Author Archives: Sydney Drug Lawyers

About Sydney Drug Lawyers
Sydney Drug Lawyers is a subsidiary of Sydney Criminal Lawyers which specialises in drug cases.

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.

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.

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.

Drug use is a health issue, and should not be treated as a crime

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

The authors of an article published in the Medical Journal of Australia have joined the chorus of health experts calling for an emphasis on harm reduction measures and government regulation when it comes to drug use, rather than trying to arrest our way out of the problem.

The peer-reviewed article, titled ‘Beyond ice: rethinking Australia’s approach to illicit drugs’, argues that drug use should be classified as a health issue, rather than a criminal law problem which is dealt with through greater investment in law enforcement and harsher penalties.

Easy access despite punitive measures

The article’s authors, Matthew Frei and Alex Wodak, cite figures which suggest that the demand for ‘ice’ has continued to rise despite the implementation of punitive measures.

The report’s findings are consistent with what many have been saying for years – that the ‘war against drugs’ has been lost.

Surveys suggest that between 2009 and 2014, the percentage of drug users who found it “easy” or “very easy” to obtain ice increased from 65% to 91%. This is despite a concerted effort by law enforcement to stop the manufacture and importation of drugs, which has contributed to drug seizures rising from 160 kg in 2011–12 to almost 1500 kg in 2012–13.

The 2014 Illicit Drug Reporting System found that the mean age for ice users is 40 years, that they are more likely than the general population to be unemployed, and that they generally engage in multiple or polydrug use. This suggests there is a strong demand for the drug amongst seasoned users.

Failure of punitive approach

The focus of the 2016 National Ice Taskforce Report was to evaluate preventative and diversionary initiatives and make recommendations, rather than criminalisation strategies.

Former Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay acknowledged during the taskforce’s deliberations that “we can’t arrest our way out of the problem”.

“Over the past two decades in Australia we have devoted increased resources to drug law enforcement, we have increased the penalties for drug trafficking and we have accepted increasing inroads on our civil liberties as part of the battle to curb the drug trade”, he stated.

“All the evidence shows, however, not only that our law enforcement agencies have not succeeded in preventing the supply of illegal drugs to Australian markets but that it is unrealistic to expect them to do so.”

Skewed priorities

In an attempt to address the issue of drugs, Australian governments have allocated two-thirds of spending on law enforcement, and only 21% on treatment programs, 9% on preventative programs and 2% to harm reduction measures. And importantly, these figures do not take into account the enormous amount of money spent on keeping drug offenders behind bars.

Professor Nicole Lee, from the National Drug Research Institute, told MJA InSight 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.”

Prison populations have continued to increase as the war on drugs continues, surging by 16% over the past two years, with the rise primarily attributed to more arrests, tougher bail laws and longer sentences.

And sadly, prison has proven to be an ineffective means of breaking the cycle of crime – with 48% of NSW inmates returning to prison within just two years of release, according to 2014–15 Productivity Commission data.

The way forward

The MJA article calls upon governments to regulate drugs, citing Australia’s success in reducing tobacco consumption through regulatory measures.

Matt Noffs, CEO of the Noffs Foundation, agrees with this approach.

“We banned tobacco advertising, and we’ve done this better than any other country. We made it harder to get and harder to smoke, we made it more expensive, and all of these measures have led to a decrease in smoking and, therefore, a decrease in people being harmed by it”, he remarked.

Dr Wodak believes an important first step is to view drug use as a health and social problem, rather than something we need to punish. “People who need help don’t just need health assistance; they need social help with housing and training in employment,” he said.

Harm reduction

While conservative politicians gawk at a regulatory framework, measures such as methadone programs and injecting rooms have proven to be extremely successful in reducing the harm associated with the use of heroin.

As observed by Professor Lee, “[h]arm reduction strategies such as pill testing, needle syringe programs, early closing for venues selling alcohol and safe injecting facilities significantly reduce harms to people who use alcohol and other drugs and the community”.

The MJA article’s authors note that, “British politician Denis Healey was fond of saying ‘if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging’. It’s time Australia took his advice when responding to illicit drugs.”

‘Lost’ 34 Bags of Cannabis? Police Want to Hear from You

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

Thousands of people are talking about a cheeky social media post by the NSW Police Force depicting 34 garbage bags of cannabis plants, found in bushland in a northern Sydney suburb.

Facebook post

Police published the post on Facebook after finding the cannabis over the weekend.

LOST & FOUND
Does this belong to you? Northern Beaches LAC – NSW Police Force are looking for the owner of 34 garbage bags full of cannabis found in bushland at Terrey Hills. Attend your local police station to claim ownership. We’d love to hear from you.

The post has received more than 30 thousand comments and over 6,000 shares.

A local man who regularly walks in the area said the bags appeared between Friday and Saturday. He originally thought someone had unlawfully dumped garbage, but contacted police after he looked more closely and realised it was cannabis.

Police arrived to find a mixture of mature plants and seedlings, along with some potting mix and other substances.

Ongoing investigation

The items have been seized for forensic examination. While the bags were only metres from busy Mona Vale Road, it is believed they were dumped from a quiet street behind.

NSW Drug Squad officers are appealing for anyone with information to come forward or to call Crime Stoppers.

Drugs on Sydney’s Northern Beaches

Illicit drugs have been prevalent on the Northern Beaches in recent years, with large hauls of cannabis and other drugs found over the past few months.

Two men were allegedly caught doing a drug deal involving cocaine just prior to Christmas, and the subsequent search of a home in Freshwater is said to have yielded more than $55,000 in cash and small bags containing white powder.

And last November, police reported finding a hydroponic set-up, 18 cannabis plants, cocaine, amphetamines, GHB and cash at a home in Narrabeen. They charged a man with 10 offences, including four counts of possessing a prohibited drug and three counts of drug supply.

In June last, year police allegedly seized nearly 1000 cannabis plants in simultaneous raids at industrial premises at Brookvale and Cromer, with an estimated street value of $3 million.

Police Talk Tough on Drugs at Music Festivals

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

After a spate of drug-related deaths at music festivals over the past several years, police have issued a strong warning to upcoming ‘Party In the Park’ go-ers not to “even think” of bringing drugs into the music festival on Sydney’s Northern Beaches next month.

More than 5,000 people are expected to attend the festival on March 18 at Pittwater Rugby Park in Narrabeen, and police say they will be using all the resources at their disposal to ensure that attendees don’t bring drugs into the festival.

Strong police presence

Around 3,500 people were at the concert in 2016 and sniffer dogs detected 22 incidences of drug possession – amounting to less than 1% of the attendees – for cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy.

The use of drug detection dogs is highly controversial, with government statistics showing that more often than not innocent people are subjected to invasive searches which give a ‘false positive’ reading – indicating the presence of drugs, but none actually being found.

It’s also concerning that the use of sniffer dogs has been linked to the deaths of several young people at music festivals – who have ‘loaded up’ on significant quantities of drugs before arriving at the venue, or upon seeing police and dogs at the venue, to avoid detection.

But police continue to claim that the dogs are highly effective, pointing to the fact that a sniffer dog operation resulted in 40 arrests at the Subsonic Music Festival in the Hunter Valley just before Christmas. Police found Amphetamines, LSD, ketamine, ecstasy and cannabis over the course the two day event.

Drug and health experts have been repeatedly calling for governments to allow pill testing at major music festivals, especially in the wake of several ‘bad batches’ of well-known party drugs coming into the market. Advocates for pill testing say it enables patrons to make informed decisions about what they decide to take, but NSW politicians have long dismissed this idea.

Getting caught with drugs

Drug offences are taken seriously in New South Wales and possession of an illegal drug can be punishable with a criminal conviction or even a prison sentence in extreme cases. Statistics suggest that criminal convictions are also recorded in most case, which can hinder people from getting a job or even travelling to some countries.

Drug supply is treated especially serious, and penalties depend on the quantity of drugs involved.

ID required.

Police also say they’ll be strictly enforcing the Party In the Park’s “over 18 policy”, advising festival goers to take ID so they can prove their age if required.

Event organisers have welcomed the strong police presence, saying it’s their desire for everyone to remain safe and enjoy the music line up which will include Angus Stone and Boy & Bear.

Organisers have also employed private security officers to complement the police patrols and have also rostered about 100 volunteers to assist the smooth running of the event. Last year’s festival was the first and it’s hoped this year’s event will become an annual feature of the music festival calendar.

Stop Arresting Drivers for Trace Amounts of Cannabis

By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

A system of legalised medical marijuana is slowly being established in Australia. Federal government legislation came into effect in October last year, allowing those with licences to cultivate, manufacture and distribute the medicine under strict regulations.

Both the NSW and Victorian state governments are now growing crops of cannabis for medicinal purposes. And Queensland passed legislation last October that will allow doctors to prescribe medicinal cannabis to patients as of next month.

However, as people begin to legally use marijuana for medicinal purposes, they’ll find themselves in a predicament when it comes to driving, as all Australian states and territories run roadside drug testing programs that test drivers for traces of THC: the psychoactive ingredient of the plant.

A zero tolerance approach

Roadside drug testing programs have been implemented throughout the country on the pretext of road safety, the claim being that it will lead to a reduction in the number of car accidents caused by drivers under the influence of drugs.

But the reality is this type of testing has more to do with a zero tolerance approach to illicit substances, as the regime focuses on cracking down on people for using certain drugs, rather than representing an evidence-based approach to halting road fatalities.

Random breath testing for alcohol tests for driver impairment; it is a regime based on extensive evidence that certain concentrations of alcohol in the blood system lead to an increased danger. Indeed, this is why there are different gradients of prescribed concentration of alcohol (PCA) charges – low range, mid range and high range.

But roadside drug testing is not an evidence-based approach – a driver can be charged even if they have minute traces of residual drugs in their system, amounts so small they could not possibly impair driving.

Along with THC, police test drivers for MDMA and amphetamines, via a saliva test. And the devices they use don’t gauge drug concentrations, which means a driver could have taken the drugs days before.

The trouble in NSW

The Northern Rivers region has been the flashpoint of the NSW police blitz on roadside drug testing for years now. This is having an adverse effect on the local court system. Lismore Court is overwhelmed with cases of people who’ve been charged for driving with cannabis in their system.

In February last year, Lismore magistrate David Heilpern found Joseph Carrall not guilty of drug driving, when he accepted testimony that he hadn’t smoked any pot for nine days prior to being tested, which meant he could rely on the defence of ‘honest and reasonable mistake’.

Australia flies in the face of the evidence

Australia is the only country in the world to have implemented a large-scale roadside drug testing program of this kind. In NSW, it began in 2007, while the first jurisdiction to introduce the program was Victoria in December 2004. In England for example, drivers are not charged unless they have a certain concentration of drugs in their system.

At the same time as Victoria was implementing the zero tolerance program, the world-renowned National Institute for Road Safety Research in the Netherlands was recommending against this type of testing.

The institute found that zero tolerance legislation for illegal drugs – with the exception of heroin – would “produce a massive overkill… resulting in very high cost and hardly any road safety benefits.”

It illustrated this in a case-controlled study in the Tilburg police district, where was shown that 87 percent of all cannabis users did not have a concentration sufficient to significantly increase the risk of injury.

The institute concluded that this did not mean cannabis use does not have an impact on road safety, as the remaining 13 percent used more than one drug at a time, and cannabis users constituted 70 percent of this high-risk group.

The research of professor Ross Homel of Griffith University was instrumental in the introduction of random breath testing in Australia. He has expressed the view that the inclusion of cannabis in roadside drug testing is more about the “enforcement of drug laws,” than an attempt to achieve “road safety benefits.”

Cannabis impairment: a contentious issue

The impact of cannabis use on driving ability is a controversial subject. There’s much debate as to whether it poses a significant risk. There’s also contention over the amount of the substance that needs to be taken in order to constitute a threat to road safety.

Professor Homel wrote in his paper that there’s increasing evidence that people who drive under the influence of cannabis do place themselves and others at an increased risk. But he also states that cannabis use seems to increase that risk by two to three times, compared to alcohol, which increases the risk by six to fifteen times or more.

A 2002 paper titled Cannabis and Alcohol in Motor Vehicle Accidents found that “crash culpability studies have failed to demonstrate that drivers” with cannabis in their systems “are significantly more likely than drug-free drivers to be culpable in road crashes.”

A Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs report, found that “cannabis leads to a more cautious style of driving.” And while it found that its use does have “a negative impact on decision time,” it also concluded that this doesn’t mean that drivers under the influence of marijuana posed a traffic safety risk.

The committee remarked that “cannabis alone, particularly in low doses, has little effect on the skills involved in automobile driving.”

In 2015, the US National Institute on Drug Abuse conducted a driving simulator test at the University of Iowa on the effects of cannabis and alcohol on driving ability.

Researchers found that while alcohol had an effect on the number of times a car left a lane it was driving in and the speed of weaving, marijuana did not. But they did find that cannabis increased weaving, and the higher the concentration of THC in a driver’s blood, the worse this became.

Police should stop testing for cannabis

However, Australian police aren’t testing for the level of THC in a driver’s blood.

They’re often pulling people over and charging them for traces of a substance that may have been consumed days before.

Cannabis is now understood to be at the low level of the harm scale, and its medicinal benefits are acknowledged globally. And as legal medicinal use of the drug becomes a reality, the roadside drug testing regime is going to impact sick people who should not be criminalised.

Until there’s conclusive evidence that the use of cannabis is detrimental to road safety, and an evidence-based approach similar to the drink driving regime is introduced, many believe marijuana should be removed from roadside drug testing in all jurisdictions across the country.

Bad Batch of ‘Ecstacy’ Blamed for 20 Hospitalisations

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

A bad batch of ecstasy is believed to be responsible for up to 20 overdose deaths in Melbourne’s inner south-east. Police are concerned the batch may still be in circulation, warning party-goers in the area.

The overdoses occurred near Chapel Street in Melbourne from Friday night to Sunday morning. Police suspect the MDMA was laced with GHB or other substances, and paramedics are bracing for more hospitalisations over the summer festival season.

Police response

“There’s a definite chance of there being more,” said Detective Acting Senior Sergeant Dave Newman. “A batch of drugs like this will take a long time to dissipate, or disappear from the scene.”

He urged anyone who experiences an adverse reaction to seek medical help immediately. “Unfortunately, with the nature of this drug, you don’t know what you’re taking,” he said. “And at the moment, there’s a heightened risk.”

Police are awaiting forensic testing to determine the cause of the overdoses – whether it be a high level of purity and/or the nature of additional substances used.

A 30-year-old man was arrested early on Sunday and charged with drug supply, drug possession and dealing with the proceeds of crime.

He will appear in the Melbourne Magistrates Court next Monday.

Rise in ecstacy use

The use of ecstacy is reported to have risen in recent years, along with an increase in the MDMA component of the drug.

The Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS), which surveys regular psychostimulant users each year, reports that nearly 60 per cent of users now take ecstasy in its purer crystal form.

Research from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre suggests that ecstacy use increased by six per cent in 2016 alone, with 93 percent of users reporting that it is either easy or very easy to obtain. The Centre reported a 70 percent increase over the past five years.

Harm reduction

Professor Michael Farrell is concerned by the risks associated with fluctuating levels of purity and dangerous fillers, arguing for the introduction of pill testing at dance parties and music festivals.

“There may be the possibility that, as we did with needle exchange programs, you make sure that the police stand back and don’t interfere with certain things with the notion that it may confer some benefit and some reduce-to-harm around some people,” he said.

The drug liberalisation group Unharm has been calling for pill testing for years.

“Drugs that should be tested in laboratories are being tested on humans and this is the result,” says the group’s Facebook page. “Like the pollies and police always say, ‘you don’t know what you’re taking’, and that’s because THEY are making it almost impossible to find out”.

NSW government’s position

Earlier this year, NSW Police Minister Troy Grant rejected the introduction of pill testing in our state, stating:

“The number one problem is that what they are proposing is some sort of quality assurance measure for an illegal drug, for drug traffickers, to be conducted by police and the New South Wales Government. Well, that’s just not going to happen”.

Public opinion

Research suggests that a majority of Australians support harm reduction measures like pill testing and needle exchange programs.

The former has been highly successful in preventing overdoses in several European countries, while the latter in the form of the medically supervised injection centre in Kings Cross has resulted in ambulance callouts for drug overdoses reducing by 80% and zero reported fatalities.

Young people are particularly supportive of pill testing; with 82% of 2,300 young Australians aged between 16 and 25 years surveyed for the Australian National Council on Drugs in 2013 being in favour of its introduction.

While Mr Grant argues that harm minimisation measures “send the wrong message”, he seems to ignore the fact young people are taking drugs regardless of the penalties – indeed, drug use is on the rise – and are ending up in hospital or even dead in the absence of a sensible, pragmatic approach.