Help inform harm reduction in the EDM space

We need your help!

Harm reduction group Energy Control – famous for their international and local drug testing services – have collaborated with Australia’s DanceWize to do some research into safer drug use practices. We will see how drug use patterns and safer use practices differ between Spain and Australia, countries with quite different policy settings.

If you have been to festivals or dance parties recently, please complete the survey and help harm reduction groups understand what’s really happening!

http://partyanddrugs.infoinnova.es/

Rainbow Serpent Festival
Rainbow Serpent Festival

Podcast with Tim Bingham of INEF

Tim Bingham conducted a Skype interview with me last week about the world of drugs, internet, social media, Silk Road, ‘legal highs’, stigma and drug policy. It was a lot of fun! I’d like to thank Tim for providing me with the opportunity to participate.

You can access the podcast here.

Anything is possible on the Silk Road

Note Feb 2012: A different (much shortened!) version of this blog post has now been published in the peer-reviewed journal Addiction.

Much of the research and discussion about drugs and the internet has focused upon either buying drugs online or seeking drug-related information online. News coverage has particularly focused upon the capacity to buy drugs from web vendors (eg, Psychedelic drugs just a click away online, Deadly drug on the net).

Yet, evidence from the last decade indicates that most drug transactions still occur in the traditional way.

Popular illegal drugs are not generally available online: unless the product can be marketed as ‘legal’ or ‘not for human consumption’, the legal risk and practical problems associated with selling heroin, MDMA, amphetamines, and cannabis through an online marketplace are just too big, for both buyers and sellers.

It’s not that the demand doesn’t exist for online drug vendors. I interviewed forum moderators for my thesis who prohibited ‘sourcing’ on their message boards and regularly edited, closed or removed discussions they believed were motivated by attracting potential sellers.

An example would be a forum user posting that ‘isn’t it hard to find ecstasy in Perth at the moment’. If anyone in Perth had ecstasy to sell, they could send a private message to the OP offering their services.

Although this was possible and likely occurred despite swift moderator action to remove those threads, most forum users did not use the internet to buy drugs.

In a paper I will be presenting next week at #comtech2011, forum users discussed their views on talking about drugs in public online forums and their strategies to avoid the risk of incriminating themselves.

One popular strategy was to avoid all discussion of supply or dealing so as not to attract the attention of law enforcement who may be watching the forums. Most believed that law enforcement were after ‘dealers, not users’.

I conducted those interviews 3 years ago in 2008. In 2011, the situation has shifted considerably with the arrival of Silk Road, an anonymous online marketplace where anything* can be bought or sold.

Silk Road is accessible only to people who are using TOR anonymising software. TOR uses encryption to make it impossible for anyone to trace your IP address.

The front page of Silk Road looks a lot like an Amazon or an Ebay. Goods and services for sale are categorised. Sellers receive ratings from buyers and comments about the quality of their products, how fast they ship, and the level of professionalism and discreteness of the transaction. Trust in sellers is built on reputation.

Silk Road traders use the anonymous currency Bitcoin. This decentralised international currency operates through peer-to-peer technologies. It has an exchange and a lively forum of users.

The possibilities of a non-government-controlled anonymous international currency are quite mind-boggling. The obvious possibility is being played out right now on Silk Road: buying and selling illegal products is now possible and may dramatically increase in the near future.

What may stop an exponential increase in the use of anonymous online drug marketplaces is the hurdle of delivery. At the end of the transaction, the physical product still needs to be sent to the buyer.

Sending products between countries allows Customs the opportunity to intercept packages and potentially attempt to arrest the would-be importer. Sending products within the same country may make arrest less likely.

There are also fairly large barriers to entry for most ordinary people who might want to buy drugs online. Installing and using TOR, buying and using Bitcoins in a secure way, and taking the risk of fraud or arrest through package tracing from Customs may deter the majority of would-be users. In a recent example of the volatility of this new system, Bitcoin exchange Mt Gox was hacked, causing the currency to rapidly devalue.

But for the minority who master these concerns and are willing to take the risk, Silk Road and its successors have forever changed how the internet can be used to source drugs.

After all, buying drugs in the real world also involves considerable risk. For some, the online equivalent may prove more secure than trying to arrange a standard deal.

The extent to which law enforcement can bring down a site like this is yet to be seen. Equally, the extent to which ordinary drug users will use this new technology is also unknown. Needless to say, if anonymous online drug markets do end up expanding into mainstream drug markets, they will pose a real challenge to existing drug laws and policies.

All I can say is that I will be following Silk Road’s progress with great interest.

* In this exchange from Silk Road’s founder, he notes that some goods/services are not tolerated due to their capacity to harm others and attract controversy. In this category, he includes pedophilia, hitmen and counterfeit currency.

Note: An edited version of this article has also been published at Injecting Advice, a site for NSP workers and injectors. Thanks Nigel!

Video of 6DYP conference presentation

I recorded the audio of my presentation on 4th May at the 6th Drugs and Young People conference, and now I have recorded it alongside the Prezi into a movie. Please ignore the beginning with 12 seconds of black screen. My video editing skills are novice but I’m hoping to continue this kind of thing so all presentations I do in public will be recorded and disseminated on my Vimeo channel at http://vimeo.com/tronica

Drugs, Internet, Censorship from Monica Barratt on Vimeo.

Drugs, the internet, and the internet filter #6dyp

I’m presenting this today. In case you can’t be there, or were there and want to follow up any of the points I made, here’s the presentation! Remember to press ‘full screen’ 🙂

All comments warmly welcomed!

LINK

Embracing interactivity and openness: Drugs 2.0

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Ray Stephens of Moreland Hall. Ray spoke about ‘Using Web 2.0 to engage with clients and reduce drug-related harm’.

Web 2.0 is an interactive, immersive network where participants consume and create content and connections. Young people, arguably the target group of much alcohol and other drug ‘interventions’, are primarily using the internet to source health information. Online networks facilitated through web 2.0 allow people to collaborate, gather and distribution information. Illicit drug use is no exception to this trend!

Ray argues that web 2.0 is where alcohol and other drug treatment services need to be focusing their attention if they want to capture the attention of the majority of young people who already use these online networks to discussion drug use.

The examples of online engagement in the AOD field that Ray reviewed were websites with comment facilities (like Somazone), websites that host multiple blogs (like Between the Lines) and Moreland Hall’s website Bluebelly, which is pushing the boundaries in its use of wiki articles and forthcoming feature film.

From the audience, we discovered the innovative work currently underway at the Burnet Institute using Facebook. The Queer as F**k project follows the lives of 5 fictional gay men who live together in a share house in Melbourne. The characters have their own facebook pages and interact together on the site. The main action occurs in short film clip episodes uploaded to youtube and disseminated through the facebook page. Health and social issues are introduced through the films and online interaction.

Chris Raine, founder of Hello Sunday Morning was also in the audience and had a chat to me after the show. HSM is a collective of bloggers who have taken 3, 6 or 12 months off drinking to examine why they drink and develop a new relationship with alcohol. Hello Sunday Morning uses similar logic to Queer as F**k: people who follow the experience of these individuals and interact with them will be engaged and more open to learning and experimenting with their own behaviour change. The difference is that the HSM people are real, whereas the Queer as F**k characters are fictional. There is something particularly appealing about HSM bloggers being real.

Alongside the importance of using web 2.0 to engage with people about drug issues, Ray also argued for the opening up of AOD workplaces to web 2.0. How can people who work in this field become familiar with web 2.0 when much of it is blocked by our organisation’s firewalls? How can innovation be stimulated in organisations where facebook, youtube and twitter are seen as not work related?

Ray ended his presentation with a great list of 10 reasons why we should embrace web 2.0 in the AOD field:

1. Source of information
2. Brand awareness, credibility
3. Networking and partnership development
4. Provide treatment to people we will never see
5. It’s engaging (and fun?)
6. Encourage opportunities for users to have a voice
7. Extend your staff’s working hours
8. Free (…ish)
9. ‘They’ are already using it
10. It’s not going away

What I love about this list is that it reads so much like why people should embrace the harm reduction approach to drug use. Essentially, people are using web 2.0 and it isn’t going anywhere, so we need to learn how to use it wisely and well, instead of the zero tolerance approach of ignoring it in the hope that it might be a passing phase. Hopefully more alcohol and other drug agencies will modernise their social media policies and embrace interactivity and openness through web 2.0. All they have to lose is their fear 🙂

* Thanks Ray for starting this conversation. Let’s continue it!

More of the same…

The Rudd government announced another advertising campaign to ‘confront illicit drug use’ last night. Their media release states that:

Too many young Australians don’t understand the very real and dangerous impacts of taking or using illegal drugs

Their ‘new’ campaign will tackle this perceived lack of knowledge by using graphic images that emphasise the damaging effects drugs have. Young people need to ‘face facts’ about the risks involved in drug use.

I have numerous problems with this announcement.

  1. This is not a new campaign. Howard’s Tough on Drugs campaign has been on the go for many years with the same concepts and ideas.
  2. Social marketing campaigns like this are not informed by credible evidence. The National Drug Research Institute’s Prevention Monograph, a report commissioned by the Department of Health and Ageing themselves, found limited evidence to support the effectiveness of social marketing campaigns in reducing or preventing drug use and associated harms. Some studies even find such campaigns may lead to increased drug use through curiosity or reactance. Their most likely outcome is to have little influence on drug use decisions.
  3. These campaigns seem to be designed more for showing the general voting public that the government is ‘doing something’ about drug use. It seems no accident that this announcement and action comes in an election year.
  4. Assuming that young Australians don’t understand the dangers of drug use is unfair. This assumption should be tested. Research suggests that young people do understand and acknowledge the risks they are taking, yet they still choose to use drugs. Until the government can accept that choosing to use drugs can be a logical, informed decision, they will miss their mark in trying to engage young drug users.
  5. The Department of Health and Ageing needs to learn how to interpret statistics accurately!

Two prevalence estimates are compared across time by the Department to support their action in ‘tackling illicit drug use’. They appear to be drawn from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey series. The first read:

The proportion of recent regular ecstasy users who use weekly or more often has risen from 0.8 per cent in 1998 to 17.3 per cent in 2007.

I traced these figures back to their sources in the NDSHS reports and found that these figures refer to teenagers aged 14 to 19, and that the 1998 estimate was based on such small numbers that the estimate should be used with caution. The second reads:

There is also a disturbing trend in the increased ecstasy use by young females aged between 14-19 which is up from 4.7 per cent in 2004 to 6 per cent in 2007.

The table this comparison is taken from in the NDSHS 2007 report shows the increase is not statistically significant. That is, there is no disturbing trend. It is, in fact, hard to find ‘disturbing trends’ in the NDSHS series. Most drug use estimates are decreasing or steady. Whoever was charged with finding these disturbing trends to fit this media release has capitalised on the fact that most people who read it won’t know its source and how to access and interpret the original data.

I recall the Rudd government talking about its plans to use evidence-based policies on drugs and health issues more generally. This campaign is just more of the same. I guess drug policy misses out again when it comes to evidence-based policy.

This post can also be found on betweenthelines.org.au.

Do drug dogs deter use?

Ecstasy arrest numbers have been rising in the Australian state of New South Wales. While many interpret the rise in the number of ecstasy users arrested as evidence of increased popularity of the drug, it is also a likely consequence of increased policing, especially the use of drug detection dogs at music festivals and clubs.

In 2004, Victoria Police first announced their plans to use drug detection dogs (or sniffer dogs) to assist in the arrests of people in possession of prohibited substances. I was one of a group of people who gathered in a Melbourne pub to discuss the situation with other concerned citizens. Our little group talked about how people might respond to sniffer dogs: would drugs be taken at home before going out? would people who bought from regular dealers before going out turn to unknown dealers once inside the club? would people just have more house parties? We never really considered the question: will people stop taking drugs altogether because they might be slightly more likely to get arrested? We knew that this outcome was far-fetched, even though it was the official argument from police and policy makers.

Fast forward to today: I find myself having coffee with a friend from the original 2004 sniffer-dog group of concerned (clubbing) citizens. Our lives have changed a lot since then. Victoria Police now routinely employ sniffer dogs in their work. They are a feature of the Melbourne clubbing experience and according to my friends, clubbers have adapted. On a recent Melbourne outting of his, he and his partner found broken condoms and film canisters in the toilets. Through conversation, they discovered how clubbers had adapted to the reality of sniffer dogs: by storing their drugs internally in the canisters wrapped in condoms.

My friend’s observation is supported by research conducted in this area in Sydney and Melbourne. Dunn and Degenhardt conclude from their research in Sydney that:

regular ecstasy users do not see detection dogs as an obstacle to their drug use. Future research is necessary to explore in greater depth the experiences that drug users have with detection dogs; the effect detection dogs may have on deterring drug consumption; whether encounters with detection dogs contribute to drug-related harm; and the cost–benefit analysis of this law enforcement exercise.

Given these conclusions, it is not clear what purpose sniffer dogs serve. Superintendent Bingham notes that:

With MDMA, it’s lots of smaller seizures. If we go to a large music festival, we are there to target the dealers, not the users, but obviously the users will get caught up in that.

Clearly if MDMA dealers are not being caught, then the stated aim of employing sniffer dogs (to catch dealers) has not been met so far. Even most users would not get caught, given that they will either hide more effectively, choose different venues like house parties over large music events, or buy drugs inside the venues rather than from a known dealer.

So, we return to examining the media mentions of drug busts assisted by sniffer dogs. There, I believe, we find our answer. Sniffer dogs assist police in making more arrests, and these arrests become newsworthy for the general public, who in turn believe the police are doing ‘something’ about ‘drugs’.

Unfortunately, a small number of people have become casualities of the increased policing policies. In 2009, a 17-year-old girl attending the Big Day Out overdosed after consuming all of her drugs:

as she waited in line because she was frightened that she would be searched on entry

Although this response is unusual, any death like this is tragic. It is especially tragic when increased policing at events is sold as an effective deterrent to drug use, when there is no evidence to suggest this is the case.