Author Archives: Sydney Drug Lawyers

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

Australia’s First Pill Testing Trial Hailed a Success

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

Australia’s first pill testing trial has been hailed a resounding success, after analyses identified potentially lethal ingredients in the drugs of attendees and thereby allowed them to make informed decisions about whether to consume the substances

The trial at the Groovin the Moo festival in Canberra over the weekends tested a total of 85 substances, with many users surprised by what they were about to take.

Lethal ingredients

The trial identified the presence of two highly toxic chemicals, including the “absolutely lethal” N-Ethylpentylone (ephylone), which has been responsible for several deaths and mass overdoses around the world.

Emergency doctor David Caldicott explains that ephylone is a stimulant that can cause circulation problems, dangerous hallucinations and lethal heart palpitations.

The lethal substances were found inside clear capsules and disposed of immediately, potentially preventing another two deaths at Australian music festivals.

It was also revealed that half of the drugs tested were cut with substances not known or expected by users, from paint, to lactose, to toothpaste.

Opportunity to educate and provide support

The testing of substances was conducted in a standalone tent next to the festival’s medical centre. The operation was run by trained staff, including counsellors who took the opportunity to educate users and direct them, where appropriate, to support services.

Pill testing works by taking a minute sample from a pill, or a few granules from a capsule, which are then analysed by a doctor and chemist to determine the composition. The results are then given to the person who provided the substance, allowing them to decide whether to take some or all of it, or to dispose of it in the bin provided.

The service required users to sign a waiver releasing operators, workers and the state from liability in the event of an overdose from the use of the substances tested.

Dr Caldicott reported that five festival-goers discarded their pills upon being given the results of testing, with “a quarter to a third” advising that they would not be consuming the substances.

Ambulance commander Toby Keen said that the number of people treated for intoxication was similar to previous years, but reported that none of the people treated had a wristband indicating their participation in the pill-testing trial.

Government opposition

ACT Liberal legal spokesperson, Jeremy Hanson, says he continues to oppose pill testing on the basis that it sends a message that drugs are safe, and potentially exposes others to legal liability in the event of an overdose after testing.

The ACT Health website disagrees with the claims of sending the wrong message, pointing out that “[e]ven with laboratory-level testing, service staff never advise users that the drug they are taking is ‘safe’.” ACT Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris similarly emphasises that, “It’s really important to note that it doesn’t in any way condone illicit drug use. It is an important harm-minimisation measure.”

And legal commentators point out that the issue of legal liability is adequately dealt with by way of a waiver of liability.

Police cooperation

Meanwhile, police cooperated with the trial by not entering the pill testing stall at any time and not pursuing those who surrendered their substances for testing.

“While ACT Policing does not condone the use of illicit drugs, we do support harm minimisation strategies such as the decision to provide an accommodating environment to allow for pill testing,” a police spokesperson stated. “As a police force, we will continue to target and investigate the sale and supply of illicit drugs.”

There were only two arrests for drug charges at the festival, while an earlier stage of Groovin the Moo, held in the lower NSW Hunter Valley, saw 40 people arrested for drug possession.

NSW government inaction

According to 2016 government data, about 8.5 million people — or 43 per cent of Australians aged 14 and over — have used recreational drugs such as cannabis, methamphetamines, ecstasy and illegally obtained pharmaceuticals in their lifetime. So prohibition has clearly not stopped people from taking drugs.

NSW Greens MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi has called for pill-testing to be introduced across NSW, saying the Groovin the Moo trial proves the practice can save lives.

“The NSW Government needs to get out of the way to allow experts to get on with the job of keeping people safe,” she remarked. There was clear evidence that the government’s current “punitive, heavy-handed approach” to drug use isn’t working.

But unfortunately, both the NSW Labor and Liberal parties have so far refused to support pill testing in our state. It is hoped the recent success of Groovin in the Moo and the voices of health experts and other frontline workers will help change their minds.

A Summary of NSW Drug Laws

By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

In NSW, the use, possession, supply, cultivation and manufacture of prohibited drugs and/or plants are all crimes. The state offences and penalties relating to prohibited drugs are set out under the provisions of the Drugs Misuse and Trafficking Act (DMT Act) 1985.

Section 10 of the DMT Act outlaws drug possession. Section 12 makes it a crime to self-administer a prohibited substance. Division 1 of the Act also contains the offences of administering drugs to others, letting someone else administer drugs to you, and possessing equipment used to take drugs.

A maximum penalty of 2 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $2,200 applies to each these offences. They are ‘summary offences’, which means they are prosecuted in the Local Court rather than being heard in a higher court such as the District Court.

State regulations and controls regarding medicines, prescribed restricted substances, and poisons are primarily set out in the Poisons and Therapeutic Goods Act 1966. The Act provides that the distribution, prescription and administering of these substances is restricted to qualified and authorised persons.

Section 16 of the Act provides that an individual found in possession of anabolic steroids can face up to 2 years behind bars and/or a fine of $2,200, while those found in unlawful possession of a prescription drug or having forged a doctor’s script can be sent away for 6 months and fined $2,200.

International drug controls

“It’s impossible to understand the history of NSW drug laws without looking internationally,” explained Ben Mostyn, founding member of the UNSW Australian Drug Law Reform Initiative. “The United Nations and the USA have driven the war on drugs by developing the three UN conventions.”

The lawyer outlined that the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs is the primary international drug control treaty. It lists a range of restricted drugs under its four schedules. “Of course, little scientific evidence existed in 1961 to support such a scheduling system,” Mr Mostyn added.

The 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances was designed to place controls on amphetamines, psychedelics and benzodiazepines. It also contains four schedules of controlled substances. The first schedule being the most restrictive and the fourth being the least.

According to Mostyn, the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, “which Australia is party to, effectively makes it compulsory for countries to criminalise drug possession.”

This convention also contains two tables that list precursor chemicals, reagents and solvents which are frequently used in the manufacture of illicit substances.

Domestic replication of the conventions

Although Australian states and territories are not signatories to these international conventions, and therefore are not bound by their terms, there is a tradition that these jurisdictions should act in accordance with the treaties entered into by the federal government.

And the international drug controls are reflected in the laws set out in the DMT Act.

As Mr Mostyn points out NSW uses “a scheduling system, with one primary schedule.” Schedule 1 of the DMT Act contains a list of around 200 outlawed drugs, prohibited plants, illicit drug precursors and reagents.

NSW supply charges

The NSW scheduling system provides a range of quantities for each illicit substance that has an effect on the charges laid against an individual found in their possession, as well as the penalties they face.

These quantities are broken down into a small quantity, a traffickable amount, an indictable quantity, a commercial amount and a large commercial supply. The applicable weights vary from drug to drug.

But the purity of an illicit substance doesn’t matter in the state regime. Section 4 of the DMT Act contains what’s known as the “admixture provision,” which outlines that a person found in the possession of an illegal drug will be charged with the entire weight of the substance, regardless of its purity.

So, if the total weight of a white powder is 1 kilogram, but analysis finds it’s only 25 percent heroin, a defendant will be charged in respect of 1 kilogram of heroin, not with the 250 grams of pure heroin it contains.

This is different to Commonwealth legislation against drug importation and exportation, where the actual weight of the prohibited substance within the admixture is the relevant quantity for the purposes of the law.

Section 29 of the DMT Act stipulates that if a person is found with more than a traffickable amount of a prohibited drug, they can be found guilty of supply, even if there’s no evidence they were intending to provide the substance to another person. This is known as deemed supply.

So, for example, traffickable amount of cocaine, heroin or amphetamines is 3 grams, while an indictable amount is 5 grams. A case involving the supply of an indictable quantity – whether deemed or an actual supply – must be heard in a District Court and a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, and/or a fine of $22,000 applies.

A commercial quantity of cocaine is 250 grams. This amount can see an individual imprisoned for up to 20 years and receive a fine of up to $385,000. And a large commercial supply of the drug is 1 kilogram, which comes with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and/or a fine of $550,000.

Cannabis cautioning

Back in April 2000, the NSW government introduced the cannabis cautioning scheme. This means NSW police officers have the discretion to issue a caution to adults found in possession of up to 15 grams of cannabis. And an individual can only be issued with two warnings before charges must be laid.

2011 NSW auditor general’s report revealed that over its first ten years, the cannabis cautioning scheme had diverted more than 39,000 minor cannabis offences from the courts. And the auditor general said that cautioned individuals are less likely to reoffend, than those who are charged.

Drug law reform is way overdue

However, like an increasing amount of NSW citizens, Mr Mostyn believes NSW drug laws are outdated and in need of an overhaul. “The entire way we view recreational drug use, problematic drug use, and addictive drug use needs to be reconsidered,” he told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.

Mr Mostyn questioned the validity of laws that allow a person to be incarcerated for up to 2 years for cannabis or MDMA possession, which he finds is “entirely out of sync with community expectations and the scientific evidence on effective drug treatment.”

The 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that 74 percent of the Australian population do not support cannabis possession being a criminal offence.

The survey also reveals that 95 percent of the population don’t think people should be sent to prison for cannabis possession, while 87 percent of Australians don’t believe MDMA possession should be a gaolable offence.

And less than 25 percent of the population think people should be put away for being in possession of heroin or methamphetamine.

“The community is way ahead of the politicians on this issue,” Mr Mostyn concluded. It understands “that the criminal justice system is an expensive and ineffective way of dealing with the complicated social problem of drug use and addiction.”

Does Prohibiting Pill Testing Make Our Government Complicit?

By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

Last Friday’s mass overdose at a dance party in West Melbourne is yet another example of Australian authorities continuing to allow young people to be hospitalised, and even die, whilst governments in Europe have implemented programs to prevent harms at events like these.

Detractors of pill testing insist this evidence-based harm reduction method encourages drug use.

But if the over fifty-year war on drugs should have taught these critics anything, it’s that some young people, as well as quite a few older individuals, will continue to take mind-altering substances whether they’re legal or not.

Indeed, the “just say no” approach expired along with the rest of the Reagan administration.

So more and more people are coming to the view that if these substances remain illegal – and users are forced to obtain them through the black market where there are no quality controls – harm reduction measures are not only justified, but required to save lives.

Yet another avoidable tragedy

At 11 pm on January 26, Victorian emergency services were called out to the I Am Hardstyle event at Melbourne’s Festival Hall in relation to adverse reactions partygoers were having to a bad batch of drugs. Eight people were treated by paramedics in a first aid area, whilst a ninth person collapsed.

Ambulance Victoria state health commander Paul Holman told reporters on the following day that the individuals were “lucky they didn’t die.” He described the patients as hyperthermic, unconscious, and non-breathing.

The nine young people were taken to various hospitals around the inner city. On Saturday morning, five of the patients were in a critical condition, while one was still critical that evening.

Letting the preventable continue

Of course, the Festival Hall incident is only the latest in an ongoing series of overdoses at festivals and events in Victoria, as well as elsewhere around the country. And it’s after each such incident that renewed calls for pill testing, or drug checking services, are made.

Twelve months ago, three people died and 20 were hospitalised after taking a bad batch of ecstasy pills around Melbourne’s Chapel Street nightclub precinct. While, on December 30, a 19-year-old man had to be airlifted from a festival in the Gippsland, due to a suspected drug overdose.

“This most recent tragedy in Victoria, and those that precede it, are all due to our ineffective drug laws and lack of drug checking services,” Nevena Spirovska, the Victorian convener of Unharm, said. “It’s incredibly frustrating to think that these overdoses could’ve been prevented.”

The drug law reform campaigner added that refusing to make pill testing services available at events leads to “overdoses, over-burdened emergency services, and the proliferation of the rhetoric that ‘people who take drugs deserve to die.’”

Politicians pushing for the inevitable

On November 29 last year, the Victorian Greens gave the first reading in state parliament on the Lab-Grade Pill Testing Pilot Bill 2017. If this legislation is taken up, it will pave the way for pill testing services in the state.

Victorian Greens MLC Colleen Hartland has been advocating for pill testing for years now. She told Sydney Criminal Lawyers that the bill is set to be debated in 2018, possibly around mid-year. And the latest tragedy “has certainly reinforced” the need for it to be passed.

Ms Hartland said events like last Friday’s are “sadly” going to happen. “We know that every year, particularly in summer, there are significant overdose incidents,” she explained. “It’s not a question of if it will happen, it’s a question of when.”

“The tide is turning”

The Victorian Greens health spokesperson said “we’re starting to see a groundswell of support in the community.” But, in the case of some politicians, we’re seeing them put “politics before people’s lives, because politically this is not an easy issue.”

Although, Ms Hartland pointed out that there are “some very promising signs,” such as the example of Labor MP Geoff Howard, who “has gone against the rest of his party and publicly supported lab-grade pill testing at festivals.”

Mr Howard, who is chairing a state parliamentary inquiry into drug law reform, attended the Rainbow Serpent festival last weekend to discuss the benefits of pill testing with health experts, and harm reduction advocates.

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said on Sunday that he was not prepared to reconsider his opposition to pill testing. However, Mr Andrews was too sheepish to give his support to the North Richmond safe injecting facility, until just about every state institution had provided its approval first.

It’s self-evident

The I Am Hardstyle event that was held at Festival Hall last Friday night also takes place in Germany and Austria. In these European countries, along with others such as the Netherlands, Switzerland and France, pill testing has been a reality since the 1990s.

Authorities in Europe are so set on preventing festival goers from experiencing any harms associated with drug use at these events that the European Union actually produced pill testing best practice guidelines.

As Ms Spirovska outlined pill testing has multiple benefits: individuals “have their substances chemically tested, engage in an informed dialogue with trained professionals issuing appropriate harm reduction advice for that substance, and alert authorities to bad batches of drugs.”

There’s been suggestions that last Friday’s overdoses were linked to PMA, which is similar in effect to MDMA, but much more toxic. While the overdoses on Chapel Street last year, and another tragedy on the Gold Coast in 2016, were linked to ecstasy laced with the dodgy substance NBOMe.

What could have been

Hypothetically, a pill testing service would have allowed any of the individuals affected by these bad batches of drugs to have these substances checked by health professionals using laboratory-grade equipment. And the partygoers would have been warned about the dangers their drugs posed.

These individuals could have then made an informed decision whether to deposit their drugs in amnesty bins provided. And if they had disposed of them, they wouldn’t have subsequently ended up in hospital, and none of them would have died as a result of taking a deadly drug.

Morally wrong not to

The ACT government made an enlightened decision last September, when it approved the nation’s first legal pill testing trial at a music festival.

And despite the initial plan for the trial that was to be held on land controlled by the federal government mysteriously falling through, it looks as if the STA-SAFE consortium might be running the pill testing trial at the Groovin the Moo festival this April.

According to Spirovska, the implications of governments continuing to refuse to implement pill testing trials “are tragic and potentially deadly.” And “authorities have an obligation to take action on this public health issue.”

“Being informed and safe is not a privilege young people should be dying for,” she concluded.

Medicinal Cannabis: Legal But Inaccessible

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

The Turnbull government passed the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill in February 2016. The ensuing legislation set up a licensing scheme to allow for “the cultivation and production of cannabis and cannabis resin for medicinal and scientific purposes.”

A handful of licences were issued within the first few months, and many more were in various stages of determination. Recognising it would be some time before locally produced cannabis-based products would be available, the Health Minister Greg Hunt set up an importation scheme.

But two years after the legislation was enacted, medicinal cannabis is still notoriously difficult to access.

Benefits of medicinal cannabis

The potential value of medicinal cannabis in treating a wide range of conditions has been confirmed by scientific research in a number of countries.

The medicine has been found to ease the discomfort associated with chemotherapy, to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis and to reduce seizures in cases of severe epilepsy. Cannabis medicines have also been widely recognised for their ability to provide relief for those living with chronic pain.

The problem is that doctors can’t prescribe the medicine unless they have been specifically authorised to do so. And even if they could, it is unlikely the local chemist would stock what you need. And on top of that, the limited availability makes the cost of the medicine beyond the reach of ordinary people.

In fact, the very same federal and state laws that made medicinal cannabis legal have such restrictive rules and regulations, that accessing the medicine is impossible for many.

Bureaucracy limits access

Medicinal cannabis campaigners such as Lucy Haslam are baffled – they say there are hurdles at every step of the process, from cultivating the plant and manufacturing the medicine, through to prescribing and dispensing it to patients.

Only one medicinal cannabis product has been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) – the government department that allows medications to be legally distributed in Australia.

To legally obtain any other cannabis-based product, patients must apply to the government on an individual basis. If the product contains THC – the element that gives cannabis its dissociative effect – approval is required from both the state and federal governments.

Applications must be completed by a specialist medical practitioner, not a local GP, and the specialist must establish a case for why medicinal cannabis should be used instead of another drug that already exists on the TGA register.

Doctors and even politicians assert that the process is so complex and inconsistent that it is unworkable.

Of the 64 applications for access to medicinal cannabis made to NSW Health between August 2016 and October 2017, more than 40 were sent back for further information. Eighteen were rejected entirely.

Only a handful of people have so far been granted access to medicinal cannabis – roughly 150 people across the entire country.

As mentioned, another barrier is the high cost of treatment – making medicinal cannabis products unaffordable for many ordinary Australians, and is not covered by Medicare.

It is hoped that when Australia begins to actually establish its own local production, supply will increase and the medicine will be more affordable.

The black market is thriving

It has been reported that as a result, the unauthorised supply of cannabis medicines is thriving.

There are producers who are simply trying to do the right thing – to provide a medicine to chronically ill people which they cannot otherwise access.

They have seen the benefits of the drug first hand. But despite their goodwill, these suppliers are being raided, arrested, charged and sent to court to face the prospect of a criminal record or even imprisonment.

Meanwhile, the bureaucracy continues to fail those in need.

Drug Supply Charges for Cough Medicine Ingredient Dismissed

By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disputing the charge

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

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

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

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

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

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

The findings of the trial judge

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crown concedes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The NSWCCA findings

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

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

Moves underway to ban the substance

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

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

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

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

Less Teens Smoke Weed When it’s Legal

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

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

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

Recent study

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

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

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

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

Causation

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

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

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

Benefits of decriminalisation

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

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

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

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

Portuguese experience

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

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

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

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

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

The Drug is Legal to Import but Potentially Illegal to Possess

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dealers’ drug of choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strong word of warning

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

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

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

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

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

Reported cases

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

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

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

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

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

‘The next big thing’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But dealing with charges for 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.

A pill testing kit 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.