Sunday, 9 June 2013

To ban or to regulate? That is the question ...


The death of Henry Kwan during the week continues to attract a great deal of media attention. The young man jumped to his death on Sydney's north shore after apparently ingesting a 'tab' of one of a new range of synthetic substances on Wednesday night. He is believed to have bought the drug from a classmate who told him it was LSD.

It is truly a tragic story and the father's relaying of how the young man's mother and younger sister tried to stop the 17 year old jumping when he told them he believed he could fly was heart-wrenching. Talkback radio and the media more generally immediately demanded action - how could these apparently incredibly dangerous 'synthetic drugs' still be legally available?

Today the Sydney Morning Herald ran a story announcing that the NSW Government will ban the sale of about 30 so-called 'synthetic drugs' with "retailers ordered to pull the products from their shelves immediately." According to the report, retailers will have until Tuesday to remove the products and there will be a huge taskforce of police put out into the community to ensure the ban is enforced. This morning NSW Fair Trading Minister Anthony Roberts held a news conference calling on the Federal Government and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to make the ban permanent and nationwide (he talked about 18 substances - not 30).

So will the ban actually make any difference or is it simply a 'band-aid response' from a government reacting to a tragic death and the community demanding immediate action?

First off, what will a ban do? Well, it will certainly enable police to prosecute those people who sell these products (or at least those 18 or 30 products) and it will mean that they are now illegal ... that's about it!

Will a ban mean that these products are now less accessible and that people won't use them anymore? I'm not so sure about that ... The best example I can give of when a ban hasn't worked is around 'crystal pipes' (the glass pipes used to smoke crystalline methamphetamine). These pipes were banned in some Australian states at the height of the 'ice epidemic' in response to some of the hysterical media coverage. Let me assure you that even in the week after the ban crystal pipes were still available - they have never gone away and most probably never will. Are they harder to get? Yes, most probably, but the ban didn't result in them disappearing, they simply went underground and became more expensive. It certainly didn't result in major changes to behaviour. What we also have to remember is that many of these drugs are being bought on-line (I'm told by some users that they are being imported in huge quantities - one bought tens of thousands of LSD-like tabs that got through border patrol as sleeves of a book mailed in Amazon packaging!) - a ban is not going to make any difference there.

There is one group of potential users of these products that will be impacted by this ban and they are those who choose to use them purely due to their perceived legal status. Once that changes there is no doubt that this group will no longer elect to use them. We have no idea how large (or small) this group is - but research has shown they certainly exist. The most incredible thing is that the available evidence we have suggests that the young man who died didn't even know he was using one of these newer products - he thought he was using LSD, an illegal drug! The legal status really didn't seem to make any difference to him!

I did so much media on this story on Friday and, as always, I was ripped apart by some who either accused me of coming from a prohibitionist angle ("how could you not raise the issue of drug law reform? You should be brought up in The Hague as a war criminal") or as too soft on drugs ("these drugs kill - you talk harm reduction. You contribute to the deaths of our young people") - when you think about it, I must be doing something right! The problem here, as with so much in drugs, is that there is no easy answer and that the views that are held by those at either end of the spectrum are both dangerous and certainly not helpful.

I often get asked on my views around drug law reform and I always give the same response - the current policies don't work well so we should certainly look at other options, but do I believe that legalising all drugs is going to solve the problem, absolutely not! It certainly goes towards fixing some of the problems, but it also creates a range of others. For example, even if a government was to make all drugs 'legal', would these substances be available to those under the age of 18 years? If they weren't (and I can't imagine any government, no matter how progressive, permitting underage access), you will immediately create a black market - one of the major things you are trying to prevent through drug law reform ...

So would the regulation of these newer substances solve the problems we are currently seeing? New Zealand has recently introduced a "revolutionary" approach to the 'legal high' (I much prefer this term to 'synthetic drugs') issue. On February 26, 2013, the Psychoactive Substances Bill was introduced in the New Zealand Parliament. The bill would essentially reverse the onus of proof by requiring distributors and producers of these newer substances to prove that they are safe before being legally able to sell them, thus potentially creating what some are calling a "legal recreational drugs market" in New Zealand (readers of my blog would know I don't like the term 'recreational drug').

It will be incredibly interesting to see how the New Zealand model plays out. Essentially it is asking the 'legal high' industry to work to similar standards as those expected of pharmaceutical companies. No pharmaceutical product can be sold until it is tested extensively - legal highs will now go through the same process. My question is does this model work well for the pharmaceutical industry? Every year we have thousands of people who die as a result of the use of pharmaceuticals, many misuse and abuse these substances, and countless numbers become dependent on them. Regulation is not the 'silver bullet' - it will not solve all the problems associated with drug use. Is it better than what we have? Maybe, but it's certainly not going to fix everything and let's not try to kid ourselves that it will!

A few weeks ago I met a young man who told me the following story about an LSD experience he had that was not going so well ...

Sean, a 16 year old from the northern beaches, had gone to a gathering and taken three trips (yes, three!) over a period of a couple of hours. He then started to feel extremely unwell - he was overheating, feeling quite nauseous and becoming very anxious. He told one of his friends what was going on and an older boy told him that this had happened to someone else he knew a couple of weeks before and that the way to 'fix' it was to smoke a couple of 'cones'! That's exactly what he did - he smoked quite a bit of cannabis to get over a 'bad trip'!

Prohibition certainly didn't make any difference here - both LSD and cannabis are illegal and the fact is, if you want to get an illicit drug you most probably can! Would regulation have made any difference, would the fact that the trip had come in packaging, had been tested in some trials sometime before and was guaranteed to actually contain LSD have prevented the adverse effect that Sean experienced? Probably not. Most importantly, would regulation have stopped Sean from taking three trips in the first place and then try to fix up a problem by taking more drugs? No, youthful experimentation and plain stupidity can't be stopped by regulation ... it's just what some people will do!

There is no easy answer to this issue and I can assure you that simply banning a range of products is not going to result in a significant change in behaviour. Get tough in one area and make one drug more difficult to access and another will rise to take its place ... You'd also have to be extremely naive to think that by legalising or regulating substances each and every problem is going to disappear!

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