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 🙂

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.

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

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.