Drug policy in a digitally networked world

I presented on this topic at the Drug Policy Modelling Program symposium held in Sydney on Friday 16 March. I elaborate on two examples of ways in which drug policy is challenged in an internet-saturated context: emerging psychoactive drugs (e.g., synthetic cannabinoids) and online anonymous drug marketplaces (e.g., Silk Road). The video is 20 minutes, best viewed in full screen 🙂

Thanks to DPMP for flying me to Sydney! Looking forward to presenting a version of these ideas again at the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy conference in Canterbury, Kent, UK, in May. An international perspective on this kind of work is critical.

My web interview with Release / Talking Drugs

Available here and reposted below with permission.

An Interview with Monica Barratt

Monica Barratt is a Melbourne-based research fellow at the National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University, Australia. Her PhD thesis, which has just been passed, was a mixed-methods study of online drug discussion. Monica is especially interested in how the the internet and other digital technologies intersect with drug use and drug market trends. Follow her at @monicabarratt

Can you describe, in few words, the current Australian legislation on drugs and give us an idea of the history of drug addiction in Australia?

Australia is a signatory to the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, which commits countries to a drug prohibition approach. While we have historically prohibited the substances that the US prohibits (e.g., there was no documented cannabis use in Australia when we first prohibited it), we have also at times been ahead of other countries in implementing harm reduction both through services (e.g., needle/syringe exchanges in the 1980s, the medically supervised injecting centre in the 2000s) and through law reform (e.g., various states of Australia have decriminalised cannabis). Similarly to other parts of the world, Australia’s drug policy trajectory is affected by politics. The last 15 years of federal government in this country has been dominated by socially conservative politicians. In some cases, this context has hampered the implementation of harm reduction innovations, although in all cases, government support for vital initiatives such as the provision of clean injecting equipment has continued despite the conservative public rhetoric.

In your PhD thesis, you research the importance and implications of the online drug communities. Can you explain, briefly, the role of the online drug forums and communities in reducing or increasing the risks for young people?

My aim was to explore the role of online drug discussion for the specific sub-group who participate online. I only looked at public internet discussion forums where Australians who used ‘party drugs’ (that is, psychostimulants and hallucinogens) could be found. By examining the data (observations, survey, interviews) through different metaphors of the internet, I demonstrate how the internet is not just a tool through which people learn about drugs, it is also a place where they go and interact with other drug users, and for some, that online place becomes simply a part of their everyday (offline) lives. Using online forums to deliberately find a new social network could result in new avenues of drug supply as well as new networks of harm reduction information. On the whole, I found that the internet and online forums were more often used in order to reduce the harm of drug use and much less often used to directly enhance the drug experience (a practice which may involve increasing drug-related harms, e.g., learning how to take higher doses of a drug in order to increase the effects).

I think it is important to note that there is a specific sub-section of drug users that access and engage with online drug forums. It would be wrong to assume that my PhD findings apply to a more general audience of ‘young people’. Unfortunately for various reasons it took me a while to finish my thesis (any PhD students reading may relate!), so the data were collected in 2007-08, some time ago now. My feeling now is that online drug forums still only appeal to a niche group. However, even though the use of social media (especially Facebook) has increased dramatically since these data were collected, drug forums are still being used which indicates that they offer something people want. One of the advantages identified by my research participants was the ability to remain pseudonymous in online forums and to keep drug discussion separate from day-to-day life. This separation of identities has become more difficult in an age of Facebook and Google where ‘real name’ policies are increasingly implemented.

 In your presentation ‘PMA sounds fun’ you stressed that ‘pleasure and fun’ are often some of the reasons why young people take drugs. Do you think that these feelings are the real feelings expressed behind the urge for drugs, or do they cover other needs and complex feelings that need to be addressed?

Historically, humans (and indeed non-human animals) seek pleasure or positive affect from their activities and from substances. Most drugs, especially those that are popular recreationally, induce a positive state at least to begin with. I think the finding that young people enjoy drug experiences, gain pleasure from them, use them to enhance their social lives, should not really be newsworthy in and of itself if we remember that alcohol is a drug and that most of us can relate to drinking alcohol for pleasure and to enhance our social lives. The reason that it is newsworthy is that the place of pleasure in drugs has been obscured or silenced, perhaps because the presence of pleasure is erased by the pathology or deficit drug discourse, where it is assumed that all (illicit) drug use is a problem and that drug use occurs in response to a deficit either in the individual drug taker or in their environment. The pathology discourse is a dominant mode of thinking about drugs in Australia and internationally, but there are so many examples that challenge it, notably the existence of happy and healthy people who also use (illicit) drugs. This point is encapsulated well in the Release campaign ‘Nice people use drugs’ (which I loved! Thank you Release!). It is also worth noting that the dominant pathology discourse on drugs underlies policies of drug prohibition, so as we challenge this discourse, we bring into focus the potential for drug law reform.

To answer the question more succinctly, yes it is possible that for some people who describe their motivation to use drugs as about pleasure or enjoyment, there are other more complex reasons for their use, and that they may prefer to focus on the positive rather than the negative reasons in their presentation of self. It is also possible that people who say they take drugs for fun really do just take drugs for fun.

Do you believe that the anonymity and ‘pseudonymity’ of the online drug communities is a reflection of the stigma towards drugs and drug use in current societies? Can you expand on this?

The use of pseudonyms in drug forums is a protection against people finding out about the real identity of the individual drug user. Some forum users focused on the importance of avoiding stigma in their daily lives as a major factor whereas others were concerned more about getting into trouble with the law. Interestingly, not all of the people I interviewed who discussed drugs in public online forums were concerned about their privacy or about potential stigma if their friends and family found out about their drug use. Some people, instead of masking their identity, simply ensured that they never spoke about drugs in a way that could incriminate them – that is, they were vague or used coded language when discussing drugs.

I was fascinated by the wide variety of strategies used by drug forum participants to deal with the illegal nature of their activity in their public forum interactions. Given the diversity of responses and actions, we cannot assume that the internet is always valued by drug users due to its facilitation of anonymous communication.

In your presentation ‘Discussing drugs in public internet forums’ you emphasize that internet, technology and society shape each other mutually. What use of the media do you think that public and health policy should make in order to aim at an effective harm reduction strategy?

Good question! The mutual shaping of technology and society is an iterative, dynamic, ongoing process. We need to be careful not to state that technology affects society without also seeing that society affects technology. So, we could conclude that the anonymity afforded by internet forums allows drug users to talk to each other (technology affects society), but it is a crucial point to note that the societal context of drug prohibition sets conditions of stigma and punishment which generate the need for anonymity (society affects technology).

In terms of creating an effective harm reduction strategy, the first point for me is to come back to the participant’s view. From the drug user’s perspective, what are the harms they are experiencing, which harms are important to them, what are the strategies to reduce those harms, what is missing that others can provide that will assist? There is also the type of harm reduction strategy that focuses on the environmental factors, such as providing a safe space for injecting or policies that mandate police do not attend ambulances to encourage people to call for help without fear of prosecution. The internet and especially online drug forums can be useful to obtain the view of people who actually use drugs, by enabling engagement between policy makers and drug users in a safer setting, although as I’ve mentioned before, we can’t assume that online drug forum users represent the wider population. Media can also be used to disseminate campaign messages on a mass scale, but I find these mass media campaigns are generally anti-drug, do not involve any harm reduction, and are not aimed at people who use drugs (they are often put off by such campaigns).

An important emerging area is the use of social media for harm reduction interventions, where campaigns are run through Facebook and Twitter in interactive formats. I think harm reduction agencies should pursue these opportunities to better engage with their clients, especially if they are trying to attract young people into their interventions. In order to do it well though, agencies may need some support and guidance from experienced social media users. For example, in Australia, Hugh Stephens runs Dialogue Consulting, an organisation that specialises in upskilling non-government organisations and others in social media engagement of young people. Honing this skillset will likely be increasingly important for such organisations that work with drugs and young people.

 In assuming that drugs education and information provided on drugs and serious health risks do not stop certain people from taking drugs, to which direction should an effective drug policy turn to? Should the insights of disciplines like psychology and sociology be seriously employed by health and social policies?

Yes, I think health and social policies should be theoretically informed by psychology, sociology, anthropology, social theory, etc. and especially in the context of media and drug policies, these needs to also be informed by media/communications theory. The discipline Internet Studies was really helpful for me in formulating and interpreting my PhD data as it opened up new ways of thinking about how the internet and drugs intersect. I know that it’s not necessarily possible for public policy to access and use the insights from a wide variety of academic disciplines, as often this knowledge is difficult to access and difficult to interpret if you are looking in from the outside! This is one of the reasons I write my blog and post as much as I can in freely available places, but unfortunately there are many barriers to more open access to scholarly content within the system we work in.

To answer the question of which direction effective drug policy should turn to if providing information on drugs and serious health risk does not stop some people from taking drugs… we need to first acknowledge that people who choose to use drugs may be making an entirely informed decision. The assumption that all people will cease drug use if they had adequate information needs to be challenged. Meeting people ‘where they are at’ is a tenet of most counselling approaches. Similarly here, we should ask ourselves ‘why are we trying to stop certain people from taking drugs?’ Some people don’t want to stop. Instead of assuming they just need more information or a scare campaign to make them stop, we can meet them where they are at and ask if there is anything we (as public policy makers, clinicians, drug workers, researchers) can do which may assist them, and be prepared for the possibility that they don’t want our assistance. In my PhD, I found that the vast majority of drug users were interested in knowing how to reduce the harms associated with their use. I also found that there were some drug forum users who seemed to relish danger and risk, and labelled those who were trying to reduce risk as ‘weak’. It is also likely that people care more about reducing risks in some situations and relish danger in others. The problem is that scare campaigns that highlight the dangers of drug use may indeed make drugs more appealing to this latter group. Piloting such campaigns with different groups, or using social media to gauge the different reactions to these campaigns, could be useful tools for evaluation.

 In your opinion, why are more and more young people attracted to substances and what role do consumerism and capitalism play in this tendency?

I don’t agree that ‘more and more young people’ are attracted to drugs. Humans have always been attracted to changing our conscious state, whether through spinning around until we get dizzy as children, or through the ingestion of psychoactive substances. There is no evidence that I am aware of that young people are more attracted to drugs now than they have been in the past… if anything, the surveys in Australia indicate a reduction in drug prevalence, although it is unclear whether drug use has simply become more stigmatised and therefore less likely that people will report it within a survey.

Although I don’t think drug use among young people is increasing, I do think that consumerism and capitalism play a role in the meanings of drug use. We are now living in consumerist societies where our consumption choices are a vehicle for shaping our public selves. What I buy, what I wear, what I eat/drink/imbibe shapes how others see me (my identity), and this identity shifts (or identities shift) through different contexts and across time. Drugs are part of this consumption pattern. As well as their effects on the body, drugs are also symbols – using them in particular contexts identifies the user as a particular kind of person. Capitalism and globalisation are also macro contexts within which we all live and they therefore affect how drugs are used. One example is the ‘work hard play hard’ mentality of recreational drug use, where young adults with intense full-time jobs would let off steam on their weekends by taking drugs. Drugs, including alcohol, allow them to experience a controlled loss of control- a period of time in their week when they can relax and be themselves in a non-corporate space. To understand how people use drugs and the consequences of these practices, it is incredibly important to include the macro social and political contexts in our analyses.

Open access scholarly work in the addictions: Yes we can!

While I’m waiting for my phd to be examined, I’m (naturally) attempting to publish in reputable academic journals as this is the best way for me to continue my academic career by winning a fellowship. Without those publications, my fellowship chances are nil. Academic publishing, through peer review by my colleagues, is essential for me to get anywhere. The peer review system also improve the articles I write and acts as a filter so I can’t just publish any old ‘crap’, like I can to this blog 🙂 The skills of my peers in this field are really valuable. Of course I also want people to read my work and respond to it. However, now that we have the internet and I have this blog and twitter etc., the role of ‘reputable academic journals’ in this process is somewhat less important.

The main problem with this system in my opinion is that I want *everyone* to have access to resulting journal article. Why should my work be behind a paywall? Why should the readers be restricted to those with institutional connections in the academy?

To get an idea of the lunacy of academic publishing as it stands today, check out this animation:

What do publishers actually do? I don’t need my article printed. I can take care of the formatting. I provide the content. A group of colleagues can provide the peer review and I will and do peer review for my colleagues. The skills to run a website and an online system for reviewing and submitting are not difficult, although there is an element of time involved. Even then, most of the work is done by academics, not by the publishers. What exactly is my university paying the publisher for?

And if I want to publish in the small number of so-called Open Access journals in the drugs/alcohol/addiction field, myself or my university is asked to pay a publishing fee, which is in many cases over $1000. This is prohibitive. Governments and universities already pay once for the production of research through issuing grant moneys and salaries through fellowships and the like. Then they are asked to pay again to publish the article OR the reader is asked to pay.

To top off the lunacy of this system, I sign away the rights to my article when I publish in a traditional academic journal. So the publisher can make more money and restrict access to the content in order to do so. Yet, without any of us, the publisher would have nothing to sell and no profit to make.

So, can we create a truly open access journal for the drugs/alcohol/addictions research area? I say, yes we can!

And the NHMRC CEO thinks so too.

What do you think? Let’s keep talking and see what we can make happen!

Also see the Open Access Week and the Open Access Pledge.

Dangerous, manageable or hard-core?

The unfortunate death of a 20-year-old Sydney woman in 2007 provided a catalyst for my analysis of how online drug-using communities defined PMA and ecstasy. PMA or para-methoxyamphetamine is structurally similar to the phenylethylamines (MDxx) and mescaline. It is a hallucinogenic stimulant with a low threshold for overdose, making it definitively more dangerous than pure MDMA. Most, but not all, use of PMA is inadvertent, as the users believe they are consuming an MD derivative when they buy pills sold as ‘ecstasy’, but the pill actually contains PMA.

Annabel Catt’s death in 2007 followed her ingestion of ‘ecstasy caps’ which were later found to contain PMA. Her friends did call an ambulance but Annabel died later in hospital due to overheating and respiratory failure.

There were a range of public responses to Annabel Catt’s death. Police warned the public about the dangerousness of all illicit drug taking. Toxicology results were released indicating PMA in Annabel’s system and police released the testing results from seized capsules and pills indicating that there were PMA batches in circulation at the time.

Bluelight.ru and Pillreports.com issued warnings to their users about how to deal with pills sold as ecstasy and PMA. Australian Bluelight moderators wrote an email on the topic which was also distributed across many of the forums I was monitoring. The re-posted email generated much discussion across these different groups.

I identified three different discourses around ecstasy and PMA in these responses, as indicated in the title of this post: dangerous, manageable, and hardcore.

The first discourse ‘A dangerous drug’ is a familiar, dominant discourse that positions all illicit drug use as inherently aberrant. This discourse underpins prohibition and it disrupts attempts to reduce harm by denying any possible lower-risk drug use. The ‘dangerous drug’ discourse is problematic because within it, the notion of pleasure is absent, and all drug use, regardless of context, is positioned as problematic. This discourse was found mainly in the media and police public responses to Annabel Catt’s death.

The second discourse ‘harm reduction’ recognises that people will continue to use drugs, that some drug practices are riskier than others, and that people who use drugs can and should act to reduce risks. Drug-related harms are seen as manageable. The harm reduction discourse draws on notions of neoliberal self-responsibility; that is, individuals must look after themselves and ‘do the right thing’, especially in relation to keeping themselves healthy. There was also a communitarian ethic present in the harm reduction discourses around taking responsibility to look after your friends. The harm reduction discourse was the dominant discourse in the drug-user online settings involved in this project.

The third discourse redefined the ‘dangerous drug’ or ‘manageable risk’ as ‘fun’. Rather than being a reason to avoid PMA, the fact that it was described as a ‘strong psychedelic stimulant’ was seen as a positive or as a challenge. For the drug users employing this discourse, pleasure and fun were privileged above risks and harms. In fact, pleasure and fun may indeed derive directly from the riskiness of a drug practice. For these individuals, defining PMA as ‘fun’ or ‘hard-core’ can be seen as an act of health resistance and using PMA intentionally can be seen as an act of defiant consumption, and the rejection of neoliberal values and the health imperative. The ‘PMA sounds fun’ discourse was present in the responses to the Bluelight email re-posted to the numerous dance music forums involved in this project.

These three discourses illustrate that drugs are more than their pharmacology: their effects and meanings are under construction and online settings are one place where that ongoing negotiation of meaning occurs. The implication for drug policy is that we cannot assume that if people were ‘better informed’ they would choose not to use drugs. Pleasure and fun may be more highly valued than health in some cases. We need to think further about how to include people who are actually attracted to danger in our frameworks, rather than assuming that everyone is determined to look after themselves.

At the APSAD in Hobart, I presented a paper from my PhD called ‘PMA sounds fun’: Negotiating contested meanings of PMA in online settings. You can view the 15 minute vimeo here. This article is a shorter summary of this work: I am working on the full paper which will be submitted for peer-review in the next month. This article has also been reproduced at Global Drug Survey, where I am now part of the international advisory committee.

Discretion or promotion? Reporting back from EGA

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of presenting my work at the Entheogenesis Australis (EGA) outdoor psychedelic symposium. For those unaware of EGA:

Entheogenesis Australis is a not-for-profit association that cultivates a supportive environment to foster mature, open discussion about psychoactive plants and chemicals. We seek to explore ways to assess societal impacts and examine the positive applications of such substances.

For those unfamiliar with the term Entheogen, I found the following paragraph to be a useful explanation – from p. 172 of Blom, Jan Dirk. (2010). A dictionary of hallucinations. New York, NY: Springer.


The term entheogen comes from the Greek words en (within), theos (god), and generare (to generate, to bring forth). It translates as ‘becoming divine within’. The term entheogen refers to a hallucinogen or other psychoactive substance believed to occasion a spiritual or mystical experience, similar to those in traditional shamanic rituals. The term entheogen was introduced in or shortly before 1979 by the American classical scholars Carl Anton Paul Ruck (b. 1935) et al. as an alternative for terms such as hallucinogen, phantasticum, eideticum, psychotic, and psychedelic. The reason for coining this neologism was the authors’ dissatisfaction with the usual connotations of the latter terms, especially in contradistinction to the shaman’s striving for “transcedent and beatific states of communion with deity”. As Ruck et al. state, it would be “incongruous to speak of the shaman’s taking a ‘psychedelic’ drug”. Some examples of traditional entheogens are ayahuasca, cannabis, ibogaine, kava, opium, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, salvia, and tobacco. Today a person intentionally employing an entheogen for the purpose of exploring the psyche may be called a psychonaut.

So, I found myself at EGA to be surrounded by fellow psychonauts. I felt as though I was part of a community of broadly like-minded people: while we all came from different perspectives, we shared an interest in and a reverence of psychedelic or entheogenic experiences, whether they be brought on by the ingestion of plants/drugs or through other methods (eg. meditation, yoga, breath work, etc.).

In my everyday life, I can ‘pass as normal’ in the ‘straight’ world. I don’t have dreadlocks or wear a set style of clothing that differentiates me from the run-of-the-mill folk going about their business in Melbourne’s inner city. I like being able to pass through different worlds relatively easily.

But what I realised at EGA was how good it can feel to be among similar others and to be able to express freely your agreement with otherwise taboo topics.

There is a tension, however, which ran throughout EGA and which continues to run within my life. The tension is between discretion and promotion. Being discreet about one’s own use of entheogens (or psychedelics or just ‘drugs’), keeping it hidden, ‘passing as normal in the straight world’, is one way of infiltrating and hopefully, one day, being able to change power structures of the status quo.

But does this work? Can you sustain your opposition when you are constantly suppressing it? Does power corrupt? In a more personal example, can I continue to do the work that is important to me in the face of funding pressures to do work that serves, rather than challenges, the status quo? So far I’m ok, but I know I’ll be faced with this very challenge one day, probably one day soon.

The other option is promotion. Well, perhaps promotion is too strong a word. But if we allow ourselves to think this way, and we did at EGA, why shouldn’t we promote the entheogenic experience to more and more people? With the right set and the right setting, many more people could experience the world and their lives in radically different ways. These changed people could be enough to change the world. This is exactly why the promotion of these experiences is suppressed – if enough people truly understood that their lives could be radically different, the current power structures would be seriously challenged.

The discretion/promotion tension continues for me and for many others who I spoke to at EGA. People deal with it differently. I have this blog and it has my name on it. I explore these ideas publicly and am willing to wear the potential consequences of being honest. I’m not perfect: I wish I could do more. But, really, we must recognise that drug experiences are not all bad. In fact, they aren’t even bad at all. This is the key part that is missing in public debate. (Edit: ‘In fact, they aren’t even bad at all’? This statement could be misinterpreted. Drug use can cause harm, no doubt about that. But I don’t believe it is helpful to demonise the drug itself, when it is how these substances are used and the context within which they are used that combine to make harm or to avoid harm.)

A highlight of EGA was meeting Fire and Earth Erowid, founders of erowid.org. Lovely people, very smart and lots of fun. Fire and Earth’s first presentation on the Heaven and Hell of tripping illustrated that even the worst of the worst tripping experiences are not necessarily all bad. Many people who have a self-described bad trip feel that they have learnt important information about themselves through the experience. Heaven and Hell often occur within the same tripping experiences. Part of what we learn when we take the psychonautic path is how to cope with negative as well as positive emotions and experiences. All of these experiences affect our baseline levels: the possibilities we have for living and being.

Another tension for me at EGA was the choice of term ‘entheogen’ and the discussion of spiritual, religious or shamanic use. To me, it seems somewhat elitist to disregard use of drugs for other reasons, such as just for pleasure, for relaxation, or for inducing an ecstatic experience just because you like feeling good (rather than with spiritual aims). Then I thought more about this issue. Do you need to intentionally seek a spiritual experience to have one? When you take a drug to experience those sensations or for relaxation or for pleasure, you may also have an experience that could be described as spiritual – and this experience may then open your mind to a wider range of possibilities or subjectivities, not just while taking the substance/plant, but also at baseline.

Being in the bush and connecting to the amazing plant life and the earth had a profound effect on me. I felt strongly that listening to my initution was and is critical (A. C. Ping and Margaret Cross also emphasised this point). Through a meditation, yoga and writing workshop, I experienced the significance of feeling the grass under my bare feet – connecting with the land and the spirit. Ingesting plants grown in our surrounding is another way of connecting with the land. We have co-evolved with plants for millenia – this is not new. What is new is the denial of this symbiotic relationship between plants and human (and animal) beings.

As well as presenting my talk on the internet filter and drug websites, I also participated in a panel called ‘Beyond evidence-based drug policy’. There was much discussion but one thing that I take from that panel was the question: do we stick to our authentic message, what we really believe, that drugs/plants are beneficial and our lives are enriched by them… or do we speak within the dominant discourses on drugs so as to be heard, even though it dilutes/distorts our message?

Related to this was Carl Turney’s talk on strategies for drug law reform. Carl said that it is critical that we understand who our target audience actually is – 2 in 81 people are all that matters! These two groups of people are:
1. Pro-entheogen, swing voters, in marginal seats, who currently aren’t letting it affect their voting;
2. Swing voters, in marginal seats, who are unsure about entheogens, and could change their voting after learning more. these are the important people.
If campaigners can move opinion among these two groups, they could have political impact.

I must again thank the wonderful people who made EGA happen. I do truly hope we can do it all again in 2 years time! It was great to meet you all and I hope to stay in touch 🙂

The irony of publicity on Kronic publicity

This blog managed to get into the Melbourne mX today in the story ‘Kronic case of publicity’ on p. 5. The irony is that the story is actually an example itself of what Stephen Bright and I were talking about in our earlier post: mentions of Kronic by mainstream media fuels public interest in Kronic as shown by Google Trends data, where spikes in searches for related terms match with the pattern of major news articles on the topic.

To any new readers who may have come here via mX, welcome. Feel free to take a look around 🙂

Cannabis policy: what’s next?

On Monday and Tuesday, I attended the 1st international Cannabis Policy: Where to from here? workshop, hosted by the Microeconometrics Unit at the University of Melbourne.

According to the organisers, the aims of the workshop were

  • to shine a light on Australian cannabis policy within the context of international moves towards cannabis law reform
  • provide an opportunity for vigorous interdisciplinary discussion about some of the latest research findings
  • facilitate debate about Australias current cannabis policy environment

As would be expected the workshop had an economics feel, which novel for me. My background is in sociology and psychology, although I did do economics to Year 12 level at school. That helped slightly 🙂

Economic analyses that were presented included: (1) cost benefit analyses (CBA) of cannabis regulation/legalisation, both in the UK and in the Australian state of NSW, and (2) the use of household survey data from Australia analysed as a pseudo-cohort to answer questions about what might happen if cannabis were regulated/legalised.

It was interesting to reflect upon the way economists use this method to determine the balance of costs/benefits of a policy change to society at large. So, what could be seen as a benefit from the government’s perspective, increased taxes from regulating cannabis, is not counted as a benefit. Rather it is seen as a transfer (of money from individuals to government): it benefits government but taxes individuals, benefits and costs cancel each other out.

Another intriguing feature of CBA is that the benefits of drug use to the individual drug users must be accounted for if using the method as intended. Stephen Pudney noted that most CBA in drug policy are conservative in that they only consider the external costs/benefits (ignoring the internal costs/benefits). In economic terms, drug use has ‘utility’ to the drug user and this has to be taken into account to assess the true C/B of a new drug policy. I would agree!

Interestingly, using these models with their various caveats, a regulated cannabis market was of only a slight benefit to society (both in the UK and the NSW models). The group was expecting the economic benefits to be larger.

It was interesting that many in the room assumed that it was a given that cannabis use would increase in a regulated/legalised environment. Information was presented at the workshop that pointed towards the likelihood of increased use. Data in the National Drug Strategy Household Survey indicate that a fair proportion of people who have never used cannabis would try it if it were legal. But when I thought this through, I imagine that many of these people would try it but are not necessarily going to go any further. The idea that prohibition is holding back a floodgate of people from using drugs doesn’t seem valid to me.

Another problem we had was the examination of how decriminalisation of cannabis affects its uptake in Australia. Anne Line Bretteville Jensen‘s analysis of NDSHS data using a pseudo-cohort design indicated that in states where cannabis was decriminalised, people who used cannabis were more likely to try it at a younger age compared with states where cannabis was depenalised (that is, prohibited with a cautioning system). There was no evidence of greater prevalence of cannabis use solely due to decriminalising when taking into account that the states that have decriminalised already had higher rates of use.

It is concerning that such policies to decriminalise have been associated with an earlier uptake of use because earlier uptake (especially in early teens or younger) is strongly associated with greater harms.

The second day of the workshop involved some interesting presentations, including one from my supervisor Simon Lenton on the state of cannabis law reform in Western Australia and from Canadian professor Benedikt Fischer on the Lower Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines.

Of most interest to me was the 2 hour panel discussion and participant debate at the end of the workshop. Most of us seemed to agree that some kind of regulated model of cannabis control would be optimal. Of course the devil is in the details: how would that model operate, what would it look like? What are the impediments in Australia? We discussed the international conventions and the global and local politics.

A comment that struck me as pertinent was that the repeal of alcohol prohibition in the US happened at the same time as (or perhaps because of?) the Great Depression. It is likely that we are now the midst of another world depression. Perhaps this event will have a silver lining – it may make it political possible to consider the repeal of prohibition.

Before concluding this post, I want to comment on the involvement of cannabis users in cannabis policy. One academic at the workshop made the point that when law reforms were occurring, cannabis users were not organised in a way that enabled large protests: they were largely not part of the public policy struggle. The comment could be read as meaning that cannabis users don’t care about these issues or aren’t prepared to put in the effort to protest.

However, I think that would be a mistaken interpretation. Drug users are well aware of the stigma of use and the threat of arrest. I think this is why it is very difficult for people who want to protest against prohibition to stand up and be counted. Drug researchers are in a privileged position to be able to legitimately discuss these issues in public. As an example, when I posted this conference invite to the OzStoners forum, members of the forum were interested but would prefer to be able to participate in these kinds of discussions online, where they can remain anonymous and protected. The point was made at the workshop that social media is alive with discussions about drug policy. Social media may be the bridge we need to activate protest, yet protest is still hamstrung in a prohibition environment by the need to remain anonymous.

That said, it was fantastic to see representation of cannabis users at the workshop, including Chibo Mertineit from the Nimbin Hemp Embassy and Matt Riley from Cannabis Law Reform. It was fantastic to meet these two and to have their views represented in an otherwise heavily academic workshop.

Many thanks to the organisers: Jenny Williams, Robin Room and Alison Ritter. I look forward to contributing to the next workshop which was proposed for 2 years from now.

For more on this topic, I recommend reading Cannabis Policy. Moving Beyond Stalemate which was written by participants in the workshop and the conference papers, which can be downloaded from here.

The legal status of synthetic cannabinoids in Australia: A work in progress

This post is co-authored by my colleague Steve Bright. We recommend citing this post as:

Bright, Stephen J., & Barratt, Monica J. (2011, November). The legal status of synthetic cannabinoids in Australia: A work in progress. Drugs, Internet, Society. http://monicabarratt.net/?p=221

Update Feburary 2012: The TGA announced new federal laws that will move 8 classes of synthetic cannabinoids into Schedule 9 (hoping to cover all variations of synthetic cannabinoids) as well as including a new class in schedule 9 of drugs that mimic cannabis (that is, if their effects are described as similar to cannabis, they will be prohibited regardless of their chemical composition). These laws will come into effect on May 1 this year. See http://www.tga.gov.au/pdf/scheduling/scheduling-decisions-1202-final.pdf

Original article begins:

One of the challenges we faced when researching this paper was understanding the legal status of synthetic cannabinoids in Australia. Not only are there different federal and state frameworks, there are also many different chemicals that have been identified as synthetic cannabinoids.

While doing this research, we were only able to locate one Australian organisation that had a page about synthetic cannabinoids which included information about their legal status (The NCPIC or National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre). We understand that NCPIC is soon to release an update to their page. Of Substance has also just published a good article on ‘the banning of synthetic cannabinoids’.

Nevertheless, we felt it was important to do our own investigation into the legal status of synthetic cannabinoids by going beyond news articles and media releases. So we accessed relevant federal and state schedules and acts to locate recent amendments.

On July 8, the TGA banned 8 synthetic cannabinoids which are thus by default illegal in all states since all the state acts refer to the Standard for the Uniform Scheduling of Medicines and Poisons (SUSMP), also known as the Poisons Standard 2011. The SUSMP contains a derivatives and analogues clause. Under this clause, the scheduling of 8 synthetic cannabinoids would also capture many other similar substances.

Nonetheless, products containing other synthetic cannabinoids not included in this list of 8 chemicals may still be legal to sell and supply in states and territories without their own analogue laws (although we are not 100% sure about this). On the other hand, other synthetic cannabinoids could be considered analogues under the federal code even if they remained legal under state codes. Confused yet? We were!

Table 1 shows the timeline of legal status for synthetic cannabinoids by state and territory. This table is clearly subject to change as the laws evolve.

Table 1: Timeline of legal status for synthetic cannabinoids by state and territory


Timeline of events/legislation changes


14 June – WA banned 7 chemicals
5 August – WA ban another 14 chemicals, taking it to a total of 21 chemicals banned in WA. Others still may be legal to supply and possess.


17 June – SA bans 17 chemicals


July 8 – NSW passed changes at the same time as the TGA legislation came into force; however, they have only scheduled the 7 that WA scheduled the first time around (JWH 073, 018, 122, 200, 250, CP47,497, & H8-CP47,497), and not the 8th chemical that the TGA scheduled (AM 694). Nonetheless, AM 694 would be covered by default through the NSW act’s reference to the federal SUSMP (the Poisons Standard).


August 2 – Tasmania has made significant changes to their legislation, introducing an analogues act, and scheduling a number of research chemicals that are not listed in the SUSMP, in addition to 4 synthetic cannabinoids


August 12 – NT Banned 18 synthetic cannbinoids


QLD has proposed legislative changes, but thus far the changes have not yet been passed in parliament (note the endnote 3 on the last page).


VIC have proposed changes, but nothing has progressed.


No specific legislation was found, though the ACT’s laws refers to the SUSMP outlawing 8 chemicals. Nonetheless, the ACT government arranged to have an amnesty until 1 August 2011 when people were not prosecuted for offences related to these products.

Table 2 is our attempt to chart the scheduling of each individual synthetic cannabinoid, federally and across states and territories. Again this table is very much subject to change. (The link below leads to Table 2 in Excel hosted by Google Docs.)

Table 2: List of synthetic cannabinoids and their legal status

As the title of this post suggests, this information is a work in progress. Please speak to a lawyer if you need the assurances of accurate and up-to-date information on this issue: we provide no guarantees that our publication is correct, but we will do our best to update it. Readers are encouraged to comment and to suggest updates/edits to this information to assist us.

We noted with interest the poster displayed in a sex shop window on Bridge Road in Richmond (Victoria) last weekend boldly advertising that Kronic was available to purchase. It is clear that although the Poisons Standard includes a range of synthetic cannabinoids and others through its derivatives clause, the drug is currently still available for sale in retail outlets, at least in the state of Victoria. This situation is doubly confusing for people who buy Kronic who may believe the drug to be ‘legal’ given that a retail outlet is selling it. Is this sex shop breaching federal law by selling it? That would depend on what actual chemicals this blend contained, whether they were banned or derivatives of those banned.

The other issue we watch with interest is the trend towards state versions of derivative/analogue laws. For example, Queensland is considering the Criminal and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 that would amend their Drugs Misuse Act 1986. A “dangerous drug” would also include a substance that “has a substantially similar pharmacological effect; or is intended, or apparently intended, to have a substantially similar pharmacological effect”. The idea here is for this law to enable all substances that mimic currently illegal drugs to also be deemed illegal without needing to continually schedule new chemicals. The unintended negative consequences of such a law and whether or not it would work in practice are yet to be seen.

Communities and Technologies presentation

I’ve just presented at #comtech2011

Here is the Prezi – which you can use/edit yourself if you like.

Here is the video I made for my dry run yesterday on Vimeo.

Thanks C&T – it’s been a fantastic experience, and I’ve met some amazing people and have definite plans for future collaborations.

More on that after my Qld holiday!