The problem with banning

Edit: You can listen to a version of this post here: Link to 1233 Newcastle clip

Tragically, we have seen another teen (Henry Kwan) die after consuming what he believed to be LSD, but which was actually an NBOMe (e.g. 25I-NBOMe), which is a much newer and more potent psychedelic substance. At the same time the NSW Fair Trading Department has banned a list of products that contain synthetic analogue drugs and has raided stores across that state.

I was asked onto ABC Radio in Newcastle this morning for my view on this issue and this is a summary of what I said:

The problem with banning is that banning is one of the major causes of this problem in the first place.

To take the example of cannabis, we currently prohibit the use of cannabis, although if someone is caught with personal use amounts of cannabis, they will either be fined or diverted for first offences across Australia. Even so, people know that it is illegal and that it is an offence. And many people care deeply about that. They want to be able to consume cannabis and not worry at all about being caught, to be able to do it legally, to know that they can enjoy a weekend spliff just like others enjoy a weekend beer, without having to worry about losing their job because a drug test is positive for past cannabis use.

So when these people are made aware of a new so-called legal weed, the synthetic cannabis products, they are interested. Maybe they can finally enjoy the cannabis like high without having to worry about the legality.

So you can see that prohibition of cannabis largely drives these people’s attraction to synthetic cannabis products.

Over the last couple of years we have seen some of the health harms that have arisen from people switching from natural to synthetic – including withdrawal, dependence, psychosis, seizures. Now, I’m not saying plant based cannabis is harmless, but it has been proven to have medicinal pain relieving qualities. At least we know a lot more about cannabis and its many constituents, we have been doing research for many decades and it has been used by humans for millenia. This is the opposite for the vast number of synthetic cannabinoids which we know very little about. Therefore, I think it is reasonable to conclude that if someone is going to use one product or the other, natural plant-based cannabis is a better choice, a healthier choice. Yet, our policies seem to be pushing people towards the lesser choice, the choice we know less about, and which appears to be associated with more harmful effects – that is, the synthetic cannabis products.

We need to ask: what is drug policy about? Is it about helping people to reduce drug harms, by nudging them towards less harmful options? Or is it about putting our head in the sand and thinking we can eliminate all drug use somehow, while at the same time, nudging people who consume drugs towards more harmful options? Or is it not about harms at all… but rather, about the appearance of doing something in the eyes of the voting public?

I think we need to have a serious discussion about what we want from our drug policies and what we value in Australia when it comes to drug use, something almost all of us do when you consider that alcohol, caffeine and pain medications are also psychoactive drugs.

I would suggest that Australia needs to join the global discussion about alternatives to the prohibition model. That doesn’t mean that we move to legalisation of all drugs – there are a lot of different models of regulation we could consider. But the very first step is to acknowledge that we have a problem and that we need to consider solutions. Until the Australian public and our governments and our other officials in police, justice, health and social sectors publicly acknowledge that the current system is broken, anyone who tries to start this discussion is labelled as radical. These issues are complex and they require strong leadership of a public discussion that opens up our assumptions to full scrutiny.

5 thoughts on “The problem with banning”

  1. Hi Monica, something that I don’t understand is why the NSW Govt actions acted under the Australian Consumer Law (Schedule 2 to the Competition and Consumer Act 2010) to slap the 90 day interim ban on these drugs. Perhaps they wanted to be seen to be doing something, anything, regardless of the logic.

    In the past I believe we have always used the TGA system, with the TGA recommending to the DoHA delegate that the substances be placed on Sked 9 to the poisons standard which means they become prohibited drugs. In this case, with essentially the same drug types as were banned in the last year or two, they are using consumer protection legislation instead. So now the Cwlth minister for consumer affairs is involved but not the health minister.

    It highlights what a mess we are in wrt policy on illicit drugs generally and new psychoactive substances specifically.

  2. Hi Monica Great stuff as per usual. Thought it was really interesting at the recent Club Health Conference in San Francisco that countries that have drug testing (ie ecstasy, cocaine, etc) such as the Netherlands and Switzerland have little or no use of these new emerging substances – probably because consumers can get the drugs they want and also know the purity of what they are consuming. There was a lot of interest at the conference is what was happaning in NZ re: the regulation of these products and the onus being on the manufacturer to prove its ‘safety’. Keep up the good work 🙂

  3. Thanks Julian, Brett, David and Annie.

    David: my understand is that NSW govt were looking for a solution where they could ban the product names so that they did not have to go through the testing process to remove the products from the shelves, as the testing process is time and resource intensive. Of course that can lead to miscarriages of judgement, such as the story I was told of one store where the police confiscated Himalayan Crystal Salt because it could be ‘bath salts’. Hmmm.

    Annie, that’s a very interesting observation — i also believe that having access to information about product purity and quality would have a positive effect on this predicament. There are some people out there that actually want NBOMe, perhaps the psychonauts, but the people that are more likely to come to trouble are those who are mistaken about what drug they are taking. If we can remove some of that ambiguity, we will certainly help reduce harms.

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