Censoring online drug discussion

Over the last decade, Australians who use psychostimulant drugs have been increasingly using the internet to access drug-related information. This behaviour is occurring as part of a wider trend towards using always-available information (through wireless internet and internet-enabled notebooks and mobile phones) to ‘google’ just about any topic of interest. The difference with drug-related information is that there has traditionally been barriers in place around the distribution of detailed information about illicit drugs in public spaces. While barriers do exist for Australian-hosted websites containing content that could be refused classification by Australian censors, currently these rules cannot be enforced for overseas-hosted websites. Within this context, drug users have taken the opportunity to openly and anonymously share drug-related information and make connections with others with similar histories and interest in drugs.

The public, open nature of many websites that host discussion about illicit drugs has both opportunities and challenges. Allowing open discussion about taboo topics runs the risk of enabling information to disseminate freely that may be inaccurate and risky to those who choose to follow it. Discussions about drugs may glorify their use or not provide enough cautionary advice. On the other hand, open discussion also enables balanced information and strong warnings in an environment where users can ask questions free of the fear of being identified as a drug user. The public nature of these discussions helps with their monitoring by health professionals and law enforcement agencies; a benefit that cannot be said about interactions that occur privately.

Most Australian drug users now live in a context where internet use is embedded in their everyday lives. Over the next 5 years, this embeddedness will only increase. Access to vast amounts of drug-related information online changes the landscape of drug policy. Young adults who are the target of drug prevention campaigns are less likely to believe exaggerated or unrealistic warnings about drugs when they have the ability to easily and quickly check the veracity of such claims. The denial of the benefits and pleasures of drug use cannot continue for the same reason: it is too easy to find contrary information elsewhere. To gain credibility with drug users, the government will need to acknowledge the reality of drug use: its benefits and risks. Doing this while still sending a message that resonates with the rest of the population will be a formidable (if not impossible) task in the present climate fuelled by misrepresentation of all drug users as ‘addicts’ or ‘junkies’.

A key challenge to monitoring and intervening in online drug discussion over the next 5 years is how the Australian internet filter the Labor Party is planning to introduce in 2011 will affect this context of open public information. Should the filter be applied in its current form, websites hosting detailed instructions regarding drug taking would be refused classification and Australian ISPs will be directed to block such sites if hosted overseas. Should this happen, such material will be unavailable to Australians unless they use proxy connections to connect to the material through overseas-hosted hubs.

It is unclear how Australian drug users will react to this development. One of the major benefits of public online drug discussion is the ability of authorities to watch and react to the information posted. Drug users who lose access to drug information websites may use easily-available tools to set up new websites that bypass the filter through virtual private networks and secure http sites. Peer-to-peer traffic will also remain unmonitored. Should drug discussion move exclusively to these domains, it will become more clandestine and, consequently, harder for officials to track and respond to.

While the presence of detailed information that instructs people how to use a drug may encourage its use, a significant proportion of people will use a drug anyway, with or without instructions. Given that most instructional information about drug use available online is aimed at assisting users refine techniques of use to reduce possible harms, making this information harder to get forces drug users to rely more heavily upon their (offline) social networks for this instruction. The potential for inaccurate information exists in both online and offline information sources. Should these forms of information become banned in the online public domain, they will be harder to monitor and harder to critique. It will be critical to monitor such developments before, during and after the introduction of ISP-level filtering proposed by the federal government.

While there has been significant protest against the proposed internet censorship plans, these have mainly been among the internet-savvy proportion of the Australian population. The debate is yet to be known and understood by the average voter. In truth, the protection of drug user rights to free information and a chance to reduce the harms of their use may not sit well with the average voter either. However, what about fiction that contains detailed information about drug taking? Video games which simulate drug taking? Will Underbelly be taken off air? Quite possibly. How the debate plays out in the next month or so when the legislation is tabled in parliament will be critical to the future of public, open, online drug discussion in Australia.

More on the language needed for the #nocleanfeed campaign to reach a wider audience here

The debate about informed drug use

Drug safety card

The NSW government produced a booklet aimed at young drug users called Drug safety: Guide to a better night. The SMH reports that the state opposition and youth workers want the booklet destroyed, because it sends the ‘wrong’ message. Guiding drug users about how to have a ‘better night’ could be seen as endorsing drugs in the party setting.

It was great to see an alternative position in favour of the harm-reduction information booklet, written by Julie Bowen of Moreland Hall. The harm reduction philosophy is realistic about continued drug use and aims to make that drug use less harmful. After exploring common harms from drug use and ways to look after yourself and your friends, the booklet’s end message is:

Remember the best way to avoid problems with drugs is not to use them at all.

This is also the take-home message of the harm reduction approach. While using drugs, try to do all you can to reduce the harms to yourself and others who may be affect by your activities. Yet, always remember that abstinence is the only way to completely avoid harms.

Officially, since 1985, Australia’s drug policy has been described as harm minimisation, in which three approaches (supply reduction, demand reduction and harm reduction) are all aimed at reducing drug-related harms for the individual, their families, communities and society. This pragmatic approach is complex. For example, supply reduction activities may increase the harm experienced by drug users. Harm reduction activities may increase demand for a drug. Demand and supply reduction activities focused on one drug may increase harm by creating a trend towards a new, lesser-known drug. It is difficult to evaluate the effects of individual policies, especially when considering the whole system of health harms that harm minimisation policies target.

The argument against harm-reduction drug information, whether in booklets or websites, needs to be challenged. As Julie Bowen writes:

People need reliable information to make informed decisions and take care of themselves and each other. Information contained in the brochure could be the catalyst for a simple, life-saving action such as a person being rolled onto their side when unconscious. Drugs continue to play a role in the world in which we live in, therefore the only humane approach is to equip people to be aware of and manage the risks that they or their friends may face.

However, the anti-information argument also needs to be examined for aspects of truth, even by those who feel offended at the apparent lack of concern for the safety of drug users that comes through in the views of those supporting ‘zero tolerance’. It may be true that for some people, knowing how to use a drug ‘more safely’ may encourage them to try that drug or to use it more often. It is likely that the dangers or harms of some drugs put people off using them, and if these are reduced by detailed information about safer use, these people may ultimately use more drugs! However, if they do so and come to less harm overall, is this really a problem?

Taking the view that ‘informed drug use’ is desirable for those who choose to use drugs leads to activities that get appropriate information out to those that want it. For example, we could create a harm reduction app for the iPhone that would make it easy to access accurate information, such as that found in the NSW drug safety booklet, any time and place it was needed. Getting information to people when they are actually making decisions about drug use is a critical next step, in my view.

This article was also posted at betweenthelines

Drugs and nice people

The UK drugs and rights organisation Release sparked controversy in London recently, after their campaign aimed at de-stigmatising drug use was withdrawn from London buses by advertising regulators. The advertisement, featuring the deceptively simple statement ‘Nice people take drugs’, was chosen to draw attention to the way drug takers are typically demonised in the media and through drug policies.

The Guardian reports that the chief executive of Release, Sebastian Saville, stated that the withdrawal of the advert from buses was an “overreaction to a legitimate message”. He believes that “the time has come where potential leaders of our country have much to gain from real honesty about drug use in the UK, including their own drug use”. Release has also produced an animated youtube clip featuring people of all walks of life describing to their use of every manner of psychoactive drug, in an effort to humanise people who use drugs.

The truth is that a large proportion of the population (in the UK, Australia, USA, etc.) has at least tried an illegal drug, and research indicates that most people who use drugs also work, study, have families and are valued parts of our community. These facts are kept secret due to a legitimate fear of open discussion of drug use by these people, who do not want to risk their jobs and reputations over potential criminal punishment.

This situation allows politicians and the public to continue believing that ‘drugs are bad’ and anyone who uses drugs is, well, also bad, or at least, misguided and in need of treatment. It is this belief that allows continuation of the War on Drugs. If drugs are evil, there is no room to question punitive drug policies even when there is little evidence that they actually work.

I do wonder whether Nice people take drugs really captures this argument, though. There are many definitions of ‘nice’ and many definitions of ‘drugs’, and to lump all types of drug use and all types of drugs together muddies the picture. Yet, if the goal of the advertisement was to spark debate, it has certainly succeeded in spreading its message (just google ‘nice people take drugs’ and have a look for yourself!).

This article also posted to betweenthelines.net.au and inthemix.com.au