Category Archives:Drugs General

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.

Government May Allow Pill Testing at Music Festival

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

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

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

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

How it works

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

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

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

Preventing deaths

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

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

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

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

Users act on the advice of testers

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

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

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

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

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

Organisers in favour of testing

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

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

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

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

Public support

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

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

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

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

Australian Medical Association President Calls for Drug Decriminalisation

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

The Australian Medical Association’s Western Australian president says it’s time for a new approach to illegal drugs, calling for personal drug possession to be decriminalised.

Dr Andrew Miller believes it’s time to heed the success of countries like Portugal, and treat drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal law problem.

Situation in WA

Western Australia is said to be in the midst of a ‘ice epidemic’, with emergency departments seeing significant increases in admissions by ‘ice’ users in recent years.

While the national average of daily methamphetamine consumption is about one ‘hit’ for every 28 people, in Perth it’s about one per 17 people.

The 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey suggested that 3.8% of the WA population had used methamphetamine in the prior 12 months, well above the Australian average of 2.1%. And frontline doctors believe the last few years have seen a rise in these figures.

Proposed model

Dr Miller says that at the very least, there must be a “mature debate” on how the state treats drug users.

He wants the WA government to consider trialling the Portuguese model, where possession and use of illicit drugs remains illegal, but anyone caught with small quantities is fined and/or sent for treatment, instead of to court for punishment.

“The AMA’s position is that illicit drug use is bad for people and it’s bad for the community and we need to look again at what the best ways are to minimize the harm that drug addiction brings to families in WA every day”, the doctor said.

He added that decriminalisation would save the community millions of dollars, allow more resources to be invested in prevention and diversion, and lead to better outcomes for both users and the community.

“The current situation’s not working, there’s a lot of harm from drugs and there’s a lot of harm from people going to jail,” the doctor remarked. “The one thing we’re not seeing enough of is money spent on rehabilitation, money spent on health intervention.”

Political response

Despite the chorus of health experts calling for decriminalisation, West Australian Premier Mark McGowan is adamant that no such thing will occur in his state.

“We’re not going to decriminalise drugs in Western Australia, full stop,” Mr McGowan declared, adding that while he supports treatment programs for users, decriminalisation is not the answer to the issue of drugs.

“You need to have a mix of solutions, and what we want to have is that mix of education, treatment, as well as the force of law,” he stated. “Our focus is using our prison system as a punishment mechanism but also providing opportunities for people to get off drugs.”

Federal Justice Minister Michael Keenan went even further, claiming that moves towards decriminalisation would be “reckless and dangerous”.

Broader effects of drug law

Portugal reformed their drug laws 2001, treating drug addiction as a health issue rather than a crime. The move has not increased drug use as predicted, but it has significantly lowered deaths and injuries from overdoses, the spread of HIV and other infections, and the costs of enforcement.

A joint Australian and UK study in 2010 looked into the effect of the reforms, finding that in addition to the above, the move has led to fewer school students using drugs. The model has been hailed as a resounding success around the world.

Premier McGowan was recently asked about the Portuguese experience, and admitted being unaware of it. He then went on to speak about the Perth Drug Court. The admission almost beggars belief in the context of his responsibilities and proposals, and he would be well-advised to at least look into the country’s success.

Details of the Portuguese experience

Before drug decriminalisation, one percent of the Portuguese population was dependent on heroin and the nation had the highest number of drug-related HIV/AIDS deaths in the European Union.

Sixteen years later, the current drug-induced death rate in Portugal sits at three per million residents, which is one-fifth of the European average. Drug-related HIV infections plummeted to just 40 in 2014, compared with 1,016 in 2001. Meanwhile, drug use recorded in the categories of ‘past-year’ and ‘past-month’ were lower in 2012 than 2001.

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

There is no reason other developed countries like Australia could not reap the same benefits through a sensible, evidence-based approached.

‘Lost’ 34 Bags of Cannabis? Police Want to Hear from You

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

Thousands of people are talking about a cheeky social media post by the NSW Police Force depicting 34 garbage bags of cannabis plants, found in bushland in a northern Sydney suburb.

Facebook post

Police published the post on Facebook after finding the cannabis over the weekend.

LOST & FOUND
Does this belong to you? Northern Beaches LAC – NSW Police Force are looking for the owner of 34 garbage bags full of cannabis found in bushland at Terrey Hills. Attend your local police station to claim ownership. We’d love to hear from you.

The post has received more than 30 thousand comments and over 6,000 shares.

A local man who regularly walks in the area said the bags appeared between Friday and Saturday. He originally thought someone had unlawfully dumped garbage, but contacted police after he looked more closely and realised it was cannabis.

Police arrived to find a mixture of mature plants and seedlings, along with some potting mix and other substances.

Ongoing investigation

The items have been seized for forensic examination. While the bags were only metres from busy Mona Vale Road, it is believed they were dumped from a quiet street behind.

NSW Drug Squad officers are appealing for anyone with information to come forward or to call Crime Stoppers.

Drugs on Sydney’s Northern Beaches

Illicit drugs have been prevalent on the Northern Beaches in recent years, with large hauls of cannabis and other drugs found over the past few months.

Two men were allegedly caught doing a drug deal involving cocaine just prior to Christmas, and the subsequent search of a home in Freshwater is said to have yielded more than $55,000 in cash and small bags containing white powder.

And last November, police reported finding a hydroponic set-up, 18 cannabis plants, cocaine, amphetamines, GHB and cash at a home in Narrabeen. They charged a man with 10 offences, including four counts of possessing a prohibited drug and three counts of drug supply.

In June last, year police allegedly seized nearly 1000 cannabis plants in simultaneous raids at industrial premises at Brookvale and Cromer, with an estimated street value of $3 million.

Beware – Ecstacy Pills May Contain Deadly Additives

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

On the same weekend that Victorian Footballer Riki Stephens took the drug that would kill him less than a week later, 16 others on the Gold Coast were hospitalised after reactions to what they thought was ecstasy.

Police originally suspected they had all taken the so-called zombie drug ‘flakka’, but subsequent toxicology reports told a different story, indicating the presence of a synthetic drug known as ‘N-BOMe’.

N-BOMe is also known as ‘N-Bomb’, ‘Tripstasy’, ‘green Mitsubishi’, ‘yellow Ferrari’ and ‘pink superman’. The drug has been linked to the death of young Australians Rye Hunt, whose body washed up on the shores of Rio earlier this year, and Henry Kwan, a Sydney student who jumped to his death from a third-floor balcony.

Party season has begun

Just two weeks after Riki Stephens’ family turned off his life support system, several people collapsed at the Horror Mansion Halloween Party at Moore Park in Sydney.

One patient was making bizarre facial expressions as he was strapped to a stretcher and wheeled into a waiting ambulance. NSW police went on to arrest more than 20 people for drug possession, with the drug GHB being suspected.

As we sit on the brink of summer – the season for schoolies, Christmas parties and music festivals around Australia – police, paramedics and hospital emergency department staff are gearing up for what they fear is going to be one of the deadliest seasons for drug overdoses in Australian history.

Along with the prevalence of flakka, NBOMe and GHB, emergency service workers are also bracing themselves for dealing with the adverse effects of super strength ecstasy pills, and the drug Fentanyl, which is said to be far more potent than heroin.

Police expect all of these drugs to flood the Australian black market this summer.

Failure of ‘zero tolerance’ approaches

In recent years, loading up on ecstacy pills is suspected to have claimed the lives of a number of music festival go-ers, including Sylvia Choi and Georgina Bartter.

Loading up, or pre loading, is where people take all of their drugs at once in order to avoid detection by police or sniffer dogs. It can be particularly dangerous where drugs are high in purity or contain other forms of drugs.

Those who deal first-hand with the frightening effects of drug overdoses argue that Australia’s ‘zero tolerance’ approach to drug use is naïve and dangerous, putting young lives at risk.

John Rogerson, the Chief Executive of the Australian Alcohol and Drug Foundation, says Australians have an insatiable appetite when it comes to illicit substances, and that ‘tough on drugs’ approaches do nothing to deter demand.

Studies suggest that we are world-leaders in drug consumption – the highest users of ecstasy, the third biggest amphetamine users, and second biggest opioid users per capita.

Mr Rogerson highlights the fact that the recent National Ice Taskforce Report found that the majority of people who taking illicit drugs, do so for recreational purposes.

“And that’s why we can’t arrest our way out of the problem,” he says.

Putting others at risk

Another important consideration is the safety of those exposed to adverse reactions: police officers, paramedics, hospital workers and innocent bystanders who might be the unwitting victims of the violent behaviour at the hands of those affected by drugs like NBOMe and ice.

Only last year, a Hunter Valley man engaged in a random and frenzied attack on a hospital security guard after taking NBOMe. The man couldn’t remember anything after snorting the drug, but collapsed and was taken to hospital where he leapt off a stretcher, over a railing and punched a security guard.

Pill testing

Considering the prevalence of deadly additives and fluctuating purity levels, many are calling upon the government to allow for the introduction of pill testing at festivals and other venues where drugs are going to be taken regardless of what the law says.

Pill testing allows drug users to receive information about the make-up and, in some cases, purity level of their drugs within half an hour, allowing them to make an informed decision as to whether to take the drug and, if so, how much of it to take.

Emergency room doctor and harm minimisation advocate Dr David Caldicott says, “Pill testing reduces consumption by 60 per cent at the point of consumption.”

Pill testing has been highly successful in reducing overdoses in several European countries, where it has been reported that users are unlikely to take drugs in cases where they are advised they contain deadly additives. Testing booths have the added benefit of facilitating education about the dangers of drug use, and studies suggests they have led to a drop in ‘bad batches’ of drugs on the market.

But despite 82% of respondents in a government survey supporting pill testing, Premier Mike Baird has so far rejected calls for the harm minimisation measure to be introduced in NSW.

President to Release Non-Violent Drug Offenders

US President Barack Obama recently commuted the prison sentences of 42 inmates as part of his push for criminal justice reform.

Most of the offenders are small-time drug dealers who have already spent many years in prison – some were sentenced to life-imprisonment under “three strikes and you’re out” legislation.

Obama has now commuted the sentences of 348 inmates – more than the previous seven US presidents combined.

US Prison Population

An estimated 2.2 million people are behind bars in the United States. This represents a quarter of the global prison population in a country with only 5 per cent of the world’s population.

A whopping one in 100 US adults are incarcerated, and two-thirds of released inmates return to prison within 2 years.

The direct cost to the US economy is enormous – US $60 billion per year, an increase of more than 300% over the past 20 years. The indirect costs are believed to be far higher than this.

Law Reform

The White House has released a statement saying the commuted sentences related to inmates affected by “outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws,” including mandatory life sentences for non-violent drug offences.

“The individuals receiving a presidential commutation today have more than repaid their debt to society and earned this second chance,” the statement said.

The President is expected to commute more sentences before he leaves office in January 2017. He has also proposed legislation which would reduce sentence lengths for small time offenders, and focus on alternatives to imprisonment and rehabilitation.

The President said of the current system:

“It’s not keeping us as safe as it should be. It is not as fair as it should be. Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it.”

Justice Reinvestment

Some US states have already seen the benefits of ‘Justice Reinvestment’, an initiative proposed by the US Open Society Institute in 2003.

Justice reinvestment recognises that a disproportionately high concentration of offending comes from a small number of communities, which are normally categorised by:

  • High rates of poverty, child abuse or neglect, alcohol and drug use, and mental health problems,
  • Insufficient social services such as housing and employment support, and
  • low education levels.

By channeling funds into programs which address these problems, justice reinvestment has been remarkably successful in lowering offending rates and overall law enforcement costs in a number of US communities.

A 2014 report by the Urban Institute found that 17 states are projected to save as much as $4.6 billion through policies designed to channel spending into community projects and otherwise control corrections spending.

Seeing these benefits, a total of 21 US states have now signed up with the Council of State Governments Justice Centre and other non-profit organisations to investigate or apply justice reinvestment in their jurisdiction.

Closer to Home

Australia certainly has its own problems – with a sharply rising prison population caused by tougher bail laws and harsh sentencing regimes, despite falling overall crime rates.

Our Indigenous communities suffer from hugely disproportionate incarceration rates, while our politicians seem intent on spending more and more on enforcement and imprisonment, while losing focus on programs which address the underlying causes of offending.

It is hoped government will start to recognise the real, long-term economic and social benefits of preventative and diversionary programs, and shift expenditure towards initiatives that deal with the problem at its source.

Victoria Leads the Way in Drug Reform

The Victorian Government recently announced the second stage of its program to tackle ice addiction.

State Attorney-General, Martin Pakula, unveiled the $57.6 million package – the centerpiece of which is an expanded Drug Court program based at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court, allowing an additional 170 drug offenders to receive targeted support.

The funding breakdown is as follows:

  • $32 million to expand the Drug Court of Victoria,
  • $5.5 million for training and support for frontline workers,
  • $6 million for the 18 to 20 bed Grampians mental health facility,
  • $10 million to improve mental health, alcohol and other drug facilities, and
  • $4 million to address ice addiction in Aboriginal communities.

 

This funding builds on the $45 million pledged by the government last year, which focuses on expanding drug rehabilitation services in Victoria’s drug hot-spots and treating 500 habitual users each year.

Need for Reform

In announcing the plan, Mr Pakula acknowledged the failure of the current punitive approach to drug use. “The lack of effective sentencing options for serious drug-related offences has resulted in increased imprisonment rates, increased re-offending and a failure to address the underlying causes of addiction,” he said.

Victoria has experienced a concerning spike in crime rates in recent years. The State’s Crime Statistics Agency has released figures for 2015 which suggest an 8.1 per cent rise in overall crime. Young repeat offenders were the main driving force for the increase.

Assistant Police Commissioner Robert Hill said young people represented 90% of those arrested for theft, burglary and break and enter offences. The crime rates in each of those areas was by up 10% on the previous year.

Deputy Police Commissioner Andrew Crisp believes that ice is behind most of the drug-related offending.

Methamphetamine Use

While a 2015 study of Australian drug use suggests that the number of Australians using methamphetamines has remained stable at around 2% since 2001, there are significant shifts in:

  • The number of users preferring ice over other methamphetamine, up from 22% in 2010 to 50% in 2013,
  • The proportion using at least weekly, up from 9.3% in 2010 to 15.5% in 2013, and
  • An increase in the purity of ice, up from an annual average of 21% in 2009 to 64% in 2013.

 

A recent report by the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) expressed concerns about the damage caused by ice. “Ice is now the number one problem in terms of illicit substances,” Justice Minister Michael Keenan said. The drug is believed to be funding international criminal syndicates, with over 60% of Australia’s most wanted serious and organised crime figures believed to be involved in the methamphetamine trade.

The Drug Court

Drug Court programs seek to address the issue of drug dependency, rather than sending offenders to prison. They generally take referrals from Local and District Courts, and strive to tailor long term solutions which break the cycle of drug use and crime.

Mental Health Minister Martin Foley recognised the effectiveness of Dandenong’s Drug Court program in diverting offenders away from the criminal justice system. “The support then leads to better outcomes as people both get their lives back together, get off the drugs and end their crime careers,” he said. “It’s had remarkable success and we intend to roll that model out around Victoria.”

Participants in the Dandenong program were 30 per cent less likely to reoffend within 2 years than those sentenced in the regular court system. This has saved Victorian tax payers an estimated $3.8 million in enforcement costs. Drug Court Magistrate, Tony Parsons, has also highlighted the social and health cost savings of diverting low-level offenders away from prison.

With the increased funding, the Victorian Drug Court is expected to deal with 240 people each year, up from the current 70.

New South Wales

A 2015 study by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics found that habitual users who commit drug-related crimes are less likely to reoffend when dealt with by the NSW Drug Court than when sent to prison.

Participants in the NSW program were found to be 17 per cent less likely to be reconvicted for any offence, 30 per cent less likely to be reconvicted for a violent offence and 38 per cent less likely to be reconvicted for a drug offence at any point during the follow-up period -which averaged 35 months.

The study adds to a growing body of evidence that Drug Courts are more effective than prisons when it comes to reducing reoffending rates and the costs associated with enforcement.

It is hoped that our state will also capitalise on the long term economic and social benefits of diversionary programs by increasing investment to our own Drug Courts.

‘Legalise it All: How to Win the War on Drugs’

In a recent piece for Harper’s magazine titled ‘Legalize it all: How to Win the War on Drugs’, Dan Baum, a staff writer for The New Yorker and Wall Street Journal, released a frank quote from John Ehrlichman, a policy advisor for Richard Nixon and chief instigator of the war on drugs. The quote sparked controversy worldwide, shining new light on the reasons behind the Government’s war on drugs.

While writing a book on politics and drug prohibition in 1994, Baum had the chance to ask Ehrlichman a series of questions during a book signing. He recently revealed the details of their conversation:

“I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” Ehrlichman asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The War on Drugs was a Nixon invention but it’s been useful for political figures around the world, and its function as a political tool hasn’t changed. Being seen to fight drug crime is a great way for politicians to win votes, regardless of what the evidence tells us.

In New South Wales, the law and order auction that happens during each electoral season has seen ever-increasing penalties for drug offences, and more people sent through the criminal justice system. Last year, the Federal Government’s ‘Dob in a Dealer’ anti-ice campaign was widely criticised for being used as a political distraction to take attention off the Abbott-Government’s failing legislative agenda.

The Failed War On Drugs

Someone smart once quipped that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. This would seem to hold true in most places, except drug policy, where the Government is happy to continue burning tens of millions of dollars a year fighting a war on drugs – despite mounting expert opinion telling them to change tact.

The $1 million annual cost of the dob-in-a-dealer campaign would almost cover the $1.3 million needed to run a 10-bed rehabilitation unit, so a few more addicts don’t have months longer, often in custody, for a proper shot at beating addiction and getting their lives back-on-track.

According to Victoria’s former chief commissioner Ken Lay, this is where the Government should be looking to spend its resources:

“For social problems like these, law enforcement isn’t the answer. Unless you get into the primary prevention end, unless you stop the problem occurring you simply won’t arrest your way out of this,” Lay said last year.

“Ice has been on the scene for over a decade and we’ve had a really strong law enforcement approach and it hasn’t resolved the problem. The time’s right now to look at the other options.”

Mountains of research support this view. The Australian Medical Association has pointed out the obvious: “reducing drug addiction reduces demand for drugs, reduces crime, reduces harm to addicts and their families and reduces the burden on our health system – not to mention the courts, prisons and police.”

However, in New South Wales, the police and Government continue to treat drug use just like every other law and order problem – arrest and sent more people to prison for longer and the problem will vanish. Guess what, it hasn’t worked.

So what could work?

On July 1st, 2001, Portugal decriminalised the possession of small amount of every drug imaginable, from marijuana, to cocaine, to ice and heroin. Some thought the country would become a drug tourist haven, others predicted that usage among youths would skyrocket. Fifteen years later, neither of those things have happened.

Instead, Portugal has seen a drastic reduction in drug addiction. The number of addicts, at 100,000 before the policy was enacted, was halved in the space of 10 years. Portugal’s drug usage rates are now among the lowest of EU member states.

This happened because Portugal moved from treating drug use as a criminal law problem, to a health issue. Possession and use was moved out of criminal courts and into special tribunals where each user’s unique situation is judged by legal experts, psychologists, and social workers. This is an important step to make – no-one chooses for drugs to overwhelm their lives and place them on the wrong path. Providing users with pathways outside the traditional justice system is a win-win for all involved.

This idea isn’t as farfetched as it sounds, and is beginning to affect drug laws around the world.

An international commission of medical experts, set up by the Lancet medical journal and Johns Hopkins University in the United States, recently called on the United Nations to back global drug decriminalisation, arguing that current policies lead to violence, deaths and the spread of disease, harming health and human rights.

In a report published on the eve of a special session of the UN’s General Assembly devoted to illegal narcotics, the group urged Governments around the world to begin decriminalising minor, non-violent drug offences involving the use, possession and sale of small quantities.

“The goal of prohibiting all use, possession, production, and trafficking of illicit drugs is the basis of many of our national drug laws, but these policies are based on ideas about drug use and drug dependence that are not scientifically grounded,” says Dr Chris Beyrer of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a member of the commission.

“The global ‘war on drugs’ has harmed public health, human rights and development. It’s time for us to rethink our approach to global drug policies, and put scientific evidence and public health at the heart of drug policy discussions.”

While politicians win votes, and private prison companies and criminal lawyers get rich, the hardworking taxpayer will continue to foot the bill for the failed war on drugs, and users who want to reach out will not only fail to get the support and assistance they need, but will be labelled as criminals in the process.