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

Synthetic cannabinoids in Australia: an update

Stephen Bright and I recently posted an update to our popular post from November 2011 on The Conversation. It is reprinted in full below:

Synthetic cannabis is a lab-made product that mimics the effects of cannabis to give users a high when smoked. It has been sold in Australia since 2011 under various brand names, with a range of chemical compositions.

The product presents a unique challenge for drug policymakers. Despite 18 months of legislative action intended to ban synthetic cannabis, people in some states claim [mp3] they can still walk into a sex store or tobacconist and purchase it. Clearly the legislative changes have not been totally effective.

Who uses synthetic cannabis in Australia?

Last month, we published findings from the first survey of synthetic cannabis users in Australia.

When we asked people why they had first used synthetic cannabis, its legal status was an important reason. While 39% stated that they first tried the product because it was legal, 23% mentioned its availability was important, and 8% mentioned its non-detection in drug testing as a key factor.

We also found that almost all synthetic cannabis users who participated in our study had previously or were currently using cannabis.

Furthermore, evidence from this study and from the wider literature (for example, by Christopher Hoyte and Maren Hermanns-Clausen) indicates that synthetic cannabis products may be as risky as or more risky than cannabis itself. This is due to the lack of information about the ingredients in synthetic cannabis products and the pharmacological profiles of different synthetic cannabis varieties. We have virtually no information about longer term effects of these drugs.

The current state of regulation

A year ago, we published a summary of the legal status of synthetic cannabinoids in Australia. Since then, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) enacted new laws that prohibited eight broad classes of synthetic cannabinoids as well as any drugs that mimic cannabis.

These laws were intended to capture synthetic cannabinoids that were yet to be identified or even synthesised, in order to put an end to the cat and mouse game, where manufacturers introduce a new product immediately after legislators prohibit an old one.

Despite the TGA laws being ratified six months ago, there does not appear to have been any prosecutions of manufacturers based on these laws to date.

While importation falls under federal legislation, most drug laws are state-based. And while the relevant legislation in some states such as Victoria refers to the TGA’s legislation, the drug laws in other states such as New South Wales do not.

Our advice from law enforcement representatives in these states suggests that prosecution using the TGA’s legislation can only occur in federal jurisdictions (such as border control) and requires involvement by federal agents.

Nonetheless, even in Victoria – where some stores have reportedly had their synthetic cannabis confiscated since the TGA’s laws were ratified – it is unclear whether charges will be laid. Until charges are laid and these cases tried, the impact of the new laws remains unclear.

In another development, Queensland moved to independently implement new legislation redefining a “dangerous drug” as anything intended to “have a substantially similar pharmacological effect” to a banned substance.

But this legislation was not ratified, which meant that Queensland police eventually dropped charges against a number of retailers whose synthetic cannabis was confiscated.

Assessing the regulatory options

Given the ambiguity regarding synthetic cannabis, a NSW parliamentary committee is assessing the regulatory options for newer synthetic drugs. Last month, the committee heard evidence from government officials, industry representatives and researchers.

We outlined the following five possible regulatory options for the committee, while also recognising that the evidence to guide decision-making is limited.

The first is to continue banning individual substances as they become known. This option results in legislation and services playing catch up to an ever increasing array of new substances. A risk is that it may contribute to more harm by driving newer and lesser known products onto the market.

The second regulatory option is to ban broad categories of substances, including ones that activate the same brain systems as currently prohibited substances. But these broader laws have so far not been successfully prosecuted. They also assume that drugs of a similar category or that act on similar parts of the brain have similar harm profiles, when this may or may not be the case.

The third is to use currently available laws for the regulation of medicinal or consumer products, as some experts recently suggested. While this option may have merit, it offers only limited control.

The fourth option is to follow New Zealand’s lead and implement a specific regulatory regime for new psychoactive substances. Under the proposed system, distributors will be required to establish the safety of their products at their own expense before they may be legally sold. This new regulatory regime offers an alternative policy response to mitigate against the harmful cycle of new, untested drugs being sold as “legal highs”, but its success is yet to be established.

The fifth option is to design a new legislative framework that regulates all psychoactive substances. This option is consistent with recent calls for drug law reform. However, the Gillard government has indicated that it will not consider this option, and we still know very little about what the supply, use and harms of synthetic cannabis would look like if cannabis were legally available.

Even though there is no clear evidence to guide policy making in this area, we do know that the emergence of newer synthetic drugs is a complex challenge that requires consideration of all available policy options. We await the recommendations from the NSW Inquiry, due in 2013, which are likely to guide the direction of both state and commonwealth policy reform.

Podcast with Tim Bingham of INEF

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

You can access the podcast here.

Making academic knowledge media friendly

I attended a 2 day seminar last week run by the Centre for Research Excellence into Injecting Drug Use (CREIDU, or ‘cree-du’). The centre was launched mid-2011 and is based at the Burnet Institute, Melbourne. Day one focused on how to deal with the media. Day two focused on translating research into policy, and was run by the Drug Policy Modelling Program (DPMP). The program was an excellent mix of perspectives and practice. For my own benefit and for anyone else who is reading, I thought it would be useful to summarise what I learnt from the workshop.

Tracy Parish, Deputy Head of Public Affairs and Communications at Burnet, showed us this video (an advert for The Guardian) to illustrate how stories can spiral outwards in our contemporary media landscape:

We got a good sense of the journalist’s perseptive on science/academics. The journalist’s role is to ‘decipher complex issues’. They need to synthesise information into small digestible chunks and usually they need to do this to a hard deadline. Journalists need news that hooks the reader in. Why should the reader care about our academic findings? We need to have a solid answer to this question prior to engaging the media on our issue.

A great tool for seeing whether we can front the media effectively is the dinner party test – can you fascinate a group of non-specialists with a short story about what you do? Or do they back away as soon as you utter your first sentence? Why should your parents’ friends care about what you do? What connection would they make with your work?

I really enjoyed the presentation by Jon Faine, Radio presenter of the ABC morning show in Victoria. His presentation style was captivating which I think illustrated his main point, that you are performing when you engage with the media and you need to tell a good story. He also noted that ‘the media’ is often described as one monolithic entity, but that commercial and non-commercial media have completely different mandates and practices which we should be aware of when we choose who to engage with and how. Regardless of what kind of media we are talking about, Jon’s message of ‘head, heart, hip’ is important – if the story can’t be directly related to the head, heart or hip pocket of the audience, it’s not a compelling story.

For the rest of this post, I’m simply going to list the tips I wrote down from the entire day – which came from a number of diverse speakers and audience members.

When dealing with the media, academics should…

  • tell a good anecdote because this will engage the audience (allowing them to ‘paint a picture’ of the issue)
  • avoid statistics although simple numbers/proportions are compelling if they are limited in number and go to the core of the issue
  • don’t assume any prior knowledge – this can be difficult for academics who mainly socialise with other academics, but think about the dinner party test (I was thinking about times when I found myself talking to my parents’ neighbours about my phd!)
  • use the word ‘you’ and ‘your’, eg. in your workplace, in your family, in your community (why should the audience care about this story if it does not relate directly to them?)
  • if you are taking a purely ‘evidence-based’ approach and are asked your personal opinion, you can say that you have an opinion but that it doesn’t matter because your role is only to provide the evidence (further discussion occurred regarding advocacy positioning)
  • stick to your stance and if the journalist continues to push against you, suggest they go to another organisation and if you know of a suitable one, name them
  • never say just ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the journalist is looking for quotes so you need to speak in sentences
  • you can say no to a request from the media – it is good to remember that journalists need content to survive and that you are actually helping them to do their job, so you can be in charge of it – whether to do it in the first place, where to do it, when to do it, etc.

Specific advice for when you are preparing for or engaged in a phone interview with a journalist (eg. for newspaper):

  • Ask how long the interview will be? Remember you are likely only to be quoted for one sentence or two at the most so you need to prepare those messages.
  • Prepare a cheat sheet of 1-3 messages and any numbers/facts you need to get right
  • Research the journalist and publication if you don’t already know them well. What other pieces has this journalist written/produced? What standard of work are they associated with?
  • It was suggested that you should ensure the journalist understands that if they are not prepared to show you the article prior to publication, you are not prepared to allow them to use your name. I have personally found that journalists feel this request questions their integrity and their ability to do their job, and can get defensive, so I’m not sure whether this request is appropriate in practice. The best solution to this problem is probably around cultivating long-term relationships with journalists (see below).
  • Stand up! Wear heals/more formal clothing – find a place that is less familiar than your office to conduct the phone call. These actions help you to remember during the interview that this is not a casual conversation, this is a formal performance. It is easy to lapse into casual conversation which is when you are most likely to sway away from your defined role in this process.

Advice for managing your overall engagement with media:

  • Jon Faine described the OMDB (Over My Dead Body) list. If a journalist does the wrong thing by you, don’t deal with them again. Have a white list and a black list which you cultivate over time. Don’t reward bad behaviour.
  • Cultivate long-term relationships with journalists and media organisations. Doing this reduces your chances of being misquoted or misrepresented because the journalist will value their relationship with you and not want to jeopardise it if possible. It means you have a list of people to go to when you do have a story you think is newsworthy who you are not ‘cold-calling’.
  • During your academic research, be on the look out for good visual opportunities – video or image – and record them as you go. These can be used later for media engagements. If you provide visuals, you are more likely to reach a television audience – without visuals, you are limited to radio and newspapers.


  • Some journalists read conference abstracts and may follow up with academics from this material. While this practice may not be commonplace, it is therefore good practice to ensure that conference abstracts are not only written for the academic community but also contain media friendly messages – assuming you want to attract media attention to your story (you don’t always want this!).
  • Approach the media liaison at a conference and introduce yourself to them.

Alternatives to media engagement

  • Write it yourself as an opinion piece – this way you can’t be misquoted or misrepresented

The final message? You need to first decide whether you want to be an academic that engages with the media. If you don’t want to, you need to communicate your findings to someone who will do it for you. If you do want to engage, you need to commit to learning how to do it well. This takes a regular time commitment and needs to be factored into your job timelines. It may mean that one less academic paper gets written per annum or it may mean the media-engaged researcher has to do more overtime. A major problem the workshop identified was that academics don’t get rewarded adequately for community engagement. Will the media-engaged researcher with slightly less academic publications win a fellowship over the media-disengaged researcher with slightly more academic publications? I hope that public impact count for something and I think it should definitely count for more than it does now.

Should academics engage with the media? Even if they will sometimes get it wrong (or oftentimes get it wrong depending on who you ask)? I say yes, we must. When it comes to evidence-based drug policy, we have an obligation to make our evidence appealing to the public. Public opinion matters more and more in terms of what policies governments are prepared to implement. If we can’t persuade governments, we may need to take on public opinion to have an impact on drug policy.

Discussing drugs in online forums: ACM Authorizer service

The ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) has a new service called Authorizer, which allows individual researchers to link to a fulltext version of their conference papers from their own website. This means you, the reader, don’t have to be affiliated with a university to access my paper. And the read/download statistics will update accordingly if you follow the link below to my paper.

ACM DL Author-ize serviceDiscussing illicit drugs in public internet forums: visibility, stigma, and pseudonymity

Monica J. Barratt
C&T ’11 Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Communities and Technologies, 2011



If only the drugs/health field were as open access oriented as the internet/computing field. Maybe one day!

Open access scholarly work in the addictions: Yes we can!

While I’m waiting for my phd to be examined, I’m (naturally) attempting to publish in reputable academic journals as this is the best way for me to continue my academic career by winning a fellowship. Without those publications, my fellowship chances are nil. Academic publishing, through peer review by my colleagues, is essential for me to get anywhere. The peer review system also improve the articles I write and acts as a filter so I can’t just publish any old ‘crap’, like I can to this blog 🙂 The skills of my peers in this field are really valuable. Of course I also want people to read my work and respond to it. However, now that we have the internet and I have this blog and twitter etc., the role of ‘reputable academic journals’ in this process is somewhat less important.

The main problem with this system in my opinion is that I want *everyone* to have access to resulting journal article. Why should my work be behind a paywall? Why should the readers be restricted to those with institutional connections in the academy?

To get an idea of the lunacy of academic publishing as it stands today, check out this animation:

What do publishers actually do? I don’t need my article printed. I can take care of the formatting. I provide the content. A group of colleagues can provide the peer review and I will and do peer review for my colleagues. The skills to run a website and an online system for reviewing and submitting are not difficult, although there is an element of time involved. Even then, most of the work is done by academics, not by the publishers. What exactly is my university paying the publisher for?

And if I want to publish in the small number of so-called Open Access journals in the drugs/alcohol/addiction field, myself or my university is asked to pay a publishing fee, which is in many cases over $1000. This is prohibitive. Governments and universities already pay once for the production of research through issuing grant moneys and salaries through fellowships and the like. Then they are asked to pay again to publish the article OR the reader is asked to pay.

To top off the lunacy of this system, I sign away the rights to my article when I publish in a traditional academic journal. So the publisher can make more money and restrict access to the content in order to do so. Yet, without any of us, the publisher would have nothing to sell and no profit to make.

So, can we create a truly open access journal for the drugs/alcohol/addictions research area? I say, yes we can!

And the NHMRC CEO thinks so too.

What do you think? Let’s keep talking and see what we can make happen!

Also see the Open Access Week and the Open Access Pledge.

How do you think synthetic cannabis should be treated by the law?

You’re invited to participate in a study investigating the use of synthetic cannabis, otherwise known as Kronic, K2, Spice, Kaos, Northern Lights, Aussie Gold, Puff, Zeus, and many other brands…

You DO NOT need to be a past or current user of synthetic cannabis to be eligible for this study, and we are especially interested in hearing from people with no prior use of these drugs. However, you DO need to be at least 18 years of age and an Australian resident in
order to be eligible.

Participation in this study involves completing an online survey lasting 20 minutes. It is entirely voluntary, completely anonymous and no identifying information will be collected.

Visit the following URL to participate:

For further information, contact me!
(email, twitter @monicabarratt, phone +61 407 778 938)

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.

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.