The internet poses unique challenges for drug prohibition

Following is my article published at The Conversation yesterday. It’s a summary of my current work based on my recent presentation which you can view on vimeo if you prefer audio-visual 🙂

The Australia21 report argues the “war on drugs” has failed and we should consider other options for controlling drugs, such as decriminalisation or regulation. In addition to these arguments, an important challenge for drug prohibition has been overlooked in the drugs debate so far: the internet.

While the internet has opened up new opportunities to buy drugs, it has also accelerated new drug trends. In the past year, we’ve seen the emergence of two key trends: synthetic cannabinoids (sold as Kronic, K2, Spice, among other names) and the anonymous online marketplace Silk Road.

What are synthetic cannabinoids?

Synthetic cannabinoids are drugs that mimic the effects of cannabis. They are typically sold as a smokeable herb mixture which has been sprayed with synthetic cannabinoid chemicals and then dried. They first appeared internationally around 2004 and became the focus of increased media and regulatory attention in Australia in 2011.

Research into the harms of these products is in its infancy, but early reports suggest some synthetic cannabinoids may be more likely to produce paranoia and adverse cardiovascular problems than cannabis itself.

The internet is used to sell these products, as Googling the word Kronic will show you. Nevertheless, preliminary results from our yet-to-be-published survey of 316 synthetic cannabinoid users found that only 22% bought from online stores. Most preferred to buy from bricks-and-mortar stores such as herbal high shops, adult shops and tobacconists.

Comparisons of Google search statistics with our survey data suggest a link between the discussion of synthetic cannabinoids in online news, online searches for synthetic cannabinoids, and reports from survey respondents of when they first tried the drug. Increased media coverage of synthetic cannabis seems to pique public and drug user interest in these substances, which leads to further media interest in an iterative cycle.

Policy responses under prohibition

Various Australian states and territories, as well as the federal Therapeutic Goods Administration, legislated against specific synthetic cannabinoids during 2011. In response, manufacturers have attempted to get around these laws by creating new blends which they claim are legal.

It is still too early to tell whether soon-to-be-enacted federal laws – prohibiting eight broad categories of synthetic cannabinoids and any drugs that claim to mimic cannabis – will effectively end this cat-and-mouse game.

Silk Road

Silk Road is like an eBay for illicit drugs. All kinds of substances are available, including heroin, ecstasy, methamphetamine and cannabis. Similarly to eBay, buyers rate sellers and provide comments about the quality of their products, how fast they ship, and their level of professionalism and discretion.

Silk Road is accessible only to people who are using Tor anonymising software. Tor uses encryption which aims to make it impossible for anyone to trace the internet user’s IP address. Buyers and sellers on Silk Road also use the encrypted currency Bitcoin, which is supposed to prevent the financial transactions from being traced.

Australian buyers may be concerned about the potential for customs to discover the illicit contents of the package they receive in the mail. But discussions in the Silk Road forum suggest that Australians are using Silk Road to buy from both overseas and Australian sellers.

There is a lot we don’t know about Silk Road and other similar marketplaces. My colleagues and I will soon begin a pilot study to better understand how Silk Road works.

Policy responses under prohibition

It’s unclear whether any policy responses to control Silk Road have been effective.

One approach is to try to regulate overseas internet content through the proposed internet filter. But I doubt it will have any effect on Silk Road because it operates in what is known as the “hidden web”.

The second approach is to ban the technologies that make Silk Road work: Tor and Bitcoin. This does not appear to be possible because both are peer-to-peer technologies and it’s hard to imagine how such a ban could be enforced.

The third is to increase scanning of posted letters and parcels. But while scanning of the parcel post has been increased over recent years, it’s not clear how effective such measures are and what impact they have on the speed of the postal system.

The fourth is for law enforcement to infiltrate Silk Road to gather intelligence. This is probably already occurring. We’re yet to see whether such law enforcement measures are capable of disrupting the Silk Road market.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that synthetic drugs and online anonymous drug marketplaces pose unique challenges for drug prohibition. Policy makers must keep these challenges in mind when considering alternative ways to control and regulate drugs.

Making academic knowledge media friendly

I attended a 2 day seminar last week run by the Centre for Research Excellence into Injecting Drug Use (CREIDU, or ‘cree-du’). The centre was launched mid-2011 and is based at the Burnet Institute, Melbourne. Day one focused on how to deal with the media. Day two focused on translating research into policy, and was run by the Drug Policy Modelling Program (DPMP). The program was an excellent mix of perspectives and practice. For my own benefit and for anyone else who is reading, I thought it would be useful to summarise what I learnt from the workshop.

Tracy Parish, Deputy Head of Public Affairs and Communications at Burnet, showed us this video (an advert for The Guardian) to illustrate how stories can spiral outwards in our contemporary media landscape:

We got a good sense of the journalist’s perseptive on science/academics. The journalist’s role is to ‘decipher complex issues’. They need to synthesise information into small digestible chunks and usually they need to do this to a hard deadline. Journalists need news that hooks the reader in. Why should the reader care about our academic findings? We need to have a solid answer to this question prior to engaging the media on our issue.

A great tool for seeing whether we can front the media effectively is the dinner party test – can you fascinate a group of non-specialists with a short story about what you do? Or do they back away as soon as you utter your first sentence? Why should your parents’ friends care about what you do? What connection would they make with your work?

I really enjoyed the presentation by Jon Faine, Radio presenter of the ABC morning show in Victoria. His presentation style was captivating which I think illustrated his main point, that you are performing when you engage with the media and you need to tell a good story. He also noted that ‘the media’ is often described as one monolithic entity, but that commercial and non-commercial media have completely different mandates and practices which we should be aware of when we choose who to engage with and how. Regardless of what kind of media we are talking about, Jon’s message of ‘head, heart, hip’ is important – if the story can’t be directly related to the head, heart or hip pocket of the audience, it’s not a compelling story.

For the rest of this post, I’m simply going to list the tips I wrote down from the entire day – which came from a number of diverse speakers and audience members.

When dealing with the media, academics should…

  • tell a good anecdote because this will engage the audience (allowing them to ‘paint a picture’ of the issue)
  • avoid statistics although simple numbers/proportions are compelling if they are limited in number and go to the core of the issue
  • don’t assume any prior knowledge – this can be difficult for academics who mainly socialise with other academics, but think about the dinner party test (I was thinking about times when I found myself talking to my parents’ neighbours about my phd!)
  • use the word ‘you’ and ‘your’, eg. in your workplace, in your family, in your community (why should the audience care about this story if it does not relate directly to them?)
  • if you are taking a purely ‘evidence-based’ approach and are asked your personal opinion, you can say that you have an opinion but that it doesn’t matter because your role is only to provide the evidence (further discussion occurred regarding advocacy positioning)
  • stick to your stance and if the journalist continues to push against you, suggest they go to another organisation and if you know of a suitable one, name them
  • never say just ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the journalist is looking for quotes so you need to speak in sentences
  • you can say no to a request from the media – it is good to remember that journalists need content to survive and that you are actually helping them to do their job, so you can be in charge of it – whether to do it in the first place, where to do it, when to do it, etc.

Specific advice for when you are preparing for or engaged in a phone interview with a journalist (eg. for newspaper):

  • Ask how long the interview will be? Remember you are likely only to be quoted for one sentence or two at the most so you need to prepare those messages.
  • Prepare a cheat sheet of 1-3 messages and any numbers/facts you need to get right
  • Research the journalist and publication if you don’t already know them well. What other pieces has this journalist written/produced? What standard of work are they associated with?
  • It was suggested that you should ensure the journalist understands that if they are not prepared to show you the article prior to publication, you are not prepared to allow them to use your name. I have personally found that journalists feel this request questions their integrity and their ability to do their job, and can get defensive, so I’m not sure whether this request is appropriate in practice. The best solution to this problem is probably around cultivating long-term relationships with journalists (see below).
  • Stand up! Wear heals/more formal clothing – find a place that is less familiar than your office to conduct the phone call. These actions help you to remember during the interview that this is not a casual conversation, this is a formal performance. It is easy to lapse into casual conversation which is when you are most likely to sway away from your defined role in this process.

Advice for managing your overall engagement with media:

  • Jon Faine described the OMDB (Over My Dead Body) list. If a journalist does the wrong thing by you, don’t deal with them again. Have a white list and a black list which you cultivate over time. Don’t reward bad behaviour.
  • Cultivate long-term relationships with journalists and media organisations. Doing this reduces your chances of being misquoted or misrepresented because the journalist will value their relationship with you and not want to jeopardise it if possible. It means you have a list of people to go to when you do have a story you think is newsworthy who you are not ‘cold-calling’.
  • During your academic research, be on the look out for good visual opportunities – video or image – and record them as you go. These can be used later for media engagements. If you provide visuals, you are more likely to reach a television audience – without visuals, you are limited to radio and newspapers.

Conferences

  • Some journalists read conference abstracts and may follow up with academics from this material. While this practice may not be commonplace, it is therefore good practice to ensure that conference abstracts are not only written for the academic community but also contain media friendly messages – assuming you want to attract media attention to your story (you don’t always want this!).
  • Approach the media liaison at a conference and introduce yourself to them.

Alternatives to media engagement

  • Write it yourself as an opinion piece – this way you can’t be misquoted or misrepresented

The final message? You need to first decide whether you want to be an academic that engages with the media. If you don’t want to, you need to communicate your findings to someone who will do it for you. If you do want to engage, you need to commit to learning how to do it well. This takes a regular time commitment and needs to be factored into your job timelines. It may mean that one less academic paper gets written per annum or it may mean the media-engaged researcher has to do more overtime. A major problem the workshop identified was that academics don’t get rewarded adequately for community engagement. Will the media-engaged researcher with slightly less academic publications win a fellowship over the media-disengaged researcher with slightly more academic publications? I hope that public impact count for something and I think it should definitely count for more than it does now.

Should academics engage with the media? Even if they will sometimes get it wrong (or oftentimes get it wrong depending on who you ask)? I say yes, we must. When it comes to evidence-based drug policy, we have an obligation to make our evidence appealing to the public. Public opinion matters more and more in terms of what policies governments are prepared to implement. If we can’t persuade governments, we may need to take on public opinion to have an impact on drug policy.

Discussing drugs in online forums: ACM Authorizer service

The ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) has a new service called Authorizer, which allows individual researchers to link to a fulltext version of their conference papers from their own website. This means you, the reader, don’t have to be affiliated with a university to access my paper. And the read/download statistics will update accordingly if you follow the link below to my paper.

ACM DL Author-ize serviceDiscussing illicit drugs in public internet forums: visibility, stigma, and pseudonymity

Monica J. Barratt
C&T ’11 Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Communities and Technologies, 2011

 

 

If only the drugs/health field were as open access oriented as the internet/computing field. Maybe one day!

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.

Thesis passed!

It is official. My thesis has been passed pending minor revisions, which really are just minor. Now it’s all just the formalities before I get my doctorate. What I’m going to do here is publish my acknowledgements – so many people were involved and I really want to publicly acknowledge and thank them. It may be my work but my work is supported by such a great network of people 🙂

I should also note that my intention is to make the thesis freely available via this website. The only problem with that is that I want to publish parts of the thesis as academic articles in the near future. Most journals stipulate that the material cannot be already published in part (online or in print). So this may mean a delay in hosting the thesis here. However, I will let you all know when I’ve edited the final version and then it will be available via email/message – I can send it directly to you if you are interested in taking a look!

Acknowledgements
Like others before me, I thought I could finish my PhD thesis in 3 years if I just worked hard enough. Little did I know what lay ahead of me when I began this process in February 2006. The process of completing my PhD has taught me that academic thinking and writing are intertwined and work together in an iterative cycle. Academic writing involves drafting and redrafting, responding to the feedback of peers and mentors, and drafting and redrafting again. Good academic writing takes time! And during much of this time, I isolated myself in various offices and my home study over the years: reading, writing, and working things out. I have never spent so much of my life alone just doing one project. Yet, this document would not exist without the support and encouragement of my family, friends, colleagues, and supervisors. While I take sole responsibility for the content of this thesis, in fact, it is a product of both my own efforts and the multiplicity of influences from all the people who have touched my life.

There are many people to thank. Firstly, I want to extend the deepest gratitude to all of the people who participated in this research. There were over a thousand people who donated a few minutes to an hour of their time to complete the online survey, and then there were hundreds who were interested in being interviewed about their experiences with drugs and online drug discussion. The 27 people who completed online interviews with me were prepared to share many personal stories with a complete stranger for hours. Many more people participated in discussions with me across numerous online forums. Moderators and administrators shared their thoughts on how to manage online drug discussion and offered me insights into the workings of internet forums. This thesis would not exist without these generous contributions. I cannot thank each forum individually due to the need for anonymity. The Bluelight forum, however, deserves a special mention for first sparking my interest in online drug discussion way before this thesis began and for allowing me to serve as a forum moderator since 2008. Unlike the other forums, Bluelight representatives would prefer to be acknowledged for their contribution to research (instead of anonymised). I would especially like to thank hoptis, phase_dancer, TheLoveBandit and Sebastians_ghost for their support of my work.

There is a long list of people who contributed to the success of the online survey. Purple Hazelwood, Anne-Marie Christensen, Johnboy Davidson, Buck Reed, Garth Lategan and Tim Hardaker assisted with the recruitment of survey participants. A group of experts volunteered their time to review the survey prior to its launch. I thank them for all their efforts which helped me to develop a better survey: Alexia Maddox, Beck Jenkinson, Cameron Duff, Carmel Acipella, Chris O’Halloran, Craig Fry, David Moore, Gill Bedi, Janette Mugavin, Jenn Johnston, Jessica George, Kylie Stone (nee McCardle), Matt Dunn, Michael Livingston, Ben Haines, Paul Dietze, Paul McElwee, Pip Wright, Rachael Green, Raimondo Bruno, Richard Midford, Susan Clemens and Wendy Loxley. I also thank the anonymous volunteers that piloted the survey and helped me to make the survey more appealing to the target group. I am also grateful to the people who provided technical assistance: Paul-John Stanners, Rick Noble, Paul Jones and Ian Goldberg.

My colleagues have been instrumental in keeping me sane over this time. I value being able to talk with my colleagues about my research and to hear about theirs, to share issues and solutions, to hear about new ways of framing an issue, to offer and receive new insights. These conversations were incredibly valuable and often helped me to see my thesis dilemmas in fresh ways. I would especially like to acknowledge Rachael Green, Rob Dwyer, Christine Siokou, Nicola Thomson, Amy Pennay, Michael Livingston, Jason Ferris, Claire Wilkinson, Tina Lam, James Fetherston, Sue Carruthers, Paul McElwee, Shelley Cogger, Sharon Matthews, Susan Clemens, Alexia Maddox, Edwin Ng, Vince Cakic, Steve Bright, Cameron Francis, Ray Stephens and Matt Gleeson. I am also indebted to the organisers of the Victorian Substance Use Research Forum (VSURF), Michael LivingstonPaul Dietze and David Moore, and all the VSURF speakers and attendees. Regular attendance at the monthly VSURF seminar series has been another source of critical new ideas and a good way to let off some steam at the pub afterwards!

In order to make my vision for this thesis work, I had to familiarise myself with the academic field of Internet Studies. I would like to acknowledge the international scholarly network of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR). The online discussions and announcements about important issues in this field, especially regarding internet research ethics and online methodologies, were invaluable to my endeavours. Engagement in this field, through the 2006 AoIR conference and the 2011 Communities and Technologies conference, was also very helpful as it facilitated my understandings of how my work intersects with what people are thinking about in digital and network technologies research. Thank you!

I have also been blessed with great practical support from the National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University, which included a stipend, conference support and administrative assistance. Paul Jones, Fran Davis, Jo Hawkins and Vic Rechichi have provided superb support over this time. Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre also supported me through granting study leave and hosting the online survey on their server. The National Drug Research Institute has continued their support by employing me to conduct new research around the intersection between illicit drugs and internet technologies. I am deeply grateful for NDRI’s support of my work. I especially thank Steve Allsop for his role in facilitating this opportunity.

My primary supervisor, Simon Lenton, has been there for me as a mentor since I first worked as his research assistant in 2002. The impact of Simon’s cannabis law reform research on policy in Western Australia originally inspired me to work in this field, because I could see that it was possible for research to effect drug policy reform. Simon trusted me when I came up with this thesis idea, even though it seemed somewhat far-fetched in 2006. I thank Simon for the tireless effort he has taken reviewing my work, thinking through each issue with me, challenging my assumptions, forcing me to articulate my ideas more clearly, and above all, reminding me that I am capable of making this thesis happen, especially in those moments when I had lost sight of the way through. I am also thankful that Simon has always made it clear that the decisions contained within this thesis are my responsibility guided by his advice. Simon, I am deeply grateful for all your efforts.

My co-supervisor, Matthew Allen, has exceptional academic ability. Although we only met around twice a year, without fail, I left those meetings with new, important ideas and increased confidence. Often I found my academic breakthroughs occurred after our meetings. Matt, I wish I had read your book ‘Smart Thinking’ earlier rather than later, but all the same, reading it had the same effect as our meetings: light bulbs went off and suddenly I knew how to approach the core argument of this thesis. I am eternally grateful for your contribution to this thesis.

Rob Dwyer deserves special mention. Rob kindly agreed to read and mark my thesis. I am indebted to her for the time she spent helping me firm up my ideas and tighten up my argument. Thanks, Rob, for going out of your way to help me.

Reaching further back in time now, I want to acknowledge my early mentors. Ali Marsh taught me Addiction Studies in 2000: her lectures opened my mind to the area of study that continues to fascinate me today. Ali suggested me as a candidate to work for Wendy Loxley where I was first employed as a research assistant. Wendy is an inspirational woman for whom I have great respect. I thank both Ali and Wendy for opening up avenues into the world of drugs research and providing me with those very first opportunities.

Finally, I would like to thank my family. I feel blessed to love and be loved by such generous and beautiful people. To my in-laws, Lin and John, thank you for treating me as your daughter and for becoming my ‘Melbourne family’. Thanks for being the best landlords ever: the fact that I have been able to live in the same place for the duration of this thesis has helped me immeasurably. To my parents, Jan and Bob. You have believed in me for as long as I can remember. You have always told me that I could do anything that I put my mind to. Thank you, for without this unconditional love, I know I would not be where I am today and this thesis would never have been written. Thank you also for taking me in to live with you in Perth when I visited to work on my thesis: it has been such a joy to be looked after and to share that time with you both. To the love of my life, my ‘partner in crime’, Stu. Thank you for providing me with unconditional support as I pursued my dream, especially through the uncertainty of the last two years (‘When will it be finished?’ ‘I just don’t know…’). Thank you for your thoughtful comments on the draft. Thank you for listening to me talking about my thesis and for all your valuable input and guidance. Thank you for keeping me fed and looking after everything while I locked myself in the apartment writing. This thesis is as much yours as it is mine. And yes, now we can get on with the rest of our lives 🙂

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.

Entheogen

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 🙂

kronicstudy.net

How do you think synthetic cannabis should be treated by the law?

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You DO NOT need to be a past or current user of synthetic cannabis to be eligible for this study, and we are especially interested in hearing from people with no prior use of these drugs. However, you DO need to be at least 18 years of age and an Australian resident in
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For further information, contact me!
(email m.barratt@curtin.edu.au, twitter @monicabarratt, phone +61 407 778 938)