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.

Twitter for drug trend monitoring

Today I participated in the workshop Making sense of Twitter at the Communities and Technologies conference in Brisbane. My contribution was simply the idea that Twitter could be used in drug trend monitoring, as explained below:

Some people are using the internet to seek drug-related information, share their drug use stories with like-minded others, and buy pharmaceutical and novel substances marketed as herbs or ‘legal highs’. Researchers have responded to this trend by conducting monitoring studies, including tracking websites that sell psychoactive substances (e.g., ‘Psychonaut project’, Schifano et al., 2006) and analysing the contents of online discussion among people who use drugs (e.g., ‘Real drugs in a virtual world’ project, Murguía, Tackett-Gibson, & Lessem, 2007). Apart from Lange et al.’s (2010) study of YouTube videos depicting young people using the hallucinogen Salvia, there has been little research into the use of social media to share drug information and to advertise websites that sell psychoactive substances.

Using 140kit, I collected Tweets that contained the word ‘mephedrone’, the name of an amphetamine-type substance that was banned in the UK in 2010 and is banned under the Analogues acts in Australia. 360,755 tweets were posted by 217,739 Twitter accounts in one week during March 2011. Browsing through a small selection of these Tweets indicated that most of them purport to sell mephedrone and include URLs to vendor websites, while smaller proportions could be categorised as news, policy and research about the drug, as well as casual discussion among people who appear to use the drug. I can see the potential for a number of studies using these data from Twitter. Drug trend monitoring could be enhanced by setting up a system to store and count the number of tweets containing drug terms, tracking trends over time. Tweets could be scanned for ‘new’ drug terms for which new searches and monitoring may be instigated. Geolocation may assist in understanding the potential for that drug being used in specific parts of the world. Hashtag analysis may indicate social networks of people who discuss these drugs. Analysis of Twitter could feed into current attempts to monitor drug vendor websites, as the purpose of most Tweets is to encourage sales. Through this collection, I also stumbled across a video-sharing site designed to share videos of ‘funny tripz’ using ‘legal highs’. Monitoring sites like FunnyTripz and YouTube could also assist in drug trend monitoring, especially in tracking the existence and use of new legal highs that are yet to come to the attention of health and legislative departments.

So, what did we learn in the workshop?

Firstly – I learnt about this tool called Pirate Pad, which is like a public whiteboard that anyone can edit – what a fantastic tool for collaboration. For our Pirate Pad for this workshop, see http://piratepad.net/B9kg8sNSGL

I will save a version of this piratepad in case the link fails later down the track, but basically all the links are there. Axel Bruns and Jean Burgess at Mapping Online Publics shows us their process of extracting twitter datasets, cleaning and preparing them, and then analysing and visualising them.

We also heard from a selection of researchers with alternate approaches to Twitter analysis, including Cornelius Puschmann‘s research group who introduced the ideas of small vs big data, and emphasised the importance of qualitative analysis to inform quantitative and network analysis of (what are often) huge datasets.

Aneesha Bakharia from QUT also spoke about algorithms for the thematic analysis of twitter data. It appeared to me that her tools identify underlying themes using a combination of quantitative analysis with qualitative inspection of the results and therefore could be used with large scale data.

I now feel armed with a set of freely available tools (licensed Creative Commons, thanks Axel!) to play around with the idea of using Twitter for drug trend monitoring and ultimately to fund a project to make this happen. And there is also a network of potential collaborators to help me do it.

Yay! 🙂


140kit mephedrone tweets – http://140kit.com/tronica/collections/3028
Funny tripz – http://www.funnytripz.com


Some really expensive plant fertiliser…

The Australian Institute of Criminology released a report yesterday titled Patterns of mephedrone, GHB, Ketamine and Rohypnol use among police detainees: Findings from the DUMA program. The DUMA, or Drug Use Monitoring in Australia, project interviews police detainees about their knowledge or and experience with various drugs. In this report, the authors asked about some of the emerging drugs, including mephedrone. I wasn’t too surprised to see that only 27% of detainees had heard of mephedrone, 4% knew someone selling it, and less than 1% had used it.

What was less impressive than the actual findings of this research was the quality of the research that informed the literature review. One sentence reads:

Developed originally as a plant fertiliser, mephedrone became a significant public health and law enforcement concern after a number of reports about its apparent link to self-mutilation and, in some overseas cases, death (Fleming 2010).

However, mephedrone was not “developed originally as a plant fertiliser”. Mephedrone has been advertised as a plant fertiliser and ‘not for human consumption’ in an effort by manufacturers to avoid having to comply with legislation that regulates the content of food and drugs. It is not actually used as a plant fertiliser. And for all those who are using it as a fertiliser for their plants, I think they’d be wasting their money! Funnily enough, I don’t think the vast majority of hits I get on this website (after people searching for mephedrone get sent to my 2010 article on the topic) are from real gardeners.

The reference to Fleming is to a news article in the Guardian. I don’t have a problem with the Guardian, but really, wouldn’t it be better to read and cite one or more of the scholarly articles recounting the story of mephedrone? For example:

Davey, Z., Corazza, O., Schifano, F., & Deluca, P. (2010). Mass-information: Mephedrone, myths, and the new generation of legal highs. Drugs and Alcohol Today, 10(3), 24-28. doi:10.5042/daat.2010.0467

Winstock, A. R., Mitcheson, L. R., Deluca, P., Davey, Z., Corazza, O., & Schifano, F. (2011). Mephedrone, new kid for the chop? Addiction, 106, 154-161. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2010.03130.x

van Hout, M. C., & Brennan, R. (2011). Plant food for thought: A qualitative study of mephedrone use in Ireland. Drugs: Education, Prevention, and Policy, Advance online publication. doi:10.3109/09687637.2010.537713

These articles describe the relationship between mephedrone and plant food, and reading these articles would have helped the AIC authors avoid the mistake they made.

Their reference list of this report contains mostly web ‘fact sheets’, newspaper articles and technical reports. This kind of reference list tends to be a red flag to me as it indicates the authors aren’t engaged with the peer reviewed literature. However, even if you head to the ADF factsheet on mephedrone cited by the authors, it states that:

Mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone) was originally marketed as a plant fertiliser

Originally marketed, not originally developed. We can’t blame this error on the ADF factsheet.

I’ve sent the authors an email today and I’m hoping they will amend their online report so as not to continue perpetuating the myth about mephedrone actually being plant food!

UPDATE: the AIC informs me that they will edit this part of the report and repost it to their website. Good stuff 🙂

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.