More Silk Road

Over the last 7 days, Silk Road has been in the Australian news media again, with an announcement last Friday by the AFP that they had arrested 20 people as part of an ongoing operation targeting drugs sent through the post.

Last week I really enjoyed being the guest on RRR’s Byte Into It, a weekly technology program. And earlier this week I was one of a number of experts involved in Hack’s story on drugs in the mail: they also interviewed representatives from the AFP, Customs and Australia Post, as well as Australians who had received drugs via post.

Listen to Byte Into It (16 May 2012)

Listen to Hack (21 May 2012)

Next week I’ll be presenting at the ISSDP conference (International Society for the Study of Drug Policy) in Canterbury, Kent, UK. I’m looking forward to being immersed in a more international perspective on drug policy issues as well as being able to meet face-to-face so many researchers that I’ve only ever read or emailed!

Drug policy in a digitally networked world

I presented on this topic at the Drug Policy Modelling Program symposium held in Sydney on Friday 16 March. I elaborate on two examples of ways in which drug policy is challenged in an internet-saturated context: emerging psychoactive drugs (e.g., synthetic cannabinoids) and online anonymous drug marketplaces (e.g., Silk Road). The video is 20 minutes, best viewed in full screen 🙂

Thanks to DPMP for flying me to Sydney! Looking forward to presenting a version of these ideas again at the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy conference in Canterbury, Kent, UK, in May. An international perspective on this kind of work is critical.

My web interview with Release / Talking Drugs

Available here and reposted below with permission.

An Interview with Monica Barratt

Monica Barratt is a Melbourne-based research fellow at the National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University, Australia. Her PhD thesis, which has just been passed, was a mixed-methods study of online drug discussion. Monica is especially interested in how the the internet and other digital technologies intersect with drug use and drug market trends. Follow her at @monicabarratt

Can you describe, in few words, the current Australian legislation on drugs and give us an idea of the history of drug addiction in Australia?

Australia is a signatory to the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, which commits countries to a drug prohibition approach. While we have historically prohibited the substances that the US prohibits (e.g., there was no documented cannabis use in Australia when we first prohibited it), we have also at times been ahead of other countries in implementing harm reduction both through services (e.g., needle/syringe exchanges in the 1980s, the medically supervised injecting centre in the 2000s) and through law reform (e.g., various states of Australia have decriminalised cannabis). Similarly to other parts of the world, Australia’s drug policy trajectory is affected by politics. The last 15 years of federal government in this country has been dominated by socially conservative politicians. In some cases, this context has hampered the implementation of harm reduction innovations, although in all cases, government support for vital initiatives such as the provision of clean injecting equipment has continued despite the conservative public rhetoric.

In your PhD thesis, you research the importance and implications of the online drug communities. Can you explain, briefly, the role of the online drug forums and communities in reducing or increasing the risks for young people?

My aim was to explore the role of online drug discussion for the specific sub-group who participate online. I only looked at public internet discussion forums where Australians who used ‘party drugs’ (that is, psychostimulants and hallucinogens) could be found. By examining the data (observations, survey, interviews) through different metaphors of the internet, I demonstrate how the internet is not just a tool through which people learn about drugs, it is also a place where they go and interact with other drug users, and for some, that online place becomes simply a part of their everyday (offline) lives. Using online forums to deliberately find a new social network could result in new avenues of drug supply as well as new networks of harm reduction information. On the whole, I found that the internet and online forums were more often used in order to reduce the harm of drug use and much less often used to directly enhance the drug experience (a practice which may involve increasing drug-related harms, e.g., learning how to take higher doses of a drug in order to increase the effects).

I think it is important to note that there is a specific sub-section of drug users that access and engage with online drug forums. It would be wrong to assume that my PhD findings apply to a more general audience of ‘young people’. Unfortunately for various reasons it took me a while to finish my thesis (any PhD students reading may relate!), so the data were collected in 2007-08, some time ago now. My feeling now is that online drug forums still only appeal to a niche group. However, even though the use of social media (especially Facebook) has increased dramatically since these data were collected, drug forums are still being used which indicates that they offer something people want. One of the advantages identified by my research participants was the ability to remain pseudonymous in online forums and to keep drug discussion separate from day-to-day life. This separation of identities has become more difficult in an age of Facebook and Google where ‘real name’ policies are increasingly implemented.

 In your presentation ‘PMA sounds fun’ you stressed that ‘pleasure and fun’ are often some of the reasons why young people take drugs. Do you think that these feelings are the real feelings expressed behind the urge for drugs, or do they cover other needs and complex feelings that need to be addressed?

Historically, humans (and indeed non-human animals) seek pleasure or positive affect from their activities and from substances. Most drugs, especially those that are popular recreationally, induce a positive state at least to begin with. I think the finding that young people enjoy drug experiences, gain pleasure from them, use them to enhance their social lives, should not really be newsworthy in and of itself if we remember that alcohol is a drug and that most of us can relate to drinking alcohol for pleasure and to enhance our social lives. The reason that it is newsworthy is that the place of pleasure in drugs has been obscured or silenced, perhaps because the presence of pleasure is erased by the pathology or deficit drug discourse, where it is assumed that all (illicit) drug use is a problem and that drug use occurs in response to a deficit either in the individual drug taker or in their environment. The pathology discourse is a dominant mode of thinking about drugs in Australia and internationally, but there are so many examples that challenge it, notably the existence of happy and healthy people who also use (illicit) drugs. This point is encapsulated well in the Release campaign ‘Nice people use drugs’ (which I loved! Thank you Release!). It is also worth noting that the dominant pathology discourse on drugs underlies policies of drug prohibition, so as we challenge this discourse, we bring into focus the potential for drug law reform.

To answer the question more succinctly, yes it is possible that for some people who describe their motivation to use drugs as about pleasure or enjoyment, there are other more complex reasons for their use, and that they may prefer to focus on the positive rather than the negative reasons in their presentation of self. It is also possible that people who say they take drugs for fun really do just take drugs for fun.

Do you believe that the anonymity and ‘pseudonymity’ of the online drug communities is a reflection of the stigma towards drugs and drug use in current societies? Can you expand on this?

The use of pseudonyms in drug forums is a protection against people finding out about the real identity of the individual drug user. Some forum users focused on the importance of avoiding stigma in their daily lives as a major factor whereas others were concerned more about getting into trouble with the law. Interestingly, not all of the people I interviewed who discussed drugs in public online forums were concerned about their privacy or about potential stigma if their friends and family found out about their drug use. Some people, instead of masking their identity, simply ensured that they never spoke about drugs in a way that could incriminate them – that is, they were vague or used coded language when discussing drugs.

I was fascinated by the wide variety of strategies used by drug forum participants to deal with the illegal nature of their activity in their public forum interactions. Given the diversity of responses and actions, we cannot assume that the internet is always valued by drug users due to its facilitation of anonymous communication.

In your presentation ‘Discussing drugs in public internet forums’ you emphasize that internet, technology and society shape each other mutually. What use of the media do you think that public and health policy should make in order to aim at an effective harm reduction strategy?

Good question! The mutual shaping of technology and society is an iterative, dynamic, ongoing process. We need to be careful not to state that technology affects society without also seeing that society affects technology. So, we could conclude that the anonymity afforded by internet forums allows drug users to talk to each other (technology affects society), but it is a crucial point to note that the societal context of drug prohibition sets conditions of stigma and punishment which generate the need for anonymity (society affects technology).

In terms of creating an effective harm reduction strategy, the first point for me is to come back to the participant’s view. From the drug user’s perspective, what are the harms they are experiencing, which harms are important to them, what are the strategies to reduce those harms, what is missing that others can provide that will assist? There is also the type of harm reduction strategy that focuses on the environmental factors, such as providing a safe space for injecting or policies that mandate police do not attend ambulances to encourage people to call for help without fear of prosecution. The internet and especially online drug forums can be useful to obtain the view of people who actually use drugs, by enabling engagement between policy makers and drug users in a safer setting, although as I’ve mentioned before, we can’t assume that online drug forum users represent the wider population. Media can also be used to disseminate campaign messages on a mass scale, but I find these mass media campaigns are generally anti-drug, do not involve any harm reduction, and are not aimed at people who use drugs (they are often put off by such campaigns).

An important emerging area is the use of social media for harm reduction interventions, where campaigns are run through Facebook and Twitter in interactive formats. I think harm reduction agencies should pursue these opportunities to better engage with their clients, especially if they are trying to attract young people into their interventions. In order to do it well though, agencies may need some support and guidance from experienced social media users. For example, in Australia, Hugh Stephens runs Dialogue Consulting, an organisation that specialises in upskilling non-government organisations and others in social media engagement of young people. Honing this skillset will likely be increasingly important for such organisations that work with drugs and young people.

 In assuming that drugs education and information provided on drugs and serious health risks do not stop certain people from taking drugs, to which direction should an effective drug policy turn to? Should the insights of disciplines like psychology and sociology be seriously employed by health and social policies?

Yes, I think health and social policies should be theoretically informed by psychology, sociology, anthropology, social theory, etc. and especially in the context of media and drug policies, these needs to also be informed by media/communications theory. The discipline Internet Studies was really helpful for me in formulating and interpreting my PhD data as it opened up new ways of thinking about how the internet and drugs intersect. I know that it’s not necessarily possible for public policy to access and use the insights from a wide variety of academic disciplines, as often this knowledge is difficult to access and difficult to interpret if you are looking in from the outside! This is one of the reasons I write my blog and post as much as I can in freely available places, but unfortunately there are many barriers to more open access to scholarly content within the system we work in.

To answer the question of which direction effective drug policy should turn to if providing information on drugs and serious health risk does not stop some people from taking drugs… we need to first acknowledge that people who choose to use drugs may be making an entirely informed decision. The assumption that all people will cease drug use if they had adequate information needs to be challenged. Meeting people ‘where they are at’ is a tenet of most counselling approaches. Similarly here, we should ask ourselves ‘why are we trying to stop certain people from taking drugs?’ Some people don’t want to stop. Instead of assuming they just need more information or a scare campaign to make them stop, we can meet them where they are at and ask if there is anything we (as public policy makers, clinicians, drug workers, researchers) can do which may assist them, and be prepared for the possibility that they don’t want our assistance. In my PhD, I found that the vast majority of drug users were interested in knowing how to reduce the harms associated with their use. I also found that there were some drug forum users who seemed to relish danger and risk, and labelled those who were trying to reduce risk as ‘weak’. It is also likely that people care more about reducing risks in some situations and relish danger in others. The problem is that scare campaigns that highlight the dangers of drug use may indeed make drugs more appealing to this latter group. Piloting such campaigns with different groups, or using social media to gauge the different reactions to these campaigns, could be useful tools for evaluation.

 In your opinion, why are more and more young people attracted to substances and what role do consumerism and capitalism play in this tendency?

I don’t agree that ‘more and more young people’ are attracted to drugs. Humans have always been attracted to changing our conscious state, whether through spinning around until we get dizzy as children, or through the ingestion of psychoactive substances. There is no evidence that I am aware of that young people are more attracted to drugs now than they have been in the past… if anything, the surveys in Australia indicate a reduction in drug prevalence, although it is unclear whether drug use has simply become more stigmatised and therefore less likely that people will report it within a survey.

Although I don’t think drug use among young people is increasing, I do think that consumerism and capitalism play a role in the meanings of drug use. We are now living in consumerist societies where our consumption choices are a vehicle for shaping our public selves. What I buy, what I wear, what I eat/drink/imbibe shapes how others see me (my identity), and this identity shifts (or identities shift) through different contexts and across time. Drugs are part of this consumption pattern. As well as their effects on the body, drugs are also symbols – using them in particular contexts identifies the user as a particular kind of person. Capitalism and globalisation are also macro contexts within which we all live and they therefore affect how drugs are used. One example is the ‘work hard play hard’ mentality of recreational drug use, where young adults with intense full-time jobs would let off steam on their weekends by taking drugs. Drugs, including alcohol, allow them to experience a controlled loss of control- a period of time in their week when they can relax and be themselves in a non-corporate space. To understand how people use drugs and the consequences of these practices, it is incredibly important to include the macro social and political contexts in our analyses.

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.