to build new schools and for the allocation of grants to educational facilities.

As Ms Patten pointed out, Pueblo County in Colorado is going to begin providing grants to all high school graduates beginning their university education as of next year. And on top of all this, the Reason Party leader noted “there’s lots of consumer education.”

State officials in Colorado have reported the availability of the drug has had no overall adverse effects since it began being sold in retail stores. Cannabis products are heavily regulated, and they’re sold in childproof containers.

“They’ve got this amazing seed to sale tracking system,” Ms Patten continued. It’s required that each plant for sale is tagged with a radio frequency identification chip. “So, every seed that a licenced cultivator grows is tracked right to when the person buys the product that it created.”

The Australian scene

A 2013 National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre report found that Australian law enforcement activities cost over a billion dollars a year. The 2015-16 Illicit Drug Data report found that cannabis continues to be the most dominant illicit drug in Australia in terms of arrests, seizures and use.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that Australians spent in excess of $3.6 billion on cannabis in 2010. This is more than the $2.97 billion they spent on wine over the year 2015-16.

And an Essential Media poll taken late last year found that 55 percent of those surveyed supported cannabis being taxed and regulated like alcohol and tobacco.

For Ms Patten, it’s a no-brainer. “We are spending billions of dollars on prohibiting cannabis, when we could be earning billions of dollars on cultivating and regulating it,” she concluded. “We give this money to organised crime. Why wouldn’t we be giving it to our schools and hospitals?”

Blue ‘Superman’ Pill Warning

New South Wales police have issued warnings regarding a batch of blue pills branded with a Superman ‘S’, which they believe are responsible for five recent drug overdoses in New South Wales.

Eleven people have been taken to hospital in Newcastle, with symptoms believed to be related to taking the blue pill. While lab tests have not yet determined the composition of the tablets, police and health professionals are urging people not to ingest them.

Pill testing

The overdoses sparked renewed calls for pill testing as summer approaches – the season for schoolies, Christmas parties and music festivals.

Around Australia, police, paramedics, and hospital emergency department staff are gearing up for what they call the ‘drug season’.

2015 was arguably Australia’s worst ever year for overdoses at music festivals, resulting in governments putting festivals on ‘notice’ of closure if the problem persists.

And while most festival organisers do what they can, simply banning drugs does little to combat the problem, resulting in people embarking on the dangerous practices of ‘preloading’ before an event or taking all their drugs at once upon seeing police and sniffer dogs at the event.

The presence of deadly ‘fillers’ in pills is also a significant problem, and health professions have been pointing out for years that pill testing is a proven way of informing festival-goers about the presence of such additives in their tablets, thereby allowing them to make decisions about whether to take their drugs and, if so, how much.

Fed up with what they believe is a ‘head-in-the-sand’ approach, advocates for pill testing took matters into their own hands around this time last year and made kits available at festivals across Sydney in what they say was a ‘protest manouvre’.

Spilt Milk festival trials pill-testing

The ACT has bucked the political trend, agreeing to allow a pill testing service be trialled at the Spilt Milk festival this year, on November 25.

It’s a positive step forward for pill-testing advocates, who say that in Europe, where pill testing has long been available, it has proven to be a very successful way for people to find out what they’re taking and make decisions beforehand. Australian harm minimisation advocate Dr David Caldicott, and a tireless campaigner for pill testing, says it reduces the prospect of users consuming drugs with harmful additives by 60 per cent.

The Spilt Milk festival trial comes at an interesting time for Australia, with a report released by heavy-weight think Tank group Australia 21 recommending a national move towards drug decriminalisation, with greater recognition of drug use as a health issue. The report also recommended more investment in harm-minimisation programmes, such as pill testing.

Trial results could provide a basis for expansion

The Spilt Milk festival trial will, at long last, provide local data which will enable decision-making with regard to the effectiveness of pill-testing and provide a much-needed direction for the potentially life-saving initiative.

After Spilt Milk has taken place, the organisation running the trial, Safety Testing Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE) will share results, which it hopes will provide impetus for the programme to be expanded, not just across the ACT, but other states and territories as well.

Less Teens Smoke Weed When it’s Legal

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

Countries which move towards legalising the recreational use of cannabis invariably face the conservative outcry that such a move will result in an upsurge in demand.

However, there is a growing body of research to suggest that not only is the link between cannabis legalisation and increased use a myth, but legalising the drug may result in less young people being attracted to its mystique or using it to rebel.

Recent study

A recent study of 216,000 adolescents in the US over a 12 year period suggests that less teenagers are using cannabis in states where its possession and use have been legalised, than when these activities were a crime.

Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis also found that the number of adolescents with “cannabis-related problems” — such as dependency coupled with trouble in school and relationships — declined by up to 24 percent in jurisdictions that legalised the drug.

The study found that up to 10 percent fewer teenagers in those states had reported using marijuana.

The researchers further found reductions in behavioural problems, including fighting, property crimes and selling drugs.

Causation

This study looked at adolescent behaviour between 2002 and 2013, with this period being shortly after medical cannabis was first legalised in 1996, with greater liberalisation following in the years thereafter.

“We were surprised to see substantial declines in marijuana use and abuse,” said lead researcher Richard A. Grucza. He qualified this by pointing out that the research suggested a correlation and not necessarily a causation relationship.

“We don’t know how legalisation is affecting young marijuana users, but it could be that many kids with behavioural problems are more likely to get treatment earlier in childhood, making them less likely to turn to pot during adolescence,” he added. “Whatever is happening with these behavioural issues, it seems to be outweighing any effects of marijuana decriminalisation.”

Benefits of decriminalisation

Twenty percent of Americans now live in states where the use and possession of small quantities of cannabis are no longer a crime.

State surveys of young people in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska suggest that after decriminalisation, the number of students who had tried the drug remained stable, rather than increased as predicted by conservatives.

Meanwhile, these states have benefited from tens of millions in extra tax revenue. Colorado, for example, brought in $129 million in its second year of legalisation and Washington welcomed $220 million extra into its coffers.

But perhaps the greatest financial benefit is the fall in expenditure upon enforcement – from policing, to prosecution through the court system, to prison expenditure. And there are flow on social benefits, with less drug users being drawn into the crime cycle and all the harm that flows from it.

Portuguese experience

Portugal stands as the worldwide model for drug decriminalisation. In 2001 the Portuguese government took the unprecedented step of decriminalising all illicit substances, from marijuana to crystal methamphetamine to heroin.

In 1999, around one percent of the population in Portugal was addicted to heroin. The nation also reportedly had the highest number of drug-related AIDS deaths in the European Union. The government had been waging the usual war on drugs since the 1980s, but it wasn’t working.

But since decriminalisation, Portugal’s drug-induced death rate has fallen top three per million residents, which is five times lower than the European average. By 2014, the number of new drug-related HIV infections had plummeted to 40, compared with 1,016 thirteen years prior.

And drug use among teenagers in grades 10 through 12 has dropped by over third since decriminalisation.

The Portuguese drug policy has been so successful that the ultra-conservative and quasi-judicial body, the International Narcotics Control Board, lauded it as exemplary in December 2015.

The Drug is Legal to Import but Potentially Illegal to Possess

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

Users think they’re buying GHB, but they’re actually getting a substance that can be far more dangerous.

Because the drug is legal to import under Commonwealth laws (which govern the importation of substances), the drug has become readily available on the street, at parties and nightclubs across the nation for just $15.

The product is called “Bute”, and is also known as “One-Four”. It’s a clear liquid which is often sold in small, fish-shaped containers, like the ones you might get with your take-away sushi.

Dealers often sell the drug as GHB, but they’re actually selling a solvent named 1,4 Butanediol, which is used in car repairs and during the manufacture of plastics including Lycra.

When Bute is swallowed, the chemical is turned into GHB by the liver, but not immediately. Because it takes three times longer to kick-in than real GHB, users can find themselves disappointed there’s no immediate effect and swallow extra doses, which can lead to harm or even death.

The depressant impact of the drug is exacerbated when taken in combination with alcohol, which police say makes it a real problem on the party scene.

Dealers’ drug of choice

Many dealers prefer to supply Bute over GHB, and it’s easy to see why.

To make real GHB, you need to obtain and process the right amount and type of chemicals in the right way, and to do that you need a manufacturing area. It’s a complex process compared to the procurement of “Bute,” which can be easily obtained over the internet.

What’s more, Bute can often be imported without suspicion of wrongdoing, because it has a range of industrial applications.

The procuring of Bute is relatively easy – as simple as setting up a fake business and importing the drug under that name. This means dealers are less likely to be detected and prosecuted, and trading in the drug can be highly profitable. 200 litres of Bute has a wholesale price as low as $2000, generating astronomical margins when distributed in tiny containers.

We’ve recently heard reports of ‘bad batches’ of GHB, resulting in overdoses and other health crises at dance parties, festivals and nightclubs. However, police now suspect the deadly drug is not GHB at all, but Bute.

Most Bute comes from China, and Australian Border Force officers have reported coming across large and unexplained importations of the chemical on a daily basis.

Strong word of warning

Although Bute is legal to import under Commonwealth law, it is classified as a prohibited drug under Schedule 1 of the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985 (NSW) and is therefore illegal to possess or supply under the provisions of that Act.

This essentially means that those who import the substance by relying upon Federal law may potentially still be prosecuted for drug possession or supply under state legislation.

In fact, those who are found in possession of a ‘traffickable quantity’ of Bute – which is not less than 30 grams – may be charged with drug supply even where there is no evidence that they actually supplied or even intended to supply the drug.

This due to the law of ‘deemed supply’ (section 29 of the Drugs Act) which says that a person found in possession of a traffickable quantity is guilty of supply unless they can prove it was possessed for something other than supply eg for personal use only.

Indeed, the inconsistency between federal and state legislation potentially puts legitimate importers of Bute at risk of being mistaken for drug suppliers and potentially prosecuted.

Reported cases

The Age has reported two cases of how the legislative inconsistency is being taken advantage of by drug dealers.

The first case involved a career drug supplier who was caught by police with several illegal products, plus 40 litres of Bute.

He argued in court the Bute was intended for legitimate industrial purposes, his prior convictions could not be disclosed, and the jury ultimately found him not guilty, after directions about the fact that Commonwealth legislation prevails over the State legislation to the extent of any inconsistency.

Another supplier was caught with a small amount of what he genuinely thought was GHB, and was surprised when police tested it positive for Bute.

Eventually, realising how easy (and legit) it is to order the chemical online, the supplier reportedly registered himself as a cleaning company, leased a warehouse and began to import tonnes of the stuff despite having no clients and no equipment.

‘The next big thing’

Around 40% of Australian adults have admitted using an illicit substance at some point in their lives.

In terms of supply, are more than 100,000 drug seizures in Australia every year and the market continues to grow.

Police have expressed concerns over Bute and also about “the next big thing”, which they say is Carfentanil – a Chinese product  which is up to 10,000 times as powerful as morphine, and is used to sedate large animals such as elephants.

A number of fatal overdoses from Carfentanil have been reported in Canada and the US, and front line health care workers are said to be bracing themselves to deal with patients who present with overdoses from the drug.

Heavy Police Presence at this Year’s Splendour in the Grass

More than 260 people were arrested for drug offences by the time last weekend’s Splendour in the Grass music festival wrapped up on the northern New South Wales coast.

The police presence was unmistakable at the popular annual event – with interview and frisk tents set up just inside the entrance gates, and a high visibility police operation in full swing involving counter-terrorism police, sniffer dogs and the public order and riot squad.

In addition to specialist police and private security guards, 150 regular police officers patrolled the grounds. Tough security measures including a ‘no-backpacks rule’, and scanning with an electronic wand were implemented to “avoid terrorist attacks”.

While police were primarily targeting illegal drug use and anti-social behaviour, they also charged five people with assault and issued 65 criminal infringement notices to people who allegedly entered the event without valid tickets.

But dealing with drug possession was what kept police busy – with cannabis, ‘ice’, ‘ecstacy’ and cocaine topping the list.

Twelve people were also charged with drug supply, including a 21-year old man who was allegedly found in possession of 60 ecstasy pills. 76 people were issued with cannabis cautions, and 142 were ordered to attend court.

Concealing drugs internally

Police say they detected an increase in the number of people attempting to conceal drugs inside their bodies this year.

Allegations also surfaced that school girls aged just 16 and 17 were acting as drug mules – filling condoms with drugs and coating them in peanut butter before inserting them into their bodies, hoping the peanut butter would conceal the scent of the drugs.

Sniffer dogs and pill testing

The use of drug detection dogs has always been controversial, but the debate around their effectiveness heightened after a spate of deaths at music festivals around Australia in 2015 and 2016.

Many believe sniffer dogs are ineffective and can lead to dangerous behaviours. Statistics from 2015 show that NSW police carried out 12,893 bodily searches resulting from positive indications by sniffer dogs, of which a whopping 69 percent turned out to be false positives – where no drugs are found.

In terms of behaviour, the presence of sniffer dogs has been linked to ‘pre-loading’ and ‘loading up’. The former is where users take large amounts of drugs before arriving at the festival, while the latter involves take significant quantities upon seeing police approaching. The practice has been linked to a number of deaths from overdoses in 2015 and 2016.

For many years, health experts have lobbied for pill testing to be introduced at festivals across Australia, whereby festival-goers are able to have their drugs tested for dangerous additives and high purity levels. Pill testing has been used in a number of European countries for years, and proving to be highly successful in reducing hospitalisations and deaths from overdoses.

Man Advertises Cocaine for Sale

By his own admission, Jamie MacDowell made a “stupid” decision recently.

The Scottish tourist posted an online ad in a local Gold Coast classified which read:

“Got some good coke in Surfers. $300 a g.”

Just hours later, who else but an undercover police officer sent him the following text message:

“Hey, looking for Cola on the GC.”

The pair arranged to meet at Cash Converters on the southern end of the Coast to complete the deal.

Unbeknownst to the officer, MacDowell’s “coke” was actually granulated ibuprofen.

Police nevertheless arrested and charged MacDowall with supplying a prohibited drug.

He pleaded guilty in Southport District Court, where Judge Katherine McGinness was taken aback by the foolishness of the man before her.

“How you did not think you would be caught is unbelievable,” Her Honour remarked.

“Didn’t you make a stupid decision?”, she asked. “Yes, very stupid”, MacDowell replied.

The hapless dealer’s criminal defence barrister explained that his client was “desperate for money to pay for rent and food” as he was “between jobs”, which is why he concocted the doomed plan.

Even though the substance was not an illegal drug, the fact MacDowell represented it as so meant he was still guilty of drug supply under Queensland law.

He was ultimately slapped with an $800 fine but escaped a criminal conviction.

He is expected to return to Scotland in the near future.

Selling fake drugs in NSW

In NSW, a person who misrepresents a substance as a prohibited drug, poison, plant or psychoactive substance is similarly guilty of supplying that substance.

In that regard, section 40(1) of the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985 (NSW) provides that:

“A substance (not being a prohibited drug) which, for the purpose of its being supplied, is represented (whether verbally, in writing or by conduct) as being a prohibited drug… shall… be deemed to be a prohibited drug…”

Subsections (1A), 2 and 3 apply to poisons, prohibited plants and psychoactive substances respectively.

A fine but no conviction?

Courts in Queensland are permitted to impose fines for criminal offences without also having to record convictions.

The situation in NSW is different. Here, any person who is given a fine for a criminal offence will also have a conviction recorded against their name.

The only way for a guilty person to escape a conviction in NSW is to receive a ‘section 10’ – which means guilty but no conviction recorded.

A section 10 can come with a good behaviour bond of up to two years, but cannot be accompanied by a fine.

Don’t post online!

Mr MacDowall’s case is certainly not the first time the internet has been instrumental in helping police detect drug offenders.

Also on the Gold Coast, a man who posed for a sexy bathroom selfie with a stash of marijuana and posted it online in 2015 found himself quickly arrested for possessing a prohibited drug.

And a Lismore man who recently took a video of his $700k marijuana crop and posted it on Facebook, also found police on his doorstep executing a search warrant and placing him under arrest.

Renewed Calls for Pill Testing After NBOMe Found in Deadly ‘Ecstacy’ Batch

The toxic psychedelic NBOMe is continuing to take Australian lives as users of illicit drugs are unaware that the synthetic substance may be added to MDMA or LSD.

Recently, a batch of ecstacy pills linked to the deaths of three Melbournians were found to contain traces of MDMA mixed with NBOMe. The mix was also found in substances tested by Queensland police after a death and several hospitalisations on the Gold Coast last year.

Presence of NBOMe on the rise

Although there is little data on the prevalence on NBOMe use in Australia, Google Trends suggests that interest in the drug began in April 2012, and has been increasing ever since.

NBOMe can be purchased through websites that sell “research chemicals”, as well as online drug marketplaces on the ‘dark net’. Because the drug is potent in miniscule quantities and has virtually no scent, it is often transported undetected via regular mail services.

The effects of the drug are reported to be more similar to LSD than MDMA, and only tiny doses are required. A dose of MDMA, for example, is 125mg, whereas people have reported NBOMe as being active at just 0.05mg. The drug’s high potency increases the likelihood of overdose.

Synthetic drugs

Media and government reports often distinguish ‘synthetic drugs’ such as NBOMe from other commonly used substances such as LSD, MDMA and methamphetamine.

The distinction is misleading as the latter three drugs are also produced synthetically, as opposed to those derived from plants such as cocaine, heroin and of course cannabis.

A better definition of synthetic drugs is those manufactured using legal substances, which produce effects similar to illegal drugs.

Indeed, the category of “analogue” has been added to the schedule of the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985, which refers to synthetic substances which are chemically similar to illicit drugs and produces a psychotropic; essentially mimicking drugs which are illegal.

Overdoses

ABC’s 7:30 programme has reported on three Australian teenagers who lost their lives after using NBOMe.

Nick Mitchell of Gosford, NSW, reportedly died after experiencing respiratory and heart problems, while Preston Bridge and Henry Kwan died after jumping from balconies during psychotic episodes.

It was reported that all three young men had consumed an LSD-like substance, suspected to be NBOMe after no LSD was found in their bodies following toxicological examination.

“At a strong dose, users may lose a sense of their self in the world”, explained Dr Monica Barratt, Research fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of NSW.

“For some people who aren’t anticipating that experience, that is very difficult for them to cope with, they may end up with psychotic symptoms”.

“The world around them as they know it is falling apart. It really plays with your sense of time.”

Harm minimisation

There are concerns of drug suppliers continuing to “contaminate” ecstacy pills and LSD with NBOMe, which is a lot cheaper to purchase.

Unlike LSD, which has a relatively low toxicity profile, NBOMe is said to carry serious health risks.

Individuals have presented to emergency departments with acute NBOMe toxicity, experiencing symptoms such as cardiovascular complications, agitation, seizures, hypothermia, metabolic acidosis (when the kidneys can’t remove enough acid from the body), organ failure and even death.

While some politicians and police continue to defend the failed war against drugs, health experts have renewed their calls for harm minimisation measures such as pill testing at music festivals and other major events to reduce the incidence of overdoses.

Anex, a not-for-profit harm minimisation organisation in Victoria, recently launched a campaign aimed at informing LSD users that NBOMe may be contained in their drugs, and encouraging them to purchase and use legally available drug testing kits. The organisation advises users not to ingest the drug if it does not test positive for LSD.

They further recommend that if a testing kit is not available, users should only take a quarter dose and wait one-and-a-half hours before considering taking any more.

Government May Allow Pill Testing at Music Festival

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

Canberra’s Spilt Milk festival could be the first in Australia to permit pill-testing, with the ACT government currently considering the move.

“It’s fantastic news. We’ve now heard that the ACT Government and the Chief Minister himself are looking at pill testing for the end of this year at Spilt Milk,” the Ted Noffs Foundation’s chief executive Matt Noffs stated.

The Ted Noffs Foundation works with young people who are struggling with addiction, and has been lobbying state and territory governments to allow spectrometer technology at music festivals since 2014.

How it works

Pill-testing technology has been widely used at festivals in Europe and has been proven to reduce the incidence of overdoses by informing users of the composition of their substances, and thereby allowing them to make informed choices about whether to ingest the drugs and, if so, how much.

It works by festival-goers providing a small sample of their drugs to a licensed forensic chemist at the festival. That person runs the sample through a process called ‘gas chromatography mass spectrometry’, which identifies every chemical found, including the presence of impurities and dangerous fillers. A second test can determine the percentage of each substance that it present.

The entire procedure can be completed in as little as 30 minutes.

Preventing deaths

Australians are among the highest users of ecstasy in the world, and many who use what they assume to be MDMA have no idea about the actual composition of the substance they are purchasing.

Several recent deaths have been attributed to toxic fillers inside ecstacy pill, and the ingestion of large quantities of unusually pure tablets.

Pill testing could detect impurities as well as fluctuations in purity levels, and one of the tasks of the forensic chemists who administer the tests is to advise users of the dangers of ingesting the drugs that have been tested.

Pill testing has also led to greater consistency in purity levels and reduced the presence of deadly substances in European countries where the measure is used, as manufacturers and suppliers who deal toxic substances are easily identified – which can affect their bottom line.

Users act on the advice of testers

Dr Lynn Magor-Blatch, the executive officer at the Australasian Therapeutic Communities Association and professor at the University of Wollongong, has been working in drug prevention for 38 years.

“Certainly what we’ve seen from the evidence overseas is that if pills are tested and found to be unsafe people don’t take them,” she remarked. “People want to stay alive. If drugs are bad they will chuck them out and don’t go on and then find something else.”

Australia’s National Drug Strategy of Harm Minimisation found that 25 per cent of tested substances were discarded by users at the United Kingdom’s Secret Garden Party in 2016.

Research suggests that the advice from testing chemists can make users re-think their decision to take drugs altogether.

“It actually has a positive effect — there’s an opportunity for an early intervention, somebody to be actually talking to them, providing them with information and to get help,” Dr Mgor-Blatch said.

Organisers in favour of testing

Organisers of the annual ‘Yours and Owls’ Festival in Wollongong in September have made it clear they are keen to introduce pill-testing if the NSW government allows them to do so.

“We are definitely interested in exploring the idea. It’s very important that people are as safe as they can be,” Organiser Ben Tillman stated.

“It’s obviously a conversation that needs to include the police and the NSW Government so there’s no confusion and people know that it’s okay to use the tests without incriminating themselves and ending up in gaol.”

Mr Tillman pointed out that the fact drugs are illegal does nothing to deter use, and that harm minimisation measures such as pill testing are an important way to keep patrons safe.

Public support

An Essential Media poll released earlier this year found that 57 percent of Australians support a roll-out of pill testing services across the nation, while only 13 percent opposed the idea. It was surprising to many that support was highest amongst those aged 55 and over.

Will Tregoning of harm minimisation group Unharm says the research suggests 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 stated. “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.”

However, police minister Troy Grant has rejected the idea of pill testing, claiming it sends the wrong message and encourages illegal activity.

Australian Medical Association President Calls for Drug Decriminalisation

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

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

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

Situation in WA

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

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

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

Proposed model

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

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

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

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

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

Political response

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

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

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

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

Broader effects of drug law

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

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

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

Details of the Portuguese experience

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

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

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

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