Category Archives:Drug Possession

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.”

War Against Drugs Fails to Stem the Ice Epidemic

New South Wales police have called a recent drug bust in the north of the state a small victory in the ongoing war against the drug ‘ice’.

Last week, police, arrested a 42-year old man and charged him with six offences including: one count of supplying a prohibited drug greater than a commercial quantity; two counts of supplying a prohibited drug and three counts of drug supply greater than indictable quantity.

The man’s arrest was the culmination of a nine-month investigation called Strike Force Cheddar, which targets the commercial supply of ice throughout the Richmond area.

Despite the bust, police acknowledge they are fighting an uphill battle against the use of ice, which has tripled over the past five years.

A new study published in the Medical Journal of Australia suggests there are 268,000 regular and dependent methamphetamine users in Australia, compared to about 90,000 users five years ago.

And more young people are turning to the drug: users in the 15 to 24 age group has more than doubled – from about 21,000 five years ago to 59,000 users now. It is in this group where the greatest hope of intervention lies, with prevention and diversion strategies working best on younger users.

In light of the figures, experts are warning that Australia could be headed for a crisis similar to the one posed by heroin in the 1990s, which killed thousands of young people and caused long term addiction problems for many more.

Country towns.

Young people in rural areas are at the highest risk of exposure to ice, with use in country towns double that of metropolitan areas.

Many rural areas have high rates of unemployment, less opportunities for education and training, higher levels of depression and other mental health issues – all of which are risk factors to drug use.

To support the habit, users often turn to dealing drugs themselves.

About ice

Crystal methamphetamine, or ice, is a stimulant drug which speeds up the messages travelling between the brain and the body. It is stronger, more addictive and is said to have more harmful side effects than powdered forms of methamphetamine, such as speed. 1

Ice usually comes as small, chunky, clear crystals that look like ice. It can also come as white or brownish crystal-like powder with a strong smell and bitter taste.1It is also known as shabu, crystal, glass, shard, and P.2

The drug is generally smoked or injected, but it can also be swallowed or snorted. The effects last for around 6 hours, although ‘coming down’ can take several days. The drug has been linked to extreme agitation, and high doses or frequent use can cause ‘ice psychosis’ – paranoid delusions, hallucinations and bizarre, aggressive and violent behaviour.

Experts believe that simply criminalising and punishing drug users does little to deter drug use. Most argue drug use should be seen as a health issue rather than a criminal law problem, and that dealing with addiction requires a multi-faceted approach across a range of areas: parents and families, educators, health practitioners, social workers, and the wider community.

Police Talk Tough on Drugs at Music Festivals

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

After a spate of drug-related deaths at music festivals over the past several years, police have issued a strong warning to upcoming ‘Party In the Park’ go-ers not to “even think” of bringing drugs into the music festival on Sydney’s Northern Beaches next month.

More than 5,000 people are expected to attend the festival on March 18 at Pittwater Rugby Park in Narrabeen, and police say they will be using all the resources at their disposal to ensure that attendees don’t bring drugs into the festival.

Strong police presence

Around 3,500 people were at the concert in 2016 and sniffer dogs detected 22 incidences of drug possession – amounting to less than 1% of the attendees – for cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy.

The use of drug detection dogs is highly controversial, with government statistics showing that more often than not innocent people are subjected to invasive searches which give a ‘false positive’ reading – indicating the presence of drugs, but none actually being found.

It’s also concerning that the use of sniffer dogs has been linked to the deaths of several young people at music festivals – who have ‘loaded up’ on significant quantities of drugs before arriving at the venue, or upon seeing police and dogs at the venue, to avoid detection.

But police continue to claim that the dogs are highly effective, pointing to the fact that a sniffer dog operation resulted in 40 arrests at the Subsonic Music Festival in the Hunter Valley just before Christmas. Police found Amphetamines, LSD, ketamine, ecstasy and cannabis over the course the two day event.

Drug and health experts have been repeatedly calling for governments to allow pill testing at major music festivals, especially in the wake of several ‘bad batches’ of well-known party drugs coming into the market. Advocates for pill testing say it enables patrons to make informed decisions about what they decide to take, but NSW politicians have long dismissed this idea.

Getting caught with drugs

Drug offences are taken seriously in New South Wales and possession of an illegal drug can be punishable with a criminal conviction or even a prison sentence in extreme cases. Statistics suggest that criminal convictions are also recorded in most case, which can hinder people from getting a job or even travelling to some countries.

Drug supply is treated especially serious, and penalties depend on the quantity of drugs involved.

ID required.

Police also say they’ll be strictly enforcing the Party In the Park’s “over 18 policy”, advising festival goers to take ID so they can prove their age if required.

Event organisers have welcomed the strong police presence, saying it’s their desire for everyone to remain safe and enjoy the music line up which will include Angus Stone and Boy & Bear.

Organisers have also employed private security officers to complement the police patrols and have also rostered about 100 volunteers to assist the smooth running of the event. Last year’s festival was the first and it’s hoped this year’s event will become an annual feature of the music festival calendar.

Bad Batch of ‘Ecstacy’ Blamed for 20 Hospitalisations

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

A bad batch of ecstasy is believed to be responsible for up to 20 overdose deaths in Melbourne’s inner south-east. Police are concerned the batch may still be in circulation, warning party-goers in the area.

The overdoses occurred near Chapel Street in Melbourne from Friday night to Sunday morning. Police suspect the MDMA was laced with GHB or other substances, and paramedics are bracing for more hospitalisations over the summer festival season.

Police response

“There’s a definite chance of there being more,” said Detective Acting Senior Sergeant Dave Newman. “A batch of drugs like this will take a long time to dissipate, or disappear from the scene.”

He urged anyone who experiences an adverse reaction to seek medical help immediately. “Unfortunately, with the nature of this drug, you don’t know what you’re taking,” he said. “And at the moment, there’s a heightened risk.”

Police are awaiting forensic testing to determine the cause of the overdoses – whether it be a high level of purity and/or the nature of additional substances used.

A 30-year-old man was arrested early on Sunday and charged with drug supply, drug possession and dealing with the proceeds of crime.

He will appear in the Melbourne Magistrates Court next Monday.

Rise in ecstacy use

The use of ecstacy is reported to have risen in recent years, along with an increase in the MDMA component of the drug.

The Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS), which surveys regular psychostimulant users each year, reports that nearly 60 per cent of users now take ecstasy in its purer crystal form.

Research from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre suggests that ecstacy use increased by six per cent in 2016 alone, with 93 percent of users reporting that it is either easy or very easy to obtain. The Centre reported a 70 percent increase over the past five years.

Harm reduction

Professor Michael Farrell is concerned by the risks associated with fluctuating levels of purity and dangerous fillers, arguing for the introduction of pill testing at dance parties and music festivals.

“There may be the possibility that, as we did with needle exchange programs, you make sure that the police stand back and don’t interfere with certain things with the notion that it may confer some benefit and some reduce-to-harm around some people,” he said.

The drug liberalisation group Unharm has been calling for pill testing for years.

“Drugs that should be tested in laboratories are being tested on humans and this is the result,” says the group’s Facebook page. “Like the pollies and police always say, ‘you don’t know what you’re taking’, and that’s because THEY are making it almost impossible to find out”.

NSW government’s position

Earlier this year, NSW Police Minister Troy Grant rejected the introduction of pill testing in our state, stating:

“The number one problem is that what they are proposing is some sort of quality assurance measure for an illegal drug, for drug traffickers, to be conducted by police and the New South Wales Government. Well, that’s just not going to happen”.

Public opinion

Research suggests that a majority of Australians support harm reduction measures like pill testing and needle exchange programs.

The former has been highly successful in preventing overdoses in several European countries, while the latter in the form of the medically supervised injection centre in Kings Cross has resulted in ambulance callouts for drug overdoses reducing by 80% and zero reported fatalities.

Young people are particularly supportive of pill testing; with 82% of 2,300 young Australians aged between 16 and 25 years surveyed for the Australian National Council on Drugs in 2013 being in favour of its introduction.

While Mr Grant argues that harm minimisation measures “send the wrong message”, he seems to ignore the fact young people are taking drugs regardless of the penalties – indeed, drug use is on the rise – and are ending up in hospital or even dead in the absence of a sensible, pragmatic approach.

Another Preventable Drug-Related Death Occurs at NYE Bush Rave

One man died and two others were on life support after they took an unidentified drug at a New Year’s Eve rave on a remote Mount Lindesay property on the Queensland and New South Wales border.

Queensland police were called out to the YewbuNYE rave at around 10.20 am on Sunday morning due to reports that people were acting erratically after having taken an unknown substance.

Police located five people with adverse reactions and paramedics were called out to the two-day event.

The toll of the unidentified drug

Daniel Towson from the Queensland Ambulance Service told the ABC that one man in his 20s went into cardiac arrest when they arrived. And “they were unable to resuscitate him at the scene after working on him for a very long time.”

Two others were airlifted to the Gold Coast University Hospital and were still in a critical condition on Monday evening. And the last two men who were suffering a bad reaction refused treatment and rushed into the bush. Police were searching for them at the time.

Police confirmed on Monday afternoon that the deceased was 26-year-old Nimbin man Jake Monahan, while the two that have been hospitalised are a 29-year-old Clothiers Creek man and a 25-year-old Nimbin man.

“Demonically possessed”

Up to 500 people were attending the YewbuNYE rave party over the weekend. DJ Zee Nagual, who played at the event on New Year’s Eve, said he’d noticed bizarre behaviour from dozens of revellers.

The DJ said that as he was leaving the event he saw a group of four partygoers acting out of control and looking like they were “demonically possessed.” And others at the festival reported seeing a man thrashing and clawing at the ground.

The police response

Police responded to the incident by setting up roadside drug testing sites on either side of the event. Senior Constable Scott Tragis said five positive drug tests had been returned just after setting up operations.

On Monday, Queensland police announced they were waiting to interview the organisers of the event. They also said that the toxicology test results could take up to anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

The incident on the Gold Coast

A similar incident occurred in October last year when paramedics were called out to treat 21 drug-affected people who were acting erratically on the Gold Coast.

After overdosing on what they thought was ecstasy, 16 people were hospitalised, two of whom were place in an induced coma.

Initial reports indicated that the substance was the so-called zombie drug flakka. But after 27-year-old Victorian football player Ricki Stephens died, toxicology results revealed that he’d taken a cocktail of MDMA and a New Psychoactive Substance, known as NBOMe.

New substances sold as ecstasy

Canberra emergency physician Dr David Caldicott told Sydney Criminal Lawyers at the time that NBOMe is a drug that’s been linked to poisoning, heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure.

Caldicott – one of Australia’s leading harm reduction experts – believes there’s a very real danger with a drug like NBOMe being mixed with MDMA, as people expecting the effects of ecstasy will be confronted with a very different experience.

“If they’re all in the same pill that is absolutely something we need to know,” he said, because what happened on the Gold Coast “could be replicated in anyone of the music festivals all over Australia.”

And sadly, this may be what actually happened on the border of Queensland and New South Wales last weekend.

Calls for pill testing

Sunday’s tragic death prompted Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, to publicly call for pill testing at events like music festivals.

“We should have the courage to test things, like we tested the legal syringe program in the late 1980s, methadone, car seat belts, a whole range of harm reduction measures,” Dr Wodak told the ABC.

Wodak – along with Caldicott and Unharm’s Will Tregoning – announced plans early last year to introduce pill testing trials at NSW music festivals.

This was in response to a tragic spate of six deaths attributed to drug overdoses at festivals around the state over the twelve month period beginning November 2014.

It’s been available in Europe for decades

Per capita Australian adults lead the world in the use of the drug ecstasy, according to UNODC data. But in the Netherlands – where party drug use is also prevalent – stories about people dying are less common.

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

Five reasons to implement pill testing

Writing in the Conversation Professor Alison Ritter of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, listed five reasons why Australia should be implementing a pill testing program.

The first is that it works as a quality control system for the black market. If substances are identified as particularly dangerous – such as the case with NBOMe on the Gold Coast – they will eventually not be found within the contents of drugs being produced.

And overtime the contents of the drugs being produced begins correspond to what’s expected within them.

While the third reason was that research has shown pill testing changes consumers’ behaviour. In Austria, 50 percent of those who had their drugs tested said it had affected their consumption choices.

Another reason is that pill testing services create an opportunity for drug users to come into contact with counsellors who can discuss their substance use with them. And they also allow researchers to capture information about what kinds of drugs are available on the market.

The response of NSW authorities

However, NSW premier Mike Baird dismissed pill testing plans as “ridiculous” in February last year. He told reporters that “we are not going to be condoning in any way what illegal drug dealers are doing.”

While last month, NSW police were slammed for seizing seven pill testing kits during a raid of a shop in the Sydney inner west suburb of Newtown. The testing kits are not illegal under NSW law, but the police took them along with other drug equipment they were seizing.

It’s high time

Drug use is going to continue. Over fifty years of the war on drugs has proven that. The general public has been calling for a system of pill testing that will prevent the deaths of the nation’s young for some time now. And the system has proven effective in Europe for decades.

It’s only the authorities that are preventing this life-saving harm reduction method, which if in place could have prevented the tragic death at last weekend’s bush rave.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do: Police Caught Using and Supplying Drugs

By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

Victoria’s anti-corruption watchdog tabled a report before state parliament on Tuesday, finding that a number of Victorian police officers have been taking illegal drugs and, in some instances, even selling them.

The officers were found to have been regularly partying on cocaine, ecstasy, ketamine and ice.

The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) report sets out the findings of three investigations carried out by Operations Apsley, Hotham and Yarrowitch.

Officers in disrepute

The largest of the investigations, Operation Aspley, commenced in June 2015. It probed allegations that a police officer had been involved in the use, possession and supply of illegal drugs.

The investigation found significant evidence that six officers were regularly using illegal drugs, four of whom were selling them. Four of the officers ultimately tested positive to illicit substances in their system. Two of them were in direct interactions with convicted drug suppliers.

As a result of the investigation, one officer was dismissed and two resigned whilst under investigation. Another was admonished and allowed to stay on the force. Two are currently suspended, awaiting criminal proceedings.

The report’s recommendations

The IBAC identified a number of “systemic deficiencies” in Victoria police’s approach to preventing and detecting illegal drug use amongst officers.

It found that current drug testing procedures are inadequate, as only 5 percent of officers are tested per year. This means an officer is only likely to be randomly tested every 20 years.

The report recommended Victoria police undertake a comprehensive review of measures to prevent illicit drug use by police officers. The Victoria police chief commissioner is to provide the IBAC with a progress report by June 30 next year.

The three IBAC operations led to allegations being brought against eight officers, all of which have been substantiated.

Not the first time

This is certainly not the first time Victoria police has been criticised for failing to address illegal drug use within police ranks. The Herald Sun reported in October last year that the rate of drug testing had slumped in recent years, but the number of officers caught taking drugs is on the rise.

Of just 100 officers tested over a 40 month period, 18 tested positive, while eleven others had been caught in possession of illegal drugs, or had failed to account for seized substances.

In September of this year, an internal police investigation resulted in four officers being suspended for using illicit drugs and leaking information to criminals. This transpired amid claims that recreational drug use is on the rise amongst younger officers.

Earlier that same month, former police officer David Lister pleaded guilty to supplying ice and cannabis cultivation. He resigned from the force in February, after failing a drug test.

Hardly a shock

The secretary of the Victoria Police Association, Ron Iddles, denies there’s a systemic drug problem in the Victoria police force. However, he acknowledged that the findings of the IBAC report weren’t a “total shock.”

“Our members are susceptible to more pressure and stress than the average member of society,” Iddles said on Tuesday.

Drug use is indeed common amongst the general public. The National Drug Strategy Household survey 2013 found that 15 percent of the population had used an illicit drug in the past 12 months.

However, the difference between police officers and members of the general public is that police swear an oath to uphold and enforce the law. Indeed, taxpayers fork out billions of dollars per year to fund police forces across the nation – $3.4 billion a year in NSW alone. It is the job of police to detect, investigate and prosecute the very crimes that some officers are engaging in – which may be seen as hypocritical and affecting the integrity of the institution as a whole.

Police are allowed to exercise their extensive powers around the clock, whether or not they are on duty, and many see a problem with officers having the power to arrest people, use move on powers etc whilst they are using illegal drugs.

Drug use by police can compromise integrity

“Illicit drug use and police work are fundamentally incompatible,” IBAC commissioner Stephen O’Bryan said in a statement. He outlined that officers that use, possess or sell these substances “make themselves vulnerable to blackmail” and are at risk of engaging with organised criminals.

He added that police officers who commit drug offence are also vulnerable to coercion.

The costs of the punitive measures

The number of arrests for illicit drugs has increased by 70 percent Australia wide over the past decade. Over the year 2014-15, 133,926 illicit drug arrests took place, and the overwhelming majority were for cannabis.

The Australian government spends an estimated $1.7 billion on responding to illicit drugs every year, with policing comprising 64 percent of this. That’s over $1 billion spent on enforcing drug laws a year, and this doesn’t take into account the huge amount spent on imprisoning those who are sent to prison.

And yet figures released last year suggest that the drug trade in Victoria dramatically increased over the previous five years.

Police could focus on criminals with legitimate victims

It’s obvious that a lot of taxpayers’ money is being wasted on a failed approach to dealing with drugs. Not only that, a huge amount of police time is being wasted on searching and arresting people for personal possession – and most of those searches do not result in a drug find.

Damon Adams of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is a former South Australian police officer who’s calling for a legalised and regulated cannabis market. In his opinion, there are a lot of officers who agree with him.

Adams believes that an enormous amount of police time is being wasted on pursuing minor drug offences, when they could be proactively going “after criminals that actually have legitimate victims.” He’s pointed out that when officers seize cannabis plants, they spend a great deal of time transporting and cataloguing them, in addition to preparing statements and everything else that goes with a prosecution.

The case for decriminalisation

Last month, the Australian Greens announced a change in their drug policy that would see the decriminalisation of illicit drugs and the legalisation of some for recreational use. The party has formally acknowledged the obvious – that Australia’s punitive approach isn’t working.

An example of a non-punitive approach is Portugal. The Portuguese decriminalised the possession of all drugs fifteen years ago.

Citizens found in possession of a permissible amount of an illicit substance receive a citation or they’re sent to see a “dissuasion panel.” Those who repeatedly appear before these panels are prescribed treatment.

As a result of the policy change, drug use in Portugal has fallen dramatically and the country has saved billions in enforcement costs.

The Greens Party No Longer Opposes Legalising Drug Possession

By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

Portugal decriminalised the possession of small quantities of all drugs fifteen years ago. Citizens found in possession of a permissible amount of an illicit substance receive a citation or they’re sent to see a “dissuasion panel.” Those who repeatedly appear before these panels are prescribed treatment.

The rate of HIV infections in the country dropped from 1,016 in 2001 to 56 in 2012, while overdose deaths decreased from 80 to 16 over the same time period. And drug use in the country has fallen since the law came into effect, despite claims by conservatives that the laws would lead to an explosion in drug use.

The International Narcotics Control Board lauded the Portuguese model as exemplary in December last year.

Beyond prohibition

The Australian Greens announced over the weekend that they’re officially dropping their blanket opposition to the legalisation of illicit drugs from its policy platform. Greens party members voted to support the change at their national conference in Perth on Saturday.

The new policy sees a major Australian political party move into line with developments in drug law reform that are taking place across the globe.

Leader of the Australian Greens, Richard Di Natale, was behind the push for this new approach that would see the decriminalisation of illegal drugs and the legalisation of some for recreational use.

Di Natale accepts that the global war on drugs has failed and hopes the party’s policy will spark debate over the decriminalisation of drugs. The senator – a former drug and alcohol clinician – has visited Portugal and seen the benefits of their approach firsthand.

The party’s policy explicitly acknowledges that the punitive approach hasn’t stopped illicit drug use. It recognises that legal framework for recreational drugs use should be informed by the evidence of the harm a substance is likely to cause, and that education is the key when dealing with both legal and illicit drugs.

The cost of criminalisation

NSW Greens MLC Dr Mehreen Faruqi told Sydney Criminal Lawyers, “it’s time for politicians at both the federal and state level to pull their heads out of the sand, open their minds and listen to the evidence.”

The doctor says that “the heavy-handed, punitive and prohibitionist approach on drugs has not worked at all – not for families, not for young people and not even for the taxpayer.” She adds that while vast amounts are spent on imprisoning people who use drugs, this “does nothing to reduce harm.”

The Global Commission on Drug Policy report released in June 2011, found that the criminalisation of drugs across the globe has also led to the growth of a huge criminal black market and actually increased drug consumption worldwide.

Life-saving pill testing

A key aim of the Greens’ new policy is to establish a national regulatory authority to look at ways to best reduce the harm associated with different drugs on a case-by-case basis.

“Setting up a body to develop drug policies including decriminalisation, regulation and pill testing within a health and social framework is evidence-based and the only way forward,” explained Dr Faruqi, the NSW Greens spokesperson on drugs and harm minimisation.

There has been a push for the introduction of pill testing in Australia, since a tragic spate of drug-related deaths occurred at music festivals last year. Pill testing allows festival goers to check the contents of their drugs and make informed decisions about whether they should take them.

This harm minimisation measure has been available in many European nations – like the Netherlands – for decades. And it actually works as a market regulator, as drug producers are forced to “quality assure” their products.

Legalise it

The proposed drug regulatory body could lead to the complete legalisation of the recreational use of some drugs, such as marijuana. But Di Natale made clear that harder drugs, such as heroin or ice, may not be legalised under this model.

Dr Faruqi pointed out that on November 9 this year, the US states of California, Nevada and Massachusetts voted to legalise the recreational use of cannabis. In 2012, the first states to legalise it were Colorado and Washington, while Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia followed suit in 2014.

And as Ms Faruqi put it, “the sky has not fallen in.” Indeed, in the state of Colorado legalised pot brings in millions of dollars of revenue a month, which has been used to fund schools. And there’s also been a drop in crime rates.

An end to the dogs

The NSW “Labor and Liberal parties continue their support of dangerous policies like drug sniffer dogs,” Dr Faruqi said. The NSW police drug detection dog program has a high false positive rate. Around 70 percent of people searched are found to be in possession of no illicit substances.

While the presence of sniffers dogs at festivals leads some attendees to partake in dangerous drug taking practices such as preloading – taking all their drugs before an event – and the hiding of drugs in body cavities in packages such as condoms.

Panic overdosing – also known as ‘loading up’ – can also occur when a person sees approaching police and sniffer dogs.

An Australian Greens motion was passed in the federal Senate in August this year, calling on the Turnbull government to introduce a range of evidence-based harm minimisation policies. These included the removal of sniffer dogs and the introduction of pill testing at events like music festivals.

Conservative criticisms

Of course, the Greens’ policy change has had its detractors. Australian justice minister Michael Keenan described it as “dangerous” and a “threat to the community.” Like opponents of Portugal’s move to decriminalise drug possession, Mr Keenan warned that it was giving a “green light” to drug dealers.

Federal health minister Sussan Ley declared the government would never legalise “a drug that destroys brain function,” saying they’d continue their hardline stance.

Australian Medical Association president Michael Gannon said he welcomed discussion of treatments, but thought decriminalisation was going too far.

But this is to be expected from conservative elements, who see law enforcement as the only way.

Harm reduction: the Australian way

However, the Greens’ new drug policy actually hearkens back to when Australia was a world leader in the field of harm minimisation. Since 1985, reducing the risks associated with drug use has formed the basis of the nation’s National Drug Strategy.

Needle syringe programs were introduced in 1986, which contributed to our nation having some of the lowest HIV rates amongst people who inject drugs in the world. And the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre – the first of its kind in the English-speaking world- was set up in Kings Cross in May 2001.

According to Dr Faruqi, it’s high time for drug law reform in Australia, as community momentum for it has been building. “But this conversation needs to get much louder at the political level,” she concluded.