Category Archives:Drug Possession

Know Your Rights This Music Festival Season

By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

The tragic drug-related deaths at the Defqon.1 music festival in southwestern Sydney on 15 September have gained a lot of media attention. And rightly so. But what hasn’t gathered as much attention is the saturation policing at the event.

NSW police were out in force. There were 180 officers at the festival, some of whom were accompanied by drug detection dogs. Police searched 355 festivalgoers and only 69 of these searches resulted in any illicit substances being found. So, that’s a success rate of just 19 percent.

What this means is if you plan to attend an event this season, and won’t be carrying drugs, it’s still important to know your rights because a sniffer dog may well sit next you regardless, which could result in a bodily search or even a strip search.

You have the right to remain silent

During a search, or subsequent arrest, you’re not required to answer any specific questions police ask you, except for providing your name and address. Failure to provide these details – or providing false details – can result in a fine.

In the case where drugs are found, it’s best to remain silent. This will prevent you from saying anything that might be detrimental in the long run. And whatever you do, don’t say you intended to give away or share the drugs, as this can result in a more serious charge of drug supply, rather than drug possession.

Police search powers

The police powers to stop and search a person without a warrant are contained in the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibility) Act (LEPRA) 2002. This legislation requires that officers must have a reasonable suspicion to carry out such a search.

Section 21 of the LEPRA provides that an officer may stop, search and detain a person without a warrant if they suspect on reasonable grounds that the individual is carrying illegal drugs, a dangerous weapon, stolen property, or anything used, or intended to be used, to commit a crime.

Reasonable suspicion

The leading authority on what constitutes reasonable suspicion is the 2001 NSW Court of Criminal Appeal case R v Rondo. It sets out that “a reasonable suspicion involves less than a reasonable belief, but more than a possibility.”

So, if an officer pulls you up for a search at a music festival they must have some “factual basis” as to why they’re doing so. And it’s best to ask the officer for the reason why they’re conducting the search.

Reasonable suspicion cannot be that an officer simply thinks you look dodgy, or they don’t like the way you’re dressed, or even if you’re in an area that’s well known for drug use or other criminal activity.

And never say to an officer of the law that you consent to a search. If you do give consent, police will no longer need to demonstrate that they had a reasonable suspicion to search you later on.

Indeed, it’s best to comply with an officer’s instructions, but also to state that you don’t give consent. This could lead to a charge being dropped or thrown out of court at a later date if it’s shown that an officer had no grounds to carry out the search.

Sniffer dogs

Section 148 of the LEPRA provides police with the power to use drug detection dogs in public places without a warrant. This includes using dogs on people at, or entering or leaving, licensed venues and events, such as music festivals, concerts, parades and sporting events.

There’s dispute over whether an indication by a drug dog actually constitutes reasonable suspicion. This is due to the fact that sniffer dogs are highly unreliable and get it wrong anywhere from two-thirds to three-quarters of the time.

However, officers do indeed search people following a positive indication made by a dog. And over recent years, these dogs have become a permanent fixture at music festivals, so be prepared that you could be searched regardless of what you’re up to.

During a search

If an officer does decide to search you, it’s best to remain calm and comply. Trying to resist can result in a charge of resisting arrest. And watch what you say, as swearing can result in a fine or a charge of using offensive language.

Section 202 of the LEPRA requires that in the event of a search, an officer must show you their badge if they aren’t wearing a uniform. They’re also required to tell you their name. And they must provide you with the reasons as to why they’re conducting the search.

Police can carry out three types of searches. A frisk search, where they run their hands down the outside of your clothing. An ordinary search, where they require you to remove items of clothing – such as a coat or shoes – and examine them. And then officers can also carry out a strip search.

Section 21A of the LEPRA also provides police with the ancillary powers to order a person to open their mouth for the purposes of a search, and to shake their hair if they suspect something is being concealed within it. Failure to comply with this request can result in a fine of $550.

It’s perfectly legal to film police in a public space, and this includes music festivals. So, if possible, have a friend stand back and film the search. The police have no powers to prevent this from happening, as long as the individual is not hindering the search.

The invasive strip search

Section 31 of the LEPRA provides that police can carry out a strip search in a place – such as a music festival – if the officer “suspects on reasonable grounds” it “is necessary for the purposes of the search and that the seriousness and urgency of the circumstances make the strip search necessary.”

If you’re at a music festival a strip search has to be carried out in a private enclosed area, like a tent. And the search must be conducted by a member of the same sex. At no time should your body cavities – including your mouth – be searched, and you should not be touched in any way.

No one should be present other than those needed for the purposes of the search, and nor should any item of clothing be unnecessarily removed. And under no circumstances are strip searches to be carried out on children under the age of 10.

Found in possession

If drugs are located on your person, remember that apart from providing your identity, you have no obligation to speak or answer any questions. And certainly, don’t imply that the drugs were in any way for anyone else.

Be aware that if you are found with a “traffickable amount” of a substance on you, section 29 of the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985 provides that you can be charged with supply, even if there’s no evidence that suggests you’ve been supplying others. This is known as deemed supply.

As little as 0.75 grams of MDMA – or three or four pills – can be deemed supply. For cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin, three grams or more can land you with a charge of supply. And for cannabis, it’s a lot more – 300 grams.

In the case of arrest

If an officer does arrest you, it’s important to stay calm and don’t resist, as resisting could led to an escalation of the situation and more charges being laid. The best thing to do after being issued with a court attendance notice is to get in touch with an experience criminal lawyer.

A good lawyer can guide you through the process. They may be able to have the charges dropped or thrown out of court, and in the case of a charge of deemed supply, they may be able to have it downgraded to possession.

So, now that you’re aware of your rights, remember to comply with police instructions, but don’t give your consent to a search. And have a great festival season.

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.

The Vic Drug Law Reform Report Part 2: Law Enforcement and Prohibition

As reported in Part 1, the Victorian parliamentary Inquiry into Drug Law Reform report was tabled in state parliament last week. It recommends a large number of sensible policy approaches to illicit substances, many of which relate to drug law enforcement.

Indeed, the report acknowledges that law enforcement strategies have had little impact on eradicating drug supply and demand, but what it has done is increased the harms associated with outlawed substances, including contributing to the growth of “black market crime.”

The document delivers recommendations regarding law enforcement that include decriminalisation for certain offences and an overhaul of drug driving laws, so there’s an emphasis on testing for impairment levels, rather than mere traces of illicit substances as currently happens.

Drug offending

The report identified a range of programs used by courts to address substance use disorders, when they’re found to be an underlying cause of people committing crimes. And the committee recommended these programs be expanded.

One of these is the Court Integrated Services Program. It provides services, such as case management, for offenders with substance use disorders four months prior to sentencing, with the aim of reducing reoffending and promoting safety.

The Drug Court of Victoria is also earmarked for expansion. It allows individuals whose offending is drug or alcohol related to undergo a treatment program, rather than incarceration. If the offender fails to complete the treatment or reoffends, they can be ordered to serve a custodial sentence.

And the drug law reform committee also recommends treating personal drug possession and use “as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue,” meaning that these offences would become decriminalised.

Law enforcement approval

Executive officer of the Yarra Drug and Health Forum Greg Denham said “quite frankly our emphasis on policing and prisons to stop drug use have failed and we need to take a new direction, with special emphasis on health, human rights and harm reduction.”

Mr Denham has keen insight into the issue of drug law enforcement as he’s a former Victoria police senior sergeant, who served seventeen years on the force. He believes the inquiry has drawn a line in the sand whereby efforts attempting to address drug harms can now be redirected.

The harm reduction advocate agrees with the “general philosophy” of the report, which would leave “the courts to deal with more problematic and difficult cases,” as “the majority of people that use illicit drugs don’t cause any harms to themselves or others and they should be treated accordingly.”

“The report makes sense from a number of perspectives, not the least of which would be the massive saving of public funding if we moved toward decriminalisation models, such as that currently used in Portugal,” Denham further made clear.

The most pressing points

Leading drug law reformist Dr Alex Wodak considers the decriminalisation of personal possession, the regulating and taxing of recreational cannabis, and the expansion of opioid substitution treatment (OST) as the most significant recommendations.

The president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation also pinpoints the trialling of the use of the pharmaceutical-grade opioid hydromorphone for individual’s that haven’t responded to other OST as important.

“Many countries have adopted these approaches some time ago,” the doctor told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. He added that others are “now seriously considering or have approved, but not yet implemented, a number of these policies”

“It’s important to remember that there is now a large and growing consensus that the war on drugs has failed comprehensively,” Dr Wodak continued.

The legacy of the prohibition

According to Dr Wodak, “deaths, disease and costs to the economy from cigarettes dwarf” those caused by all psychoactive drugs. Alcohol is next in line. And bringing up the rear are the harms caused by prescription and illicit drugs.

The drug law reformist posed the question as to why ice suddenly became so readily available in this country. Answer: “the lore of prohibition” is that “drug traffickers try to minimise the chance of being detected, so they try to traffic more powerful drugs that occupy smaller volumes.”

Alcohol prohibition in the US saw beer disappear “replaced by wine and spirits,” Dr Wodak outlined. But, as soon as prohibition was over, “beer reappeared.” And heroin became the replacement a decade after some Asian countries banned the smoking of opium.

The need for reform is drastic

“The more and the longer we press down on the drug market, the more dangerous the drugs in the market become,” the doctor stressed. “There is growing awareness that current policies are not just ineffective, but also dangerous.”

Indeed, in the face of all this evidence, let it be hoped that Victorian authorities heed the recommendations of the report, which have already produced positive outcomes elsewhere around the globe. And from there, the various Australian jurisdictions take the hint and do the same.

The Vic Drug Law Reform Report Part 1: A Sensible Approach to Drugs

The long-awaited Victorian parliamentary Inquiry into Drug Law Reform report was released last week. The 50 recommendations delivered read like a checklist of proposals that drug law reformists and harm reduction experts have long been advocating for.

Significantly, politicians of all persuasions have recommended a much-needed sensible approach to illicit substances, in an acknowledgement that the intensified drug law enforcement approach that’s marked the close to fifty years of the war on drugs is failure.

Inquiry chair Labor MP Geoff Howard remarked in the forward to the report, that “there is growing recognition that a dominant focus on law enforcement strategies… has contributed to increased harms, such as overdoses and black market crime.”

Reducing youth harms

“We keep saying that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem, yet year on year the amount of drug arrests increases,” stressed Reason Party MLC Fiona Patten. “It is very clear that current policy isn’t working and the government needs to accept these recommendations.”

The inquiry recommendations include that Victorian authorities look towards decriminalising personal possession and use, trialling pill testing at events and removing drug detection dog operations at music festivals.

“At the moment, the war on drugs is a war on our young people,” Ms Patten continued. She explained that a third of Victorians under the age of 30 admit to using illegal drugs, and she doubts this figure is likely to change.

Swimming with the tide

Ms Patten initiated the drug law reform inquiry that received 230 submissions and held nine days of hearings. And she’s no stranger to sparking inquiries that have successful outcomes.

The Reason Party leader instigated the end of life choices inquiry, which saw voluntary assisted dying laws passed last November. And her private member’s bill prompted an inquiry, which saw the Andrews government agree to a trial of the Richmond medically supervised injecting centre (MSIC).

The positive outcomes produced by MSICs around the globe, as well as the Kings Cross injecting facility, are proof “that a progressive approach to drug law really works,” Patten made clear. Not only is the health of injecting drug users improved, but so is the amenity of the local community.

And the inquiry’s recommendations are in line with this type of reform. “We can limp on with our current policy or we can make some real changes,” Ms Patten explained, “by moving the focus of drug offences to health treatment rather than criminalisation.”

Recreational cannabis

The heavy-handed law enforcement approach to drugs embraced by Australian authorities began in the US, when Nixon launched the drug war in 1971. And further back, the prohibitionist system now enshrined in the UN drug conventions was also provoked by the States a century ago.

However, the use of pot for pleasure is now legal in nine US states. And Canada is set to legalise recreational cannabis later this year. The 23rd inquiry recommendation suggests investigating these developments with a view to implementing a system of legalised cannabis for “adult use” in Victoria.

Last year, the committee members paid a visit to Colorado, the first US state to sell retail recreational cannabis. Tax generated by the market has been funnelled into schools and health services. “The regulation of cannabis businesses in Colorado was inspiring,” Ms Patten recalled.

And patients who use medicinal cannabis will be glad to note that the inquiry recommends both the state and federal government slash the red tape preventing access to cannabis medicines, which despite being legal, are currently inaccessible to the vast majority of people who need them.

Opioid substitution therapy

The report states that “the main form of treatment for opioid dependence in Australia is opioid substitution therapy (OST), where the drug of dependence is substituted with controlled opioid medication, mainly methadone and buprenorphine.”

The inquiry makes a number of OST recommendations, including expanding access to treatments, that the government fund dispensing fees to remove barriers to access, and establishing a dedicated arm of government to oversee OST policy.

Ms Patten’s one misgiving is that the report doesn’t feature the Heroin Assisted Treatment program in Switzerland and Canada, which provides heroin to people, who don’t respond to OST. Evidence shows it’s a pathway to stopping, and 99 percent of Swiss participants stay clear of crime.

It’s not the first time

The Andrews government now has six months to respond to the report. Ms Patten believes “the political climate is right to embrace these recommendations.” And she points to the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis, when the federal government became a world leader in drug reform and harm reduction.

“Victoria has a chance to do the same with drug reform and the recommendations of the report give the government a fantastic foundation to build on,” she concluded.

Part 2 of the report on the Victorian drug law reform inquiry reflects on law enforcement proposals and the problems of prohibition.

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.

Reaping the Benefits of a Regulated Cannabis Market

Developers in the US state of Colorado announced last month that if they receive the final approval from the city council, they’ll be opening the world’s first marijuana mall. Chris Elkins and Sean Sheridan said they’ve already obtained city permits and a building has been purchased.

The mall, which will contain five cannabis dispensaries, is set to open next April in the town of Trinidad. Recreational marijuana in Colorado is now a billion dollar a year industry that generated $198.5 million in tax revenue last year.

Colorado and Washington were the first two US states to legalise recreational cannabis on November 6 2012. And since that time, six more states have legalised recreational use, which means one in five Americans now live in a jurisdiction where they’re free to take pot for pleasure.

Get with the times

Many are heralding the economic benefits the burgeoning legalised weed markets are bringing to these states as a “green rush,” much like the mid-nineteenth century Californian gold rush. But unlike gold, cannabis isn’t a scarce resource, and the growth industry is unlikely to run dry.

And as Australian authorities continue their decades-long heavy-handed law enforcement approach to the recreational cannabis, the experience in the States is leading many local commentators to question the government’s continuing cannabis marijuana prohibition stance.

Reaping the benefits

The legal cannabis industry in the US was worth $6.6 billion last year, according to New Frontier Data. That included $1.9 billion for recreational sales, as well as $4.7 billion via the medicinal cannabis market. The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes is now legal in 29 US states.

The states of California, Massachusetts and Maine all voted to legalise recreational cannabis use last November. The sixth-largest economy in the world, California is set to commence retail sales on January 1 next year, while Massachusetts and Maine are following in mid-2018.

And with the addition of the Californian market, it’s estimated that the US cannabis industry will be worth $24.1 billion by 2025.

However, even before these additional markets begin, it’s been estimated that as of January this year, there were 122,814 full-time jobs being supported by the legal cannabis market. And 57,958 of them have been created by the retail sale of recreational marijuana in the five states where it’s available.

These figures include those that cultivate the plant, along with retail outlet owners and employees. But, they also take into consideration lawyers advising cannabis businesses, realtors specialising in commercial cannabis real estate, and electricians consulting grow operations.

Viva Las Vegas

Nevada was the last big player to set up a recreational marketplace. On July 1 this year, it began legal sales. However, it got off to a rocky start, as the first licence to transport the product from the farm directly to the store was issued two weeks later.

This left retail outlets concerned that they were going to run out of marijuana products as demand was better than expected during the first fortnight. Dispensaries in that state raked in more than $27 million in the first month of recreational sales, which generated $3.6 million dollars in taxes.

The largest cannabis store in the world opened its doors in downtown Las Vegas this month. NuWu Cannabis Market is an initiative run by the region’s Indigenous Paiute people. While taxes on their products are the same, the revenue is going towards funding health services for their community.

The Colorado experience

The first legal recreational cannabis purchase in the United States this century took place in Denver, Colorado on January 1 2014. And ever since, the Mountain State’s regulated market has been held up as the shining example of the benefits recreational marijuana can bring.

Victorian Reason MLC Fiona Patten advocates for legal recreational cannabis in Australia. She paid a visit to Colorado in July to get a firsthand experience of the state’s regulated market.

Ms Patten said she was “incredibly impressed” by what she witnessed. Whilst there, she met with a whole range of organisations, including the departments of health and finance, along with the police, to find out how the industry is fairing.

“Everyone’s fear is that the legal industry seeps into the illegal industry. And there are protections on that,” Ms Patten told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “They believe that 85 percent of all cannabis that is sold in Colorado is sold through the legal system. We can’t say that for tobacco in Australia.”

For the wider community

The tax revenue generated by recreational cannabis sales in Colorado has been funnelled back into community healthcare services, including drug rehabilitation, as well as providing the funding to build new schools and for the allocation of grants to educational facilities.

As Ms Patten pointed out, Pueblo County in Colorado is going to begin providing grants to all high school graduates beginning their university education as of next year. And on top of all this, the Reason Party leader noted “there’s lots of consumer education.”

State officials in Colorado have reported the availability of the drug has had no overall adverse effects since it began being sold in retail stores. Cannabis products are heavily regulated, and they’re sold in childproof containers.

“They’ve got this amazing seed to sale tracking system,” Ms Patten continued. It’s required that each plant for sale is tagged with a radio frequency identification chip. “So, every seed that a licenced cultivator grows is tracked right to when the person buys the product that it created.”

The Australian scene

A 2013 National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre report found that Australian law enforcement activities cost over a billion dollars a year. The 2015-16 Illicit Drug Data report found that cannabis continues to be the most dominant illicit drug in Australia in terms of arrests, seizures and use.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that Australians spent in excess of $3.6 billion on cannabis in 2010. This is more than the $2.97 billion they spent on wine over the year 2015-16.

And an Essential Media poll taken late last year found that 55 percent of those surveyed supported cannabis being taxed and regulated like alcohol and tobacco.

For Ms Patten, it’s a no-brainer. “We are spending billions of dollars on prohibiting cannabis, when we could be earning billions of dollars on cultivating and regulating it,” she concluded. “We give this money to organised crime. Why wouldn’t we be giving it to our schools and hospitals?”

Blue ‘Superman’ Pill Warning

New South Wales police have issued warnings regarding a batch of blue pills branded with a Superman ‘S’, which they believe are responsible for five recent drug overdoses in New South Wales.

Eleven people have been taken to hospital in Newcastle, with symptoms believed to be related to taking the blue pill. While lab tests have not yet determined the composition of the tablets, police and health professionals are urging people not to ingest them.

Pill testing

The overdoses sparked renewed calls for pill testing as summer approaches – the season for schoolies, Christmas parties and music festivals.

Around Australia, police, paramedics, and hospital emergency department staff are gearing up for what they call the ‘drug season’.

2015 was arguably Australia’s worst ever year for overdoses at music festivals, resulting in governments putting festivals on ‘notice’ of closure if the problem persists.

And while most festival organisers do what they can, simply banning drugs does little to combat the problem, resulting in people embarking on the dangerous practices of ‘preloading’ before an event or taking all their drugs at once upon seeing police and sniffer dogs at the event.

The presence of deadly ‘fillers’ in pills is also a significant problem, and health professions have been pointing out for years that pill testing is a proven way of informing festival-goers about the presence of such additives in their tablets, thereby allowing them to make decisions about whether to take their drugs and, if so, how much.

Fed up with what they believe is a ‘head-in-the-sand’ approach, advocates for pill testing took matters into their own hands around this time last year and made kits available at festivals across Sydney in what they say was a ‘protest manouvre’.

Spilt Milk festival trials pill-testing

The ACT has bucked the political trend, agreeing to allow a pill testing service be trialled at the Spilt Milk festival this year, on November 25.

It’s a positive step forward for pill-testing advocates, who say that in Europe, where pill testing has long been available, it has proven to be a very successful way for people to find out what they’re taking and make decisions beforehand. Australian harm minimisation advocate Dr David Caldicott, and a tireless campaigner for pill testing, says it reduces the prospect of users consuming drugs with harmful additives by 60 per cent.

The Spilt Milk festival trial comes at an interesting time for Australia, with a report released by heavy-weight think Tank group Australia 21 recommending a national move towards drug decriminalisation, with greater recognition of drug use as a health issue. The report also recommended more investment in harm-minimisation programmes, such as pill testing.

Trial results could provide a basis for expansion

The Spilt Milk festival trial will, at long last, provide local data which will enable decision-making with regard to the effectiveness of pill-testing and provide a much-needed direction for the potentially life-saving initiative.

After Spilt Milk has taken place, the organisation running the trial, Safety Testing Advisory Service at Festivals and Events (STA-SAFE) will share results, which it hopes will provide impetus for the programme to be expanded, not just across the ACT, but other states and territories as well.

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.