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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.

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

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

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

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

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

Strip searches and a lack of respect

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

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

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

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

Cracking down on nightlife

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

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

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

More of the same

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

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

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

Increasing the harms of drug use

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

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

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

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

High Alert

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

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

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

An evidence-based approach

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

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

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

Back at 77

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

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

Sensationalist Reporting of Drugs is Irresponsible and Dangerous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A globally accepted food

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

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

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

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

A boom for the Australian hemp industry

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

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

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

The beneficial seed

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

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

So then why are hemp seeds illegal in Australia?

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

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

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

Roadside drug testing

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

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

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

However, roadside drug testing does not test for impairment.

A grey area

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

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

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

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

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

Police Boast of Another Win in the War Against Drugs

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

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

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

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

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

Recent drug busts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ice and Cocaine are Australia’s ‘biggest problem’

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

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

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

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

Decriminalisation in Portugal: 15 years of Success

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

The reasons behind the move

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

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

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

The new law

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

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

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

Change in perspective

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

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

Drug manufacture, supply and importation

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

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

Results

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

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

Rates of drug use graph

Decriminalisation in Portugal: 15 years of Success

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

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

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

Decriminalisation in Portugal: 15 years of Success

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

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

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

HIV and AiDS with drug use graph

Decriminalisation in Portugal: 15 years of Success

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

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

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