Category Archives:Drugs General

Sniffer Dogs are Ineffective in Detecting the Presence of Drugs

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

The use of drug detection dogs is controversial to say the least, with study after study finding that the dogs have an incredibly high margin for error, and that their presence can lead to dangerous drug-taking activity, such as ‘loading up’ and ‘pre-loading’, which has led to the deaths of several young people in music festivals across Australia.

Handling money or shaking a hand can lead to a positive indicatio

Now, a former police dog trainer has acknowledged that another problem is that while the animals are indeed able to detect the presence of drugs – a positive indication can be the result of residue from items such as currency or even a handshake with a person who used a substance, and not just the actual presence of drugs.

This information has bolstered the argument that a positive indication by a sniffer dog is not sufficient, by itself, to ground the ‘reasonable suspicion’ required to search a person.

Teenage girl strip searched after a positive indication, but nothing found

Just a couple of months ago, a teenager stood in front of the New South Wales Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC), explaining that after a positive indication by a drug detection dog on her way into the Splendour in the Grass music festival last year, she was separated from her friends, and then taken, alone by police into a tent and strip searched. At the same hearing, a New South Wales police officer admitted that many of the strip searches undertaken at music festivals across the state may have been conducted illegally.

Many of these strip searches – a degrading and invasive procedure – have also been undertaken unnecessarily too, because they’re based on a positive indication by a drug detection dog, and various research shows that the dogs are wrong as much as two-thirds of the time, meaning the searches turn up nothing.

Sniffer dogs were introduced to New South Wales around the time of the Sydney Olympics, but even after two decades as part of the police armoury in the war against drugs, instead of catching drug suppliers, or deterring drug users and dealers, drug dog operations have led to tens of thousands of innocent people being subjected to the humiliation of strip searches.

High margin for error

Research from New South Wales shows that the margin for error of sniffer dogs as much as 63%. And here’s why: the purpose of police dogs is to detect people in possession of drugs. The problem is, the dogs are exceptionally sensitive to the scent of drugs, so much so, they are able to pick up minute traces of residual drugs, which could indicate any number of scenarios – perhaps previous use of drugs by a person, or even just that someone has touched drugs, or drug equipment, or a hand of another user, without actually ingesting drugs themselves.

Dave Wright, a former NSW Police dog trainer, explains that dogs are trained through a process of conditioning to recognise and indicate the odour of prohibited drugs.

He says that while the training is highly effective, ultimately it does mean that dogs are not necessarily able to tell the difference between a residual scent and the scent of someone actually in possession of drugs.

What’s more, he says, because the dogs are highly sensitised, it is possible that they will provide a positive indication if someone has been carrying drugs, if someone has had (even limited) contact with drugs in the past, or if, for example, they are carrying money that’s been previously handled by a drug user, or was in a confined space with drugs…. or any number of potential scenarios.

So, are drug dogs’ noses too sensitive to be successful?

If police are using an indication by a sniffer dog as the sole basis to justify ‘reasonable grounds’ to search a person, isn’t it then also possible to arguable that the rates of strip searches that result in a positive finding of drugs are not substantial enough to support grounds for a strip search simply on suspicion?

Over the last five years, reports have indicated that the use of strip searches by NSW police following a positive indication from a drug detection dog has increased markedly.

Under New South Wales law, police can search you if they have a ‘suspicion on reasonable grounds’ that you have drugs on you at that particular time.

However, when the NSW Government passed the Police Powers (Drug Detection Dogs) Act 2001 (‘the Dogs Act’), The Act had a built-in review provision, whereby the Ombudsman would evaluate its effectiveness after two years.

The review was released mid-way through 2006. It had examined 470 drug dog operations over two years. It also found that prohibited drugs were located in only 26 per cent of the recorded positive indications by drug dogs.

Are there better ways to handle drug possession and use?

Furthermore, of the 10,211 positive indications made, there were only 19 successful prosecutions for drug supply – which represented 0.19 per cent of those searched.

The review concluded that “the use of drug detection dogs has proven to be an ineffective tool for detecting drug dealers” and with regard to the question of whether a positive indication by a drug dog is ‘reasonable suspicion’ for a police search, the report broadly concluded that: “Given the low rate of detecting drug offences following a drug detection dog indication, it is our view, supported by Senior Counsel’s advice, that it is not sufficient for a police officer to form a reasonable suspicion that a person is in possession or control of a prohibited drug solely on this basis.”

Despite these findings that drug detection dogs are ineffective, the number of searches performed after positive indications has continued to increase dramatically.

Figures recently obtained by the Greens MLC David Shoebridge via freedom of information (FOI) laws revealed that the number of strip searches conducted by police following a dog indication have almost doubled: up from 590 in 2016 to 1,124 in 2017.

While the LECC is continuing to investigate strip searches, with a view to understanding how and why these are being conducted by police and whether or not they are being carried out within the specific guidelines of the law, late last year the Redfern Legal Centre, also launched its Safe and Sound campaign, aiming to reduce the high number of strip searches at music festivals and at other places. It’s also agitating to have the current laws changed, so that police officers have more guidance and the public is better safeguarded.

Of course, this also begs the question of whether or not there’s a better response to the war on drugs and certainly at events such as music festivals harm minimisation measures such as pill testing is still being advocated for.

So far, the New south Wales government has remained steadfast with its outdated ‘just say no’ to drugs view, but the outcome of the LECC inquiry into strip searches and the recent Coronial inquiry into drug -related deaths at music festivals may be successful in finally bringing some more options to the table. Options that aren’t as expensive, as invasive, and which preliminary research shows are more effective. Because what we do know, is that the current ‘zero tolerance’ policy is not working.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The opposite effect

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

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

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

Illegality increases profitability

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

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

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

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

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

Arrests are no answer

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

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

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

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

Cannabis: a case in point

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

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

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

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

Legalise it all

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

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

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

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

NSW Government Risks More Lives by Rejecting Harm Reduction

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

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

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

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

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

Young people and drugs

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

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

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

Harrowing deaths

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

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

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

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

NSW Government insists on ‘zero-tolerance’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drug Prohibition in Australia: Power, Politics and Prejudice

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

The NSW government is continuing its hard-line approach towards the use and possession of illegal drugs, increasing the presence of police at music festivals and refusing to implement harm minimisation initiatives such as pill testing.

Premier Berejiklian and her cohorts continue to spout the rhetoric used by prohibitionists for generations – that drugs are illegal due to the fact they are dangerous, and harm reduction measures will send the message that taking these substance is permissible, thereby encouraging their use.

But the fact of the matter is that drugs are not criminalised due to their dangers, but for reasons based in power, politics and prejudice.

Lack of correlation between harm and criminalisation

A study by Professor David Nutt, Dr Leslie King and Dr Lawrence Phillips on behalf of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs conducted a ‘multicriteria decision analysis’ of 20 drugs, applying 16 criteria to determine the harm they pose, nine of which related to harms to the user and seven to harms towards others.

The criterion included damage to health, economic cost and links to crime. Each drug was given an overall harm score, and the results came as a surprise to many.

The study found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most harmful drug overall is alcohol. And despite the vast number of deaths every year due to illnesses caused by cigarettes, with all their contaminants, tobacco came in at sixth. Of course, both of these drugs are legal.

Illegal drugs took the second to fifth positions, descending from heroin at number two, to crack cocaine, methamphetamine and cocaine.

However, it is notable that many illegal drugs – such as MDMA (‘ecstacy’), ketamine and LSD – were assessed to be less than one-seventh as harmful as alcohol and, perhaps more importantly for prohibition purposes, were less than one-twentieth as harmful to others as alcohol.

Brief history of criminalisation

Australians in the nineteenth century were among the world’s largest consumers of opiates, in the form of patent medicines. Laudanum, for example, was a mixture of opium and alcohol and was administered to children.

And before federation in 1901, very few laws regulated the use of drugs in Australia.

The first Australian drug laws were patently racist in nature. A law in 1857 which imposed restrictions on opium was expressly aimed at discouraging the entry of Chinese people into the country.

Further restrictions were passed in 1897 which prohibited any use of opium by Indigenous, while other members of the population were allowed to possess and smoke the drug until 1908.

More restrictions came about to maintain relations with the United States. Influenced by temperance activists, US President Theodore Roosevelt convened an international opium conference in 1909, which eventually resulted in the International Opium Convention.

Australia became a signatory to the convention in 1913, and by 1925 the Convention had expanded to include the prohibition of opium, morphine, heroin, cocaine, and cannabis.

The initial criminalisation of marijuana also had a racist element, and was a poor excuse for curing a social ill.

Powerful media magnate William Randolph Hearst claimed that “marihuana” was responsible for murderous rampages by blacks and Mexicans, and disrupting the fabric of traditional society, and Hearst ensured his newspapers propagated those views.

Of course, alcohol prohibition was tried and failed in various parts of Australia around the time of the Great Depression. The Temperance Movement which led to greater regulation and, in some places, prohibition led to an increase in criminal activity and was eventually abandoned – with the power and influence of the Aussie drinking culture winning in the end, despite the drug’s harms.

The first wave of broader drug criminalisation in Australia was unconcerned with recreational drugs, which only became used more commonly used in the 1960s.

Drugs were primarily regulated under the various Poisons Acts of the states, reflecting the need to control the use of medicinal substances, rather than criminalising use.

But by the 1970s, all Australian states had enacted laws that made distinctions between possession, use and supply.

Start of harm reduction strategies

In 1985, the federal and state governments adopted a National Drug Strategy with a view to addressing the issue of drug misuse.

The strategy placed a heavy emphasis on prohibition and policing, but also recognised the need for harm reduction initiatives.

Australian governments, however, have invested the vast majority of resources into prohibition and enforcement, with a recent study finding that just 2% of funds go towards harm reduction, while a whopping 66% are spent in law enforcement alone.

Failure of the war on drugs

Drug prohibition has failed, however, to reduce consumption.

In fact, a substantial 43% of Australians admit to having tried an illicit drug at least once in their lifetimes – technically making them criminals, albeit undetected ones.

Professor Nicole Lee, from the National Drug Research Institute remarked 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.”

Other countries, including Portugal, have moved away from a prohibitionist model and reaped enormous financial and social benefits as a result.

But as Australia continues to invest hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars a year on drug law enforcement and incarceration, the above study is a salient reminder that prohibition is an irrational policy dictated by considerations other than the harms created by particular substances.

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.