Blog

You are here: Home » Blog

Blog Content

Another Young Life Lost at a Music Festival: It’s Time for Pill Testing

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

Just last month, New South Wales Police Commissioner Mick Fuller expressed the view that our law enforcement’s current ‘zero tolerance’ approach to drugs is ‘working’, and that pill testing is not an option for our state.

In the same breath, he was adamant police would not be implementing two of the most significant recommendations made by NSW Deputy Coroner Harriet Graeme after her inquiry into drug-related deaths at music festivals.

Ms Graeme’s draft final report is the culmination of months of inquiry into the harrowing drug-related deaths of several teenagers at music festivals. In it, she makes recommendations for a trial of pill testing and the abandonment of sniffer dogs, as well as the reduction of strip searches, and the decriminalisation of drugs taken for personal use at music festivals, amongst 28 other points for consideration.

Another drug-related music festival death

But, as the summer season of music festivals kicked off with Strawberry Fields this weekend, one life has already been lost to a suspected overdose.

A 24-year old man allegedly consumed a cocktail of illicit drugs before he was brought to a medical tent.

Medical staff were told he had consumed multiple substances including GHB, MDMA and cocaine.

Soon after, he suffered a fatal heart attack and, despite the efforts of the medical staff, he was pronounced dead in the early hours of Sunday morning.

An avoidable death?

Of course, it is too early to tell whether his death could have been avoided. An autopsy and toxicology reports will help to piece together what occurred in the lead up to the tragedy.

There will be questions about the purity of the drugs in his body, the amount of drugs he had consumed, the circumstances which led him to ingest the drugs, and whether the medical staff were adequately equipped to deal with his situation.

This information will be crucial to understanding the final hours of this young man’s life.

Young people will take drugs, despite the law

But what remains abundantly clear, and consistent in this tragedy and the others that have gone before it, is that young people are still taking drugs at music festivals, despite what the law says and the use of law enforcement tools such as drug detection dogs.

During the same weekend, 13 people were allegedly found in possession of drugs at another gig in New South Wales, Festival X, at Sydney Olympic Park.

Was the coronial inquest in vain?

And, as countless of experts have already pointed out, it’s remiss of us to ignore the fact young people will continue to take drugs because, in doing so, we continue to do nothing to minimise the chance of death.

As a result of last year’s coronial inquest, which looked into deaths at festivals, the behaviour of young people when sniffer dogs are present, as well as the potential impact of pill testing, we have a great deal of information about why young people have died and how this might be prevented.

As the Coroner’s Court heard, research suggests that 10 per cent of people who encounter sniffer dog operations engage in the dangerous practice of swallowing all of their drugs at once, which can lead to overdose.

What’s more, the Court heard the dogs produce false positives – where they make a positive indication but no drugs are found – two-thirds of the time at festivals, and yet they are being used to justify bodily searches, including invasive and humiliating strip searches.

LECC hearings into strip searches

This week, the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) is set to begin public hearings into the strip-searches carried out at the Lost City music festival, an under-18s event held in Sydney in February.

The hearings are part of an ongoing investigation by the LECC, which has already heard a number of distressing stories from the Splendour in the Grass Music Festival.

If there is one positive to come out of the weekend’s music festivities, it is that it would appear that the New South Wales police may have conceded on one of the recommendations from Assistant Coroner Harriet Graeme’s report – decriminalising illicit drugs for personal use.

Police can fine alleged offenders for drug possession

The 13 people found with prohibited drugs at Festival X were dealt with by way of Criminal Infringement Notices (CINs) and fined $400.

CINs are also known as ‘on-the-spot fines’ and mean that police can fine a person rather than sending them to court. CINs do not come with a criminal record, but a person may face the prospect of a criminal record if they elect to challenge the fine by taking the case to court.

Over the coming months, music festivals will face much higher scrutiny than ever before, particularly in light of findings of last year’s coronial inquest.

The NSW government remains under increasing pressure to change its current tactics for policing drugs at music festivals, particularly its stance on pill-testing as a harm minimisation measure, which it has steadfastly refused to consider. 

Only time will tell whether or not the Coronial Inquest’s recommendations will be followed.

Pill Testing: Premier and Police Commissioner Have Their Heads in the Sand

The State Government is adamant New South Wales won’t be implementing two of the most significant recommendations made by the Deputy Coroner after her inquiry into drug-related deaths at music festivals.

Harriet Graeme’s draft final report, recommends a trial of pill testing as well as the abandonment of sniffer dogs, the reduction of strip searches, and the decriminalisation of drugs taken for personal use at music festivals, amongst 28 other points for consideration.

‘Sufficient evidence’ to support a pill testing trial

While conceding that supervised drug testing wasn’t a ‘magic solution’ Ms Graeme said she was in ‘no doubt whatsoever’ there is sufficient evidence to support a trial in New South Wales.

Now NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller has provided his response loud and clear, and surprise-surprise, he says the police service does not support pill testing in any form because it is ‘flawed and unreliable’ and sends a dangerous message of false confidence to young people that the drug they want to take is safe, because there is no such thing.’

Premier Gladys Berejiklian has also dismissed Harriet Graeme’s suggestion.

But so far, the New South Wales State Government’s tough zero tolerance stance, measured by arrests and festival bans, has proven time and again that it is not the most effective way to save lives either, because it usually results in young people ‘loading up’ before entering a festival or event, therefore increasing their risk of overdose.

In fact, during the inquest into five-festival related deaths, the Coroner’s Court heard research suggested that 10 per cent of people who encountered sniffer-dog operations engaged in the dangerous practice of swallowing all of their drugs at once.

The inquiry also looked at the use of drug detection dogs, which have been shown to be ineffective as much as two-thirds of the time, and yet they are usually the only determining factor behind police order a strip search, well as their use by police in determining strip searches, a highly invasive policing procedure that has also faced a barrage of criticism not least of all for its potentially damaging psychological effects but also because in a significant number of cases, it is carried out illegally.

Educating young people about drugs can backfire

The New South Wales’ Government’s other weapon in the war against drugs – education – has also proven to be a double-edged sword, with the Coronial inquest hearing that one student in 20 had tried MDMA by the time they’ve reached year 10.

The risk of providing drug education early is that people will be curious about trying it. On the other hand, leaving drug education later could mean it was ‘too late’ to warn young people of the dangers of drugs.

Pill testing can save lives

Pill testing has been trialled in Europe successfully for many years. In particular the Drug Information and Monitoring System operation in the Netherlands has proven itself to be a system that can assist with not only harm minimisation through drug testing, but also by collecting valuable data that can better inform festival planning and more targeted education. More recently, it’s trail in Canberra has also shown positive results.

It’s important to note that while the Coronial Inquest did highlight the fact that pill testing may save lives, it is not in itself, a complete solution. A range of factors including fixing the problem of ill-equipped first aid services at festivals, as well as intense heat and no access to drinking water, which contributes to dehydration also need to be addressed so that young people can enjoy summer music festivals safely.

But the parents of Diana Nguyen, Joshua Pham, Joshua Tam, Callum Brosnan, Nathan Tran and Alex Ross-King who died after taking the drug MDMA at music festivals in the summer of 2018/2019 and whose deaths were at the centre of the inquiry are never the less imploring the state government not to ignore the recommendations nor waste an opportunity to try pill testing.

Before these five MDMA-related deaths at music festivals in NSW last summer, there had been only 12 across Australia in the previous decade. But as well as those fatalities, there were 29 pre-hospital intubations at 25 music festivals in the state in 2018-2019, as well as 25 drug-related intensive care admissions, and at least an additional 23 drug-related hospital admissions.

Sniffer Dogs are Ineffective in Detecting the Presence of Drugs

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

The use of drug detection dogs is controversial to say the least, with study after study finding that the dogs have an incredibly high margin for error, and that their presence can lead to dangerous drug-taking activity, such as ‘loading up’ and ‘pre-loading’, which has led to the deaths of several young people in music festivals across Australia.

Handling money or shaking a hand can lead to a positive indicatio

Now, a former police dog trainer has acknowledged that another problem is that while the animals are indeed able to detect the presence of drugs – a positive indication can be the result of residue from items such as currency or even a handshake with a person who used a substance, and not just the actual presence of drugs.

This information has bolstered the argument that a positive indication by a sniffer dog is not sufficient, by itself, to ground the ‘reasonable suspicion’ required to search a person.

Teenage girl strip searched after a positive indication, but nothing found

Just a couple of months ago, a teenager stood in front of the New South Wales Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC), explaining that after a positive indication by a drug detection dog on her way into the Splendour in the Grass music festival last year, she was separated from her friends, and then taken, alone by police into a tent and strip searched. At the same hearing, a New South Wales police officer admitted that many of the strip searches undertaken at music festivals across the state may have been conducted illegally.

Many of these strip searches – a degrading and invasive procedure – have also been undertaken unnecessarily too, because they’re based on a positive indication by a drug detection dog, and various research shows that the dogs are wrong as much as two-thirds of the time, meaning the searches turn up nothing.

Sniffer dogs were introduced to New South Wales around the time of the Sydney Olympics, but even after two decades as part of the police armoury in the war against drugs, instead of catching drug suppliers, or deterring drug users and dealers, drug dog operations have led to tens of thousands of innocent people being subjected to the humiliation of strip searches.

High margin for error

Research from New South Wales shows that the margin for error of sniffer dogs as much as 63%. And here’s why: the purpose of police dogs is to detect people in possession of drugs. The problem is, the dogs are exceptionally sensitive to the scent of drugs, so much so, they are able to pick up minute traces of residual drugs, which could indicate any number of scenarios – perhaps previous use of drugs by a person, or even just that someone has touched drugs, or drug equipment, or a hand of another user, without actually ingesting drugs themselves.

Dave Wright, a former NSW Police dog trainer, explains that dogs are trained through a process of conditioning to recognise and indicate the odour of prohibited drugs.

He says that while the training is highly effective, ultimately it does mean that dogs are not necessarily able to tell the difference between a residual scent and the scent of someone actually in possession of drugs.

What’s more, he says, because the dogs are highly sensitised, it is possible that they will provide a positive indication if someone has been carrying drugs, if someone has had (even limited) contact with drugs in the past, or if, for example, they are carrying money that’s been previously handled by a drug user, or was in a confined space with drugs…. or any number of potential scenarios.

So, are drug dogs’ noses too sensitive to be successful?

If police are using an indication by a sniffer dog as the sole basis to justify ‘reasonable grounds’ to search a person, isn’t it then also possible to arguable that the rates of strip searches that result in a positive finding of drugs are not substantial enough to support grounds for a strip search simply on suspicion?

Over the last five years, reports have indicated that the use of strip searches by NSW police following a positive indication from a drug detection dog has increased markedly.

Under New South Wales law, police can search you if they have a ‘suspicion on reasonable grounds’ that you have drugs on you at that particular time.

However, when the NSW Government passed the Police Powers (Drug Detection Dogs) Act 2001 (‘the Dogs Act’), The Act had a built-in review provision, whereby the Ombudsman would evaluate its effectiveness after two years.

The review was released mid-way through 2006. It had examined 470 drug dog operations over two years. It also found that prohibited drugs were located in only 26 per cent of the recorded positive indications by drug dogs.

Are there better ways to handle drug possession and use?

Furthermore, of the 10,211 positive indications made, there were only 19 successful prosecutions for drug supply – which represented 0.19 per cent of those searched.

The review concluded that “the use of drug detection dogs has proven to be an ineffective tool for detecting drug dealers” and with regard to the question of whether a positive indication by a drug dog is ‘reasonable suspicion’ for a police search, the report broadly concluded that: “Given the low rate of detecting drug offences following a drug detection dog indication, it is our view, supported by Senior Counsel’s advice, that it is not sufficient for a police officer to form a reasonable suspicion that a person is in possession or control of a prohibited drug solely on this basis.”

Despite these findings that drug detection dogs are ineffective, the number of searches performed after positive indications has continued to increase dramatically.

Figures recently obtained by the Greens MLC David Shoebridge via freedom of information (FOI) laws revealed that the number of strip searches conducted by police following a dog indication have almost doubled: up from 590 in 2016 to 1,124 in 2017.

While the LECC is continuing to investigate strip searches, with a view to understanding how and why these are being conducted by police and whether or not they are being carried out within the specific guidelines of the law, late last year the Redfern Legal Centre, also launched its Safe and Sound campaign, aiming to reduce the high number of strip searches at music festivals and at other places. It’s also agitating to have the current laws changed, so that police officers have more guidance and the public is better safeguarded.

Of course, this also begs the question of whether or not there’s a better response to the war on drugs and certainly at events such as music festivals harm minimisation measures such as pill testing is still being advocated for.

So far, the New south Wales government has remained steadfast with its outdated ‘just say no’ to drugs view, but the outcome of the LECC inquiry into strip searches and the recent Coronial inquiry into drug -related deaths at music festivals may be successful in finally bringing some more options to the table. Options that aren’t as expensive, as invasive, and which preliminary research shows are more effective. Because what we do know, is that the current ‘zero tolerance’ policy is not working.

ACT to Legalise Cannabis Possession

If history is anything to go by, often when one Australian State or Territory passes legislation on a particular issue, other jurisdictions tend to follow suit.

At least that’s what many Australians hope will happen in the wake of the ACT’s recent legalisation of personal cannabis possession.

What’s permitted under the new laws?

The laws, which come into effect on 31 January 2020, allow possession of up to 50 grams of dry cannabis per person. They also provide that:

  • Any adult in the ACT can legally grow two cannabis plants per person, with a maximum of four per household.
  • An adult can be in possession of up to 150 grams of wet cannabis.
  • Cannabis cannot be consumed in public, or anywhere near children, and will also have to be stored somewhere inaccessible to children.
  • Plants need to be grown where they are not seen by the public or accessible to children.

State/Territory laws versus Commonwealth laws

But the local laws are in conflict of current Commonwealth law, which does not allow personal cannabis use at all. So what does this mean?

Section 109 of the Constitution says that when a federal law is inconsistent with a state or/ territory law, the Commonwealth law will prevail to the extent of the inconsistency/

This means there are still legal risks, because cannabis remains a prohibited substance under Commonwealth law, and as such, police officers in the ACT still have the power to arrest and charge anyone under those laws should they choose to do so.

So, do the local laws have any power?

Well yes and no. This is a complex area, while there is such a significant disparity with the Commonwealth Law. However, the ACT laws attempt to provide a clear and specific legal defence for an adult who possesses small amounts of cannabis in the ACT, but is prosecuted under Commonwealth law and under this federal law, the punishment of possession of marijuana for personal use is a jail term, a maximum of two years in prison.

However, while this is indeed the ‘letter of the law’, for the most part, federal drug enforcement tends to be used to deal with offences that cross borders. Simple possession and small cultivation offences tend to be prosecuted under state and territory law.

Policing the new laws

ACT Police have stated officers have been informed of the new laws, and intend to ‘respect the new territory legislation as best they can,’ focusing less on consumers of cannabis, and more on organised crime pushing large amounts of marijuana and other drugs.

There are also many wondering why the new laws were necessary given that prior to passing this new legislation, the ACT was fairly lenient on anyone caught in possession of 50 grams of marijuana anyway. The ACT was one of the few jurisdictions in Australia which did not make this a criminal offence, which has led some to believe that this legislation is intended to pave the way for cannabis to eventually become commercialised in Canada.

However, the politicians say no. This would require an overhaul of Commonwealth drug laws to make this in any way possible in the ACT.

The law in New South Wales?

While cannabis advocates such as the HEMP Party, based in New South Wales, are hoping that laws around the country will change in line with the new legislation in the ACT, there is no sign of that yet.

In New South Wales, the possession and cultivation of cannabis is a criminal offence, except for medicinal purposes in certain circumstances. Drug possession carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison and / or a $2,200 fine.

However, courts have the discretion not to record a criminal conviction against a person even if he or she pleads guilty to drug possession, or is found guilty. This can be done under a section 10(1)(a) dismissal or a conditional release order without a conviction.

If you are going to court for drug possession, and you wish to plead guilty, there are steps you can take to maximise your chances of avoiding a criminal record. These can be explained to you by an experienced criminal defence lawyer, who can assist you to obtain required materials and present your case in such a way as to give you the best possible chance to walk out of court conviction free.

Drug Arrests and Seizures Do Not Deter Drug Suppliers or Reduce Consumption

The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission released the Illicit Drug Data report 2017-18 last week. In its sixteenth year, the report provides an overview of the domestic black market, and the efforts of law enforcement to combat drug trafficking transnational crime networks.

The report findings reveal that Australians continue to have a taste for amphetamine-type stimulants, which account for most seizures. Although, locals are also moving on to cocaine, with a record number of arrests carried out for that substance over the 12 month period.

During the financial year 2017-18, there was a record amount of 30.6 tonnes of illicit substances taken from 112,827 drug seizures. And the various police forces around the country made 148,363 drug-related arrests throughout the year.

This means that, on average, authorities made a drug seizure every five minutes, one kilogram of illicit drugs was snatched every seventeen and a half minutes, and someone was arrested in drug-related circumstances every four minutes.

But, if you take a step back from the record amounts, the skyrocketing arrests and the ridiculously high prices, what’s revealed is that despite global prohibition, illicit substances are flooding across Australian borders, consumption is on the rise, and law enforcement efforts are no deterrent.

The opposite effect

Key outcomes of the century-long system of transnational drug controls have been the growth of powerful criminal networks, an abundance of available illicit drugs, an ever-changing variety of substances, increased drug consumption, and the criminalisation of vast numbers of the population.

Of course, these outcomes are not what one would have expected when representatives from multiple nations began meeting in the early years of the 20th century to draft treaties that were, on the face of it, designed to control the consumption of drugs for health reasons.

And since the launch of the war on drugs in the early 1970s, these outcomes have only been exacerbated. The stepping up of law enforcement efforts to curb illegal drug production and trafficking has increased the risks involved, which in turn, has heightened the profits.

Illegality increases profitability

The NSW Crime Commission Annual Report 2015-16 outlines that “the illicit drug trade continues to be the main stream of income for organised crime groups operating in Australia”. And it predicted that due to the steep price of drugs in this country, trafficking from overseas was likely to increase.

The report further puts forth that it’s the international drug cartels that are calling the shots in Australia. The authors posit that organised crime decides what sort of volumes are going to be smuggled into the country, and local consumers take what they make available.

“Commendable law enforcement efforts around the country have resulted in larger seizures and more arrests, but they have had little, if any, effect on the quantities of prohibited drugs available for consumption in Australia,” the report authors admit.

Australian drug historian Dr John Jiggens explained to Sydney Criminal Lawyers back in May that “drug law enforcement acts as a multiplier for the drug market”. The doctor asserts that every dollar spent on drug law enforcement works out to ten dollars in the pockets of drug suppliers.

Dr Jiggens emphasised that the “war on meth” being waged by authorities over the last decade has led to a surge in its availability and profitability. The risks involved hike the price, which then leads international players to focus on the Australian market, because it’s where they get the best profits.

Arrests are no answer

The lack of any real impact being made via drug seizures is nowhere more understood than at the frontline of enforcement. Police officers are increasingly savvy to the fact that with every drug bust they make, more drugs appear from elsewhere to fill the momentary gap in the market.

The 2017 Australia21 report on illegal substances makes thirteen key recommendations regarding drug decriminalisation. And significantly, four of the participants making up the thinktank were former police commissioners and assistant commissioners.

Ex-Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer was the vice president of Australia21 at the time of the report release. And today, the former top cop is one of the most vocal advocates for decriminalising the personal possession and use of illegal drugs in this country.

Mr Palmer is well-known for acknowledging that the drug issue is not something that the nation can arrest its way out of. And he’s clear that the majority of harms arising from illicit substances are due to their prohibition.

Cannabis: a case in point

The ACT Legislative Assembly is set to vote on a bill next month that if successful will mean that the personal possession of up to 50 grams of cannabis and its use will be legalised in the capital territory. And Labor MLA Michael Pettersson who introduced the legislation is fairly confident it will pass.

Recreational cannabis is now legal in eleven US states, and the entire nations of Canada and Uruguay. For medicinal purposes, it is these days legal in this country. And underlying these developments is the understanding that the adult use of this drug is relatively harmless.

However, the recent drug report shows that there were 72,381 cannabis arrests across Australia in 2017-18. And of these, 66,296 – or 92 percent – were consumer arrests. And when considering all drug arrests during that year, it turns out 44 percent were arrests of cannabis consumers.

So, this would point to a situation where the majority of the harms related to cannabis are most likely attributable to its illegality, as while its consumption is unlikely to cause any major long-term harm to an adult, being arrested for its possession is.

Legalise it all

Five young Australians died at music festivals in this state last summer. And despite rising calls to implement pill testing at these events, the Berejiklian government is sticking to its reactionary “just say no” to drugs approach.

As Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation president Dr Alex Wodak has pointed out, MDMA – the drug of choice for festivalgoers – is one of the “least risky drugs”. So, if this substance was legally produced – like alcohol – it’s likely deaths caused by it would be greatly reduced if not ceased.

And while the use of other illicit drugs might be riskier, the argument for legalising them is their production could be quality controlled, availability could be governed, treatment for problematic use could be broadened, and the harms associated with the criminal justice system removed.

Indeed, if Australia adopted a policy of legalising and regulating all illicit substances, the power that the transnational criminal networks wield would fade away, the floods of contraband coming over the borders would dry up, and the police would be free to focus on crimes with real victims.

NSW Government Risks More Lives by Rejecting Harm Reduction

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

One of our state’s most popular music festivals, Splendour in the Grass has commenced in Byron Bay. The annual festival boasts more than 100 music acts, and attracts around 42,000 people each year.

And yes, along with the revellers, the festival also attracts a heavy police presence and drug detection drugs.

It’s no surprise that police have issued their standard pre-festival warning, that ‘anyone caught with illegal substances will be dealt with accordingly.’

It’s the same old rhetoric, time and again. The enforcement of which is costing young lives.

Young people and drugs

Currently, there are two State Government-led inquiries into the relationship young people have with illegal drugs in New South Wales.

The first, set up in November last year, is specifically examining drug use.

The second is the coronial inquest into the deaths of six young people, Diana Nguyen, Joshua Pham, Joshua Tam, Callum Brosnan, Nathan Tran and Alex Ross-King, all of whom suffered drug-related deaths at music festivals between December 2017 and January 2019.

Harrowing deaths

Tragic revelations are emerging from the coronial inquest – of medical staff inadequately trained and inexperienced in treating drug overdoses, of limited medical resources on site, and ‘disorganised’ emergency care responses, all of which have, in some way, contributed to the deaths of young people whose final hours have been depicted as painful and distressing.

The coronial inquest has heard evidence that over-policing at the FOMO Festival led to one young festival goer taking almost three MDMA pills in panic all at once. He later died as a result. Another’s death was preceded by violent police behaviour, with a witness testifying that an officer punched him in the face as he began to exhibit symptoms of a seizure.

Others have complained about the way police conduct strip searches, intimidating and humiliating patrons – treating them as if they are guilty until proven otherwise.

Pill-testing has been a strong theme. And in recent days, Deputy State Coroner Harriet Grahame has expressed interest in attending Splendour in the Grass herself, to see first-hand a pill testing demonstration by Dr David Caldicott, who has long been an outspoken advocate for the harm minimisation practise.

NSW Government insists on ‘zero-tolerance’

Despite the deaths and a wealth of evidence from overseas that pill-testing saves lives, as well as strong backing for the practise by a range of experts including the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Australian Medical Association and former Australian federal police commissioner, the NSW government is clinging to the status quo: The ‘zero- tolerance’ policy which includes deploying hundreds of police officers, sniffer dogs, strip searches and the long arm of the law, and the rejection of harm minimisation.

Our Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s direction to young people is ‘don’t take illegal drugs’.

This is not only completely out of touch with reality, it ignores vital facts that we already know.

Currently, the Australian Capital Territory is the only jurisdiction in Australia which has conducted pill testing trials, and the preliminary findings of these trials overwhelmingly supported evidence from overseas where pill testing is commonplace, and that is, it provides people with information to make a choice, and therefore does save lives.

Australians have one of the highest consumption rates of MDMA (“ecstasy”) in the world. And, sadly, because MDMA is an unregulated drug, Australian ecstasy has also been found to contain the highest amount of unknown and potentially deadly substances, because, on the black market producers and suppliers to fill their tablets with whatever they want.

In a study of ecstasy pills from several countries including the Netherlands, Australia and Canada, Australian tablets were found to contain the highest amount of “unknown ingredients” as well as the highest amount of potentially deadly substances including PMA/PMMA, a highly toxic compound linked to deaths both in Australia and overseas.

These considerations alone, should be case enough for the introduction of pill testing.

It has been proven overseas that the practice does not lead to an increase in use, but actually offers a valuable opportunity for professionals to engage with, and educate drug users. It offers too, a chance for young people who may be feeling ‘peer pressure’ to find a ‘respectable way out’ and ditch the drugs, without fear of losing face with their friends.

For many it is simply maddening that the NSW Government continues to defy the very many positives of pill-testing and the mounting ground-swell of support for it, not just in NSW, but right across Australia, and not just anxious parents or curious young people, but those who believe that there is enough evidence that it will save lives.

Most of us have had enough of playing Russian Roulette with young people’s lives. And, yes, while these young people should each be responsible for the decisions they make, isn’t that exactly what pill testing is about? Ensuring they have the information they need to make an informed choice?

Perhaps there is however, some hope on the horizon. The Government inquiry mentioned earlier which is tasked with looking at drug use across the state, was originally undertaking specific research into the use of crystal methamphetamine, otherwise known as ICE, but earlier this year it’s brief was expanded to include other illicit drugs such as MDMA, which means that it will also look into the benefits of pill testing.

When final recommendations are made from both the coronial inquest and the drug-use inquiry are handed down, it can only be hoped that the Government retains an open mind on the issue of pill testing. Not to do so would be a complete waste of time, resources and taxpayer funds.

Pill Testing Saves Lives, Heavy Policing Takes Them

Alex Ross-King was only 19, when she died from a drug overdose attending January’s FOMO festival in Parramatta. Last week, at the NSW coronial inquiry into six drug-related deaths at festivals, it was heard that Alex had taken several MDMA capsules prior to the event so as to avoid police detection.

Event attendees taking all their drugs before an event to avoid arrest is referred to as “preloading”. Harm reduction experts have been warning for years that heavy policing at festivals is causing punters to partake in risky drug taking behaviours, like this, to prevent being arrested.

If Ms Ross-King wasn’t expecting to be confronted with a show of brute force on arrival, she likely wouldn’t have taken numerous pills at once. Besides there being no point, she’d be afraid of the consequences. But, in this case, the fear of police was greater than the fear of a drug overdose.

Since the early 90s, people in the Netherlands have been able to access pill testing services at festivals. This means a medical professional can warn them if their drugs are too strong or toxic. They don’t have to fear arrest and they can make an informed decision about taking the drugs.

And as NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian again pushes her “just say no” to drugs stance, rather than conceding a proven harm reduction intervention just might save lives, it feels to many like we’re on some sickening roundabout, with the only progress made being the rising number of deaths.

A head-in-the-sand approach

“This is not the first tragic death in NSW because a young person has preloaded, due to their fear of police drug dog operations,” said NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge. “Unless we change the law, I fear it won’t be the last.”

James Munro died as a result of taking all his drugs at once on spotting police with dogs at the 2013 Defqon.1 festival. To avoid getting arrested, the 23-year-old downed several pills at once and half an hour after gaining entry into the event, he fell into a coma, and never regained consciousness.

“We have a government that’s hellbent on a zero tolerance 1950s approach to drug law enforcement: a theory that abstinence will somehow keep young people safe,” Mr Shoebridge continued. “That approach has been proven tragically wrong.”

The NSW Greens justice spokesperson also stressed that there’s always a number of young people who experiment with drugs. And it’s about time authorities admitted the drug war has failed and look towards alternative measures like pill testing, or further, legalising and regulating MDMA.

3,4-Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine (MDMA)

Veteran drug law reformist Dr Alex Wodak explained that ecstasy or MDMA is the main drug youths are taking at music events. An oft-cited 2010 Lancet article found MDMA to be “one of the least risky” of 20 drugs considered, although like all others, it’s “toxicity is greater with higher doses”.

“Doses on the black market have been creeping up and are now not infrequently in a concerning range,” the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation president added. “Also, some samples include dangerous contaminants resulting from faulty manufacturing practices.”

The physician further told Sydney Criminal Lawyers that in relation to legalising the drug “the lowest risk form of ecstasy would have to be regulated with careful supervision of the manufacturing process and production of a known and safe dose”.

But, the reality is that MDMA remains illegal, and so does pill testing. And this means that the hundreds of thousands of Australians who take ecstasy annually are consuming a drug that could be relatively benign, but at present, can be rather like playing a game of Russian roulette if taken.

Intimidation, fear and anxiety

Tasked with investigating the drug-related deaths of six festivalgoers, NSW deputy state coroner Harriet Grahame decided to take herself to a music festival in mid-June to see what all the saturation policing fuss was about.

And the coroner described what she found as “full on”. The “lines and lines of police and dogs” she was confronted with made her “feel nervous”. Ms Grahame was surprised by “how intense it was”, as viewing it gave her a “strange sensation”, even though she had “nothing to fear”.

Mr Shoebridge related that he’s been at the entrance to numerous festivals in his capacity as an MP, who’s had “long and deep engagement with the NSW police”. And while he’s usually accompanied by dozens of Sniff Off campaign volunteers at the time, he still feels intimidated.

“The fact that someone in a position of authority like a state coroner feels intimidated should make the government reflect on how intimidating it is for an ordinary young person,” the Greens MLC emphasised.

A question of priorities

In response to a question regarding the use of brute force by NSW authorities as a way of preventing drug deaths at festivals, emergency physician Dr David Caldicott said, “I’m not aware of any public health intervention that required brute force that was in the slightest way successful.”

“What we are seeing in NSW is some sort of macabre political theatre,” the long-time pill testing advocate continued, “there is no evidence to support it, and that for which there is evidence is being ignored.”

As part of the Pill Testing Australia crew, Dr Caldicott was the attending doctor on site at both the first and second government-sanctioned Australian pill testing trials that were held at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival in 2018 and last April.

In permitting the trials, the enlightened ACT government has been complicit in having possibly saved the lives of around nine young Australians, whose drug samples were found to contain potentially lethal substances, and therefore, were binned rather than taken.

In NSW, five young people died as a result of untested drugs last summer. The situation in this state reminded Dr Caldicott of a quote from a book he’d picked up earlier this year in the Netherlands: a country, he said, “overtly makes drugs a health issue and is ingenious in its approaches”.

“You cannot control an activity by merely shouting out that it is forbidden,” wrote Jock Young in 1971’s The Drugtakers: The Social Meaning of Drug Use. “You must base your measures on facts, and these facts must come from sources that are valued by the people you are trying to influence.”

Leading others into a ditch

However, Ms Berejiklian doesn’t favour the same literature as Dr Caldicott. Instead, she prefers to bang on about how people should avoid taking drugs, while she quotes “facts” – which are sourced from who knows where – about there being a lack of evidence to show that pill testing works.

Dr Wodak said that the leader of the NSW Liberals “claims to be unimpressed by the evidence”, however when she established an expert panel last year to investigate safety at festivals following two drug-related deaths, she specifically told the panel not to consider pill testing.

The doctor set out that while critics argue pill testing hasn’t been evaluated by randomised controlled trials, this is because it’s an environmental intervention, which rules that out. But, it’s still open to peruse the on-the-ground evidence relating to its successful use in other jurisdictions.

“It is hard not to be impressed by the breadth and depth of expert opinion overwhelmingly supporting pill testing in Australia,” Dr Wodak added. “This includes a wide range of medical opinion, as well as academics, researchers and clinicians working in the alcohol and drug field.”

Blood on their hands

The premier dodged questions from reporters last Sunday regarding whether saturation policing at festivals is leading youths to preload and subsequently die. All she had for the NSW constituency was her usual: “don’t take illegal substances, they’re illegal for a reason.”

It’s an old harm reduction adage that new strategies to combat drug war casualties always face harsh resistance. This seems to be especially so in NSW, which was once a pioneer in establishing needle exchanges and a safe injecting room, both of which Dr Wodak brought across the line.

“If this premier doesn’t support pill testing, then the next one will, or the one after the next one,” Dr Wodak concluded. “Deaths will continue, unfortunately, and each premier will be pilloried for every death from now on, until pill testing is approved and implemented.”

It’s High Time to Decriminalise Drugs

Head of the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug Ice Professor Dan Howard SC has requested a six month extension prior to the tabling of the final report, as it needs to properly consider “a key issue” that’s emerged, which is the decriminalisation of ice and other drugs.

The professor made the request to NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian in a letter dated 21 May. He noted that removing criminal sanctions around the personal possession and use of illicit drugs is not only a priority concern in NSW, but it’s also being agitated for in “many jurisdictions internationally”.

The inquiry into crystal meth was established by Ms Berejiklian last November. It’s significant that it wants more time to properly evaluate decriminalisation, when you consider the long list of regressive measures taken by the Coalition in relation to illicit drug use at the end of last year.

And there’s support for the decriminalisation of ice and other drugs coming from prominent sectors in the community. The NSW Bar Association’s submission calls for the removal of criminal sanctions, and both the NSW and ACT synods of the Uniting Church are on the same page.

On everybody’s lips

“Given the reluctance of the Berejiklian government to objectively consider the overwhelming evidence on how to reduce the harm from drugs,” said NSW Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann, “it’s extremely encouraging that the commission is dedicating enough time to look into this issue.”

Not only has the premier blocked her ears when it comes to the push for drug decriminalisation, but she also refused to consider pill testing at festivals while the death toll was rising last summer. And by the end of the festival season, a total of five young Australians had unnecessarily lost their lives.

Faehrmann outlined that the inquiry has heard compelling evidence from numerous experts. This includes the Public Defenders Office, which noted in its submission that former law enforcement officials have stated, “Australia cannot arrest its way out of the methamphetamine problem”.

“A decriminalised model would ensure people are able to seek help when they need it by diverting resources away from the criminal system and towards the health system,” Ms Faehrmann continued, adding that police would then be able to “tackle serious crime like domestic violence”.

A step towards regulation  

“Decriminalisation plus improved and readily available health and social support would significantly reduce drug-related deaths, disease and crime,” said veteran drug law reformist Dr Alex Wodak. “It would benefit people who use drugs, their families and the general community.”

The Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation president stressed that politicians also need to look at why a highly-potent drug like ice has caught on in Australia, whereas in other countries, such as the UK, it never has. And there are two chief reasons for this, according to the doctor.

Firstly, the isolation of the country, the huge law enforcement effort geared towards drugs and the risky nature of the business make it “very lucrative”. And Dr Wodak explained that as getting caught is not a certainty and the justice system is slow-moving, these act as little deterrent.

The second reason ice has taken off is as drug dealers and traffickers have to avoid detection, it leaves the smuggling of “more powerful, more concentrated and more dangerous drugs” an easier option. So, where less potent powdered speed was once the amphetamine of choice, now it’s ice.

“Decriminalisation of drugs is certainly needed,” Dr Wodak remarked. But, he added that it’s no cure-all. “Just as decriminalisation is better than criminalisation of drugs, regulating as much of the drug market as possible is where we need to end up.”

The Portuguese model

“Portugal’s successful 2001 reforms emphasised that removing sanctions for drug personal possession and use and the expansion and improvement of treatment,” Dr Wodak told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. And he underscored that decriminalisation and more treatment are both needed.

The Portuguese government decriminalised the personal use and possession of all illicit substances at a time when their use was highly problematic. And eighteen years on, the use of illegal drugs hasn’t exploded, but drug-related deaths and HIV infections have plummeted.

Today, individuals in Portugal found with an amount of an illicit drug in their possession deemed personal are sent before a dissuasion panel comprised of a doctor, a lawyer and a social worker. The panel members can recommend prescribed drug treatment, a minor fine or no punishment at all.

Ms Faehrmann recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Portugal. And she reports that the system is “extremely effective because it recognises that only about 10 percent of people who use drugs will ever become addicted”.

The NSW Greens drug and harm minimisation spokesperson added that the vast majority of people who go before the panels are “able to get on with their lives with no criminal record or any other distressing or degrading experience”. And the courts and law enforcement can focus elsewhere.

Time for pollies to listen

“The tide appears to have definitely turned when it comes to public opinion concerning the criminalisation of some drugs,” Ms Faehrmann continued. “I believe it’s inevitable that all drugs will be decriminalised in NSW.”

However, she put forth that it took years following public calls around assisted dying and abortion for politicians to bring about law reforms, which is a point that Dr Wodak echoed regarding the long gap between the initial decriminalisation of homosexuality and the coming of marriage equality.

“The criminalisation of homosexuality meant the heterosexual majority punishing people with a minority sexual preference involving consenting adults in private,” the doctor outlined. “The criminalisation of drugs involves the majority punishing people with a minority drug preference.”

And the drug law reformist added that over recent years the number of “retired and even some serving police commissioners” that have been advising the public that it’s impossible for the nation to arrest or imprison its way out of its current drug problems has been rising.

“This is surely a message in code for our political leaders to begin to redefine drugs as primarily a health problem and start funding drug treatment properly,” Dr Wodak concluded. “Now the Uniting Church in Australia is repeating this message.”

Cannabis and Driving: The Unfairness of NSW Drug Driving Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two very different drugs

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

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

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

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

Difficult to pin down

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

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

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

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

Safer than alcohol

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

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

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

A standard still eludes

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

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

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

An unjust drug war tactic

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

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

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

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

Drug Prohibition in Australia: Power, Politics and Prejudice

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

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

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

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

Lack of correlation between harm and criminalisation

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

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

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

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

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

Brief history of criminalisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start of harm reduction strategies

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

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

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

Failure of the war on drugs

Drug prohibition has failed, however, to reduce consumption.

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

Professor Nicole Lee, from the National Drug Research Institute remarked that “while we focus on the use of drugs, we will continue to implement ineffective strategies, such as arresting people for use and possession”, adding, “if we focus on harms, we start to implement effective strategies, including prevention, harm reduction and treatment.”

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

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