Category Archives:Drug Possession

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

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

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

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

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

But dealing with drug possession was what kept police busy – with cannabis, ‘ice’, ‘ecstacy’ and cocaine topping the list.

Twelve people were also charged with drug supply, including a 21-year old man who was allegedly found in possession of 60 ecstasy pills. 76 people were issued with cannabis cautions, and 142 were ordered to attend court.

Concealing drugs internally

Police say they detected an increase in the number of people attempting to conceal drugs inside their bodies this year.

Allegations also surfaced that school girls aged just 16 and 17 were acting as drug mules – filling condoms with drugs and coating them in peanut butter before inserting them into their bodies, hoping the peanut butter would conceal the scent of the drugs.

Sniffer dogs and pill testing

The use of drug detection dogs has always been controversial, but the debate around their effectiveness heightened after a spate of deaths at music festivals around Australia in 2015 and 2016.

Many believe sniffer dogs are ineffective and can lead to dangerous behaviours. Statistics from 2015 show that NSW police carried out 12,893 bodily searches resulting from positive indications by sniffer dogs, of which a whopping 69 percent turned out to be false positives – where no drugs are found.

In terms of behaviour, the presence of sniffer dogs has been linked to ‘pre-loading’ and ‘loading up’. The former is where users take large amounts of drugs before arriving at the festival, while the latter involves take significant quantities upon seeing police approaching. The practice has been linked to a number of deaths from overdoses in 2015 and 2016.

For many years, health experts have lobbied for pill testing to be introduced at festivals across Australia, whereby festival-goers are able to have their drugs tested for dangerous additives and high purity levels. Pill testing has been used in a number of European countries for years, and proving to be highly successful in reducing hospitalisations and deaths from overdoses.

Renewed Calls for Pill Testing After NBOMe Found in Deadly ‘Ecstacy’ Batch

The toxic psychedelic NBOMe is continuing to take Australian lives as users of illicit drugs are unaware that the synthetic substance may be added to MDMA or LSD.

Recently, a batch of ecstacy pills linked to the deaths of three Melbournians were found to contain traces of MDMA mixed with NBOMe. The mix was also found in substances tested by Queensland police after a death and several hospitalisations on the Gold Coast last year.

Presence of NBOMe on the rise

Although there is little data on the prevalence on NBOMe use in Australia, Google Trends suggests that interest in the drug began in April 2012, and has been increasing ever since.

NBOMe can be purchased through websites that sell “research chemicals”, as well as online drug marketplaces on the ‘dark net’. Because the drug is potent in miniscule quantities and has virtually no scent, it is often transported undetected via regular mail services.

The effects of the drug are reported to be more similar to LSD than MDMA, and only tiny doses are required. A dose of MDMA, for example, is 125mg, whereas people have reported NBOMe as being active at just 0.05mg. The drug’s high potency increases the likelihood of overdose.

Synthetic drugs

Media and government reports often distinguish ‘synthetic drugs’ such as NBOMe from other commonly used substances such as LSD, MDMA and methamphetamine.

The distinction is misleading as the latter three drugs are also produced synthetically, as opposed to those derived from plants such as cocaine, heroin and of course cannabis.

A better definition of synthetic drugs is those manufactured using legal substances, which produce effects similar to illegal drugs.

Indeed, the category of “analogue” has been added to the schedule of the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985, which refers to synthetic substances which are chemically similar to illicit drugs and produces a psychotropic; essentially mimicking drugs which are illegal.

Overdoses

ABC’s 7:30 programme has reported on three Australian teenagers who lost their lives after using NBOMe.

Nick Mitchell of Gosford, NSW, reportedly died after experiencing respiratory and heart problems, while Preston Bridge and Henry Kwan died after jumping from balconies during psychotic episodes.

It was reported that all three young men had consumed an LSD-like substance, suspected to be NBOMe after no LSD was found in their bodies following toxicological examination.

“At a strong dose, users may lose a sense of their self in the world”, explained Dr Monica Barratt, Research fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of NSW.

“For some people who aren’t anticipating that experience, that is very difficult for them to cope with, they may end up with psychotic symptoms”.

“The world around them as they know it is falling apart. It really plays with your sense of time.”

Harm minimisation

There are concerns of drug suppliers continuing to “contaminate” ecstacy pills and LSD with NBOMe, which is a lot cheaper to purchase.

Unlike LSD, which has a relatively low toxicity profile, NBOMe is said to carry serious health risks.

Individuals have presented to emergency departments with acute NBOMe toxicity, experiencing symptoms such as cardiovascular complications, agitation, seizures, hypothermia, metabolic acidosis (when the kidneys can’t remove enough acid from the body), organ failure and even death.

While some politicians and police continue to defend the failed war against drugs, health experts have renewed their calls for harm minimisation measures such as pill testing at music festivals and other major events to reduce the incidence of overdoses.

Anex, a not-for-profit harm minimisation organisation in Victoria, recently launched a campaign aimed at informing LSD users that NBOMe may be contained in their drugs, and encouraging them to purchase and use legally available drug testing kits. The organisation advises users not to ingest the drug if it does not test positive for LSD.

They further recommend that if a testing kit is not available, users should only take a quarter dose and wait one-and-a-half hours before considering taking any more.

Government May Allow Pill Testing at Music Festival

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

Canberra’s Spilt Milk festival could be the first in Australia to permit pill-testing, with the ACT government currently considering the move.

“It’s fantastic news. We’ve now heard that the ACT Government and the Chief Minister himself are looking at pill testing for the end of this year at Spilt Milk,” the Ted Noffs Foundation’s chief executive Matt Noffs stated.

The Ted Noffs Foundation works with young people who are struggling with addiction, and has been lobbying state and territory governments to allow spectrometer technology at music festivals since 2014.

How it works

Pill-testing technology has been widely used at festivals in Europe and has been proven to reduce the incidence of overdoses by informing users of the composition of their substances, and thereby allowing them to make informed choices about whether to ingest the drugs and, if so, how much.

It works by festival-goers providing a small sample of their drugs to a licensed forensic chemist at the festival. That person runs the sample through a process called ‘gas chromatography mass spectrometry’, which identifies every chemical found, including the presence of impurities and dangerous fillers. A second test can determine the percentage of each substance that it present.

The entire procedure can be completed in as little as 30 minutes.

Preventing deaths

Australians are among the highest users of ecstasy in the world, and many who use what they assume to be MDMA have no idea about the actual composition of the substance they are purchasing.

Several recent deaths have been attributed to toxic fillers inside ecstacy pill, and the ingestion of large quantities of unusually pure tablets.

Pill testing could detect impurities as well as fluctuations in purity levels, and one of the tasks of the forensic chemists who administer the tests is to advise users of the dangers of ingesting the drugs that have been tested.

Pill testing has also led to greater consistency in purity levels and reduced the presence of deadly substances in European countries where the measure is used, as manufacturers and suppliers who deal toxic substances are easily identified – which can affect their bottom line.

Users act on the advice of testers

Dr Lynn Magor-Blatch, the executive officer at the Australasian Therapeutic Communities Association and professor at the University of Wollongong, has been working in drug prevention for 38 years.

“Certainly what we’ve seen from the evidence overseas is that if pills are tested and found to be unsafe people don’t take them,” she remarked. “People want to stay alive. If drugs are bad they will chuck them out and don’t go on and then find something else.”

Australia’s National Drug Strategy of Harm Minimisation found that 25 per cent of tested substances were discarded by users at the United Kingdom’s Secret Garden Party in 2016.

Research suggests that the advice from testing chemists can make users re-think their decision to take drugs altogether.

“It actually has a positive effect — there’s an opportunity for an early intervention, somebody to be actually talking to them, providing them with information and to get help,” Dr Mgor-Blatch said.

Organisers in favour of testing

Organisers of the annual ‘Yours and Owls’ Festival in Wollongong in September have made it clear they are keen to introduce pill-testing if the NSW government allows them to do so.

“We are definitely interested in exploring the idea. It’s very important that people are as safe as they can be,” Organiser Ben Tillman stated.

“It’s obviously a conversation that needs to include the police and the NSW Government so there’s no confusion and people know that it’s okay to use the tests without incriminating themselves and ending up in gaol.”

Mr Tillman pointed out that the fact drugs are illegal does nothing to deter use, and that harm minimisation measures such as pill testing are an important way to keep patrons safe.

Public support

An Essential Media poll released earlier this year found that 57 percent of Australians support a roll-out of pill testing services across the nation, while only 13 percent opposed the idea. It was surprising to many that support was highest amongst those aged 55 and over.

Will Tregoning of harm minimisation group Unharm says the research suggests a “shift in the dynamics of the issue,” as what used to be seen “as a fringe proposal” now has widespread mainstream support.

“It’s a sign that this makes sense to people. They understand why it’s important,” he stated. “Regardless, of what you think about illegal drugs, it’s important that people who are using these substances can actually find out what’s in them.”

However, police minister Troy Grant has rejected the idea of pill testing, claiming it sends the wrong message and encourages illegal activity.

Sensationalist Reporting of Drugs is Irresponsible and Dangerous

If you were walking to work and saw a stranger shooting up heroin, what would you do?

If you’re like most people, you’d probably ignore them and keep going. If you were feeling particularly Samaritan, you might even stop and make sure they’re ok.

Unfortunately, the journalists of The Daily Telegraph aren’t like most people. Instead, it seems their natural reaction is to pull out their camera, take a photo, and use it in yet another scare campaign against drug users.

Indeed, this is what happened last Friday when the paper published a photo on its front page of a man shooting up in Surry Hills, with the headline: “A Shot In The Heart”.

It’s quite a confronting image. Heroin is a potentially dangerous drug – it’s highly addictive and many of us know someone who has had their life adversely affected through its use. And perhaps it’s normal to be concerned about its use in our neighbourhoods, or near our families.

However, twenty years of scaremongering for harsher drug possession penalties hasn’t helped overcome the issue of drugs. And for us to have a sensible conversation about the way forward, headlines like this are not helpful.

Dr Marianne Jauncey, medical director at the Kings Cross Supervised Injecting Centre, recently told reporters that clients that are distressed about the tabloid newspaper’s treatment of the issue. The doctor is particularly worried that such portrayals could prevent drug users from seeking help.

“There’s very much an issue about continuing to demonise (problem drug users), as it doesn’t help anybody. All of us want to fix it, no matter what side of the debate you’re on. All of us want less problem drug use, but emotions and morals can get in the way,” Dr Jauncey remarked.

She believes the effect of reporting like this, and calls for harsher drug possession penalties generally, is that habitual users are less likely to come forward and get the assistance they need.

“We all want them to get better and have the courage to seek help. Stories like this have the exact opposite effect that everybody would want. When you splash their face all over the front page of the paper, people become vulnerable, upset and tend to turn inwards. Why on earth would you say yes, I’m like that person? It absolutely further stigmatises people who are users and (makes them) less likely to seek help.”

The Press Council agrees. Under its guidelines, publications should “avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest”.

Those like Dr Jaucey know all-to-well that this guidance hasn’t stopped the tabloids in the past. The Supervised Injecting Centre is one of the few victories achieved by harm reduction advocates in recent times, but it came with a struggle. Although the centre was opened in 2001, it took almost 10 years for it to gain permanent approval – no thanks to tabloids and radio shock jocks stoking opposition to it.

“It’s been said before, but it needs to be said again and again until it is done – this place needs to be shut down now,” published The Daily Telegraph in 2006. That headline was accompanied by photographs of around 100 “potentially deadly blood-tainted needles” dumped near the clinic, inferring that this was a consequence of having the centre there.

There was just one problem, the claims were untrue. Although someone had dumped the needles there, there was no evidence they had come from the injecting centre. In fact, the evidence was to the contrary.

“They were most certainly not syringes used by drug users.” Dr van Beek, former head of the Centre, said at the time “They were also not the brand of syringes distributed in this area.”

These inconsistencies did not stop critics of drug reform from the exploiting the report. Later that day, former-opposition leader Peter Debnam called a press conference arguing for the closure of the centre, and assuring that “… no other injecting rooms will be opened up in any other suburbs.”

A decade later, we now know the centre has been a resounding success, especially when compared to the effects of harsher drug possession penalties.

The annual cost of the Injecting Centre is about $3 million, roughly equivalent to the annual cost of imprisoning 30 people. While the benefits of incarceration are questionable at best, the Injecting Centre produces larger financial savings than it costs to run – while fears of increased crime and usage have been disproven.

Harm-reduction approaches can only work if governments and policymakers alike recognise the complexity of the “drug problem”. No single solution exists for all kinds of drug users, or all kinds of drug use.” writes Gideon Lasco, a drug policy expert at the University of Amsterdam.

Mr Lasco uses Portugal to demonstrate his point. In 2001, the nation bought in new

drug possession reforms that see drug users sent to three-person local committees, rather than handed a criminal conviction, if they’re found in possession of small quantities of drugs.

These committees consider a range of interventions depending on the person before them. Many are encouraged to seek treatment, while others may be handed a fine to discourage further use.

Ten years on, drug use rates have not increased, while drug-related deaths, as well as problematic and adolescent drug use, have decreased.

This is the kind of sensible, evidence-based approach is hard to ignore. However achieving sensible reform is made more difficult while tabloids sensationalise the issue of drugs, and demonise drug users.

It’s High Time! Hemp Seed Food Will Soon Be Legal

In a landmark decision, Australian federal and state food ministers have agreed that hemp seed food will soon be legally available for consumption. The Australian and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation approved the move, at a Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting in Adelaide last Friday.

The decision comes in the wake of a Food Standards Australia and New Zealand meeting in March that gave the green light for the sale of foods derived from hemp seeds that are low in THC – the psychoactive component of the cannabis plant.

A communique released after the COAG meeting outlined that the ministers had received a Swinburne University of Technology report regarding the consumption of low-THC food and the effect they could have on roadside drug testing operations.

The report found that it “is highly unlikely” that the consumption of hemp seed food would result in any positive saliva, blood and urine tests. “In light of these findings ministers supported the draft standard that will allow low-THC hemp seeds to be sold as a food,” the communique reads.

The change is expected to come into effect in six months, in both Australia and New Zealand. A range of state and territory legislation that currently outlaw the sale of the food will need to be amended. This will open up the international hemp seed food market, which is estimated to be a billion dollar a year industry.

A globally accepted food

Up until last Friday, Australia and New Zealand were the only countries in the world where the consumption of hemp seed food was prohibited. Under standard 1.4.4 of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, all species of cannabis have been prohibited from being added to or sold as food.

Hemp seeds are produced by the hemp plant, which is low in THC. While both marijuana and hemp are strains of Cannabis sativa, hemp has been specifically cultivated to produce industrial fibre, oils and seeds. You can smoke hemp till the cows come home, and it won’t get you high.

Hemp seed foods are widely available throughout Europe and North America. In the States, the consumption of hemp food is legal but the production is not. Australian producers see this as a lucrative market to step into.

Currently, China is the largest hemp seed producer in the world, followed by countries such as France, Canada, South Korea, the Netherlands and Chile.

A boom for the Australian hemp industry

Secretary of the Australian HEMP Party Andrew Kavasilas welcomes the long overdue decision. “I’ve been growing under hemp permits since 1999,” he said. “In NSW, it wasn’t until 2008 that we actually had a Hemp Act, but it was only related to fibre.”

Those in the Australian industry have been “itching” for the food to become legalise, Mr Kavasilas said. He’s also the founding director of Vitahemp Australia. “We’ve actually had to accelerate our plans on winter cropping,” he told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “We’ve got in excess of 30 hectares going.”

The Australian hemp industry has stagnated due to the ban on hemp foods, Kavasilas explained. He pointed to a 2013 Tasmanian government inquiry into the state’s industrial hemp industry, which found “the ban on hemp seed food was holding the entire industry back.”

The beneficial seed

Hemp seeds are said to be the most nutritionally complete food source in the world. They have a balance of omega 3 and 6, along with Iron, Vitamin E and all of the essential amino acids. They’re high in protein, and can be eaten whole, pressed as an oil or ground into a powder.

The seeds can produce a variety of different foods. They can be eaten as a grain as part of muesli or cereals. They can be used to produce non-dairy milk and ice cream. And they can be added to a wide variety of different meals to reap their nutritional benefits.

So then why are hemp seeds illegal in Australia?

Well according to Mr Kavasilas, unlike marijuana and its products, hemp was not prohibited under the various United Nations drug control conventions. It’s continued to be utilised in countries like India, China and Russia.

However, it was the United States that banned hemp in the early twentieth century. This was done amidst the “reefer madness” anti-marijuana hysteria of the time, and many believe it served the interests of big business to be rid of the versatile plant.

The US ban influenced other western nations to follow suit. So what we’re seeing now is the reintroduction of industrial hemp in the western world.

Roadside drug testing

The Australian hemp industry has been campaigning for hemp seed food to be legalised for decades. However, authorities have been hesitant to allow this to happen, over concerns the low-THC foods may interfere with the results of roadside drug testing programs.

The problem with roadside drug testing in Australia is that a positive reading can be registered for tiny traces of certain drugs in a driver’s system. Along with THC, police test for MDMA and amphetamines, via a saliva test.

When police carry out random breath testing for alcohol, they’re testing for levels of driver impairment – hence the categories of low, mid and high range drink driving. This is an approach based on research that’s shown certain levels of alcohol in a driver’s blood lead to increased risks when they’re behind the wheel of a car.

However, roadside drug testing does not test for impairment.

A grey area

As it was announced at the COAG meeting, the Swinburne University report said it was “highly unlikely” that someone who had been consuming hemp seed food would test positive for roadside drug testing.

But, there have been cases in the past where an individual has been charged with drug driving, and the driver has claimed that they hadn’t been smoking marijuana, but rather they’d been eating hemp seed products.

Mr Kavasilas agrees that it’s unlikely that traces of THC in hemp seed food would show up in police saliva tests. But he said that if it did happen to detect the traces, “it’s highly likely” that a supplementary laboratory test would show up positive.

An Australia 21 report on drug decriminalisation released in March this year, recommended that the roadside drug testing programs be reviewed, as “the purpose of such testing should be to ascertain whether the driver is unsafe or unfit” to drive, not to see whether they’d consumed an illicit substance.

Until a program that actually tests for driver impairment is introduced, it would be advisable that THC is removed from roadside drug testing, and then people can go about eating their highly nutritional hemp seed food products without concerns about testing positive.

Police Boast of Another Win in the War Against Drugs

Crystal methamphetamine, also known as ‘ice’, with an estimated street value of $101 million has been seized off the coast of NSW and five men have been charged with commercial drug importation.

It has been reported that the AFP, NSW Police Force, Australian Border Force and Chinese authorities worked together for several months to intercept the 100 kilograms shipment.

Chinese authorities raided a shipping container being used to send two tonnes of steel to Sydney. The drugs were allegedly hidden inside the floor of the container. A Fijian man, an Australia, and three other men, believed to be Central Asian, have been arrested.

The Fijian and Australian have already faced court and were refused bail. They will appear in court again next month.

Police say they delayed announcing details of the bust due to ongoing inquiries, and out of respect for visiting Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, who departed Australia yesterday.

Recent drug busts

Police suggest that further arrests may occur, and have praised the co-operation between local and international law enforcement agencies.

Police say that last November, they broke up a $54 million ice operation on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, seizing three barrels containing around 90 litres of liquid methamphetamine at Palm Beach. A fishing vessel off the coast of Hervey Bay in Queensland was also intercepted. Eight people were arrested.

Since November 2015, almost 7.5 tonnes of illicit substances have been seized, worth an estimated street value of $2 billion.

Authorities attribute the busts to intelligence exchanges with other international drug agencies, which they believe is crucial to detecting and arresting offenders.

On Christmas day 2016, 500 kilograms of cocaine was seized at Brooklyn on the NSW Central Coast. Police allege the same syndicate was attempting to import another 600 kilograms of the drug into Australia, but the shipment was intercepted by the French Navy.

And just last month, six men were arrested after $300 million worth of cocaine was found in a boat moored off Jervis Bay.

Ice and Cocaine are Australia’s ‘biggest problem’

New research facilitated by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) in conjunction with university researchers, suggests that cocaine use is widespread in Sydney, and that the use of ‘ice’ is on the rise in many rural areas.

The research is based on data obtained from sampling wastewater at 51 sewage treatment plants — which service 14 million Australians — in city and ¬regional areas across the country.

Of the 13 drug types tested, NSW topped the list for cocaine with double the amount of the party drug used in Sydney compared with other capital cities.

Much of the previous research relied on self-reporting by users, police arrest data and medical and emergency department statistics to determine the extent of drug use. The move to wastewater analysis promises to paint a more accurate picture of trends in drug manufacture and usage.

Decriminalisation in Portugal: 15 years of Success

This year Portugal commemorated the 15th anniversary of its 30/2000 law – the law that decriminalised the use of all drugs for personal use. The law states that the possession of small amounts of for personal use is no longer considered a crime, but a regulatory offence instead.

The reasons behind the move

Portugal suffered from a heroin-epidemic in the mid-1990s, before the new law came into effect. By 1999, nearly 1% of the population was addicted to heroin, and drug-related deaths from HIV were the highest in the European Union.

The number of people dying from overdoses and HIV transmissions via shared needles was on the rise, as were crime rates across the country.

The state of affairs led the government to initiate crisis talks, and ultimately form an anti-drug commission to tackle the problem. That commission recommended the introduction of a band new regime – one which treats drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal law problem, and within that paradigm focuses on education and treatment rather than punishment.

The new law

The new regime started by determining the average 10-day supply of drugs for personal use; whether cannabis, heroin, esctacy or any other prohibited drug.

It decreed that a person found in possession of less than a 10-day supply would be sent to a three-person ‘dissuasion panel’, typically made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker.

That panel could recommend treatment or, in some cases, a minor fine without a criminal record.

Change in perspective

One of 11 experts on the panel was Joao Goulão, a family physician from Faro, located on Portugal’s Algarve Coast. Mr Goulão has been the chief of Portugal’s national anti-drug program since 1997 and helped to shape the new law. He is now chairman of Portugal’s Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction.

“Drug users aren’t criminals, they’re sick,” Mr Goulão has remarked.

Drug manufacture, supply and importation

While habitual users are offered the support they need, drug manufacturers, suppliers and importers continue to face harsh penalties.

There are criminal sanctions for growing a small number of cannabis plants, all the way to severe penalties for suppliers and traffickers.

Results

Despite decriminalising personal drug possession, rates of drug use have not skyrocketed as many predicted.

As this chart shows, drug use increased slightly when measured in 2007 (a trend in line with other, similar countries), but fell thereafter.

Rates of drug use graph

Decriminalisation in Portugal: 15 years of Success

By two out of three measures, adult drug use is now lower than it was in 2001, when the new regime was introduced.

“I think harm reduction is not giving up on people,” said Goulão. “I think it is respecting their timings and assuming that even if someone is still using drugs, that person deserves the investment of the state in order to have a better and longer life.”

The number of deaths from drug overdoses has fallen dramatically to just 3 for every million residents. The rates in other countries are 10.2 per million in the Netherlands to 44.6 per million in the U.K., all the way up to 126.8 per million in Estonia. The E.U. average is 17.3 per million.

Decriminalisation in Portugal: 15 years of Success

One of the most startling trends in Portugal is the fall in deaths from HIV and AIDS. In 2001, the country’s drug using population was in the midst of a public health crisis, with rates of HIV and AIDS rapidly increasing.

The emphasis on harm reduction has been instrumental in reversing this trend. As depicted in the chart below, there has been a huge reduction in the number of drug users diagnosed with HIV and AIDS.

The rate of new HIV infection fell dramatically from 1,016 cases to only 56 in 2012.

HIV and AiDS with drug use graph

Decriminalisation in Portugal: 15 years of Success

The Portugese experience demonstrates that decriminalisation does not have the disastrous consequences predicted by conservative detractors for the approach, many of whom have since changed their views.

As the Transform Drug Policy Institute says in its analysis of Portugal’s drug laws, “The reality is that Portugal’s drug situation has improved significantly in several key areas. Most notably, HIV infections and drug-related deaths have decreased, while the dramatic rise in use feared by some has failed to materialise.”

There is no reason other developed countries like Australia could not reap the same benefits.

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

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

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

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

Easy access despite punitive measures

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

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

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

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

Failure of punitive approach

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

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

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

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

Skewed priorities

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

Professor Nicole Lee, from the National Drug Research Institute, told MJA InSight that “while we focus on the use of drugs, we will continue to implement ineffective strategies, such as arresting people for use and possession”, adding, “if we focus on harms, we start to implement effective strategies, including prevention, harm reduction and treatment.”

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

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

The way forward

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

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

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

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

Harm reduction

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

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

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

ABC’s Ice Wars Documentary – Sensationalist Reporting Which Stigmatises Users

The ABC’s Ice Wars documentary purports to illustrate the realities of crystal methamphetamine – or ‘ice’ – use in Australia, but many have expressed concerns about the sensationalism of the programme and its negative portrayal of users.

An ‘Ice Epidemic’?

The first criticism of the documentary is that it exaggerates the impact of ice on society, claiming Australia is “under siege” by the increasing use of a drug that is “tearing at the social fabric” of the nation.

Fleshing out that criticism, drug experts including Dr Nicole Lee, who is an associate professor at the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University, point out that ice is just one of many forms of methamphetamine (or ‘meth’). They emphasise that there has been no overall increase in the use of meth over the past 20 years.

“In fact,” Dr Lee explains, “[the number] has come down, from a high of about four per cent in 1998, and it’s around about two per cent of the population now.”

It is estimated that 2.1% of Australians over the age of 14 have used meth in the last year, and about half of those prefer ice over the powdered form of the drug known as ‘speed’.

This means an estimated 1% of the Australians in that age bracket have used ice over the past year, which critics of the ABC programme suggest does not amount to the country being “under siege” by the drug.

An Addiction Epidemic?

Of the estimated 1% who have used ice over the past year, three-quarters used it less than 12 times during that period. Only 0.25% of the population used the drug at least once per month.

Like many other drug experts, Dr Lee suggests we treat habitual use as a health issue, rather than criminal law problem – an approach which has paid dividends abroad.

Ice-Fuelled Violence Epidemic?

While accepting the use of ice can lead to psychosis and increased aggression, critics of the ABC documentary accuse it of exaggerating the risk.

They point out that that 75% of people who regularly use methamphetamine never experience a psychotic experience, and the same percentage never become aggressive as a result of using the drug.

Obstacle to Reform

Media organisations can wield significant power when it comes to shaping public policy.

There are concerns that exaggerating the dangers and risks associated with the use of drugs will impede the formulation and implementation of policies which reduce harm to users and the community.

It is feared that by pointing the finger at ice and claiming it is “tearing at the social fabric” of society, the media makes it less likely that governments will implement meaningful reforms which, again, have proven in other countries to benefit both users and the general community.

A recent study by the Australian Journal of Psychiatry found that those who use methamphetamines respond at least as well to treatment programs as those who use other types of illegal drugs. Reporting which exaggerates the threat posed by illegal drugs can decrease the likelihood of funding for rehabilitative programs, and lead to an increased emphasis on punitive measures.

Effect of Stigmatisation

Portraying drug users as “the enemy’ and a danger to themselves and society has proven time and again to be counterproductive to rehabilitation.

Indeed, such negative stereotyping makes it less likely that habitual users will seek help to overcome their health problem, and can reduce their self-worth which can, in turn, isolate them from society and make the problem worse.

As Dr Lee points out, a compassionate and understanding approach more likely to reap results.

“Remember it’s not the whole story. And know the people who use methamphetamine and their families are, first and foremost, people. Compassion and a clear head is going to solve this problem. Not fear and stigma”, Dr Lee says.

“When the public come at the problem from compassion, and not fear and voyeurism, it is clear that investment in treatment and support provides far better economic, health and social outcomes than policing, courts and prisons.”

Most Australians Want Pill Testing, but the NSW Government Won’t Budge

Twenty one people were taken to hospital in Melbourne last Saturday night, after overdosing at the Electric Parade Music Festival on what is suspected to have been the powerful depressant gamma-hydroxybutyrate, commonly known as GHB.

This occurred a little over a month after three people died and at least 20 were hospitalised after overdosing on a toxic batch of MDMA pills being sold in nightclubs around Melbourne’s Chapel Street.

Not surprisingly, both these incidents have led to renewed calls to implement trials of drug checking services, or pill testing, at music festivals and nightclub precincts.

In response to last Saturday’s incident, Victorian health minister Martin Foley said the state government had no plans to introduce drug or pill testing.

The minister then suggested the government needed to “ramp up” its harm reduction efforts, which strangely is exactly what they’d be doing if they invested in pill testing.

The public call for pill testing

But the health minister’s sentiments fly in the face of what the majority of the public actually wants, according to Will Tregoning executive director of Unharm. He points to the findings of an Essential Media poll released on Tuesday.

The results reveal that 57 percent of Australians support a roll-out of pill testing services, while only 13 percent of those polled opposed the idea. And support was highest amongst those aged 55 and over.

Tregoning was one of the key harm reduction advocates calling for pill testing to be trialled in NSW during this current music festival season. But, with NSW police minister Troy Grant at the helm, there was little chance of this happening. The minister has rejected the idea from the start.

The poll results show that the electorate are a lot more progressive than the government they voted in, Tregoning suggested. And added that the figures represent a “shift in the dynamics of the issue,” as what used to be seen “as a fringe proposal,” now has widespread mainstream support.

“It’s a sign that this makes sense to people. They understand why it’s important,” he explained. “Regardless, of what you think about illegal drugs, it’s important that people who are using these substances can actually find out what’s in them.”

How pill testing would work

Pill testing is relatively easy. Drugs can be checked on the spot at booths set up at music festivals, or at services run on the High Street in areas of town where drug taking is known to be prevalent.

A trained professional takes a minute sample of a substance that’s being checked, and it’s tested using laboratory equipment. The owner of the drug is then provided with information about its contents.

They can then make an informed decision as to whether they want take the drug. Bins are provided for those who wish to safely dispose of what they’ve decided not to ingest.

European nations like the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and Germany have had official pill testing services for decades now. Indeed, the European Union has actually produced pill testing best practice guidelines.

Five reasons to implement this evidence-based approach

As Professor Alison Ritter, leading drug policy researcher at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, outlined in the Conversation there are five vital reasons why pill testing trials should be rolled out.

The first is that pill testing changes the black market. If a bad batch of drugs is out on the streets, word gets around, and people avoid them. The toxic drugs can become the subject of warning campaigns, and eventually dealers stop trying to sell them.

And following on from this, the research shows that the ingredients within drugs being sold on the street begin to be what they’re expected to be. In this way pill testing works as a quality control mechanism. Those making drugs start to become more careful about the quality they produce.

The professor’s third reason is based on research from Austria that shows these services change consumer behaviour. It outlines that 50 percent of people who had their drugs tested said the results affected their choice of whether to consume them.

Two-thirds of these people stated they wouldn’t consume a dodgy drug, and would also warn their friends against doing so.

And another important window of opportunity pill testing opens up is that it provides people utilising the service with access to advice and support that’s provided by the trained professionals in charge.

These people often aren’t experiencing drug problems, and therefore health professionals usually don’t come into contact with them. This initial contact can lay down foundations with these recreational drugs users, which may help them avoid issues further down the track.

And lastly, pill testing allows for the capture of long-term data about the substances that are present on the street. This can create early warning signs for those outside of the drug scene itself, which is important as new psychoactive substances (NPSs) begin to flood the market.

NBOMe

If pill testing had been trialled this festival season, one NPS that would have come to the attention of health professionals would have been NBOMe. This is the hallucinogenic that was mixed with MDMA in caps being sold on Chapel Street that led to the deaths of three partygoers last month.

This NBOMe/MDMA mix is the same concoction that led to the death of footballer Ricki Stephens and the hospitalisation of sixteen others on the Gold Coast last October.

As Will Tregoning put it, the presence of NBOMe is one of the “scariest” developments on the Australian drug scene over recent years.

He’s heard from people involved in European drug checking services and they’ve never heard of NBOMe being mixed with MDMA before. It seems this is a uniquely Australian phenomenon.

“The reason why it’s so dangerous is because NBOMe is often present in very pure forms and the effects are very different from what people would expect from MDMA,” Tregoning explained. He added that people often report having a terrifying sense they’re going to die while under the influence of the drug.

Some positive movement interstate

But while Tregoning holds no hope for pill testing to be trialled in NSW until there’s change of government, he does think that other states such as Victoria and Queensland are more open to the possibility.

Unharm, along with harm reduction campaigner Adriana Buccianti, launched the Tests not Arrests website in October last year. It allows people to email a letter to their local MP informing them as to why they should support pill testing.

Will said they’ve had some rather constructive feedback so far. In particular Queensland health minister Cameron Dick responded to his letter by identifying certain issues that need to be addressed before a pill testing trial can be rolled out.

The minister discussed these ideas “in a way that was constructive and thoughtful, rather than dismissive,” Tregoning concluded. “And that was really exciting thing to see.”