Author Archives: Ugur Nedim

About Ugur Nedim
Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Sydney’s Leading Firm of Criminal & Drug Defence Lawyers.

Victoria Legalises Medical Marijuana

Victoria has become the first State to legalise the use of medicinal cannabis, with the passing of the Access to Cannabis Bill 2015 on Tuesday.

The Bill will give children with severe epilepsy access to medicinal cannabis as early as 2017, with the State government establishing a strictly controlled cannabis cultivation trial.

Medicinal cannabis will initially be made available to patients who suffer severe epileptic seizures, muscle spasms resulting from multiple sclerosis, severe pain and nausea arising from cancer or HIV/AIDS, and chronic pain verified by two specialists.

Health Minister Jill Hennessy has welcomed the change, saying, “It’s absolutely heartbreaking to see families having to choose between breaking the law and watching their children suffer – and now … they won’t have to.”

The new law

The laws are a response to last year’s recommendations by Victorian Law Reform (VLR). They will be strictly regulated by an Office of Medicinal Cannabis, which will oversee the manufacture, supply and access to cannabis.

While the details of the scheme are yet to be finalised, the VLR recommended that only licenced cultivators and manufacturers would be permitted to produce the drug. Products would be sold at pharmacies under arrangements based on the methadone program.

Benefits of medicinal marijuana

The new legislation comes after the announcement of a small trial in February into the effects of synthetic cannabis on a group of Victorian children whose condition had not improved after trying three different anti-epilepsy drugs.

The Austin Hospital in Melbourne undertook the trial, providing a synthetic form of cannabis to children, without the psycho-active component THC, while monitoring their progress against a similarly suffering control group given a placebo.

Director of paediatrics, Professor Ingrid Scheffer, said that desperate parents had been illegally buying cannabis products for their suffering kids, or growing their own, with no way of knowing whether it was safe and effective. “There’s absolutely no checks and balances. We don’t know what they’re getting. We don’t know whether it has a lot of THC in it which could be damaging their child’s brain,” Professor Scheffer said.

NSW plans to trial medicinal cannabis by the end of this year. NSW Premier Mike Baird recently announced a clinical trial into the effects of medicinal cannabis on 330 chemotherapy patients suffering from nausea. The announcement was the third of its kind in the State, with previous trials focusing on terminally ill patients and children with severe epilepsy.

Similar to the Victorian trial, children with severe drug-resistant epilepsy in Queensland will also be treated with medicinal cannabis. “[It is] an opportunity to show medicinal cannabis can be a safe and effective addition to existing treatments,” Health Minister Cameron Dick said of the new treatment trials.

The science

Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, says that a recent review of existing evidence has found 82 favourable and nine unfavourable controlled trials in respect of medicinal cannabis.

The therapeutic benefits relate to the way that the drug stimulates the pain relief endocannabinoid system. This system is different to the endorphin system that is affected by other pain relieving treatments, such as morphine type opiates or anti-inflammatory drugs. The endocannabinoid system can help reduce chronic and nerve-related pain.

The difficulty for medical cannabis, however, is that prohibition has presented an obstacle to research. While most available evidence is positive, the scientific community has not been able to sufficiently test the drug to determine its longer term effects.

Many patients have exhibited side-effects such as dizziness, fatigue, nausea and hallucinations. There are also concerns that it may increase the risks schizophrenia in young people.

The largest study ever undertaken on cannabis and epilepsy was presented at last year’s American Epilepsy Society’s annual meeting in Philadelphia. 313 children from 16 different epilepsy centres around the United States were given the cannabis compound cannabidiol. After a three-month period, 261 reported a fifty percent reduction in convulsive seizures.

Another study, published by the American Academy of Neurology, involved giving medicinal marijuana to 213 sufferers of epilepsy. Over the course of 12 weeks, there was a 54% decrease in the number of seizures – but around 10% of participants reported experiencing side-effects such as diarrhoea and drowsiness.

Emeritus Professor of Anaesthesia Laurence Mather, from the University of Sydney, believes that the side effects of cannabis alternatives are much worse. “People can die from morphine, they stop breathing; people can die from paracetamol because it buggers their livers, people can die from NSAIDS because it buggers their kidneys, but cannabis doesn’t do any of these things,” he said.

It is hoped that the Victorian reforms will see a reduction in the crippling symptoms of conditions such as epilepsy, especially in children.

100 Demonstrators Smoke Weed Outside White House

Tourists were treated to an unusual sight outside the White House earlier this week. The manicured green lawns usually on display were replaced by different type of green altogether – as marijuana reform advocates inflated a 51-foot-long joint in front of the fence.

Protesting against President Obama’s apathy towards reclassifying cannabis from a Schedule 1 substance – a category it shares with heroin and LSD – the group then lit up joints which they smoked openly in front of the iconic building.

The Schedule 1 list is meant to be reserved for the ‘most dangerous drugs… with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence,’ and attracts the highest penalties for possession and supply. Despite state ballots repeatedly voting to decriminalise cannabis, roughly 5 million people have been arrested for marijuana-related offences since Obama took office.

Protesters argue that marijuana doesn’t belong on the list, and are campaigning to have it removed altogether or placed on a lower schedule. Adam Eidinger, the event’s organiser, accused Obama of hypocrisy, given his admission to formerly smoking pot.

“Obama — he smokes, maybe not now, but he did smoke,” Eidinger told the Washington Post. “So for him to oversee an enforcement regime that has arrested 5 million people for marijuana . . . I’m very motivated because I think it’s a discriminatory practice.”

In a sign that the tide is turning, police in the area decided not to arrest any of the protesters for taking part in the ‘smoke in’.

With a similar protest planned in Sydney this weekend, many are hoping the New South Wales Police will follow suit. But it is not looking likely…

Two Men Charged at Sydney Cannabis Picnic

In January this year, cannabis reform advocates held the first Free Cannabis NSW picnic in Sydney’s Victoria Park. Like the Washington protesters, the group hoped to highlight the harm caused by criminalisation – and the urgent need for reform.

As always, the NSW Police couldn’t help but overreact. For the 100 or so protesters gathered in the park, police deployed more than 30 officers, as well as sniffer dog teams at every nearby train station. Unlike their Washington counterparts, NSW Police arrested and charged two men with the possession of cannabis, after allegedly spotting them with half-smoked joints.

One of the men, Paul Lawrence, is fighting terminal cancer, and has visible tumors along his spine. He was charged for possessing less than a gram of cannabis.

Police issued the charges, despite their discretionary power to hand out a caution for the use or possession of small amounts of cannabis, and evidence of Mr Lawrence’s cancer.

“Only a sick state and a sick government and police force would arrest and charge an ill man like me,” Mr Lawrence said. “The prohibition of cannabis for both medicinal and recreational use does far more damage to society than someone like me having a quiet smoke with friends.”

Police Intimidation and the ‘War on Drugs’

This is not the first criticism of the tactics used by NSW Police to target cannabis in Sydney.

A recent viral clip, uploaded to the the Save New South Wales Facebook page, shows sniffer dog police harassing a man filming their operations in Central station.

“I travelled from Gosford to Central in Sydney where I was swapping form the country platforms down to the suburban platforms in order to catch a train to Circular Quay.” said the page’s administrator.

“What did I see in the way of New South Wales police resources? Ten uniformed officers plus a dog handler carrying out a sniffer dog operation!”

He then began filming the operation, which is perfectly legal to do, but this did not stop the officers from throwing their weight around.

After requesting to see his train ticket, an officer warns the man that filming of the operation could be viewed as suspicious “due to the current terrorism climate.” They then demand his name, and ask his purpose for being at the railway station. After he ‘respectfully declines’ to give that information, police ask whether he has health issues.

“It’s just public intimidation, the way all police states operate. Political dissent now gets you a prison sentence and cops with dogs patrol the streets to let the people know who runs things.” one Facebook user wrote in response.

Sniff Off at Central – 16 Mar 2016Posted by Save New South Wales on Saturday, 2 April 2016

The use of drug dogs in public spaces, and increasingly heavy handed police response to political rallies, has become symptomatic of a broader attack on civil liberties that’s taking place across the state. The gap between the response of the Washington Police to marijuana protesters, and the response we’ve seen from our own only serves to highlight that change.

‘Legalise it All: How to Win the War on Drugs’

In a recent piece for Harper’s magazine titled ‘Legalize it all: How to Win the War on Drugs’, Dan Baum, a staff writer for The New Yorker and Wall Street Journal, released a frank quote from John Ehrlichman, a policy advisor for Richard Nixon and chief instigator of the war on drugs. The quote sparked controversy worldwide, shining new light on the reasons behind the Government’s war on drugs.

While writing a book on politics and drug prohibition in 1994, Baum had the chance to ask Ehrlichman a series of questions during a book signing. He recently revealed the details of their conversation:

“I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” Ehrlichman asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The War on Drugs was a Nixon invention but it’s been useful for political figures around the world, and its function as a political tool hasn’t changed. Being seen to fight drug crime is a great way for politicians to win votes, regardless of what the evidence tells us.

In New South Wales, the law and order auction that happens during each electoral season has seen ever-increasing penalties for drug offences, and more people sent through the criminal justice system. Last year, the Federal Government’s ‘Dob in a Dealer’ anti-ice campaign was widely criticised for being used as a political distraction to take attention off the Abbott-Government’s failing legislative agenda.

The Failed War On Drugs

Someone smart once quipped that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. This would seem to hold true in most places, except drug policy, where the Government is happy to continue burning tens of millions of dollars a year fighting a war on drugs – despite mounting expert opinion telling them to change tact.

The $1 million annual cost of the dob-in-a-dealer campaign would almost cover the $1.3 million needed to run a 10-bed rehabilitation unit, so a few more addicts don’t have months longer, often in custody, for a proper shot at beating addiction and getting their lives back-on-track.

According to Victoria’s former chief commissioner Ken Lay, this is where the Government should be looking to spend its resources:

“For social problems like these, law enforcement isn’t the answer. Unless you get into the primary prevention end, unless you stop the problem occurring you simply won’t arrest your way out of this,” Lay said last year.

“Ice has been on the scene for over a decade and we’ve had a really strong law enforcement approach and it hasn’t resolved the problem. The time’s right now to look at the other options.”

Mountains of research support this view. The Australian Medical Association has pointed out the obvious: “reducing drug addiction reduces demand for drugs, reduces crime, reduces harm to addicts and their families and reduces the burden on our health system – not to mention the courts, prisons and police.”

However, in New South Wales, the police and Government continue to treat drug use just like every other law and order problem – arrest and sent more people to prison for longer and the problem will vanish. Guess what, it hasn’t worked.

So what could work?

On July 1st, 2001, Portugal decriminalised the possession of small amount of every drug imaginable, from marijuana, to cocaine, to ice and heroin. Some thought the country would become a drug tourist haven, others predicted that usage among youths would skyrocket. Fifteen years later, neither of those things have happened.

Instead, Portugal has seen a drastic reduction in drug addiction. The number of addicts, at 100,000 before the policy was enacted, was halved in the space of 10 years. Portugal’s drug usage rates are now among the lowest of EU member states.

This happened because Portugal moved from treating drug use as a criminal law problem, to a health issue. Possession and use was moved out of criminal courts and into special tribunals where each user’s unique situation is judged by legal experts, psychologists, and social workers. This is an important step to make – no-one chooses for drugs to overwhelm their lives and place them on the wrong path. Providing users with pathways outside the traditional justice system is a win-win for all involved.

This idea isn’t as farfetched as it sounds, and is beginning to affect drug laws around the world.

An international commission of medical experts, set up by the Lancet medical journal and Johns Hopkins University in the United States, recently called on the United Nations to back global drug decriminalisation, arguing that current policies lead to violence, deaths and the spread of disease, harming health and human rights.

In a report published on the eve of a special session of the UN’s General Assembly devoted to illegal narcotics, the group urged Governments around the world to begin decriminalising minor, non-violent drug offences involving the use, possession and sale of small quantities.

“The goal of prohibiting all use, possession, production, and trafficking of illicit drugs is the basis of many of our national drug laws, but these policies are based on ideas about drug use and drug dependence that are not scientifically grounded,” says Dr Chris Beyrer of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a member of the commission.

“The global ‘war on drugs’ has harmed public health, human rights and development. It’s time for us to rethink our approach to global drug policies, and put scientific evidence and public health at the heart of drug policy discussions.”

While politicians win votes, and private prison companies and criminal lawyers get rich, the hardworking taxpayer will continue to foot the bill for the failed war on drugs, and users who want to reach out will not only fail to get the support and assistance they need, but will be labelled as criminals in the process.

MP Introduces Law to Scrap Sniffer Dog Use

Here are a few reasons why sniffer dogs make bad drug policy: they’re inaccurate, they’re open to bias, they’re used to target low income communities, they cost a lot of money and they increase the risk of dangerous drug behaviours such as ‘loading up’.

In terms of civil liberties, the spectre of heavily armed police using dogs to conduct searches on members of the community in train stations and other public spaces encroaches on our freedom from arbitrary interference by agents of the state.

In 2006, the New South Wales Ombudsman conducted an extensive investigation into the use of sniffer dogs, finding that:

“There is little or no evidence to support claims that drug detection dog operations deter drug use, reduce drug-related crime, or increase perceptions of public safety. Further, criticisms of the cost-effectiveness of general drug detection operations appear to be well founded…

In light of this, we have recommended that the starting point when considering our report is a review of whether the legislation in its present form, or amended as suggested, should be retained at all.”

The Ombudsman recommended that sniffer dogs be scrapped altogether. It’s taken a decade, but there is finally a chance of this becoming a reality.

The Proposed Law

Jenny Leong, the Greens MP for Newtown, has introduced a bill into New South Wales Parliament that would repeal the use of drug detection dogs by police without a warrant.

The Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Amendment (Sniffer Dogs—Repeal of Powers) Bill 2016 seeks to alter sections of the LEPRA legislation, and Tattoo Parlours Act 2012, to remove provisions relating to the use of sniffer dogs in carrying out drug detection.

“In NSW, the use of sniffer dogs by police on public transport, at festivals and in bars is not about effective drug control – it’s about police intimidation and harassment,” says Leong.

“The NSW drug dog program has been shown over and over again to be ineffective and a waste of public money. It’s also highly discriminatory – targeting already marginalised groups in our community – and a blatant breach of our civil rights.”

“Time after time the stats show that the program just doesn’t work,” says Leong. “Health and law specialists say so. The Ombudsman says so. But the government is stubbornly refusing to see the evidence.

The Bill will be debated in coming weeks. However, you can watch Jenny Leong’s speech in New South Wales Parliament in support of the bill below:

Is the Tide Turning on Sniffer Dog Use?

Earlier this year, another New South Wales MP, Labor’s Jo Haylen, spoke out against the use of sniffer dogs during a debate on health policy at the State Labor conference.

Ms Haylen, the member for Summer Hill, argued that sniffer dogs have been ineffective in targeting drug dealers, and instead have made drug users engage in even riskier behaviour – the opposite of the program’s original intentions.

“Sniffer dogs are ineffective,” she said.

“They’re wrong three quarters of the time, causing unnecessary interactions between police and young people.

“Rather than ruining lives with a criminal record or worse still, leaving people to take risks on their own, let’s be brave,” Ms Haylen said.

“Let’s make good evidence based public policy and once again make NSW a world leader when it comes to harm minimisation.”

Earlier this week, the NSW Legislation Review Committee also threw their support behind Leong’s bill, saying “[it] supports the principles and advances the human rights referenced in Sections 8A of the Legislation Review Act 1987”.

Ms Haylen argued that the government should instead be encouraging the use of amnesty bins and pill-testing at music festivals, as ways of discouraging harmful drug use. However, it is unclear what stance Labor will take on the new legislation when it comes to a vote later this year.

Sniffer Dogs in NSW

Under the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (NSW), police have the power to use sniffer dogs in a number of places, including train stations and music festivals. In 2012 this was extended to also include tattoo parlours, despite mounting evidence that the program was a failure.

Recent statistics show that over 60% percent of searches are the result of a ‘false-positive’, where the dog has falsely indicated a person is carrying drugs. This and other problems with sniffer dog use have led criminal lawyers to conclude that positive indications are not enough to constitute the ‘reasonable suspicion’ required for a search; a conclusion which is consistent with advice given to the Ombudsman by senior barristers.

Further research has shown that drug detection dogs react heavily to the bias of their handlers – a possible explanation for the high rate of false detections. Additional research suggests that passengers boarding a train at Redfern station are 6.5 times more likely to be searched for drugs than passengers at Central station – leading to allegations of bias in police deployment.

Given the ineffectiveness of sniffer dogs – and the tragic consequences that have resulted from users ‘loading up’ before and during festivals – it is hoped that more politicians will see sense and start focusing on harm minimisation measures rather than wholesale and counter-productive interferences in personal liberties.

5 Anti-Drug Ads That Went Hilariously Wrong

Earlier this week, the NSW Police Force released plans to expand its ‘Dob in a dealer’ campaign, targeting ice dealers in Sydney.

The announcement has already been met with criticism from drug reform experts, who argue that the Government should focus on harm minimisation, rather than invest further resources into the failed ‘war on drugs’.

The expansion announcement comes just months after the release of the anti-drug campaign titled ‘Stoner Sloth’ – a video series criticised for being ineffective and downright ridiculous.

According to Matt Noffs, whose Noffs Foundation specialises in drug treatment for young people, the Stoner Sloth campaign was a “waste of money”. Mr Noffs believes the money could have been better spent on helping young people to beat drug addiction and get back on the right path. He told the Sydney Morning Herald:

“For less than the cost of this campaign, we run street universities that help hundreds of kids off drugs,” and “The biggest issue I have with this campaign is that it stigmatises children with drug issues.”

But the Stoner Sloth wasn’t the first time our government failed in its attempt to deter young people from taking drugs. Here are five other ad campaign criticised for being ineffective.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Say No To Drugs Advert

On its surface, this commercial seems pretty good: it is 30 seconds long, everyone loves the Ninja Turtles, and the marijuana pusher appears crushed at the end, after the six year old’s crushing corny 90s putdown.

That is until you take a step back and think: were middle-class, suburban, TMNT-loving six-year olds really a group teetering on the brink of marijuana addiction? Probably not. In reality, this ad may have been responsible for introducing some of that demographic to the concept of pot. Oops.

If there is any message six-year-olds took from watching this ad, it’s abstaining from “pot” is for their cartoon-watching friends, while their cool, leather-clad, older brother blazes it.

Your Brain on Drugs

Probably the most famous anti-drug campaign in recent history, this ad is full of gruff condescension. After making what is, at best, a muddled egg metaphor, the voiceover guy says “any questions” in a way which implies that if you do have questions, he’s going to punch you in the face. To clarify, your brain is not an egg. And doing drugs probably won’t scramble it.

Thinking of the long-term effect of this ad, it most likely accomplished one thing: reminding pot users how great some fried eggs would be right now.

Canadian Drug Rap

Released two years after NWA’s ‘Gangsta Gangsta’ helped make smoking weed mainstream, the Canadian Drug Rap never stood a chance. Unfortunately, no-one told the Canadians. The ad itself hits that sweet spot between Barney sing-along and full-blow acid freak out, which would be hilarious if wasn’t intended as a serious anti-drug campaign.

The premise for the commercial seems to be that kids might get confused between the sorts of drugs that are prescribed by doctors, and the kind that you get on the street. This seems a tad ironic now, with evidence of doctors issuing dangerous, legal painkillers to adults. That said, “drugs, drugs, drugs” is still an amazing chorus, worthy of the next Wiz Khalifa album.

An Anti-Drug Ad We Have No Way Of Describing

There’s a school of thought within the anti-drug movement if authority figures just act really, really angry at drug users, they’ll somehow stop using drugs. While NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione’s hardline on drugs is music to the ears of conservatives, he’s got nothing on this ad.

Beginning with the iconic this-egg-is-your-brain-on-drugs commercial (above), the actor then tells us that snorting heroin is like smashing the egg with a frying pan. Where did this weird metaphor come from? She then goes crazy and begins smashing up the once-pristine kitchen. It makes for engaging viewing, until you ask: does anyone actually snort heroin?

Don’t Blaze and Bathe

Yet another confusing metaphor and scenario. In this ad, a teenaged girl smokes a joint and dives off a high dive board headfirst into – *shock* – an empty pool. The ad raises a number of important questions: how was she sober enough to change into a one-piece bathing suit, but not realise the pool was empty? How did she get into the pool in the first place? How does this have anything to do with marijuana use?

So there you have it – ineffective, expensive and sometimes confusing attempts by out-of-touch conservatives to stop young people from taking drugs. One wonders what’s next.

‘Dob in a Dealer’ Campaign to Expand

The controversial ‘Dob in a Drug Dealer’ campaign was launched across Australia mid last year as part of the government’s effort to stop the spread of illegal drugs, especially ice.

The campaign encourages members of the public to report suspected drug related activity to police, with a focus on drug
supply and cultivation, rather than individual cases of drug possession.

Police say they are facing pressure in responding to drug crime due to staff and budget shortages – despite massive funding injections into the NSW Police Force in recent years – and have called on members of the public to assist by reporting their concerns.

But the campaign has not been well received by all – in the months following its rollout, drug experts described the initiative as a waste of public money, arguing that the fund could be better spent educating youth about the dangers of drug use, and investing in health programs.

Despite these concerns, police this week announced an expansion of the program which will see local police visiting schools and community groups in 21 locations to encourage people to report suspected drug activity.

Police will also spend time on the streets handing out promotional material about the ‘Dob in a Dealer’ campaign.

The expansion was launched at a community meeting in Redfern last week, where Crime Stoppers NSW Chief Executive Peter Price told attendees that those who report drug crime would have their identity protected:

‘We want members of the public to play an active role and tell us about criminals that are bringing harmful drugs into their region.

Making a report to Crime Stoppers is completely confidential. You will never be identified or called up for a court case, but every piece of information you provide can help solve crimes and reduce supply.’

The expansion is supported by NSW Assistant Police Commissioner Peter Barrie, who told the media:

‘Police just can’t arrest their way out of this issue, it is a community issue.

It’s an issue that we play a part in and we are providing an opportunity here to work with Crime Stoppers, to work with the community and really make a large-scale difference.’

The campaign has also been backed by community figures in areas affected by drug crime, including the inner-city suburb of Redfern. Aboriginal Elder Aunty Millie Ingram said:

‘[Ice] just destroys families, doesn’t matter what that family is and we all have a responsibility to address it and dob in a dealer.’

Statistics published by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research record a significant increase in amphetamine use around the state – up 75.3% in the three years before September 2015.

Experts Raise Concerns

Drug experts have repeated their original concerns about the ‘Dob in a Dealer’ campaign.

In a thought-provoking opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald after the original campaign was launched last year, journalist and Legal Aid lawyer Tim Dick described the campaign as a ‘failed strategy,’ writing:

‘Australia’s default position is to increase the vast millions wasted on drug law enforcement in spite of the bulk of expert opinion telling the country to change tack.

…The $1 million annual cost of the dob-in-a-dealer furphy would almost cover the $1.3 million annual expense of a 10-bed rehabilitation unit, so a few more addicts don’t have to wait a few more months, often in custody, for a proper shot at saving their lives.’

Mr Dick expressed concerns that the government was prioritising punishment ahead of treatment, noting that public hospitals lack the necessary resources to deal with the increasing number of drug overdoses.

These sentiments are echoed by Matt Noffs, CEO of the Ted Noffs Foundation, which provides rehabilitation and support services for drug-dependant people. Speaking to the media last week, Mr Noffs said:

‘Many dealers are people caught up in drug dependence themselves and many are young.

My greatest concern is that a number of police across the country are saying we can’t arrest our way out of this (drug crisis).

The prisons are already overflowing and Dob in a Dealer needs to be weighed up with diversion programs, which say that if someone is arrested they should be supported with treatment.’

But as always, the government has ignored these concerns and recommendations, instead focussing on punishing drug users, rather than helping them beat their addiction and move forward with their lives.

World’s Most Creative Drug Smugglers

The dangerous task of smuggling illicit drugs across borders is not for the faint-hearted.

But those who dare to take the risk often hinge their bets on elaborate smuggling tactics – hiding drugs inside everyday items, dropping packages off aircraft and even swallowing the drugs themselves in a bid to get them through border security.

In this blog we discuss five of the world’s most creative drug smuggling tactics.

1. The Tomato Tin Mafia

Partners in crime Pasquale Barbaro and Saverio Zirilli bit off more than they could chew when they tried to import a whopping 4.4 tonnes (or 15 million pills) of ecstasy – creatively hidden inside hundreds of tins of Italian tomatoes.

Unfortunately, their plan fell apart when the shipping container housing the tins was left unclaimed after making the voyage from Italy to Australia – raising the suspicions of Australian authorities. An X-ray showed ‘image anomalies,’ and Customs officers were shocked to discover millions of ecstasy pills hidden away in the tins.

Police monitoring the communications of Barbaro and Zirilli and other soon discovered they were becoming increasingly anxious about how they would collect the tins. Both men were subsequently arrested and charged with conspiring to traffic a commercial quantity of MDMA, trafficking a commercial quantity of MDMA and attempting to possess a commercial quantity of cocaine for their roles in one of Australia’s biggest ever drug busts.

Both men pleaded guilty to all charges in the Victorian Supreme Court. Barbaro was sentenced to life imprisonment with a non-parole period of 30 years, and Zirilli received 26 years with a non-parole period of 18 years – a sentence confirmed on appeal to the High Court.

2. The Marijuana Cannon

The US-Mexico border is notorious for drug smuggling – with Mexican drug lords happy to put the lives and liberty of smugglers at risk to supply the American market.

The border is famously monitored by US authorities – so it is no surprise that over the years, smugglers have devised elaborate schemes to get their product across the border.

One of the most creative tactics was a ‘marijuana cannon,’ discovered by police in the city of Mexicali in 2013. The plastic cannon was attached to an old ute, and used its engine to generate compressed air – which was used to launch packages of marijuana into the air and across the border into California.

The scheme unravelled when US police reported finding a large number of packages containing up to 13 kilograms of marijuana which had apparently been fired across the border. While it is believed the device belonged to Mexican gangs, no arrests have been made.

3. Woman Smuggles Cocaine in Breasts

Earlier this week, a 24-year-old Colombian woman was arrested in Germany after being caught with 1 kilogram of cocaine hidden inside her breasts.

An examination of the woman after she arrived in the country on the 24th of February revealed she had fresh operation scars under her breasts. The woman admitted to smuggling drugs and went to hospital, where doctors removed two 500 gram, plastic-covered packages of cocaine from her breasts.

It is believed the packages had a street value of 200,000 euros and were intended for sale in Spain. The woman, who remains unnamed, will be charged with drug trafficking – which some feel may be a blessing in disguise given that she could have lost her life had the packages ruptured.

It is not the first time a woman has attempted to conceal drugs in her breasts – in 2015, a Honduran woman was arrested at a Colombian airport after being caught with 1.5 kg of liquid cocaine in her breasts.

4. Mexican Drug Tunnels

Extracting tonnes of soil to create an elaborate tunnel across the US-Mexico border might seem like a lot of effort to smuggle drugs – but it’s a strategy that is commonly employed by Mexican drug cartels.

In fact, TIME Magazine reports that since 2001, over 100 drug tunnels have been unearthed by US authorities – some with entrances leading directly into houses.
Many of the tunnels are even fitted out with sophisticated equipment, including complex lighting, electrical and water systems, and even carts to transport the drugs efficiently.

5. Thai Meth Sculptures

Sometimes, the best plans are the simplest – but not always, as an Iranian man who tried to smuggle $1.6 million worth of crystal methamphetamine into Thailand disguised as artwork discovered.

28-year-old Safi Zadeh Hossein was arrested at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in 2011 after arriving from Syria. Authorities became suspicious of two sculptures being carried by the man – one shaped like a yellow rose and the other resembling a cameo. Upon examination, the sculptures were found to be made entirely out of crystal methamphetamine.

Hossein’s fate remains unclear – but if the plight of the Bali Nine is anything to go by, it is likely that he has an ordeal ahead.

Drugs in Sport: How Widespread Is It?

Many tennis fans were shocked this week when Russian superstar Maria Sharapova admitted testing positive to the banned substance meldonium in January this year.

Meldonium is a prescription drug used to treat heart problems – but it is also classed as a performance enhancing drug because it can increase endurance, enhance recovery and assist with central nervous system functioning. It has been banned by the World Anti Doping Agency – meaning athletes are prohibited from using it.

Sharapova is the latest in a string of sports stars to test positive to banned substances.

Famous figures like Ben Johnson, Tyson Gay, Andre Agassi and Lance Armstrong have all had their reputations tarnished after being caught.

Drug use has been described as ‘rife’ in some sports – in the wake of AFL stars Lachie Keeffe and Josh Thomas testing positive to the banned drug clenbuterol, the CEO of Collingwood Football Club, Gary Pert, declared that taking banned substances is the norm rather than the exception for players.

Statistics suggest that the figures may not be that high – the World Anti-Doping Agency, which conducts hundreds of thousands of tests per year, identifies a banned substance in approximately 2% of tests. However, some argue the figure would be much higher if athletes were not so skilled at avoiding detection – it is said that users generally know which drugs are likely to show up in tests, and for how long.

Win at All Costs

According to insiders, even the threat of mandatory drug testing does little to deter athletes from using performance enhancing drugs. A magistrate who heads the Italian Olympic Committee’s anti-doping commission recently remarked that ‘all the [bike] riders are taking drugs.’ He says most manage to disguise drugs by timing when and how much they take, and that tests cannot keep up with all the newly banned substances.

Earlier this year, 34 players from the Essendon Football Club were found guilty by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) of using banned substances, and suspended from playing for two years. The CAS is a specialist international arbitration organisation which oversees breaches of the World Anti-Doping Code. While it has the power to suspend sportspeople, it cannot impose criminal sanctions.

The issue of drug use in the AFL is said to be so widespread that the Players Association recently introduced a policy aimed at encouraging users to seek help.

The new policy also contains sanctions designed at deterring drug use – players now face a $5000 fine if drugs are detected in their system, and will also be made to attend counselling and drug education programs. If they are caught again, they will be fined another $5000 and receive a four-game suspension. If they are detected a third time, they will be fined $5000, have their club notified and their name publicised.

This is additional to potential criminal sanctions – being found in possession of restricted substances without a valid prescription can result in a criminal conviction, or worse.

The approach taken by the Association (in emphasising rehabilitation rather than immediate ‘naming and shaming’) is arguably one which lawmakers could learn from when it comes to recreational drug use.

As discussed in many of our blogs, countries such as Ireland, Portugal and Mexico have decriminalised the possession of small quantities of drugs and emphasised rehabilitation rather than prosecution – with great results.

Yet Australian lawmakers are reluctant to embrace harm minimisation policies – instead focusing on punishing users for what many see as a health issue, rather than a criminal justice problem.

Festival Goers May Soon Be Able to Test the Safety of their Drugs

Alex Wodak, the Australian drug expert who pioneered the nation’s first legal heroin injecting centre, has found himself at the centre of another controversy, after announcing plans to pilot a pill testing program at music festivals across the country.

David Caldicott, an emergency medical specialist who has joined forces with Mr Wodak to sponsor the scheme, told the Sydney Morning Herald they would continue with the trial, despite opposition from the Government: “It’s very straight forward. We want to run a trial at a place where everyone is using drugs anyway. It’s time for our politicians and elected representatives to catch up with what the majority of parents want for their children, which is for them to return home safe.”

The duo hope to provide the first mobile laboratory-grade drug testing service in Australia, using a van staffed with toxicologists, and shielded from police by barriers of supporters willing to risk arrest to protect others from prosecution.

Mr Wodak said $100,000 would be crowdsourced to run the pilot, the bulk of which would be used to buy the lab testing equipment, and to cover the travel costs for the toxicologist and technicians – who he said would provide about $40,000 of free labour. At least $15,000 of the funds would be used to have the trial independently evaluated by scientists.

The NSW Government has already voiced opposition to the plan. On Monday, Deputy Premier Troy Grant told 2UE radio he believes it’s a “very dangerous regime that the NSW government fundamentally rejects”. He went on to threaten legal penalties for those involved, including prosecution for drug possession and drug supply, and manslaughter charges if a pill given the all-clear prove fatal.

However, Mr Grant also conceded: “I don’t know a lot about the engineering of the pill testing, or how it’s made up or the science behind it exactly.” For a Government claiming to have policies based on evidence, this makes things a little awkward.

What is Pill Testing?

Pill testing can take various forms, simpler tests are done with litmus kits which indicate the presence of certain substances – such as, methamphetamine and poisonous cutting agents – while more sophisticated tests use laboratory equipment to give a precise rundown of the pill’s chemical ingredients.

Tests don’t advise whether a substance is “safe” or “unsafe”; rather, they determine purity levels and detect any dangerous additives, allowing the user to make an informed decision. If dangerous poisonous substances are detected, users can safely discard the drug in an amnesty bin.

Professor Alison Ritter, Director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, has argued that this approach is a win for both drug users and health advocates: “[Drug] checking does not mean drug use will become legal. It means providing people who have chosen to use drugs with the opportunity to be better informed about the drugs they may consume and to be provided with information that could prevent harm.”

Advocates argue that giving young people more information about the substances they are proposing to take allows them to make better and safer decision. They add that the Government’s use of sniffer dogs and zero-tolerance policy on drugs has led risky drug taking behaviours, such as “loading up”, and deaths from overdoses.

What does the research say?

A 2014 study by the United Nations found that Australians have the highest rate of ecstasy consumption in the world.

Another study conducted in the same year suggested that Australian ecstasy is also one of the most unsafe, due to wildly fluctuating purity levels and potentially deadly additives. The study compared ecstasy pills from the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, and using data from drug review sites and, found Australian ecstasy ranked highest in paramethoxymethamphetamine (PMMA), a toxic substance which causes extreme body temperature, seizures, and has been linked to a string of deaths both in Australia and overseas.

Along with helping users identify these substances, research has shown that pill testing helps shift these products away from the black market. Products identified as particularly dangerous subsequently became the subject of warning campaigns, and eventually became unsellable, forcing suppliers to use safer ingredients.

Unlike sniffer dogs, which have been shown to have next to no impact on drug use, 50% of those who have their drugs tested said the results affected their consumption choices. Two-thirds said they wouldn’t consume the drug and would warn friends in cases of negative results.

Finally, pill testing allows policy makers and health professionals to capture long-term data about the actual substances present in the drug scene, allowing for an early warning systems to communicate beyond immediate users. This is more important than ever, with new psychoactive substances frequently appearing in Australia.

Criminal liability

Despite the Government’s threats, police have indicated that they would be reluctant to arrest pill testers for drug possession or supply. However, they have also indicated that “the question of criminality associated with the possession and use of testing kits would depend on the circumstances”.

The law makes it clear that a person cannot be charged with drug supply for receiving a prohibited drug from the owner and giving it back to them a short time later. Testers could not, therefore, be found guilty of drug supply for simply testing the contents of drugs and returning them to the owner. Drug possession, on the other hand, merely requires knowledge that the substance is a prohibited drug and custody or control of that drug. There is an argument, therefore, that testers risk the prospect of being charged with drug possession.

Former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery has dismissed Mr Grant’s claim that pill testers could be charged with manslaughter. Mr Cowdery, who served as NSW’s head prosecutor for 17 years, told the Sydney Morning Herald that any potential liability for manslaughter could easily be avoided: “The manslaughter suggestion is nonsense. The testers would devise a process and form of words that avoided any liability for mishaps that might later occur [such as] illness or death.”

Previous attempts

This isn’t the first time pill testing has been trialled in Australia. Enlighten Harm Reduction ran on-site drug-checking at festivals and events in Victoria until 2007, when political pressure and a lack of support forced the organisation to abandon it. Between 2000 and 2005, Enlighten set up stalls at about 40 dance parties in Victoria and South Australia, testing between 100 and 200 pills a night.

Growing Pot Is No Way to Get Rich

Brendon Scorey has learned the hard way that there is truth to the old adage: crime does not pay.

The Cairns District Court has heard how 22-year-old Mr Scorey had no criminal record, but was broke and looking for work when he discovered a group of people planning to grow cannabis for profit. Mr Scorey was told he would earn between $10,000 and $100,000 for his role in the venture.

Instead, all he got from a year’s involvement was $5,000, a criminal record, and a suspended prison sentence.

Dollar signs in his eyes, Mr Scorey ignored the early signs that his investment was not working. Scorey and another man worked hard clearing land, setting up an irrigation system and creating garden beds. After a year trying to grow cannabis, most of the crop had been destroyed by wild pigs, rats, and the weather. Scorey was left for long stretches of time to mind the crop on his own.

For all his efforts, Scorey said he only cultivated about 2.7kg of cannabis and ended up with about $5,000.

Despite his earnings being well below the minimum wage, Mr Scorey foolishly tried his luck again, devising a new plan to grow more cannabis.

The court was told how police became involved when a man who was minding the new crop took his own life.

Mr Scorey’s criminal defence lawyer told the court that his client was young, down on his luck, and had turned his life around since the hapless venture.

He was given a three year suspended prison sentence; any breach of which will likely see him behind bars.

The Real Costs of Growing Cannabis

In Colorado, where it is legal to sell and use cannabis for recreational purposes, there are some very sophisticated harvesters who are able to sell approximately 600 pounds a year.

One grower based in Colorado says that since legalisation, ounces are selling for around 125 to 150 US Dollars. Selling 600 pounds a year would bring in $1,440,000, which seems impressive, until you factor in that he spends a third of his profits growing and prepping the cannabis for sale and has 15 employees to pay.

Down the other end of the production chain, people aren’t seeing this kind of money.

Obviously in Australia, despite the difficulties, some people have been able to make substantial profits growing and selling cannabis illegally. The increased profits are balanced with the increased risks of being ripped-off or dobbed-in by the people you’re working with, violence, receiving a criminal record, and being sent to prison.

But now that Australia is looking to make medical cannabis available to those with a prescription, we are likely to see the farming of crops become more mainstream and competitive here as well.

The Wall Street Journal describes the situation in Denver, where medicinal cannabis is grown and sold legally:

“Trying to make a profit in this business is harder than expected. When grown and sold legally, marijuana can be an expensive proposition, with high startup costs, a host of operational headaches and state regulations that a beet farmer could never imagine.”

Confluence Denver reports that the extremely high energy costs of growing cannabis are a killer for both profits and the environment:

“Now that it’s legal and grow houses have, well, grown to meet demand, it’s also had an impact on the electric grid. ‘There have been situations where we’ve had to upgrade transformers,’ says Xcel Energy spokesperson Gabriel Romero. The utility has also had to upgrade the power lines going into the grow houses when they weren’t equipped for the higher voltage.

“Those changes are paid for by the warehouse owner,” says Romero. “Those things are pretty expensive startup fees.” It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade the electric equipment in some situations.”

When the Wall Street Journal asked veteran cannabis farmer, Elliott Klug, about the secret to making a profit in the cultivation of cannabis, he said: “Start with lots of money.”

Perhaps the old joke about vineyards is equally applicable to cannabis farms:

“Know how to make a million dollars in a vineyard? Start with 5 million”.