Category Archives:Drugs General

Legalising Cannabis Does Not Lead to a Rise in Crime

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

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

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

Imprisoning the indigent

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

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

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

The study

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

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

The Californian experience

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

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

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

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

The law on drug possession in New South Wales

Drug possession remains a crime in our state.

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

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

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

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

Cannabis cautioning scheme

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

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

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

Medicinal cannabis in New South Wales

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

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

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

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

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

Just legalise it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NSW Music Festivals: Life-Saving Pill Testing Out, Saturation Policing In

By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

The NSW Police Force is continuing its assault on music festivals, while the state Coalition government has reinforced its anti-harm minimisation stance at these events.

NSW police were swarming at the recent Listen Out festival in Centennial Park. But they arrested only five individuals on supply charges, while 154 were nabbed for drug possession – an offence which many including a church-led coalition of 60 organisations is currently calling to be decriminalised.

The crackdown at Listen Out comes a fortnight after the police saturation at the Defqon.1 festival, where two young people tragically died of suspected drug overdoses.

180 officers were deployed at Defqon.1, some of whom were accompanied by drug detection dogs. Police were even observed hanging around the front of the medical tent, which is hardly an encouraging sign for any young person needing to seek help after consuming something dodgy.

In response to the deaths at Defqon.1, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian tasked an expert panel to consider how to improve safety at these events.

But, the members of the panel are hardly an in touch and forward-thinking bunch. It’s comprised of NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller, NSW chief medical officer Kerry Chant and Independent Liquor Gaming Authority chairperson Philip Crawford.

And in her wisdom, Ms Berejiklian has stated that the panel will not be considering pill testing as an option, even though it’s an internationally-lauded evidence-based strategy that saves lives. She wants more of the failing drug war approach, such as increasing penalties for drug dealers.

Antiquated drug war tactics

“We have received an influx of messages from people reporting the excessive police presence at the Defqon.1 and Listen Out festivals,” Xiaoran Shi, admin of the Sniff Off campaign Facebook page confirmed. She added that recent NSW police statements confirm this.

Following Defqon.1, a NSW police statement outlined that a multifaceted operation – which included the Nepean LAC, Police Transport Command, North West Metropolitan Region Enforcement Squad, and the Police Dog Unit – was deployed in order to deal with the partying youths.

Ms Shi explained that the reason NSW police gives for using this “increasingly aggressive” approach is “saving lives”.

“This is darkly ironic considering the excessive police presence at Defqon.1 this year, where two young people tragically lost their lives,” Ms Shi continued. “It could not be any clearer that overpolicing does not save lives, it costs lives.”

The NSW Greens anti-drug dog campaign Sniff Off has been monitoring the ridiculously-flawed use of sniffer dogs by NSW police since 2011. Statistics show that from two-thirds to three-quarters of the time that a dog makes an indication a subsequent search results in no illegal drugs being found.

A dangerous aspect of the use of drug dogs is that they actually lead festivalgoers to partake in deadly drug taking practices, such as panic overdosing, where a person panics and swallows all of their drugs at once on seeing a drug detection dog operation to avoid getting busted.

Her head’s stuck in the sand

To lower the dangers of drug overdoses at music festivals there is a simple solution: pill testing. It’s been utilised in certain European countries – such as the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden – since the 1990s. Governments in Europe give this life-saving strategy the official thumbs up.

The ACT government was progressive enough to allow Australia’s first pill testing trial take place at Canberra’s Groovin the Moo festival in April this year. Of the 128 punters that had their drugs tested, two were found to have drugs that contained a substance that can be lethal.

That’s two lives potentially saved. But, Gladys doesn’t seem to be paying any attention.

“The NSW premier Ms Gladys Berejiklian said that she supports a zero tolerance approach to illicit drugs at youth music festivals,” remarked veteran drug law reformist Dr Alex Wodak, “what a pity that she doesn’t support a zero tolerance approach to preventable deaths of healthy young people.”

The president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation suggested that if the premier was really invested in a zero tolerance approach she might consider shutting down NSW needle and syringe programs, as well as the medically supervised injecting centre in Kings Cross.

“After all, these are both pragmatic and highly effective responses to illicit drugs which are the antithesis of zero tolerance,” said the doctor, who was instrumental in bringing about both these initiatives that have saved thousands of lives in this state since they were implemented.

Looks are more important than lives

But, with NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller making up a third of the members of the music festival “expert panel” and notoriously anti-pill testing police minister Troy Grant still in office, it’s hard to see NSW authorities relenting on their seen-to-be tough on drugs stance.

Ms Shi said that after Defqon.1 and Listen out, “Sniff Off received numerous messages from people reporting that police were standing outside the medical tent, deterring genuinely ill people from seeking medical attention because they feared being questioned or searched by police.”

And to put a further nail in the coffin, Ms Shi explained that there was a stall set up selling drug testing kits at the Defqon.1 festival, and officers who had a bit of time on their hands were hanging around out the front of the store intimidating festivalgoers who were entering it.

Politicking over the lives of youths

As far as Dr Wodak is concerned, the roll out of pill testing is inevitable. And if it isn’t Ms Berejiklian who’s willing to put herself on the line in order to stop the next family’s suffering after their child dies due to a preventable overdose, then it is likely to be the next premier, or the next.

“I am not surprised when older male politicians play the grubby drug politics game,” Dr Wodak told Sydney Criminal Lawyers, as he recalled US president Richard Nixon winning the 1972 election in a landslide victory just after launching the war on drugs.

“At the risk of sounding sexist, I am surprised when a female politician uses the same grubby political strategy,” the doctor concluded. “Older generations have an absolute responsibility to make sure that they keep younger generations alive. Clearly we are not doing that.”

‘Poppers’ to be a Prohibited Drug

By Ugur Nedim and Sonia Hickey

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is supporting a move that could see amyl nitrite, commonly known as ‘poppers’, to be placed in to same legal category as cocaine and heroin.

The TGA is a regulatory body within the Department of Health. It is responsible for regulating prescription medicines, vaccines, sunscreens, vitamins and minerals, medical devices, blood and blood products.

It recently produced a report on ‘poppers’ recommending that anyone caught possessing or selling the substance should face criminal charges like other prohibited drugs such as cocaine, MDMA, amphetamines and heroin.

What are ‘poppers’?

Poppers are also known as liquid gold, butyl nitrite, heart medicine, and room deodorizer.

The term ‘poppers’ first started being used in the 1960s, when amyl nitrite, which was then used as a heart medicine, was sold in capsules that were cracked, or “popped”, to release the chemical.

The drug made its way onto the disco scene in the 1970s, and has been considered a recreational or ‘party drug’ ever since.

Poppers had a resurgence in popularity on the rave scene in the 1990s. Users inhale the substance for a brief rush, lasting only a few minutes, and to relax muscles, which has made it a popular drug to take during sex.

Significantly, it does not create a dependency, but users can suffer from a headache after the drug has worn off.

A legal ‘grey area’

Amyl nitrite is currently in a legal ‘grey area’ in Australia.

While the marketing or sale of products containing the drugs or its related counterparts for recreational use is illegal, amyl nitrite available for purchase behind the counter at many adult shops and online for less than $50 as ‘leather cleaner’ or ‘room deodoriser’.

Are poppers harmful?

Medical experts are divided over whether amyl nitrite causes long-term harm, although it is believed to exacerbate some medical conditions such as glaucoma, poor circulation or heart problems.

The TGA’s report found there are indeed risks and, “no therapeutic benefits associated with the use of alkyl nitrites”. It said the drugs are “toxic via inhalation” and “misused … as sex aids due to their muscle relaxant properties”.

The Australian Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF) says the effects of using poppers with other drugs – including over-the-counter or prescribed medications – are unpredictable as not enough research has been undertaken.

If the TGA’s recommendation to prohibit amyl nitrite is adopted, the drug will be in the same legal category as drugs like crystal methamphetamine (or ice), heroin and cocaine.

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey found 0.8 per cent of the population, or 184,000 people, in Australia had used in inhalant in 2013.

The figure, however, was not limited to poppers, and may include the substance in industrial chemicals such as paint thinners.

Futility of the war on drugs

For many, the idea that a non-addictive party drug may be placed in the toughest legal category without sufficient proof of harm is another example of the government’s illogical, inconsistent, piecemeal and ultimately harmful approach to drugs in society.

While many countries are recognising that drug use is a health issue rather than a crime and changing their laws accordingly, our regulatory bodies and governments seem to be doing all they can to resist evidence-based approaches to drugs.

In Australia, we currently have a court system clogged with drug cases, which really only benefits those with a financial interest in people being charged and punished – whether they be prison management companies like Serco, police associations who enjoy greater funding, politicians who use the war on drugs to appear tough on crime and get votes, or criminal lawyers who are able to obtain more clients.

But perhaps it’s ‘high time’ to step back and take a good hard look at the futility of the multi-billion dollar war, and change our policies and laws accordingly. Doing so may well see Australia enjoy the benefits of jurisdictions like Portugal whose politicians have been brave enough to change tack.

The New South Wales Drug Busts that ‘Never Happened’

The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) has faced up to an embarrassing error, admitting that it ‘double-counted’ many drug busts over the past seven years.

It says statistics regarding arrests for cocaine and ecstacy detection have been inflated by more than 30%, while last year more than 13,000 drug events never actually occurred.

The error arose because BOCSAR was adding police statistics on searches to those on arrest – which is a fundamental mistake as both incidents can arise from a single event.

The mistake has meant that statistics about drug detections have been significant inflated, bolstering the argument that the war against drugs is even less successful than previously thought.

Does not affect trends

BOCSAR collects data which used to identify crime trends such as location, frequency, penalties and offender details.

While BOCSAR Chief Don Weatherburn admits the fault lies within his department, he says the actual figures are less important than the patterns they show.

“It is a large number, but the crucial issue is the trend with drug offences. I’m not saying this is not a bad mistake, but it doesn’t seem to have affected the trend from March 2012 to March 2018.”

Funding and policy decisions

BOCSAR data is one of the sources of information used to assess the level of funding for law enforcement in the war against drugs. More arrests and raids can lead to more funding, while a lower rate of success can make it more difficult to justify greater government expenditure.

Between 2010 and 2011, BOCSAR released crime numbers suggesting a larger numbers of detections than were the case.

Funding for drug detection dog operations, border force operations and enforcement generally has steadily increased since that time, partly based on the false premise that police are detecting high numbers of drug crimes.

And funding keeps rising. The NSW Government pledged a record $3.9 billion to the New South Wales Police Force in its 2018-19 budget, with a commitment to continuing sniffer dog operations and doubling roadside drug testing.

And while governments continue to take a hard line stance against drugs and spend big on policing and enforcement, those working in rehabilitation say there’s a major funding shortfall for much needed services for those suffering drug addiction. Many facilities are working with scant resources, particularly in rural areas, and yet there is mounting research to suggest that programmes are highly successful in helping users get their lives on track, and reducing re-offending.

Greens MP David Shoebridge has been a staunch and long-time campaigner against the use of sniffer dogs at events including music festivals. He says the double counting has raised questions about policy decisions, and that its ‘remarkable’ there isn’t a better cross-checking system within the NSW Police Force to pick up on the over-reporting.

“Year on year police have demanded additional resources to meet perceived crime levels with much of this perception based on data produced by BOCSAR. The war on drugs has never been winnable, and what we see from these recent numbers is that the NSW Police is having an even smaller impact on drug supply than many thought,” he remarked.

Better auditing

While BOCSAR has admitted its error, the fiasco points to the need for better auditing and analysis to ensure statistics are accurate and that governments and other bodies are properly advised, so that funding can be allocated and policies developed accordingly.

In the meantime, it seems police may need to work a little harder to justify funding for the war against drugs.

Australia’s First Pill Testing Trial Hailed a Success

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

Australia’s first pill testing trial has been hailed a resounding success, after analyses identified potentially lethal ingredients in the drugs of attendees and thereby allowed them to make informed decisions about whether to consume the substances

The trial at the Groovin the Moo festival in Canberra over the weekends tested a total of 85 substances, with many users surprised by what they were about to take.

Lethal ingredients

The trial identified the presence of two highly toxic chemicals, including the “absolutely lethal” N-Ethylpentylone (ephylone), which has been responsible for several deaths and mass overdoses around the world.

Emergency doctor David Caldicott explains that ephylone is a stimulant that can cause circulation problems, dangerous hallucinations and lethal heart palpitations.

The lethal substances were found inside clear capsules and disposed of immediately, potentially preventing another two deaths at Australian music festivals.

It was also revealed that half of the drugs tested were cut with substances not known or expected by users, from paint, to lactose, to toothpaste.

Opportunity to educate and provide support

The testing of substances was conducted in a standalone tent next to the festival’s medical centre. The operation was run by trained staff, including counsellors who took the opportunity to educate users and direct them, where appropriate, to support services.

Pill testing works by taking a minute sample from a pill, or a few granules from a capsule, which are then analysed by a doctor and chemist to determine the composition. The results are then given to the person who provided the substance, allowing them to decide whether to take some or all of it, or to dispose of it in the bin provided.

The service required users to sign a waiver releasing operators, workers and the state from liability in the event of an overdose from the use of the substances tested.

Dr Caldicott reported that five festival-goers discarded their pills upon being given the results of testing, with “a quarter to a third” advising that they would not be consuming the substances.

Ambulance commander Toby Keen said that the number of people treated for intoxication was similar to previous years, but reported that none of the people treated had a wristband indicating their participation in the pill-testing trial.

Government opposition

ACT Liberal legal spokesperson, Jeremy Hanson, says he continues to oppose pill testing on the basis that it sends a message that drugs are safe, and potentially exposes others to legal liability in the event of an overdose after testing.

The ACT Health website disagrees with the claims of sending the wrong message, pointing out that “[e]ven with laboratory-level testing, service staff never advise users that the drug they are taking is ‘safe’.” ACT Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris similarly emphasises that, “It’s really important to note that it doesn’t in any way condone illicit drug use. It is an important harm-minimisation measure.”

And legal commentators point out that the issue of legal liability is adequately dealt with by way of a waiver of liability.

Police cooperation

Meanwhile, police cooperated with the trial by not entering the pill testing stall at any time and not pursuing those who surrendered their substances for testing.

“While ACT Policing does not condone the use of illicit drugs, we do support harm minimisation strategies such as the decision to provide an accommodating environment to allow for pill testing,” a police spokesperson stated. “As a police force, we will continue to target and investigate the sale and supply of illicit drugs.”

There were only two arrests for drug charges at the festival, while an earlier stage of Groovin the Moo, held in the lower NSW Hunter Valley, saw 40 people arrested for drug possession.

NSW government inaction

According to 2016 government data, about 8.5 million people — or 43 per cent of Australians aged 14 and over — have used recreational drugs such as cannabis, methamphetamines, ecstasy and illegally obtained pharmaceuticals in their lifetime. So prohibition has clearly not stopped people from taking drugs.

NSW Greens MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi has called for pill-testing to be introduced across NSW, saying the Groovin the Moo trial proves the practice can save lives.

“The NSW Government needs to get out of the way to allow experts to get on with the job of keeping people safe,” she remarked. There was clear evidence that the government’s current “punitive, heavy-handed approach” to drug use isn’t working.

But unfortunately, both the NSW Labor and Liberal parties have so far refused to support pill testing in our state. It is hoped the recent success of Groovin in the Moo and the voices of health experts and other frontline workers will help change their minds.

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

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

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

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

Drug offending

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

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

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

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

Law enforcement approval

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

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

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

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

The most pressing points

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

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

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

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

The legacy of the prohibition

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

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

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

The need for reform is drastic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reducing youth harms

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

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

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

Swimming with the tide

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

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

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

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

Recreational cannabis

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

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

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

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

Opioid substitution therapy

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

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

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

It’s not the first time

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

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

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

A Summary of NSW Drug Laws

By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

In NSW, the use, possession, supply, cultivation and manufacture of prohibited drugs and/or plants are all crimes. The state offences and penalties relating to prohibited drugs are set out under the provisions of the Drugs Misuse and Trafficking Act (DMT Act) 1985.

Section 10 of the DMT Act outlaws drug possession. Section 12 makes it a crime to self-administer a prohibited substance. Division 1 of the Act also contains the offences of administering drugs to others, letting someone else administer drugs to you, and possessing equipment used to take drugs.

A maximum penalty of 2 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $2,200 applies to each these offences. They are ‘summary offences’, which means they are prosecuted in the Local Court rather than being heard in a higher court such as the District Court.

State regulations and controls regarding medicines, prescribed restricted substances, and poisons are primarily set out in the Poisons and Therapeutic Goods Act 1966. The Act provides that the distribution, prescription and administering of these substances is restricted to qualified and authorised persons.

Section 16 of the Act provides that an individual found in possession of anabolic steroids can face up to 2 years behind bars and/or a fine of $2,200, while those found in unlawful possession of a prescription drug or having forged a doctor’s script can be sent away for 6 months and fined $2,200.

International drug controls

“It’s impossible to understand the history of NSW drug laws without looking internationally,” explained Ben Mostyn, founding member of the UNSW Australian Drug Law Reform Initiative. “The United Nations and the USA have driven the war on drugs by developing the three UN conventions.”

The lawyer outlined that the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs is the primary international drug control treaty. It lists a range of restricted drugs under its four schedules. “Of course, little scientific evidence existed in 1961 to support such a scheduling system,” Mr Mostyn added.

The 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances was designed to place controls on amphetamines, psychedelics and benzodiazepines. It also contains four schedules of controlled substances. The first schedule being the most restrictive and the fourth being the least.

According to Mostyn, the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, “which Australia is party to, effectively makes it compulsory for countries to criminalise drug possession.”

This convention also contains two tables that list precursor chemicals, reagents and solvents which are frequently used in the manufacture of illicit substances.

Domestic replication of the conventions

Although Australian states and territories are not signatories to these international conventions, and therefore are not bound by their terms, there is a tradition that these jurisdictions should act in accordance with the treaties entered into by the federal government.

And the international drug controls are reflected in the laws set out in the DMT Act.

As Mr Mostyn points out NSW uses “a scheduling system, with one primary schedule.” Schedule 1 of the DMT Act contains a list of around 200 outlawed drugs, prohibited plants, illicit drug precursors and reagents.

NSW supply charges

The NSW scheduling system provides a range of quantities for each illicit substance that has an effect on the charges laid against an individual found in their possession, as well as the penalties they face.

These quantities are broken down into a small quantity, a traffickable amount, an indictable quantity, a commercial amount and a large commercial supply. The applicable weights vary from drug to drug.

But the purity of an illicit substance doesn’t matter in the state regime. Section 4 of the DMT Act contains what’s known as the “admixture provision,” which outlines that a person found in the possession of an illegal drug will be charged with the entire weight of the substance, regardless of its purity.

So, if the total weight of a white powder is 1 kilogram, but analysis finds it’s only 25 percent heroin, a defendant will be charged in respect of 1 kilogram of heroin, not with the 250 grams of pure heroin it contains.

This is different to Commonwealth legislation against drug importation and exportation, where the actual weight of the prohibited substance within the admixture is the relevant quantity for the purposes of the law.

Section 29 of the DMT Act stipulates that if a person is found with more than a traffickable amount of a prohibited drug, they can be found guilty of supply, even if there’s no evidence they were intending to provide the substance to another person. This is known as deemed supply.

So, for example, traffickable amount of cocaine, heroin or amphetamines is 3 grams, while an indictable amount is 5 grams. A case involving the supply of an indictable quantity – whether deemed or an actual supply – must be heard in a District Court and a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, and/or a fine of $22,000 applies.

A commercial quantity of cocaine is 250 grams. This amount can see an individual imprisoned for up to 20 years and receive a fine of up to $385,000. And a large commercial supply of the drug is 1 kilogram, which comes with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and/or a fine of $550,000.

Cannabis cautioning

Back in April 2000, the NSW government introduced the cannabis cautioning scheme. This means NSW police officers have the discretion to issue a caution to adults found in possession of up to 15 grams of cannabis. And an individual can only be issued with two warnings before charges must be laid.

2011 NSW auditor general’s report revealed that over its first ten years, the cannabis cautioning scheme had diverted more than 39,000 minor cannabis offences from the courts. And the auditor general said that cautioned individuals are less likely to reoffend, than those who are charged.

Drug law reform is way overdue

However, like an increasing amount of NSW citizens, Mr Mostyn believes NSW drug laws are outdated and in need of an overhaul. “The entire way we view recreational drug use, problematic drug use, and addictive drug use needs to be reconsidered,” he told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

Mr Mostyn questioned the validity of laws that allow a person to be incarcerated for up to 2 years for cannabis or MDMA possession, which he finds is “entirely out of sync with community expectations and the scientific evidence on effective drug treatment.”

The 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that 74 percent of the Australian population do not support cannabis possession being a criminal offence.

The survey also reveals that 95 percent of the population don’t think people should be sent to prison for cannabis possession, while 87 percent of Australians don’t believe MDMA possession should be a gaolable offence.

And less than 25 percent of the population think people should be put away for being in possession of heroin or methamphetamine.

“The community is way ahead of the politicians on this issue,” Mr Mostyn concluded. It understands “that the criminal justice system is an expensive and ineffective way of dealing with the complicated social problem of drug use and addiction.”

Does Prohibiting Pill Testing Make Our Government Complicit?

By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

Last Friday’s mass overdose at a dance party in West Melbourne is yet another example of Australian authorities continuing to allow young people to be hospitalised, and even die, whilst governments in Europe have implemented programs to prevent harms at events like these.

Detractors of pill testing insist this evidence-based harm reduction method encourages drug use.

But if the over fifty-year war on drugs should have taught these critics anything, it’s that some young people, as well as quite a few older individuals, will continue to take mind-altering substances whether they’re legal or not.

Indeed, the “just say no” approach expired along with the rest of the Reagan administration.

So more and more people are coming to the view that if these substances remain illegal – and users are forced to obtain them through the black market where there are no quality controls – harm reduction measures are not only justified, but required to save lives.

Yet another avoidable tragedy

At 11 pm on January 26, Victorian emergency services were called out to the I Am Hardstyle event at Melbourne’s Festival Hall in relation to adverse reactions partygoers were having to a bad batch of drugs. Eight people were treated by paramedics in a first aid area, whilst a ninth person collapsed.

Ambulance Victoria state health commander Paul Holman told reporters on the following day that the individuals were “lucky they didn’t die.” He described the patients as hyperthermic, unconscious, and non-breathing.

The nine young people were taken to various hospitals around the inner city. On Saturday morning, five of the patients were in a critical condition, while one was still critical that evening.

Letting the preventable continue

Of course, the Festival Hall incident is only the latest in an ongoing series of overdoses at festivals and events in Victoria, as well as elsewhere around the country. And it’s after each such incident that renewed calls for pill testing, or drug checking services, are made.

Twelve months ago, three people died and 20 were hospitalised after taking a bad batch of ecstasy pills around Melbourne’s Chapel Street nightclub precinct. While, on December 30, a 19-year-old man had to be airlifted from a festival in the Gippsland, due to a suspected drug overdose.

“This most recent tragedy in Victoria, and those that precede it, are all due to our ineffective drug laws and lack of drug checking services,” Nevena Spirovska, the Victorian convener of Unharm, said. “It’s incredibly frustrating to think that these overdoses could’ve been prevented.”

The drug law reform campaigner added that refusing to make pill testing services available at events leads to “overdoses, over-burdened emergency services, and the proliferation of the rhetoric that ‘people who take drugs deserve to die.’”

Politicians pushing for the inevitable

On November 29 last year, the Victorian Greens gave the first reading in state parliament on the Lab-Grade Pill Testing Pilot Bill 2017. If this legislation is taken up, it will pave the way for pill testing services in the state.

Victorian Greens MLC Colleen Hartland has been advocating for pill testing for years now. She told Sydney Criminal Lawyers® that the bill is set to be debated in 2018, possibly around mid-year. And the latest tragedy “has certainly reinforced” the need for it to be passed.

Ms Hartland said events like last Friday’s are “sadly” going to happen. “We know that every year, particularly in summer, there are significant overdose incidents,” she explained. “It’s not a question of if it will happen, it’s a question of when.”

“The tide is turning”

The Victorian Greens health spokesperson said “we’re starting to see a groundswell of support in the community.” But, in the case of some politicians, we’re seeing them put “politics before people’s lives, because politically this is not an easy issue.”

Although, Ms Hartland pointed out that there are “some very promising signs,” such as the example of Labor MP Geoff Howard, who “has gone against the rest of his party and publicly supported lab-grade pill testing at festivals.”

Mr Howard, who is chairing a state parliamentary inquiry into drug law reform, attended the Rainbow Serpent festival last weekend to discuss the benefits of pill testing with health experts, and harm reduction advocates.

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said on Sunday that he was not prepared to reconsider his opposition to pill testing. However, Mr Andrews was too sheepish to give his support to the North Richmond safe injecting facility, until just about every state institution had provided its approval first.

It’s self-evident

The I Am Hardstyle event that was held at Festival Hall last Friday night also takes place in Germany and Austria. In these European countries, along with others such as the Netherlands, Switzerland and France, pill testing has been a reality since the 1990s.

Authorities in Europe are so set on preventing festival goers from experiencing any harms associated with drug use at these events that the European Union actually produced pill testing best practice guidelines.

As Ms Spirovska outlined pill testing has multiple benefits: individuals “have their substances chemically tested, engage in an informed dialogue with trained professionals issuing appropriate harm reduction advice for that substance, and alert authorities to bad batches of drugs.”

There’s been suggestions that last Friday’s overdoses were linked to PMA, which is similar in effect to MDMA, but much more toxic. While the overdoses on Chapel Street last year, and another tragedy on the Gold Coast in 2016, were linked to ecstasy laced with the dodgy substance NBOMe.

What could have been

Hypothetically, a pill testing service would have allowed any of the individuals affected by these bad batches of drugs to have these substances checked by health professionals using laboratory-grade equipment. And the partygoers would have been warned about the dangers their drugs posed.

These individuals could have then made an informed decision whether to deposit their drugs in amnesty bins provided. And if they had disposed of them, they wouldn’t have subsequently ended up in hospital, and none of them would have died as a result of taking a deadly drug.

Morally wrong not to

The ACT government made an enlightened decision last September, when it approved the nation’s first legal pill testing trial at a music festival.

And despite the initial plan for the trial that was to be held on land controlled by the federal government mysteriously falling through, it looks as if the STA-SAFE consortium might be running the pill testing trial at the Groovin the Moo festival this April.

According to Spirovska, the implications of governments continuing to refuse to implement pill testing trials “are tragic and potentially deadly.” And “authorities have an obligation to take action on this public health issue.”

“Being informed and safe is not a privilege young people should be dying for,” she concluded.

Less Teens Smoke Weed When it’s Legal

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

Countries which move towards legalising the recreational use of cannabis invariably face the conservative outcry that such a move will result in an upsurge in demand.

However, there is a growing body of research to suggest that not only is the link between cannabis legalisation and increased use a myth, but legalising the drug may result in less young people being attracted to its mystique or using it to rebel.

Recent study

A recent study of 216,000 adolescents in the US over a 12 year period suggests that less teenagers are using cannabis in states where its possession and use have been legalised, than when these activities were a crime.

Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis also found that the number of adolescents with “cannabis-related problems” — such as dependency coupled with trouble in school and relationships — declined by up to 24 percent in jurisdictions that legalised the drug.

The study found that up to 10 percent fewer teenagers in those states had reported using marijuana.

The researchers further found reductions in behavioural problems, including fighting, property crimes and selling drugs.

Causation

This study looked at adolescent behaviour between 2002 and 2013, with this period being shortly after medical cannabis was first legalised in 1996, with greater liberalisation following in the years thereafter.

“We were surprised to see substantial declines in marijuana use and abuse,” said lead researcher Richard A. Grucza. He qualified this by pointing out that the research suggested a correlation and not necessarily a causation relationship.

“We don’t know how legalisation is affecting young marijuana users, but it could be that many kids with behavioural problems are more likely to get treatment earlier in childhood, making them less likely to turn to pot during adolescence,” he added. “Whatever is happening with these behavioural issues, it seems to be outweighing any effects of marijuana decriminalisation.”

Benefits of decriminalisation

Twenty percent of Americans now live in states where the use and possession of small quantities of cannabis are no longer a crime.

State surveys of young people in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska suggest that after decriminalisation, the number of students who had tried the drug remained stable, rather than increased as predicted by conservatives.

Meanwhile, these states have benefited from tens of millions in extra tax revenue. Colorado, for example, brought in $129 million in its second year of legalisation and Washington welcomed $220 million extra into its coffers.

But perhaps the greatest financial benefit is the fall in expenditure upon enforcement – from policing, to prosecution through the court system, to prison expenditure. And there are flow on social benefits, with less drug users being drawn into the crime cycle and all the harm that flows from it.

Portuguese experience

Portugal stands as the worldwide model for drug decriminalisation. In 2001 the Portuguese government took the unprecedented step of decriminalising all illicit substances, from marijuana to crystal methamphetamine to heroin.

In 1999, around one percent of the population in Portugal was addicted to heroin. The nation also reportedly had the highest number of drug-related AIDS deaths in the European Union. The government had been waging the usual war on drugs since the 1980s, but it wasn’t working.

But since decriminalisation, Portugal’s drug-induced death rate has fallen top three per million residents, which is five times lower than the European average. By 2014, the number of new drug-related HIV infections had plummeted to 40, compared with 1,016 thirteen years prior.

And drug use among teenagers in grades 10 through 12 has dropped by over third since decriminalisation.

The Portuguese drug policy has been so successful that the ultra-conservative and quasi-judicial body, the International Narcotics Control Board, lauded it as exemplary in December 2015.