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

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

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

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

Easy access despite punitive measures

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

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

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

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

Failure of punitive approach

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

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

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

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

Skewed priorities

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

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

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

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

The way forward

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

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

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

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

Harm reduction

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

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

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

‘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.

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

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

An ‘Ice Epidemic’?

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

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

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

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

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

An Addiction Epidemic?

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

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

Ice-Fuelled Violence Epidemic?

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

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

Obstacle to Reform

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

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

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

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

Effect of Stigmatisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The public call for pill testing

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

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

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

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

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

How pill testing would work

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

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

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

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

Five reasons to implement this evidence-based approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NBOMe

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

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

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

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

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

Some positive movement interstate

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

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

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

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

War Against Drugs Fails to Stem the Ice Epidemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Country towns.

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

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

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

About ice

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

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

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

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

Police Talk Tough on Drugs at Music Festivals

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

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

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

Strong police presence

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

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

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

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

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

Getting caught with drugs

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

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

ID required.

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

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

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

Stop Arresting Drivers for Trace Amounts of Cannabis

By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim

A system of legalised medical marijuana is slowly being established in Australia. Federal government legislation came into effect in October last year, allowing those with licences to cultivate, manufacture and distribute the medicine under strict regulations.

Both the NSW and Victorian state governments are now growing crops of cannabis for medicinal purposes. And Queensland passed legislation last October that will allow doctors to prescribe medicinal cannabis to patients as of next month.

However, as people begin to legally use marijuana for medicinal purposes, they’ll find themselves in a predicament when it comes to driving, as all Australian states and territories run roadside drug testing programs that test drivers for traces of THC: the psychoactive ingredient of the plant.

A zero tolerance approach

Roadside drug testing programs have been implemented throughout the country on the pretext of road safety, the claim being that it will lead to a reduction in the number of car accidents caused by drivers under the influence of drugs.

But the reality is this type of testing has more to do with a zero tolerance approach to illicit substances, as the regime focuses on cracking down on people for using certain drugs, rather than representing an evidence-based approach to halting road fatalities.

Random breath testing for alcohol tests for driver impairment; it is a regime based on extensive evidence that certain concentrations of alcohol in the blood system lead to an increased danger. Indeed, this is why there are different gradients of prescribed concentration of alcohol (PCA) charges – low range, mid range and high range.

But roadside drug testing is not an evidence-based approach – a driver can be charged even if they have minute traces of residual drugs in their system, amounts so small they could not possibly impair driving.

Along with THC, police test drivers for MDMA and amphetamines, via a saliva test. And the devices they use don’t gauge drug concentrations, which means a driver could have taken the drugs days before.

The trouble in NSW

The Northern Rivers region has been the flashpoint of the NSW police blitz on roadside drug testing for years now. This is having an adverse effect on the local court system. Lismore Court is overwhelmed with cases of people who’ve been charged for driving with cannabis in their system.

In February last year, Lismore magistrate David Heilpern found Joseph Carrall not guilty of drug driving, when he accepted testimony that he hadn’t smoked any pot for nine days prior to being tested, which meant he could rely on the defence of ‘honest and reasonable mistake’.

Australia flies in the face of the evidence

Australia is the only country in the world to have implemented a large-scale roadside drug testing program of this kind. In NSW, it began in 2007, while the first jurisdiction to introduce the program was Victoria in December 2004. In England for example, drivers are not charged unless they have a certain concentration of drugs in their system.

At the same time as Victoria was implementing the zero tolerance program, the world-renowned National Institute for Road Safety Research in the Netherlands was recommending against this type of testing.

The institute found that zero tolerance legislation for illegal drugs – with the exception of heroin – would “produce a massive overkill… resulting in very high cost and hardly any road safety benefits.”

It illustrated this in a case-controlled study in the Tilburg police district, where was shown that 87 percent of all cannabis users did not have a concentration sufficient to significantly increase the risk of injury.

The institute concluded that this did not mean cannabis use does not have an impact on road safety, as the remaining 13 percent used more than one drug at a time, and cannabis users constituted 70 percent of this high-risk group.

The research of professor Ross Homel of Griffith University was instrumental in the introduction of random breath testing in Australia. He has expressed the view that the inclusion of cannabis in roadside drug testing is more about the “enforcement of drug laws,” than an attempt to achieve “road safety benefits.”

Cannabis impairment: a contentious issue

The impact of cannabis use on driving ability is a controversial subject. There’s much debate as to whether it poses a significant risk. There’s also contention over the amount of the substance that needs to be taken in order to constitute a threat to road safety.

Professor Homel wrote in his paper that there’s increasing evidence that people who drive under the influence of cannabis do place themselves and others at an increased risk. But he also states that cannabis use seems to increase that risk by two to three times, compared to alcohol, which increases the risk by six to fifteen times or more.

A 2002 paper titled Cannabis and Alcohol in Motor Vehicle Accidents found that “crash culpability studies have failed to demonstrate that drivers” with cannabis in their systems “are significantly more likely than drug-free drivers to be culpable in road crashes.”

A Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs report, found that “cannabis leads to a more cautious style of driving.” And while it found that its use does have “a negative impact on decision time,” it also concluded that this doesn’t mean that drivers under the influence of marijuana posed a traffic safety risk.

The committee remarked that “cannabis alone, particularly in low doses, has little effect on the skills involved in automobile driving.”

In 2015, the US National Institute on Drug Abuse conducted a driving simulator test at the University of Iowa on the effects of cannabis and alcohol on driving ability.

Researchers found that while alcohol had an effect on the number of times a car left a lane it was driving in and the speed of weaving, marijuana did not. But they did find that cannabis increased weaving, and the higher the concentration of THC in a driver’s blood, the worse this became.

Police should stop testing for cannabis

However, Australian police aren’t testing for the level of THC in a driver’s blood.

They’re often pulling people over and charging them for traces of a substance that may have been consumed days before.

Cannabis is now understood to be at the low level of the harm scale, and its medicinal benefits are acknowledged globally. And as legal medicinal use of the drug becomes a reality, the roadside drug testing regime is going to impact sick people who should not be criminalised.

Until there’s conclusive evidence that the use of cannabis is detrimental to road safety, and an evidence-based approach similar to the drink driving regime is introduced, many believe marijuana should be removed from roadside drug testing in all jurisdictions across the country.

Bad Batch of ‘Ecstacy’ Blamed for 20 Hospitalisations

By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

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

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

Police response

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

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

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

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

He will appear in the Melbourne Magistrates Court next Monday.

Rise in ecstacy use

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

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

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

Harm reduction

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

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

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

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

NSW government’s position

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

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

Public opinion

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

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

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

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

Police Raid Another Medical Marijuana Producer

Police have raided another medicinal cannabis producer, who gives away her products free to help patients suffering from chronic pain and seizures. On January 4, South Australia police raided the home of Jenny Hallam and seized products and equipment related to the production of cannabis oil.

Ms Hallam is said to have been producing the medicine for two years and been supplying about 200 patients nationwide.

The 44-year-old’s criminal defence lawyer said her client would be appearing in court at a later date.

The lawyer questioned whether Ms Hallam committed a crime, as her client produces the product for people who need it, she doesn’t grow the cannabis she uses to make the oil, and nor does she sell her product.

A spokeswoman for SA police confirmed the home of a 44-year-old woman in the northern Adelaide suburb of Hillier had been raided and said police had seized “a quantity of chemicals and other substances from the address which will be forensically analysed.”

Concerned parents

Since the raid, parents of dozens of sick children have spoken out about the effect it’s going to have on their kids.

Steve Peek from Brisbane has an eight-year-old daughter Suli who relies on medicinal cannabis to control her seizures. He told the ABC that he’d contacted the SA police who told him they had “done the wrong thing but they had no choice because a complaint had been made.”

The police suggested Mr Peek contact the South Australian ombudsman about the matter.

An unlikely advocate

Since the raid, One Nation leader Pauline Hanson has stepped up as an unexpected advocate for medical marijuana. She announced on Sunday that she’d been in contact with prime minister Malcolm Turnbull calling for an amnesty for producers and users of medicinal cannabis.

Ms Hanson declared on her Facebook page that she has been a long-time advocate of the medicine, “due to its effective relief for so many ailments, conventional drugs can’t offer.”

Ms Hanson is not the only conservative politician to have thrown their weight behind legalised medicinal cannabis. A turning point for many was when then-prime minister Tony Abbott supplied a letter supporting medical marijuana for radio presenter Alan Jones to read on air in September 2014.

Legalising medical marijuana

In February last year, federal parliament passed the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016 allowing for the legal cultivation, manufacture and distribution of medical marijuana.

Under the new system – which came into effect on October 30 last year – businesses can apply for a licence to grow the plant for medicinal purposes. However, many in the community are asking what current medicinal cannabis patients are meant to do while they wait for the legalised products to be rolled out.

The raid on a Newcastle medicinal cannabis dispensary

Last week’s raid follows a similar incident in December when NSW police raided a medical marijuana dispensary in Newcastle. Two hundred and fifteen plants were seized from a hydroponic operation run by a local group called the Church of Ubuntu.

Co-founder of the church Karen Burge told Sydney Criminal Lawyers at the time that they’d been supplying small plants for cancer patients and parents of children with epilepsy to grow at home.

The church was one of the largest suppliers in the country with 2,000 patients.
Ms Burge added that the authorities were well aware of their two year long operation as they’d contacted premier Mike Baird about it in early 2015.

The Hemp party weighs in

Secretary of the Australian Hemp party Andrew Kavasilas said that the raid on Jenny Hallam’s house was terrible. But he expects the police will continue carrying out operations like these.

“It seems this is a sign of the time. This is obviously going to happen more and more over the next ten to twenty years,” Kavasilas told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “Because that’s how long medical cannabis will take to get up and going.”

Kavasilas said a situation will arise where more and more courts and police are going to be wasting their time in pursuing medicinal cannabis producers. “You’ll find that courts find no criminal activity, no criminal intent. So by and large, the criminal justice system doesn’t apply to them and they’ll be treated with leniency,” he outlined.

According to Kavasilas there are around 1,000 medical marijuana supply outlets around the country, and more than 100,000 patients using the medicine at the moment. He added that the laws that have been changed and the amendment of the Narcotics Act has done “nothing to address” these patients concerns.

Advocates call for immediate access

Medicinal cannabis advocates in Queensland are calling on the government to legalise the medicine immediately. In October last year, legislation was passed before state parliament that will allow Queensland doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to patients as of March.

But advocates are saying the wait could actually cost lives.

While in NSW, the state government is conducting several medicinal cannabis trials on chemotherapy patients and children with epilepsy. But again, advocates point out that these programs are slowing down access to the products for patients who need them now.

Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, has questioned why certain trials need to be carried out when a 2012 study identified 82 favourable controlled trials had been held around the world, and only nine unfavourable ones.

However, the doctor has also pointed out that there is a need for continued trials into areas that haven’t been thoroughly researched as yet.

The federal government’s medical marijuana adviser

Questions have also been raised over the appointment of doctor Andrew Southcott to the chair of the new Australian Advisory Council on the Medicinal Use of Cannabis. The former Liberal MP has previously said the drug is “not safe.”

In 2011, when Southcott was the opposition’s spokesperson on primary healthcare, he criticised the “normalisation” of the plant, in response to a Food Standards Australia New Zealand review of the use of hemp as food.

Interim measures

The answer to the current medicinal marijuana access problem is interim measures, according to Kavasilas. He believes the government should sit down with advocates like the HEMP party and discuss what measures could be taken now.

Then the government could take these guidelines to the United Nations and explain that this “is what Australia intends to do in the interim while companies materialise and produce these medical cannabis products,” Kavasilas said

“Bearing in mind that years or decades of medical research in the future may just show that conventional raw cannabis products are far superior to pharmaceutical ones,” he concluded.

Another Preventable Drug-Related Death Occurs at NYE Bush Rave

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

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

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

The toll of the unidentified drug

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

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

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

“Demonically possessed”

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

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

The police response

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

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

The incident on the Gold Coast

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

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

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

New substances sold as ecstasy

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

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

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

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

Calls for pill testing

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

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

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

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

It’s been available in Europe for decades

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

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

Five reasons to implement pill testing

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

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

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

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

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

The response of NSW authorities

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

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

It’s high time

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

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