Author Archives: Kieran Adair

About Kieran Adair
Kieran Adair is the previous Deputy Editor of City Hub. He has written for the Huffington Post, Guardian Australia and South Sydney Herald. He has a passion for social justice and is a member of the Sydney Drug Lawyers content team.

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.

Sydney’s ‘Free Cannabis’ Picnic a Huge Success

Organisers have dubbed the ‘Free Cannabis’ picnic held in Sydney last weekend a “huge success,” despite the heavy police and sniffer dog presence.

About 200 people turned up for the marijuana-legalisation protest, almost double the numbers from the previous rally. The group held joint rolling competitions, alongside stand-up comedy and speeches from pro-reform politicians and activists.

Free Cannabis NSW organiser, Chris Hindi, said the movement to “destigmatise” cannabis use was only going to keep growing with the cannabis picnics set to be a regular event held every couple of months.

“There are up to 2 million people in Australia who use cannabis regularly so we believe there is no reason to feel ashamed about it. We ask that everybody who has had enough of the ‘War on Drugs’ to come along and show their support”

“Everyone who came loved the atmosphere and had a great time with many saying not only will they be back but they will be bringing more friends along,” he said.

The group is part of broader movement that’s campaigning to see marijuana legalised across the country, for both recreation and medicinal purposes.

“I came here today because I suffer from chronic illness and marijuana has allowed me to get off all of the drugs I was taking,” one woman at the picnic said.

The protest ended at 4.20pm, with attendees lighting up joints and calling on the Government to legalise the drug. Despite the heavy police presence, which included several police from the NSW Riot Squad, no arrests were made.

This was the second picnic organised by the group, who already planning a third event for early June.

Campaign for Marijuana Reform Gathers Steam

This year has already seen two Australian Governments pass ground breaking marijuana reforms.

In February, the Federal Government announced that their amendments to the Narcotic Drugs Act, which allow for the cultivation of marijuana for medical research and people suffering from serious illness, had successfully become law.

This week has seen another breakthrough, with the Victoria becoming the first state to legalise the use of medicinal cannabis. The Victorian bill will give children with severe epilepsy access to medicinal marijuana as early as 2017.

In New South Wales, Premier Mike Baird recently announced plans for a third clinical trial into the effects of medicinal cannabis. The previous two trials have focused on the effects it has on terminally ill patients and children with severe epilepsy, while the upcoming one looks at its effectiveness in treating chemotherapy patients suffering from nausea. Campaigners hope that that the trials will pave the way for a broader medicinal cannabis program.

According to Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, medicinal cannabis has a wide-range of applications and can be used to treat many other illnesses:

“Many prestigious scientific and medical organisations and reviews support medicinal cannabis… The conditions for which there is strongest evidence include: chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting; chronic non-cancer pain, especially due to nerve damage; wasting in advanced cancer and HIV infection; and muscle stiffness in multiple sclerosis.”

While this progress might be good news for some, it still means very little for those who hope to see the drug legalised for recreational use. While Governments around the world have begun fully decriminalising marijuana use, it seems unlikely that Australia will follow suit in the near future.

Recreational marijuana and New South Wales law

Under New South Wales law, cannabis is still a “prohibited drug.” This means that any activity involving cannabis is illegal – regardless of whether you’re possessing it, using it, growing it or supplying it.

In New South Wales, those caught with up to 15 grams of cannabis may, in certain circumstances, be given a ‘cannabis caution’. The first caution comes with information about the harm associated with marijuana use and a number to call for drug-related information. Any second caution requires compulsory attendance at drug counselling.

A person may be issued with up-to-two cautions before having to go to court, but at the end of the day there is no guarantee a police officer will decide to issue a ‘caution’ even if you meet the requirements.

If police decide to send you to court for cannabis possession, they must prove beyond reasonable doubt that you knew that you had the cannabis in your custody or that it was under your legal control.

That’s why the police will normally try to get you to talk, and admit to things they otherwise might not be able to prove.

In cases where more than one person has access to the cannabis – for example, where it is found in a shared house or in a car with several occupants – the prosecution must rule out, beyond reasonable doubt, the possibility that someone other you had possession.

If you’re caught with 300 grams or more, police may attempt to charge you for “deemed supply.” This means the law presumes the amount was large enough that you intended to supply it to others. If police can prove you possessed the required amount, you must then prove that the amount in your possession was not intended for supply.