Category Archives:Drug Possession

Drug Arrests and Seizures Do Not Deter Drug Suppliers or Reduce Consumption

The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission released the Illicit Drug Data report 2017-18 last week. In its sixteenth year, the report provides an overview of the domestic black market, and the efforts of law enforcement to combat drug trafficking transnational crime networks.

The report findings reveal that Australians continue to have a taste for amphetamine-type stimulants, which account for most seizures. Although, locals are also moving on to cocaine, with a record number of arrests carried out for that substance over the 12 month period.

During the financial year 2017-18, there was a record amount of 30.6 tonnes of illicit substances taken from 112,827 drug seizures. And the various police forces around the country made 148,363 drug-related arrests throughout the year.

This means that, on average, authorities made a drug seizure every five minutes, one kilogram of illicit drugs was snatched every seventeen and a half minutes, and someone was arrested in drug-related circumstances every four minutes.

But, if you take a step back from the record amounts, the skyrocketing arrests and the ridiculously high prices, what’s revealed is that despite global prohibition, illicit substances are flooding across Australian borders, consumption is on the rise, and law enforcement efforts are no deterrent.

The opposite effect

Key outcomes of the century-long system of transnational drug controls have been the growth of powerful criminal networks, an abundance of available illicit drugs, an ever-changing variety of substances, increased drug consumption, and the criminalisation of vast numbers of the population.

Of course, these outcomes are not what one would have expected when representatives from multiple nations began meeting in the early years of the 20th century to draft treaties that were, on the face of it, designed to control the consumption of drugs for health reasons.

And since the launch of the war on drugs in the early 1970s, these outcomes have only been exacerbated. The stepping up of law enforcement efforts to curb illegal drug production and trafficking has increased the risks involved, which in turn, has heightened the profits.

Illegality increases profitability

The NSW Crime Commission Annual Report 2015-16 outlines that “the illicit drug trade continues to be the main stream of income for organised crime groups operating in Australia”. And it predicted that due to the steep price of drugs in this country, trafficking from overseas was likely to increase.

The report further puts forth that it’s the international drug cartels that are calling the shots in Australia. The authors posit that organised crime decides what sort of volumes are going to be smuggled into the country, and local consumers take what they make available.

“Commendable law enforcement efforts around the country have resulted in larger seizures and more arrests, but they have had little, if any, effect on the quantities of prohibited drugs available for consumption in Australia,” the report authors admit.

Australian drug historian Dr John Jiggens explained to Sydney Criminal Lawyers back in May that “drug law enforcement acts as a multiplier for the drug market”. The doctor asserts that every dollar spent on drug law enforcement works out to ten dollars in the pockets of drug suppliers.

Dr Jiggens emphasised that the “war on meth” being waged by authorities over the last decade has led to a surge in its availability and profitability. The risks involved hike the price, which then leads international players to focus on the Australian market, because it’s where they get the best profits.

Arrests are no answer

The lack of any real impact being made via drug seizures is nowhere more understood than at the frontline of enforcement. Police officers are increasingly savvy to the fact that with every drug bust they make, more drugs appear from elsewhere to fill the momentary gap in the market.

The 2017 Australia21 report on illegal substances makes thirteen key recommendations regarding drug decriminalisation. And significantly, four of the participants making up the thinktank were former police commissioners and assistant commissioners.

Ex-Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer was the vice president of Australia21 at the time of the report release. And today, the former top cop is one of the most vocal advocates for decriminalising the personal possession and use of illegal drugs in this country.

Mr Palmer is well-known for acknowledging that the drug issue is not something that the nation can arrest its way out of. And he’s clear that the majority of harms arising from illicit substances are due to their prohibition.

Cannabis: a case in point

The ACT Legislative Assembly is set to vote on a bill next month that if successful will mean that the personal possession of up to 50 grams of cannabis and its use will be legalised in the capital territory. And Labor MLA Michael Pettersson who introduced the legislation is fairly confident it will pass.

Recreational cannabis is now legal in eleven US states, and the entire nations of Canada and Uruguay. For medicinal purposes, it is these days legal in this country. And underlying these developments is the understanding that the adult use of this drug is relatively harmless.

However, the recent drug report shows that there were 72,381 cannabis arrests across Australia in 2017-18. And of these, 66,296 – or 92 percent – were consumer arrests. And when considering all drug arrests during that year, it turns out 44 percent were arrests of cannabis consumers.

So, this would point to a situation where the majority of the harms related to cannabis are most likely attributable to its illegality, as while its consumption is unlikely to cause any major long-term harm to an adult, being arrested for its possession is.

Legalise it all

Five young Australians died at music festivals in this state last summer. And despite rising calls to implement pill testing at these events, the Berejiklian government is sticking to its reactionary “just say no” to drugs approach.

As Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation president Dr Alex Wodak has pointed out, MDMA – the drug of choice for festivalgoers – is one of the “least risky drugs”. So, if this substance was legally produced – like alcohol – it’s likely deaths caused by it would be greatly reduced if not ceased.

And while the use of other illicit drugs might be riskier, the argument for legalising them is their production could be quality controlled, availability could be governed, treatment for problematic use could be broadened, and the harms associated with the criminal justice system removed.

Indeed, if Australia adopted a policy of legalising and regulating all illicit substances, the power that the transnational criminal networks wield would fade away, the floods of contraband coming over the borders would dry up, and the police would be free to focus on crimes with real victims.

NSW Government Risks More Lives by Rejecting Harm Reduction

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

One of our state’s most popular music festivals, Splendour in the Grass has commenced in Byron Bay. The annual festival boasts more than 100 music acts, and attracts around 42,000 people each year.

And yes, along with the revellers, the festival also attracts a heavy police presence and drug detection drugs.

It’s no surprise that police have issued their standard pre-festival warning, that ‘anyone caught with illegal substances will be dealt with accordingly.’

It’s the same old rhetoric, time and again. The enforcement of which is costing young lives.

Young people and drugs

Currently, there are two State Government-led inquiries into the relationship young people have with illegal drugs in New South Wales.

The first, set up in November last year, is specifically examining drug use.

The second is the coronial inquest into the deaths of six young people, Diana Nguyen, Joshua Pham, Joshua Tam, Callum Brosnan, Nathan Tran and Alex Ross-King, all of whom suffered drug-related deaths at music festivals between December 2017 and January 2019.

Harrowing deaths

Tragic revelations are emerging from the coronial inquest – of medical staff inadequately trained and inexperienced in treating drug overdoses, of limited medical resources on site, and ‘disorganised’ emergency care responses, all of which have, in some way, contributed to the deaths of young people whose final hours have been depicted as painful and distressing.

The coronial inquest has heard evidence that over-policing at the FOMO Festival led to one young festival goer taking almost three MDMA pills in panic all at once. He later died as a result. Another’s death was preceded by violent police behaviour, with a witness testifying that an officer punched him in the face as he began to exhibit symptoms of a seizure.

Others have complained about the way police conduct strip searches, intimidating and humiliating patrons – treating them as if they are guilty until proven otherwise.

Pill-testing has been a strong theme. And in recent days, Deputy State Coroner Harriet Grahame has expressed interest in attending Splendour in the Grass herself, to see first-hand a pill testing demonstration by Dr David Caldicott, who has long been an outspoken advocate for the harm minimisation practise.

NSW Government insists on ‘zero-tolerance’

Despite the deaths and a wealth of evidence from overseas that pill-testing saves lives, as well as strong backing for the practise by a range of experts including the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Australian Medical Association and former Australian federal police commissioner, the NSW government is clinging to the status quo: The ‘zero- tolerance’ policy which includes deploying hundreds of police officers, sniffer dogs, strip searches and the long arm of the law, and the rejection of harm minimisation.

Our Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s direction to young people is ‘don’t take illegal drugs’.

This is not only completely out of touch with reality, it ignores vital facts that we already know.

Currently, the Australian Capital Territory is the only jurisdiction in Australia which has conducted pill testing trials, and the preliminary findings of these trials overwhelmingly supported evidence from overseas where pill testing is commonplace, and that is, it provides people with information to make a choice, and therefore does save lives.

Australians have one of the highest consumption rates of MDMA (“ecstasy”) in the world. And, sadly, because MDMA is an unregulated drug, Australian ecstasy has also been found to contain the highest amount of unknown and potentially deadly substances, because, on the black market producers and suppliers to fill their tablets with whatever they want.

In a study of ecstasy pills from several countries including the Netherlands, Australia and Canada, Australian tablets were found to contain the highest amount of “unknown ingredients” as well as the highest amount of potentially deadly substances including PMA/PMMA, a highly toxic compound linked to deaths both in Australia and overseas.

These considerations alone, should be case enough for the introduction of pill testing.

It has been proven overseas that the practice does not lead to an increase in use, but actually offers a valuable opportunity for professionals to engage with, and educate drug users. It offers too, a chance for young people who may be feeling ‘peer pressure’ to find a ‘respectable way out’ and ditch the drugs, without fear of losing face with their friends.

For many it is simply maddening that the NSW Government continues to defy the very many positives of pill-testing and the mounting ground-swell of support for it, not just in NSW, but right across Australia, and not just anxious parents or curious young people, but those who believe that there is enough evidence that it will save lives.

Most of us have had enough of playing Russian Roulette with young people’s lives. And, yes, while these young people should each be responsible for the decisions they make, isn’t that exactly what pill testing is about? Ensuring they have the information they need to make an informed choice?

Perhaps there is however, some hope on the horizon. The Government inquiry mentioned earlier which is tasked with looking at drug use across the state, was originally undertaking specific research into the use of crystal methamphetamine, otherwise known as ICE, but earlier this year it’s brief was expanded to include other illicit drugs such as MDMA, which means that it will also look into the benefits of pill testing.

When final recommendations are made from both the coronial inquest and the drug-use inquiry are handed down, it can only be hoped that the Government retains an open mind on the issue of pill testing. Not to do so would be a complete waste of time, resources and taxpayer funds.

Pill Testing Saves Lives, Heavy Policing Takes Them

Alex Ross-King was only 19, when she died from a drug overdose attending January’s FOMO festival in Parramatta. Last week, at the NSW coronial inquiry into six drug-related deaths at festivals, it was heard that Alex had taken several MDMA capsules prior to the event so as to avoid police detection.

Event attendees taking all their drugs before an event to avoid arrest is referred to as “preloading”. Harm reduction experts have been warning for years that heavy policing at festivals is causing punters to partake in risky drug taking behaviours, like this, to prevent being arrested.

If Ms Ross-King wasn’t expecting to be confronted with a show of brute force on arrival, she likely wouldn’t have taken numerous pills at once. Besides there being no point, she’d be afraid of the consequences. But, in this case, the fear of police was greater than the fear of a drug overdose.

Since the early 90s, people in the Netherlands have been able to access pill testing services at festivals. This means a medical professional can warn them if their drugs are too strong or toxic. They don’t have to fear arrest and they can make an informed decision about taking the drugs.

And as NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian again pushes her “just say no” to drugs stance, rather than conceding a proven harm reduction intervention just might save lives, it feels to many like we’re on some sickening roundabout, with the only progress made being the rising number of deaths.

A head-in-the-sand approach

“This is not the first tragic death in NSW because a young person has preloaded, due to their fear of police drug dog operations,” said NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge. “Unless we change the law, I fear it won’t be the last.”

James Munro died as a result of taking all his drugs at once on spotting police with dogs at the 2013 Defqon.1 festival. To avoid getting arrested, the 23-year-old downed several pills at once and half an hour after gaining entry into the event, he fell into a coma, and never regained consciousness.

“We have a government that’s hellbent on a zero tolerance 1950s approach to drug law enforcement: a theory that abstinence will somehow keep young people safe,” Mr Shoebridge continued. “That approach has been proven tragically wrong.”

The NSW Greens justice spokesperson also stressed that there’s always a number of young people who experiment with drugs. And it’s about time authorities admitted the drug war has failed and look towards alternative measures like pill testing, or further, legalising and regulating MDMA.

3,4-Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine (MDMA)

Veteran drug law reformist Dr Alex Wodak explained that ecstasy or MDMA is the main drug youths are taking at music events. An oft-cited 2010 Lancet article found MDMA to be “one of the least risky” of 20 drugs considered, although like all others, it’s “toxicity is greater with higher doses”.

“Doses on the black market have been creeping up and are now not infrequently in a concerning range,” the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation president added. “Also, some samples include dangerous contaminants resulting from faulty manufacturing practices.”

The physician further told Sydney Criminal Lawyers that in relation to legalising the drug “the lowest risk form of ecstasy would have to be regulated with careful supervision of the manufacturing process and production of a known and safe dose”.

But, the reality is that MDMA remains illegal, and so does pill testing. And this means that the hundreds of thousands of Australians who take ecstasy annually are consuming a drug that could be relatively benign, but at present, can be rather like playing a game of Russian roulette if taken.

Intimidation, fear and anxiety

Tasked with investigating the drug-related deaths of six festivalgoers, NSW deputy state coroner Harriet Grahame decided to take herself to a music festival in mid-June to see what all the saturation policing fuss was about.

And the coroner described what she found as “full on”. The “lines and lines of police and dogs” she was confronted with made her “feel nervous”. Ms Grahame was surprised by “how intense it was”, as viewing it gave her a “strange sensation”, even though she had “nothing to fear”.

Mr Shoebridge related that he’s been at the entrance to numerous festivals in his capacity as an MP, who’s had “long and deep engagement with the NSW police”. And while he’s usually accompanied by dozens of Sniff Off campaign volunteers at the time, he still feels intimidated.

“The fact that someone in a position of authority like a state coroner feels intimidated should make the government reflect on how intimidating it is for an ordinary young person,” the Greens MLC emphasised.

A question of priorities

In response to a question regarding the use of brute force by NSW authorities as a way of preventing drug deaths at festivals, emergency physician Dr David Caldicott said, “I’m not aware of any public health intervention that required brute force that was in the slightest way successful.”

“What we are seeing in NSW is some sort of macabre political theatre,” the long-time pill testing advocate continued, “there is no evidence to support it, and that for which there is evidence is being ignored.”

As part of the Pill Testing Australia crew, Dr Caldicott was the attending doctor on site at both the first and second government-sanctioned Australian pill testing trials that were held at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival in 2018 and last April.

In permitting the trials, the enlightened ACT government has been complicit in having possibly saved the lives of around nine young Australians, whose drug samples were found to contain potentially lethal substances, and therefore, were binned rather than taken.

In NSW, five young people died as a result of untested drugs last summer. The situation in this state reminded Dr Caldicott of a quote from a book he’d picked up earlier this year in the Netherlands: a country, he said, “overtly makes drugs a health issue and is ingenious in its approaches”.

“You cannot control an activity by merely shouting out that it is forbidden,” wrote Jock Young in 1971’s The Drugtakers: The Social Meaning of Drug Use. “You must base your measures on facts, and these facts must come from sources that are valued by the people you are trying to influence.”

Leading others into a ditch

However, Ms Berejiklian doesn’t favour the same literature as Dr Caldicott. Instead, she prefers to bang on about how people should avoid taking drugs, while she quotes “facts” – which are sourced from who knows where – about there being a lack of evidence to show that pill testing works.

Dr Wodak said that the leader of the NSW Liberals “claims to be unimpressed by the evidence”, however when she established an expert panel last year to investigate safety at festivals following two drug-related deaths, she specifically told the panel not to consider pill testing.

The doctor set out that while critics argue pill testing hasn’t been evaluated by randomised controlled trials, this is because it’s an environmental intervention, which rules that out. But, it’s still open to peruse the on-the-ground evidence relating to its successful use in other jurisdictions.

“It is hard not to be impressed by the breadth and depth of expert opinion overwhelmingly supporting pill testing in Australia,” Dr Wodak added. “This includes a wide range of medical opinion, as well as academics, researchers and clinicians working in the alcohol and drug field.”

Blood on their hands

The premier dodged questions from reporters last Sunday regarding whether saturation policing at festivals is leading youths to preload and subsequently die. All she had for the NSW constituency was her usual: “don’t take illegal substances, they’re illegal for a reason.”

It’s an old harm reduction adage that new strategies to combat drug war casualties always face harsh resistance. This seems to be especially so in NSW, which was once a pioneer in establishing needle exchanges and a safe injecting room, both of which Dr Wodak brought across the line.

“If this premier doesn’t support pill testing, then the next one will, or the one after the next one,” Dr Wodak concluded. “Deaths will continue, unfortunately, and each premier will be pilloried for every death from now on, until pill testing is approved and implemented.”

It’s High Time to Decriminalise Drugs

Head of the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug Ice Professor Dan Howard SC has requested a six month extension prior to the tabling of the final report, as it needs to properly consider “a key issue” that’s emerged, which is the decriminalisation of ice and other drugs.

The professor made the request to NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian in a letter dated 21 May. He noted that removing criminal sanctions around the personal possession and use of illicit drugs is not only a priority concern in NSW, but it’s also being agitated for in “many jurisdictions internationally”.

The inquiry into crystal meth was established by Ms Berejiklian last November. It’s significant that it wants more time to properly evaluate decriminalisation, when you consider the long list of regressive measures taken by the Coalition in relation to illicit drug use at the end of last year.

And there’s support for the decriminalisation of ice and other drugs coming from prominent sectors in the community. The NSW Bar Association’s submission calls for the removal of criminal sanctions, and both the NSW and ACT synods of the Uniting Church are on the same page.

On everybody’s lips

“Given the reluctance of the Berejiklian government to objectively consider the overwhelming evidence on how to reduce the harm from drugs,” said NSW Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann, “it’s extremely encouraging that the commission is dedicating enough time to look into this issue.”

Not only has the premier blocked her ears when it comes to the push for drug decriminalisation, but she also refused to consider pill testing at festivals while the death toll was rising last summer. And by the end of the festival season, a total of five young Australians had unnecessarily lost their lives.

Faehrmann outlined that the inquiry has heard compelling evidence from numerous experts. This includes the Public Defenders Office, which noted in its submission that former law enforcement officials have stated, “Australia cannot arrest its way out of the methamphetamine problem”.

“A decriminalised model would ensure people are able to seek help when they need it by diverting resources away from the criminal system and towards the health system,” Ms Faehrmann continued, adding that police would then be able to “tackle serious crime like domestic violence”.

A step towards regulation  

“Decriminalisation plus improved and readily available health and social support would significantly reduce drug-related deaths, disease and crime,” said veteran drug law reformist Dr Alex Wodak. “It would benefit people who use drugs, their families and the general community.”

The Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation president stressed that politicians also need to look at why a highly-potent drug like ice has caught on in Australia, whereas in other countries, such as the UK, it never has. And there are two chief reasons for this, according to the doctor.

Firstly, the isolation of the country, the huge law enforcement effort geared towards drugs and the risky nature of the business make it “very lucrative”. And Dr Wodak explained that as getting caught is not a certainty and the justice system is slow-moving, these act as little deterrent.

The second reason ice has taken off is as drug dealers and traffickers have to avoid detection, it leaves the smuggling of “more powerful, more concentrated and more dangerous drugs” an easier option. So, where less potent powdered speed was once the amphetamine of choice, now it’s ice.

“Decriminalisation of drugs is certainly needed,” Dr Wodak remarked. But, he added that it’s no cure-all. “Just as decriminalisation is better than criminalisation of drugs, regulating as much of the drug market as possible is where we need to end up.”

The Portuguese model

“Portugal’s successful 2001 reforms emphasised that removing sanctions for drug personal possession and use and the expansion and improvement of treatment,” Dr Wodak told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. And he underscored that decriminalisation and more treatment are both needed.

The Portuguese government decriminalised the personal use and possession of all illicit substances at a time when their use was highly problematic. And eighteen years on, the use of illegal drugs hasn’t exploded, but drug-related deaths and HIV infections have plummeted.

Today, individuals in Portugal found with an amount of an illicit drug in their possession deemed personal are sent before a dissuasion panel comprised of a doctor, a lawyer and a social worker. The panel members can recommend prescribed drug treatment, a minor fine or no punishment at all.

Ms Faehrmann recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Portugal. And she reports that the system is “extremely effective because it recognises that only about 10 percent of people who use drugs will ever become addicted”.

The NSW Greens drug and harm minimisation spokesperson added that the vast majority of people who go before the panels are “able to get on with their lives with no criminal record or any other distressing or degrading experience”. And the courts and law enforcement can focus elsewhere.

Time for pollies to listen

“The tide appears to have definitely turned when it comes to public opinion concerning the criminalisation of some drugs,” Ms Faehrmann continued. “I believe it’s inevitable that all drugs will be decriminalised in NSW.”

However, she put forth that it took years following public calls around assisted dying and abortion for politicians to bring about law reforms, which is a point that Dr Wodak echoed regarding the long gap between the initial decriminalisation of homosexuality and the coming of marriage equality.

“The criminalisation of homosexuality meant the heterosexual majority punishing people with a minority sexual preference involving consenting adults in private,” the doctor outlined. “The criminalisation of drugs involves the majority punishing people with a minority drug preference.”

And the drug law reformist added that over recent years the number of “retired and even some serving police commissioners” that have been advising the public that it’s impossible for the nation to arrest or imprison its way out of its current drug problems has been rising.

“This is surely a message in code for our political leaders to begin to redefine drugs as primarily a health problem and start funding drug treatment properly,” Dr Wodak concluded. “Now the Uniting Church in Australia is repeating this message.”

NSW Government Continues its War on Music Festivals

By Ugur Nedim and Zeb Holmes

Despite a spate of drug-related deaths at music festivals in Sydney and other parts of New South Wales, the state government remains staunchly opposed to introducing harm reduction measures such as pill testing which have proven remarkably successful in several European countries – to the point where they are now part of the European Community’s best practice guidelines.

Instead, Premier Berejiklian’s solution appear to be pricing and regulating the events out of existence.

Organisers of the cancelled Psyfari music festival posted on their website that the Berejiklian government has “shown no mercy in wiping these events out in order to make a political point”. The festival was set to celebrate its tenth anniversary this year, but could not meet the additional $200,000 required of them at the last minute for additional ‘user pays policing’ fees.

Police are currently charging $127.80 per hour, per officer to ‘service’ festivals and demanding to have large numbers of officers attend – numbers that are unnecessary in the eyes of many.

The Bohemian Beatfreaks festival was similarly hit with a last minute $200,000 policing bill, after previously being quote $16,000 for the 3,000 person event.

And the Rabbits Eat Lettuce festival was forced to relocate across the border to Queensland after being priced beyond viability.

The Director of Byron Bay’s iconic Bluesfest is also foreshadowing a move out of NSW due to exorbitant compliance costs, potentially ending a 30 year tradition.

Yet another victim

Mountain Sounds is a music festival held annually in the Central Coast of NSW since 2014.

It was scheduled to be held this weekend but had to be cancelled due to the “impossible” restrictions and costs imposed by the state government, including (you guessed it) $200,000 in user pays policing costs levied just a week before the event.

“The combination of excessive costs, additional licensing conditions and the enforcement of a stricter timeline left us no option but to cancel the event,” event management advised.

Organisers had already agreed to downsize their site and cancel more than 20 acts to ensure compliance with newly-imposed safety, licensing and security costs.

The final straw was being advised they would need to pay for the constant presence of 45 police officers, despite being advised on 18 January 2019 that they would only need to pay for 11.

Pay up, or ship out

NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge has been a vocal critic of the government’s war on music festivals.

“I’ve had a number of festival organisers speak to me about the way in which the NSW police are increasing putting these exorbitant charges on,” he advised. “They’ve described it as effectively a shakedown by the police demanding obscene amounts of money.”

He explained that in recent years, Local Area Commanders have been treating the user pays policing services as a “cash cow”, and that the Berejiklian government’s festival safety review is now being used “as a means of shutting down music festivals they don’t like”.

Government response

Premier Berejiklian has publicly stated that “I don’t think it’s fair for organisers to blame anybody but themselves.”

There are rules in place,” she remarked. “The festival organisers just have to obey the law. It’s not just about making a quick dollar, it’s also about keeping the people who turn up safe.”

The Premier failed to make mention of the unrealistically short notice given to festival organisers.

Interestingly, Berejiklian seemed to change her tune when it came to Bluesfest, saying she was hopeful the rules would not disrupt the iconic event.

“That festival has been going for 29 years, it’s a fantastic festival, it’s low risk so they don’t have anything to worry about,” she remarked. “I don’t want anyone who’s holding a festival for a long time to be worried, this is not aimed at you.”

Police response

Predictably, NSW Police Minister Troy Grant put the blame for cancellations squarely on festival organisers, calling their logistics “inadequate and incomplete.” This is despite the fact many of the festivals ran perfectly well for many years prior.

Mr Grant went so far as to claim organisers of Mountain Sounds failed to respond to police requests for information. Event management has strenuously denied the claim, stating “Mountain Sounds has never in its six years of operating not responded to the police,” they said.

Those who disagree with the way festivals are being treated point out that part of government’s role is to promote social and cultural events, and that the unrealistic costs and demands placed upon festival organisers are contributing to the state’s regression into the nation’s social wasteland.

Warnings Over Potentially Deadly Party Drug

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

With the festival season in full swing, several reports have emerged about a rise in the use of the party drug ‘monkey dust’ or MDPV, the scientific name for which is 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV.

Monkey dust is reported to have similar effects to stimulants such as ‘ecstacy’ or MDMA, but there are concerns that a ‘hit’, which can cost as little as ten dollars, can have severe adverse effects.

Bath salts by another name

Monkey dust is not new. It is derived from a South African plant called Khat, which can be chewed like a gum and thereby absorbed through the mouth.

It is what’s known as a synthetic cathinone, which is commonly known as concentrated bath salts.

MDVP was developed by pharmaceutical firm Boehringer Ingelheim in the mid-1960s as a central nervous system stimulant. But the drug’s development never got far enough for it to be tested on humans.

It first appeared in internet drug forum discussions around 2005, and its use became increasingly prevalent in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, where it has caused heart attacks, episodes of psychosis and violent behaviour.

While users report euphoria, feelings of empathy (although less than MDMA), increased sociability, mental and physical stimulation, and sexual arousal, the side-effects can include anxiety and paranoia, delusions, muscle spasms, and an elevated heart rate.

In extreme cases, the drug has been linked to rhabdomyolysis – a process whereby the body’s internal organs overheat and shut down.

It has also been linked to brain injury and death. However, the more serious side-effects are likely to result from high doses.

Monkey dust is illegal in Australia

MDPV has been illegal in Australia since 2010, around the same time in many other jurisdictions including the United States, Canada, and much of Europe.

A year after its ban, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported that it has been responsible for thousands of visits to emergency room in the United States. In 2011 alone, there were 22,904 reports of MDPV use during emergency room visits. About two thirds of those visits involved combinations with other drugs.

In addition, poison centres took more than 6,000 calls about exposures to the drug in 2011.

The numbers had declined significantly by 2016, with NIDA reporting 266 reported exposures in the first half of the year.

In its pure form, MDVP is a white crystalline powder, but it can be any shade from off-white to pale brown. It is usually sold as a powder, powder-filled capsules or tablets.

MDVP tends to arrive in Australia from China, where it is legal to produce. It is most commonly used as a filler in ecstasy pills, but it can be ingested on its own – snorted, smoked, taken orally or injected.

Young people are being warned that while the drug might produce a ‘nice high’, it can have serious effects.

Pill testing technology can identify monkey dust

The good news is that MDVP can be identified through mass spectrometry or infrared spectroscopy, which is used in pill testing.

As the pill testing debate rages on, the fact remains that testing substances has the potential to save lives by advising users of the contents of their drugs and allowing them to make an informed decision about whether or not to take them and, if so, how much to take.

And importantly, pill testing tents create a valuable opportunity for health professionals to talk to drug users and better educate them about what they’re putting into their bodies, and even guide them to support services.

So far this season, five young people have died from drug-related causes at Music festivals across the country.

It’s important to remember under all circumstances that possessing, selling and using illegal drugs are criminal offences, with penalties that include prison time.

One night of fun can significantly impact on a person’s future, whether through apprehension and prosecution or by the effects of taking unknown substances.

So stay safe, look after your mates and have a great festival season.

Pressure is Mounting for Pill Testing

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

Summertime in Australia is synonymous with music festivals.

Tragically, it has also become synonymous with preventable deaths at outdoor music events.

Following the deaths at Defqon.1 and Knockout Games of Destiny Festivals in Sydney two more young men have died and several others are in hospital when festival-goers in Coffs Harbour took an ‘unknown substance’.

A Melbourne man has also died after ‘loading up’ on drugs prior to entering an event, hoping to avoid detection by police.

As the drugs being taken are unregulated, the quality and strength can vary enormously, and suppliers will often fill them with potentially deadly ingredients – which cannot be detected without testing.

Pill testing saves lives

Pill testing that is conveniently located inside music festivals proven to drastically reduce or even eliminate deaths from overdoses in European countries.

It first emerged in the early 1990s in the Netherlands – where it is now part of national drug policy – and services are routinely available in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Spain, Portugal and France.

Since it was introduced in Portugal, for example, there have been zero deaths from overdoses. Like other countries, Portugal allows risk-management services to attend major festivals to provide advice about drug use through psychologists, mental health assistants and medics, as well as pill screening services.

And research from Austria  has found that half of the people who use the drug testing service said the results influenced their drug use behaviour. Two-thirds decided not to consume drugs that were shown to have impurities, those who said they took them anyway consumed less, and an overwhelming number said they would warn friends over a drug batch that generated negative results.

Research from New York published just last month showed similar positive results from a campaign of ecstasy testing.

Pill testing works by analysing a small sample of the pill. Results are generally available within half an hour and those working from the tent can provide invaluable advice and guidance to young users.

Pamphlets are often also provided, with advice about seeking help and support for drug use and underlying issues.

Pressure is mounting on Politicians

Despite the proven benefits, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian continues to reject calls for pill testing, making it clear any advice from experts will do nothing to change her stance.

But immense pressure from experts and community groups has some mainstream politicians entertaining the possibility of introducing the life-saving measure.

The New South Wales Labor Party has committed to a ‘drug summit’ if elected in March. Although falling short of saying it will introduce pill testing, the party says it is open to understanding how it could actually work.

In Queensland, the State government has also announced it is open to considering pill testing, partly based on the positive results of a trial at the Groovin’ the Moo music festival in Canberra last year.

Queensland’s opposition party has also announced it would be open to the policy if there was conclusive evidence pill testing would save lives.

Meanwhile, the Greens Party has long been in favour of pill testing.

Even former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer has spoken out, saying “enough is enough” and that clearly the ‘Just Say No’ campaign is not working.

“In responding to tragedy we must sometimes face hard truths. Decades of a punitive approach where we arrest young people has not worked. It is time to take practical steps to make parties safer for our kids,” he told Sydney Criminal Lawyers in a recent interview.

And now, outspoken Anglican priest Rod Bower has weighed into the debate, recently tweeting a photograph of the billboard outside his Gosford church which reads: ‘Just test the damn pills’ (pictured).

Open letter to NSW Government

But it’s also clear that the community is tired of politicians treating young people’s lives as an election platform.

The national campaign for drug reform, Take Control, has written an open letter to the Government which is now circulating online urging a reconsideration of the issue. The letter is currently doing the rounds on social media, attracting thousands of signatures in support.

Indeed, research from the Australian National Council on Drugs (ANCD) suggests that the overwhelming majority of young people are in favour of pill testing.

The controversy remains

But despite the research, pill testing remains controversial for many reasons – mostly due to the old conservative line that it encourages the use of illegal substances.

And some have pointed out that the measure is not completely ‘fail-proof’, because it is not able to identify all substances and cannot force people not to take their drugs.

There are also human factors at play – people can react differently when it comes to ingesting substances.

But the results of Australia’s first pill testing trial at the Groovin’ the Moo Festival in Canberra last year proved the merits of pill testing locally.

Of the 128 festivalgoers who had their drugs tested, five people tossed theirs into the amnesty bins provided, thinking it was best not to take the chance on consuming them, after they’d received the test results provided by the medical staff onsite.

Drugs belonging to two revellers were actually found to contain N-Ethylpentylone, an often lethal stimulant responsible for mass overdoses in Europe. So, the pill testing service potentially saved these individuals’ lives.

And for many Australians, this type of evidence together with the success of pill testing in other countries is enough to work towards minimising the harm here.

Legalising Cannabis Does Not Lead to a Rise in Crime

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

An extensive study conducted in the United States suggests that legalising cannabis has not led to a rise in either property crime or violent crime.

The research adds further credibility to calls for cannabis legalisation in Australia, helping debunk the conservative myth that cannabis use leads to criminality.

Imprisoning the indigent

The US currently imprisons nearly 2.3 million people, which is the largest prison population on earth.

A significant portion are behind bars for low level offending, including repeated low level drug offences such as drug possession.

The nation disproportionately imprisons the poorest and most vulnerable, including African and Latino Americans, and mandatory sentencing policies such as ‘three strikes’ laws ensure low level felonies lead to lengthy prison sentences, even life imprisonment.

The study

The recent study, published in the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization, used crime rate data from 1988 to 2013 from states which initially decriminalised medicinal cannabis, many of whom proceeded to legalise the use and possession of the drug.

Researchers compared that data with year-by-year averages from states which did not legalise the plant, finding no discernible difference.

The Californian experience

California was the first jurisdiction in the United States to legalise medicinal cannabis in 1996, with 30 states and the District of Columbia later following in its footsteps.

Over the period of the study, violent and property crime rates have dropped by 20%.

It is important to note that, as is the case in NSW, these types of crimes have been falling throughout the US for over 30 years – and it is certainly not suggested that legalisation is a primary reason behind the reduction.

However, it should also be noted that crime rates in California have fallen at a faster rate than states that did not legalise the medicinal or recreation use of the plant, and that research has found that legalisation has now all-but destroyed the black market for the drug in the state, crushing a number of Mexican drug cartels and even leading some go out of business – with their violent crimes going with them.

The law on drug possession in New South Wales

Drug possession remains a crime in our state.

The maximum penalty for possession a prohibited drug, such as cannabis, is two years in prison and/or a fine of $2,200.

For a person to be found guilty, the prosecution needs to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he or she:

  • Had physical possession or control of a prohibited drug,
  • Knew or reasonably believed it was there, and
  • Knew or reasonably believed the substance was a prohibited drug.

If a person pleads guilty or is found guilty of cannabis possession, the magistrate can exercise his or her discretion not to impose a criminal conviction (criminal record) but, instead, dismiss the charge under section 10(1)(a) of the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999 (NSW) or place the person on a Conditional Release Order without conviction for up to two years.

Cannabis cautioning scheme

Since the year 2000, NSW has had a cannabis cautioning scheme which allows police officers to exercise their discretion in certain situations not to send people to court for possessing cannabis.

Police can only issue a cannabis caution to adults who have not previously been convicted of a drug offence, a sexual offence or an offence of violence.

A caution is only available for possessing under 15 grams of cannabis, and only two cautions can be administered upon any person.

Medicinal cannabis in New South Wales

Although laws have been passed in our state to legalise medicinal cannabis, it has proven to be far more difficult to access than in places like California, not to mention much more expensive.

In NSW, both the cannabis prescriber and product itself are required to go through the arduous process of registration and licensing.

It is legal for those suffering certain medical conditions to access medicinal cannabis under clinical trials or the Special Access and Authorised Prescriber Schemes administered by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TPA).

As of October 2018, the TPA has approved the following medical conditions:

  • chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
  • refractory pediatric epilepsy
  • palliative care indications
  • cancer pain
  • neuropathic pain
  • spasticity from neurological conditions
  • anorexia and wasting associated with chronic illness (such as cancer).

Just legalise it

Neither of the major political parties, whether on a state or federal level, support the broader legalisation of cannabis.

The Greens is the only party with seats in federal parliament to have announced a policy to legalise the use and possession of the plant across Australia.

The plan is to make cannabis available through an “Australian Cannabis Agency”, which would have the sole responsibility for distributing the product.

The new Agency would issue licendes for production and sale, as well as monitor retailers.

It would also be responsible for collecting a tobacco-style tax from consumers, which would then be used for education and treatment programs.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has criticised the, asserting the (widely disproven) claim that cannabis is a “gateway drug” to other “harder drugs”.

“We do not believe it is safe, responsible or something which should be allowed”, Mr Hunt stated.

Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has accused the Greens of generating “political clickbait”, making clear he does not support broader legalisation.

Bumper Summer for Music Festivals, but Still No Pill-Testing in NSW

The summer season of music festivals about to start across NSW, and the state continues to attract big name acts and high profile events like the Rolling Loud Hip Hop Festival, which is expected to bring thousands of fans to Sydney early next year.

In the meantime, despite acknowledging that music festivals are a strong part of Australian culture, and benefitting from their money-making potential, the State Government continues to beef up police numbers and resources including sniffer dogs to stop drug use. And there is still no sign of pill testing.

Instead, two months ago, the NSW State Government announced a range of new initiatives for combatting drug use at music festivals including on-the-spot fines of up to $500 for drug possession and tougher penalties for dealers who supply drugs to people who die.

At this point the Government says it us working through other issues with the legislation such as the penalties for someone who gives drugs to a friend.

‘Throwing the book’ at dealers won’t help

Many pill-testing advocates are angry that the plan simply ‘throws the book’ at dealers and does nothing address the idea of reducing risk and minimising harm for those people who will take drugs.

This is because when the Government had an opportunity to listen to pill-testing experts it didn’t do so.

After the deaths of two people at Defqon1late last year, the New South Wales Government went into ‘damage control’ and assembled a panel of experts briefed with the task of making music festivals ‘safer’. At the time, many hoped that it heralded a change in mood by the state politicians, but Premier Gladys Berejiklian swiftly made it clear that the panel would not be considering the merits of pill testing because the Government didn’t support it.

In recent weeks NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller has further inflamed the situation by saying that the belief that pill-testing was going to save lives is a ‘myth’.

But in fact, results from Australia’s first sanctioned pill-testing trial at the Groovin the Moo Festival in Canberra earlier this year proved that not only could free pill testing services actually be provided without encouraging more people to take illicit substances, but it prompted some to throw their drugs away.

Of the 128 festivalgoers who had their drugs tested on the spot by laboratory-grade equipment, five people tossed theirs into the amnesty bins provided after receiving the test results provided by the medical staff onsite.

Pill-testing can save lives

Drugs belonging to two revellers were found to contain N-Ethylpentylone, an often lethal stimulant, responsible for mass overdoses in Europe potentially saving these two individuals lives.

Pill testing has been available in several European countries including the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Spain and France for some time, and was more recently introduced in the UK. And the results show that not only does pill-testing have the ability to save lives, it has positive effect that goes beyond saving lives.

Outcomes of pill testing over seas

The experience in some parts of Europe has been that over time, pill-testing has actually changed the black market in positive ways – potentially lethal ingredients which were the subject of warning campaigns were seen to leave the market.

Specific research from Austria shows that 50% of people who had 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 where there were negative results.

In the UK, two-thirds of users consulted by not-for-profit testing service The Loop said they would not take drugs found to contain harmful substances. More than half said test results had affected their consumption choices and many said they intended to dispose of their drugs or take less of them.

Another less measurable benefit is that pill-testing booths provide an opportunity to reach an otherwise unreachable, but high-risk group of recreational drug users and provide both communication and education about their lifestyle choices as well as information about drug support services. According to testers and healthcare professionals, pill testing not only gave users a chance to know what they’re really taking but also to engage with health professionals about their drug use outside of a very formal medical setting.

In Europe, pill testing has also facilitated the capturing of long-term data about the substances in drugs as well as drug use.

Meanwhile in NSW, the Government is still doing what it has always done in response to this issue – throw more resources and tougher problems – an approach that has so far, had little effect on solving the problem.

When will the Government listen?

Of course, harm minimisation programmes like pill-testing are not a panacea by any means. They are highly controversial, mostly because people think that they will encourage more drug takers or remove the stigma’ that’s associated with taking illegal substances, and that by agreeing to pill testing is turning a ‘blind eye’ to those who break the law.

But in NSW, the traditional ‘zero tolerance’ approach is not working, and many believe that we will continue to have, more tragic and unnecessary deaths from drug taking at music festivals unless we try a new approach.

Experts are frustrated that despite all the proven benefits of pill-testing, the NSW Government flatly refuses to even trial it. And the community is getting weary too – many young Australians

are highly supportive of pill testing; a finding consistent with young people’s overall views about drugs: they want better information in order to make informed choices.

Defies Logic: Premier Will Intensify the War Against Drugs to Make People Safer

By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

Following the tragic drug-related deaths of two young people at the Defqon.1 festival in September, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian tasked an expert panel with investigating how to improve safety at events like music festivals.

And in true Coalition style, Ms Berejiklian announced last week that her government had accepted in-principle the recommendations made by the panel in its report, which means she’s going to double down on failing drug war tactics.

The premier explained that in order to create a safer environment for young people at festivals, the government will be creating a new offence that will make dealers responsible for the deaths of people who buy drugs from them and subsequently die.

As well, to “ensure that offenders face swift and certain justice”, the government will be trialling on-the-spot fines of up to $500 for festivalgoers found in possession of illegal drugs.

Although the initial reaction to the announcement was disbelief, it’s hardly too surprising. The expert panel was comprised of NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller, NSW chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant and Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority chair Philip Crawford.

And what’s more, the panel made clear in their report that Berejiklian had told them prior to their investigation that her government “has no tolerance for illegal drugs and pill testing is not within the terms of reference”.

Counterproductive policing

President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation Dr Alex Wodak stressed that increased policing won’t achieve its stated aims. He outlined that “senior and experienced police” have been asserting that “saturation policing doesn’t have a significant effect on drug availability”.

The doctor said that initially this admission came from retired police, including commissioners. But, these days, serving officers are beginning to admit saturation policing doesn’t work. “The political elite have also known this for at least a decade or two,” he added.

Indeed, there’s a growing number of former high-level police officers calling for a different approach to be taken to illicit substances than the one the NSW premier advocates for. The list includes former AFP commissioner Mick Palmer and ex-NSW police commissioner Ken Moroney.

And Dr Wodak further pointed out that “the two deaths that sparked this reaction occurred when saturation policing – plus sniffer dogs – had already been provided”. There was a huge police presence at the Defqon.1 festival in September, with 180 police officers deployed at the event.

Increased penalties = increased profits

The expert panel’s seventh recommendation was that a new offence of drug supply causing death be introduced. The premier said she believes the maximum penalty for this crime should be set between 10 years, and the 25 years for manslaughter.

But, Dr Wodak warns that this proposed law is likely to make selling drugs more profitable. “Dealers will raise their prices to compensate for the increased risk,” he explained. “If drug prices rise, so will profits.”

And in his estimate, once the profits increase, then they’ll be more “wannabe drug dealers” lining up as “the higher profits justify the increased risk”. And as more drug dealers appear on the scene, the obvious result would be that more drugs are sold.

“The drug market is the Achilles heel of drug prohibition,” Dr Wodak added. “That’s why political conservatives were so prominent in early support for drug law reform.”

Increasing the harms at festivals

The use of highly-ineffective drug detection dogs at music festivals has long been criticised, as their presence actually leads festivalgoers to partake in dangerous drug taking practices.

These include preloading, which is when an individual takes all of their drugs prior to an event to avoid being found in possession of them. And another detrimental effect is panic overdosing, which is when a person consumes all of their drugs at once on seeing a sniffer dog operation.

There’s been at least two recorded incidents panic overdosing in NSW, one of which was the death of James Munro at the Defqon.1 festival in 2013.

Now, if some young people attending a festival are aware that there will be police officers making the rounds of the event issuing $500 fines for drug possession, it might seem like a good idea to take all of their drugs before arrival, which, of course, could lead to overdose.

And it also seems very likely that the immediacy of an on-the-spot fine could further compel an individual who’s holding drugs at a festival and spots a drug dog to take an amount of drugs at once that could prove fatal so as to avoid the penalty.

An evidence-based approach

“Drug law enforcement has a poor record. It’s usually ineffective, often counterproductive and always expensive. In contrast, harm reduction is just the opposite,” Dr Wodak continued. “So, pill testing has a much better chance of saving lives and money.”

These days, the majority of Australians support the roll out of pill testing services at music festivals. These setups allow festivalgoers to have their drugs tested by laboratory-grade equipment and then make an informed decision about whether to take them.

The first government-sanctioned Australian pill testing trial took place at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival in April this year. The drugs of two individuals who used the service were found to contain a substance that can prove lethal, meaning the service potentially saved both their lives.

European nations have been employing this life-saving method for decades now. In countries like the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain individuals can have their drugs checked at events or at permanent sites. In fact, the European Union has produced pill testing best practice guidelines.

So, many were dumbfounded when the state’s top cop Mick Fuller got on the microphone last week and stated that pill testing was a “myth” and there was “no science behind” it.

The broken law enforcement approach

Dr Wodak said that Ms Berejiklian antics were reminiscent of the famous nursery rhyme, where extra resources were thrown at something that cannot be fixed. “The Premier will now double the King’s horses and double the King’s men to see whether she can put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

“This isn’t a policy,” the doctor went on. “It’s a political strategy.” And he questioned whether it was her lack of support in the Coalition or her imminent defeat in the next election that was leading her to conduct this “drug policy grandstanding”.

“Whatever the reason is it’s hard to believe she really expects this is going to make any difference to protecting young people,” Dr Wodak concluded.