“I’ve had a lot of fun on drugs, I’ve had a lot of marvellous experiences. I’ve danced a lot. I’ve had a great time. I’m not ashamed of it. And I don’t see what’s wrong with it.”
The debate around drug use in NSW has gone beyond a joke. We’ve hit a point where the Liberal Premier and her government would rather see young people die than consider sensible policy.
The ALP is still trying to straddle the fence of doing nothing as they appear to take a stand against illicit substances while also considering the merits of pill testing.
Meanwhile, the Greens are pushing for legalisation and decriminalisation of various drugs with a focus on harm reduction strategies, while still deferring to the police when it comes to tackling issues of supply and demand.
The problem is, the major party approach to drug policy involves still mild discussion centred around maintaining the status quo with some minor tweaks.
The following will be a discussion of the drug policies of the NSW major parties and proposed changes to legislation, and a consideration of what will be required to move NSW and Australia forward in this regard.
The first thing to accept is that prohibition has never worked, the war on drugs was lost the day it was declared, and if nothing changes thousands of people will die as a result of conservative obstinance around drug policy.
The solution will involve a massive overhaul of the present system and the end of the regressive approach to drug policy championed by Labor and the Liberal/National parties.
The Greens seem to understand, in theory, that there is a need to swing for the fences on drug policy. Looking at their various campaigns over the years, it’s clear that they can see where the problems exist, but they remain terrified of a media backlash, so they only ever seem to go half in.
The Greens have led the campaign against drug dogs for years, exposing the fact that the dogs have a false indication rate of 65-80%.
Most voters seem to forget that the drug sniffer dogs have only been around since 2001, when the Carr Labor government were looking for a way to deal with the surplus of bomb detection dogs that were left over from the Sydney Olympics. They claimed the dogs were exceedingly good at detecting all of the drugs and would target dealers, but they mostly were used to raise revenue for the police as they swept up casual users in pubs, clubs, and on public transport.
Of course, even in those halcyon days, the dogs were predominantly indicating on those who did not have drugs in their possession. We were told any failure to find drugs after a police search was either because the individual had been in the presence of drugs, or had the smell of food on their clothes.
The thing was, as soon as the dogs came into the club, everyone dumped their stash, either eating it or dropping it on the floor. This meant almost everyone in the venue had trace amounts of drugs on their shoes, and the dogs could sense drugs EVERYWHERE. Even just walking down Oxford Street put you at risk of having a dog indicate the presence of drugs on you – putting the police in the position to strip search you for drugs.
This was what most people came to understand, as we all knew the dogs would indicate on anyone and everyone, it was either a case of playing Russian Roulette with your stash; or taking complaints to the Council for Civil Liberties – who became the media’s most hated for their stance on drug dogs.
What we didn’t know, yet, was how useless these dogs were at actually finding drugs. As the statistics became available over the last two decades, the public learnt that the dogs were not actually good at finding drugs, more often than not they would follow the lead of their handlers – if the police believed the individual was carrying drugs, the dog would indicate the presence of drugs.
In 2006, the NSW Ombudsman reviewed the drug detection dogs, concluding, “It is clear this approach does little to enhance the police capacity to effectively target drug suppliers.”
The Ombudsman further recommended, “NSW Parliament consider whether the Drug Dogs Act in its present form, or with recommended amendments, should be retained at all.”
Nothing changed. Instead, the NSW Labor and Liberal Governments increased the use and presence of drug detection dogs.
The solution for the drug detection dogs is simple. They need to go. The legislation must be overturned, as there is clearly no benefit from the continued use of these animals in public spaces. An 80% failure rate should be more than enough to convince the public that the dogs are useless, no matter where someone stands on illegal drugs.
A recent study even found that when drug dogs are deployed in public spaces, supply offences were only detected in 4.8% of all indications. Which means, for the purpose of catching drug dealers in public spaces, the dogs are more than 95% ineffective. Yet this is what the police and the government claim the dogs are primarily used for – stopping suppliers.
In contrast, when the dogs are deployed in private residences (around 10% of all deployments) they detected supply offences over 50% of the time. The reason for this is fairly simple, when police raid a private residence, they have a warrant, which requires evidence.
On the streets, in bars and on public transport, there is no such evidentiary requirement.
Over the last 12 months, the police seemed to quintuple down on their use of drug dogs at festivals, banning individuals from venues and locations if the dog indicated, even if no drugs were found.
Furthermore, there is growing evidence that the presence of the drug dogs is leading to more users taking all of their stash at once, to avoid a potential arrest or fine, which is leading to higher rates of hospitalisation and death for those who are taking drugs.
Cannabis, Dope, Grass, Hash, Marijuana, Pot, Reefer, Weed
Once more, the Greens seem to be leading the charge as they move towards setting the terms of the debate around the legalisation of cannabis in NSW, and nationally.
Their policy platform for the NSW election includes a push to legalise, regulate, and licence cannabis.
Their policy, while promising, only seems to go halfway towards what is needed to guarantee a path towards legalised marijuana. There is a lot of room for interpretation in the positions they have laid out, and some deliberate vaguery in how they would implement these strategies.
While some statements issued by Greens MLC David Shoebridge have provided some small details as to what their legislation might entail, there are still more questions than answers at this point.
For instance, they don’t actually have a policy position on roadside drug testing (RDT) or any suggestion as to how their policy of legalisation would be implemented in light of the RDT.
While the Greens have an in-principle opposition to RDT due to the fact that it only tests for the presence of drugs, they still support the policing of individuals driving under the influence of various substances. The Greens have yet to propose an alternative to the present saliva test used by the RDT, and appear to oppose it only because it can show up trace amounts of cannabis weeks after the last use.
At a federal level, the Greens have more detailed policy positions, while still lacking in-depth legislative requirements. That said, it’s far better than anything the ALP or Liberal Party are putting forward, and the Greens FAQ section provides a preliminary guide as to what their legislation may contain.
There is a need to develop more concrete positions, comparing and contrasting with existing marijuana legislation from around the world, and defining what would be different in NSW or Australia.
The ideal model would see cannabis treated in a manner similar to that of alcohol, with no limits placed on how much an individual can keep or manufacture in their home, unless they intend to sell – in which case they would be subject to regulatory bodies. A general limit on personal possession without a licence would have to be something in the vicinity of 250g or half a pound. But that would just be raw cannabis, for edibles, that would be at the discretion of the licensing body, using the 250g limit as a guide. For those found to be selling without a licence, the penalties would have to be similar to that for alcohol or tobacco.
There would be local dispensaries and cafes in which various strains and paraphernalia could be purchased for consumption on or off-licence; limits on where cannabis could be consumed in public would apply – as with alcohol/smoke-free zones. There would be penalties for selling without a licence, or for selling to minors; and for legalisation to actually work, it would have to apply to all products, including edibles.
However, this would be for recreational use; for medical use, there would need to be a massive increase in Medicare funding (paid for by the taxes raised from recreational use) to ensure all cannabinoids used for treatment were available under the PBS. This is especially important as the present “legalisation” of medicinal cannabis in Australia is a total joke, with prohibitive costs and impossible standards when it comes to access.
Pills and Testing
Pill testing is the present battleground for the fight against prohibition and the NSW Government approach to drug policy, but it’s farcical to suggest that it will end following this election.
While Gladys Berejiklian is happy to see young adults die after taking toxic pills at festivals, and would prefer to ramp up the presence of police and drug dogs (despite the fact that an increased police presence is more likely to increase dangerous behaviours) rather than consider the most basic harm reduction approach by implementing a pill testing trial.
I’m sure it will secure the youth vote.
But Labor isn’t much better, they won’t rule out pill testing… until after the election, when they are bound to follow the lead of the police force.
So, again we are forced to turn to the Greens, except that pill testing has become such a lightning rod issue, that a growing number of small parties, independents, and voters are calling for a pill testing trial.
It’s not a vote changing policy, yet, but over the next electoral cycle, if it is not implemented, we will see a huge backlash in 2023. That said, during this election, it really hasn’t been discussed, as most battle lines have been drawn over the last year, and media coverage has shifted to the standard pillars of health, education, and infrastructure.
For their part, the Greens still seem to consider admissions of drug use to be somewhat taboo, given how they treated Cate Faehrmann’s admission of past MDMA and ecstasy use. For all intents and purposes, the Greens MLC was brave to admit to a history of experimenting with illicit substances, especially in a deeply conservative nation like Australia. Even now, Bill Shorten is too scared to admit he smoked a few joints at uni, despite the fact that one of the first things Turnbull did after becoming Opposition Leader in 2008 was to admit that he had smoked marijuana and inhaled.
And so it goes, Faehrmann is lionised for her truth-telling, because it’s the first time a politician has been prepared to call out the backwards approach to drug policy, especially in NSW, by citing their personal experience with drugs.
But for those who are open about their drug use, it was a Monday.
The very idea of drug use being too impolite to even mention in social discourse is ridiculous, yet it persists. Cate Faehrmann touched on this notion in her rebuttals to the conservative extremists who started screeching about recklessness and endorsing illegal activities. Faehrmann’s statement was simple honesty, and cut through far more than any of the NSW government’s hyperventilating around the suggestion of MDMA in the community.
It’s not to say the government and media are out of touch with younger generations and drug use, but they have no idea what is going on in this state. Every now and then, a moral panic will flare up after the Daily Telegraph “discovers” that nangs are a thing, or someone in government remembers that ice exists after catching a rerun of Breaking Bad, but we rarely see a mention of the opioid and prescription medication crisis that is actually destroying the lives of Australians.
The “adults” in power couldn’t give two shits about what young people actually want, or how these voters view the debate around drug policy. There is a generational knowledge gap in this area – those who would write the policies and legislation have no clue where the debate around drug use even begins.
For them, it is still “drugs are bad”.
The arguments against pill testing are so basic that the vast majority of young Australians just tune it out, as there is no point in listening to someone with no interest in dialogue. All through school, the same message is drilled into young people, it never changes. It’s the message the government continues to wheel out today, one focused on the dangers of drugs, and the only safe option being abstinence – a message that clearly works for churches.
And as they continue to drone on, the youth do what all young people do, they listen to what their friends and peers are saying. When the Daily Telegraph labels Cate Faehrmann’s admission of drug use a “political stunt“, they guarantee that those who need an honest discussion around drug use will not pay attention.
The fear of losing an argument is clear in the various articles and editorials penned by conservative media and political types. Their great concern appears to be the moral high ground, without which they would have no purpose.
Police Commissioners from NSW and Victoria are terrified of “legalisation by stealth” if pill testing is allowed to go ahead; the various *ahem* intellectuals at The Australian consider the debate around pill testing to be a clear victory for drugs in the war on drugs; and the NSW Health Minister claims pill testing would do nothing to prevent deaths, even as he acknowledges the benefits of the associated drug counselling – without even considering how useless standard drug counselling has been in pushing the “just say no” message.
And in the case of the Health Minister, he neatly sidesteps the fact that all health associations (doctors, nurses, and paramedics) support pill testing – let me repeat that – ALL HEALTH ASSOCIATIONS SUPPORT PILL TESTING.
Regarding MDMA, there is a need to standardise the production and supply of any drug that can cause deaths, especially when misused. Young Australians are dying after dumping huge amounts of ecstasy, and the reason they take so much at once varies.
There are plenty of anecdotal accounts of individuals challenging each other to see how much they can take, and massive disparities in quality can lead to the normalisation of increased ingestion. And as other states move forward with pill testing, NSW will see an influx of low-quality drugs that are more likely to cause harm to those unfortunate enough to encounter them.
Instead of parroting the same old tired cliches about drug use, we need to move into the next stage of drug policy: the discussion around safe drug use and how to protect individuals from toxic ingredients and accidental overdose. We need to bring honesty into the discussion, because as long as nothing changes, well, nothing will change. People will continue to die.
In rare cases, individuals may be at risk of death after a single pill or capsule, which is why we need better education and awareness of the risks of MDMA, as well as treatment and access to assistance.
Most importantly, there is an absolute need to listen to young people, instead of talking down to them. More often than not, the people taking the drugs know more about them than those passing the drug legislation.
Every single time the government has an opportunity to engage younger Australians on drug policy, it sticks its head in the sand, and in doing so, they make it so much harder to actually get through to these individuals.
Legalisation, Decriminalisation, and the End of Prohibition
Any time we talk about drug use, it’s necessary to look at the root cause. For decades, it’s been all the rage to claim that young people make mistakes, or they’re trying to escape reality; and sure, that might be why you drink, but most people take drugs because doing so can be incredibly fun.
Throughout all of recorded history, the role of drugs has been predominantly focused on joy and consciousness expansion. Countless substances that are considered illicit or are illegal have been used for treatment, therapy, or as a remedy.
Opium and heroin are illegal, while codeine and morphine are not, despite the fact that they are derived from the same plant. Methadone is used for the treatment of heroin addiction, despite being far more addictive and damaging than heroin. Alcohol and tobacco are legal while cannabis is not, despite the overwhelming evidence that both tobacco and alcohol are far more damaging.
The Australian approach to drug policy is ridiculously backwards.
To ensure that the illicit trade of cannabis is addressed with legalisation, there would need to be a price guarantee, built on the current black market prices. Furthermore, a conviction or criminal history would not place limitations on the ability of an individual to get a licence to sell legal cannabis. And, just like the responsible service of alcohol or an ABN, the cost of attaining such a licence cannot be prohibitive.
Full amnesty upon application for those with past convictions for supply or possession. For those with pending charges, dismissal of charges would be at the discretion of a magistrate – as it may be an extenuating factor in other charges before the court.
This is just a handful of suggestions, but a full breakdown of policies and legislative proposals would be required before any progress could be made in legalising marijuana.
There is a need to address the failure of RDT when it comes to detecting capacity, instead of the mere presence of drugs in the system. As has been suggested previously, a roadside perception test would be far more effective, until a more medically accurate test can be implemented. It’s all good and well to say that people under the influence shouldn’t be driving, but the presence of a drug is not evidence of impaired capacity to drive – if it was, the legal BAC would be 0.00 for all drivers.
Better yet, a huge increase in funding for low-cost, or even free, public transport would be a superior solution. We can’t avoid the fact that as successive governments have increased penalties for driving under the influence, they have cut funding to public transport services.
With MDMA, legalisation means a huge influx of tax revenue – which can be used to overhaul training for paramedics and other first response health professionals, as well as providing them with the necessary equipment to ensure lives can be saved.
When billionaire Kerry Packer had a heart attack in 1990, he was revived by a defibrillator – which were only in a handful of ambulances at the time. Packer helped to cover the cost of putting defibrillators in all NSW ambulances, and now they are a standard tool. Similarly, new standardisation in the provision of care for high-risk events like music festivals should involve specialised care and medical teams equipped with the tools they require to reduce the number of deaths from overdoses, paid for by the revenue raised by legal MDMA.
One of the risks with MDMA is overheating and dehydration which is why education is so important, and countless governments ignoring global warming means the onus is on these governments to ensure the services are provided for individuals to keep them safe, even if all we see is decriminalisation.
For the legal sale of MDMA, it would be worth investigating whether it would be better to arrange the sale through pharmacies as with medicinal cannabis, or at dispensaries. If it was to be through pharmacies, it would be easier to track patterns of use and high-risk individuals – as it is presently with the provision of drugs like pseudoephedrine and methadone. Further, it would ensure the role of trained professionals providing drug counselling and information on the risks of MDMA as individuals seek it out.
Ultimately though, there is far more international modelling for what the legalisation of cannabis would look like than there is for MDMA.
In this realm, Australia has the opportunity to lead the way.
Beyond these two drugs – the legalisation of which are key policies of the Greens – there is a need to investigate lifting restrictions on other substances.
This is especially significant as there is a global push to consider the use of psychoactive substances in the treatment of various mental health conditions. Silicon Valley has become synonymous with microdosing LSD to increase productivity and creativity. Ketamine is fast becoming the new drug of choice for treatment of severe depression. MDMA is being used to treat PTSD. Psilocybin mushrooms are being used in drug therapy trials.
Given the size of the Australian population, the past success and profile of the CSIRO and Australian universities, and the general familiarity with drugs, there is huge potential for Australia to be on the bleeding edge of drug therapeutic treatment. Decriminalisation and legalisation would facilitate this as the federal red tape experienced by those trying to run and access medicinal marijuana trials in Australia would no longer exist. It would create opportunities for researchers to explore the potential benefits of any number of illicit substances in safe environments, free from the fear of prosecution or temperamental governments changing requirements.
Even the NSW Coroner is calling for a summit to discuss decriminalisation, highlighting the fact that the government is not taking an evidence-based approach to drug policy. The NSW Coroner is due to report on the festival drug deaths later this year.
Meanwhile, as the police continue to oppose any such progress, they make their jobs harder. The end of alcohol prohibition in the US decimated organised crime; in Australia the end of drug prohibition would have a similar effect, freeing up police resources to focus on real crimes like rape and murder. A cynic would look at the history of corruption in the NSW Police Force and wonder whether there is an element of kickbacks and greased palms shaping their position on drug policy, but we’re not in the business of speculation.
Best of a Bad Bunch
Looking at the Liberal and Labor campaign launches, neither party wants to talk about drug policy. The closest we got was Bill Shorten joking about the Liberal Party shutting down festivals and NSW Labor Leader Michael Daley talking about Gladys Berejiklian’s Liberal Government killing live music.
For what it’s worth, there probably is a simple explanation for why Gladys Berejiklian, the Liberal Party, and various other conservatives are so terrified of giving any ground on drug policy.
The Premier is 48, which means the “Just Say No” messaging was a formative experience for her. Fear-based public health campaigns were all the rage in the 1980s, when Ms Berejiklian was in high school, scaring (and scarring) a generation. While some consider these anti-drug messages as impactful as Reefer Madness, for others it was no different to the Grim Reaper AIDS campaign.
This messaging was reinforced in 1995 when 15-year-old Anna Wood died of acute water intoxication after taking a single ecstasy tablet at a rave. Her death ramped up the “say no to drugs” narrative, with massive media coverage and a tour of schools by her father, Tony Wood, to explain the dangers of drug use. Recently Tony Wood has been one of the more outspoken opponents of pill testing, claiming that even if it had existed in 1995, it wouldn’t have saved any lives, and blaming the pro-legalisation lobby for the festival deaths.
The problem is, pill testing isn’t just pill testing, it involves drug counselling and an honest, fact-based approach to the risks of drug use. There is some merit to the notion that the zero-tolerance approach of Tony Wood, Gladys Berejiklian, and others contributes to the death rate of those who have taken party drugs. The police presence and Berejiklian’s threat of prosecution for those involved in the provision of drugs to friends means that fewer individuals are likely to seek assistance when something does go wrong. When teens drink too much, they rarely hesitate to call an ambulance for a friend suffering alcohol poisoning, because they know they won’t be prosecuted. For those who are on pills, there is an inherent fear of arrest, meaning they may wait too long to get help.
A summer of festival drug deaths will do nothing to dissuade the Premier from going all in on “don’t do drugs”, in fact, it only serves to affirm her mindset. The kids are dying because of drugs, not because they can’t access testing and counselling. If such a simple message worked for her, why shouldn’t it work for the rest of the state?
Therein lies the problem: for a straight-edge do-gooder like Berejiklian, even considering relaxing strict drug policy would send the kids over the edge, creating a generation of wasted drop-outs and junkies.
Of course, it could be even simpler than that, given her disdain for the homeless, it’s entirely plausible that Gladys Berejiklian is so arrogant and narcissistic that she thinks she is better than the rest of the state. This kind of superiority complex is incredibly common in conservatives, and the condescension that spews forth from the Premier’s office speaks volumes about the snobbery and egotism that so infects Macquarie Street.
For Labor, indecision and focus group testing have ruled the party for over a decade now. The days of Bob Carr taking a great leap forward with world-first medically supervised injecting rooms are long gone.
While Michael Daley has announced that, if elected, he will hold a drug summit to consider pill testing (which, in fairness, Carr did in 1999 after a wave of heroin overdoses in and around Kings Cross), anyone who has seen how Labor operate should expect nothing to change until after the next election in 2023.
It is possible that the ALP do intend to consider a pill testing trial, in light of the available evidence that shows the benefits of such an approach, after all, the Labor government in the ACT has moved ahead with pill testing at the Groovin the Moo music festival; though, given the fact they are in a power-sharing coalition with the Greens, it’s entirely possible that they were dragged across the line on that particular policy.
Even then, as laid out in this article, pill testing isn’t enough, it’s barely even a starting point. The rest of the world has moved forward with decriminalisation and/or legalisation of cannabis and other drugs. While the Greens would push forward with policies to legalise cannabis and MDMA, there is still very little mention of lifting additional legislative restrictions on drug use.
War on Drugs
In all honesty, after the Nixon administration’s secret justification for the war on drugs was exposed a few years ago, it should have been met with furore and demand for change. Instead, it raised a few eyebrows for less than a week and disappeared into the news cycle.
Everything the government had claimed about drugs for the last 50 years was built on a series of lies designed to crush black communities and progressive voters. Racism and election rigging had criminalised substances that the government wasn’t yet in a position to tax, and when it was all laid bare, no one seemed to care. Voters seem to be so invested in the lie of the evil of drugs that even when they’re told it was all fake news, it still doesn’t change their minds.
It highlights the fact that the opposition to drugs is ideological, and not based on any fact or logic.
Australians consider themselves progressive, yet too often they are cold-hearted when it comes to the transgressions of others in relation to drug use. Some 40% of the country has used illegal drugs, but any time someone dies from a drug overdose or faces the death penalty in an Asian nation for a drug-related crime, there is a macabre glee in the online discourse.
“Serves them right.”
“What did they think would happen?”
“This is what you deserve for breaking the law.”
It’s relentless. As much as there is a need to move drug policy forward, there is a need to move the country forward.
The problem is, politicians don’t so much represent what the people want as they set the tone for debate. The Overton Window (accepted scope for political discourse) is set by the media and elected representatives, not the public. The public will follow the lead of these groups as long as they’re told whatever is being proposed is for the good of the country or state.
Voters don’t need to understand policy as much as they need to think they understand it.
So for drug policy, there is an absolute need for politicians and those in the media to shift the terms of the debate. The push for pill testing is a great start, but it is severely limited by the extremists and conservatives who might argue that it is an issue of morality rather than a health or social issue.
Full decriminalisation is necessary as soon as possible, in line with the Portugese model, so that drug use can start being treated as a health issue, with a view to social policy – like tobacco and alcohol. Legalisation of cannabis, MDMA, LSD, and anything else that can be used therapeutically or socially should come soon after. And the path to medical trials for additional known substances like psilocybin should be prioritised to cut through the red tape that only exists because of Nixon’s fallacious war on drugs.
The decriminalisation of drugs was recommended by the Wood Royal Commission into NSW Police corruption and has been a central point of a number of NSW Coroner’s reports following drug deaths.
When Labor launched the safe injecting rooms in Kings Cross in 1999, it was the first of its kind in the English-speaking world.
This state used to be a world leader in drug policy and could be again, but there is an absolute need to deal with the cognitive dissonance in those who take drugs but still vote against their interests.
Of the candidates running in this election, only a handful are even considering sensible drug policy.
- The Greens, obviously, are the only major party to have a drug policy worth considering, but their tendency towards self-destruction makes them a risk.
- Keep Sydney Open are a new party, but have a decent sized following. Their drug platform seems more progressive than that of the Greens, as they are calling for an impairment-based approach to the policing of drug driving. They also support the legalisation of cannabis, ending drug dogs in communities, and removing fines for possession – adopting the Portugese model.
- Voluntary Euthanasia support improved access to medical marijuana, but have no other drug policy.
- The Liberal Democrats support the legalisation of cannabis, decriminalisation of drugs, and legalisation of anything shown to be less harmful than alcohol or tobacco. However, they also support slashing taxes, so legalisation would have no positive flow on effects. Also, they’re fucking insane and electing David Leyonhjelm to any office is a terrible idea.
No other party running for the Legislative Council (Upper House) has a listed drug policy that can be found on their website.
For the Legislative Assembly (Lower House), there is a need to quiz those running on their drug policy, in each electorate, due to the high number of independents. Most of them are out campaigning right now, so find them at a train station or outside shopping centres and hit them up.
Find out what they think and how they would vote on drug legislation, and tell them how they could get your vote.