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!

Rainbow Serpent Festival
Rainbow Serpent Festival

The drug’s in the mail

Last week was a week of firsts for me: first time mentioned in The Age, first time a photo of me was printed in The Age, first time I have spoken on radio (3AW) and first time I’ve appeared on national television (The Project, Network Ten). As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve done a bit of media training but haven’t had much of a chance to put it into practice. Now at least I’ve done these things once, I’ll have a better chance of preparing and understanding what’s required for next time 🙂

Journalists who tackle drug stories often get a bad rap – they are often accused of sensationalist, one-sided reporting. I want to congratulate the journalists I worked with on these stories as I feel they represented my views accurately. While there is always a dose more ‘drama’ in these stories than I am comfortable with, I don’t think these stories were over sensationalised and they were largely accurate in their reporting. So, thanks to the journalists involved. Looking forward to working with you again in future.

Read The Age article: original link, archived link.

Listen to the 3AW radio segment: original link, archived link.

Watch The Project: original link (it’s after the ‘global news’ segment), archived link.

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. and 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.

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!

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

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!


Australian Drugs Conference 2010

Today I attended Day 1 of the Australian Drug Conference 2010. The conference focus was ‘Public health and harm reduction’. I certainly felt at home in this environment: where public health, human rights, harm reduction, law reform and the involvement of people who use drugs in policy and practice were emphasised.

We have had some recent successes in Australia that were celebrated today: including the NSW state government’s decision to lift the trial status of Sydney’s supervised injecting centre. Other innovative harm reduction measures, such as peer-administered naloxone to prevent death from heroin overdose (Chicago, and in many other parts of the world), the ‘unsupervised’ provision of buprenorphine-naloxone substitution therapy (USA, France) and the decriminalisation of illicit drugs for personal use (Portugal), are yet to find acceptance in Australia despite positive results in other parts of the world.

I was particularly interested in the session called I found it online. Johnboy Davidson (Enlighten Harm Reduction) spoke about the proposed internet filter and what it might mean for online harm reduction, Cameron Francis (Dovetail) discussed the challenges of responding to new or emerging drugs using mephedrone as an example, and Stephen Bright (Peninsula Health) provided an overview of so-called legal highs and the law in Australia.

Some of the messages I took from this session include:

  • The censorship laws as they stand today could be applied to websites hosted in Australia, but generally at not enforced. Even so, websites disseminating instructions on safer injecting could be taken down if the laws about refused classification were actually enforced.
  • We need a workable early warning system to detect new and emerging drugs quickly. None of our current systems are quick enough to help people who use drugs and the people who work with them better understand new drugs: ways of reducing harm, specific risks, etc.
  • New drugs are quick to arise and quick to disappear – in part this is due to the legal roundabout whereby new ‘legal highs’ are marketed/used in Australia, then they are discovered by law enforcement, analogue laws are used/enforced, and the cycle begins again. (Or markets are driven by trends in larger countries like the UK, where the UK enacts legislation to ban the new substance, which precipates another new substances, and we begin again…).
  • Legislative approaches to controlling emerging drugs should be examined carefully. Are drug laws themselves fuelling the problem on both the demand and the supply side?

Some of my thoughts on these issues are that:

  • The internet facilitates and accelerates the process of new drugs emerging, but the internet is not the causal factor, and suppressing access to drug related information on the internet (as would happen under the proposed internet filter) will not necessarily reduce this facilitation. The consequences of the internet filter for drug users and drug markets needs some more careful thought: one scenario is that seasoned drug and internet users will still be able to find and share information in a clandestine fashion (using virtual private networks or peer-to-peer traffic) but the novice user casually searching google for information will not have access to important information for drug harm reduction. Yet, they will definitely still have access to websites selling ‘legal highs’ because these can keep changing their name/location as required…
  • People really need to look at the demand side of emerging drugs: addressing only supply will never change the desire to use drugs. We should ask the hard questions, like: ‘Is spending money/time reducing supply/purity of MDMA pills necessarily a good thing for public health?’ If we find that people displaced from ecstasy use decide to use emerging and mainly unknown drugs as substitutes, should we not reconsider the wisdom of this?

Thanks to everyone I chatted to today and I hope you all enjoy tomorrow’s sessions!

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.

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