Cannabis policy: what’s next?

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

According to the organisers, the aims of the workshop were

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original article begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State

Timeline of events/legislation changes

WA

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

SA

17 June – SA bans 17 chemicals

NSW

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

TAS

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

NT

August 12 – NT Banned 18 synthetic cannbinoids

QLD

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

VIC

VIC have proposed changes, but nothing has progressed.

ACT

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

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

Table 2: List of synthetic cannabinoids and their legal status

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

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

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

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

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!

Mephedrone / 4-MMC

‘Meow’ trance victim! A deadly designer drug dubbed Britain’s new ecstasy has sent a man into a psychotic “trance-like” state in the first known case in Melbourne.

When I read this on the front page of the mX (11/3/2010), I knew the moral panic had officially begun. Since then Australia has seen an hour-long ‘investigation’ into the new ‘killer drug’ mephedrone on A Current Affair, with another investigation by Steve Cannane due to air on ABC’s Lateline tonight.

Firstly, what exactly is mephedrone or 4-MMC? And why are people talking about a drug called ‘meow meow’ and ‘plant food’? According to a selection of key information compiled at Bluelight, the full name for this drug is 4-Methylmethcathinone or 4-MMC. The ‘meow meow’ may refer to MM-CAT, another shortening of MethylMethCAThinone. While Australian law prohibits cathinones and any cathinone analogues, including mephedrone, the UK is in the midst of a political struggle to schedule and ban 4-MMC which is currently a legal substance, although it must be marketed as not for human consumption to get around standard regulations of consumable products.

For those who have studied the history of new drug panics, this treatment has a familiar ring to it. Like MDMA (‘ecstasy’), methamphetamine (‘ice’), and GHB (‘fantasy’) before it, 4-MMC (also with the classy so-called street name ‘meow meow’) is a menacing danger that needs to be stopped using the legal system. 4-MMC has been marketed as plant food, like other ‘new’ drugs that have made headlines in the last decade that were labelled research chemicals and incense to avoid regulations associated with food and drugs.

What has become obvious to observers in this case in Australia is that as supply reduction measures tighten and actually influence drug markets for known illegal drugs like MDMA, demand for MDMA is left unmet. It is not surprising that new synthetic drugs are created, manufactured and marketed to meet this demand. While Australia’s analogue laws mean that most new synthetic drugs are likely to be illegal, it still takes time for the police and customs to determine this – and in that time, new drugs enter the market. We will always be playing catch-up. The question I ask is whether we do more harm by perpetuating new and less studied drugs, one after another, than we would do if we regulated the supply of known drugs, even with their harms.

Furthermore, having a sharp divide between illegal and legal drugs can provide people with a false sense of security when they believe a drug is ‘legal’. Pharmaceutical drugs, ‘legal highs’ and other drugs on the margins of legality such as new analogue drugs may be perceived as less dangerous than known illicit drugs. This misplaced sense of security may be stronger among people who don’t take illicit drugs and who haven’t been exposed to them, because they are more likely to actually believe the scare campaigns in the public discourse. For example, posters warn Australians against using ecstasy or speed due it being made in ‘backyard labs’, yet this image contrasts with the imagined pristine lab in a pharmaceutical company or the scientific lab where a drug like 4-MMC/mephedrone could be made. This is surely an unintended consequence of singling out cannabis, ecstasy and methamphetamine in anti-drug campaigns, and an unintended consequence of prohibition itself.

The situation with mephedrone is a little different in the UK, where there are no analogue laws and the drug is freely available although this is likely to change as the UK government looks to include mephedrone in Schedule B. Max Pemberton from the Guardian wrote an article entitled “I took mephedrone and I liked it”, where he said:

I do not doubt that mephedrone will be made illegal, and this is probably a very sensible course of action if we want people to be as risk averse as possible. But what must be appreciated is that as soon as it is, it’s only a matter of time before another substance appears, creating the same problems all over again.

Professor David Nutt, who was sacked from the UK drug advisory board last year for speaking his mind about the inconsistency of drug scheduling in the UK, believes that regulating mephedrone alongside MDMA would be safer than imposing the current system of prohibition.

I urge the UK and Australia to consider not only the situation of this new entrant, 4-MMC/Mephedrone, but to the other new synthetic drugs that have been in its place and will be in its place should our system of prohibition remain the same. Let’s look carefully at the whole system, rather than running around after ourselves over and over again when history repeats itself.

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