How do we solve the synthetic drug problem?

Stephen Kwan holds a photo of his son Henry, who jumped to his death after taking what was described as “synthetic LSD”.

Stephen Kwan holds a photo of his son Henry, who jumped to his death after taking what was described as “synthetic LSD”. Photo: SMH

It’s always a slightly surreal feeling when you watch, from the sidelines, as the world around you descends into moral panic.

Like watching a tragic comedy, when the audience knows the main characters are making ridiculous decisions but can do nothing more than shout at the television screen.

I don’t know about you, but watching the furore about synthetic drugs this week, I’ve done a bit of shouting at the screen.

It began with the tragic death of a teenage boy, Henry Kwan, who jumped to his death after taking what was described as “synthetic LSD” - although some people say it’s more like an amphetamine. 


I wouldn’t know what it was like, as I’ve never bought drugs off the internet. But more and more people seem to be doing so.

Every month, four entirely new chemical substances, and 10 retail outlets selling them to Australians, are emerging, not including those on the “hidden” internet drug sales site the silk road.

This week the NSW Fair Trading Minister has implemented a 60 day snap ban on 19 brands of synthetic drugs – and accused the federal government of “hiding” from the issue by not promising its own bans.

Trying to stop the sale of these emerging drugs by retrospectively adding substances on to a “banned list” strikes me as like trying to deal with sea-level rises by giving the SES some extra sand-bags.

Yet this is exactly what we are doing.

The NSW government has also huffed and puffed about adopting an "early warning system", which is credited in Europe with identifying 73 new drugs last year. But for every one of those 73 drugs a small tweak to the chemical structure can create an entirely new drug again.

The reality is that the more we ban, the more new drugs will be invented, and global markets mean these drugs will reach our shores.

And constructive attempts by industry to implement safety testing, mainstreaming these sales within bricks-and-mortar shops, have been rejected.

''I'm not interested in testing them,' NSW Fair Trading Minister Anthony Roberts said in response to the Eros Foundation proposing a self-funded $200 million testing scheme.

He may have well have stuck his fingers in his ears and shouted “LA LA LA LA LA”, so desperate was his attempt to ignore the simple truth that Australians want to take drugs. The recent Fairfax Global Drug Survey, which included more than 6000 Australians, found two thirds of them had used illicit drugs in the past year alone.

Banning drugs has never worked as a policy. We just keep on smoking, snorting, swallowing and injecting.

But what it has worked to do is push people towards these novel new drugs. When you have no drug contacts and want to experiment with LSD, you might have trouble finding it.

But now you won’t have trouble finding your local newsagent, sex-shop or website promising a “legal” alternative.

So we end up with a situation where these kids don’t take LSD (which, by the way, was identified in the Global Drug Survey as one of the most pleasurable drugs when respondents weighed up harms versus benefits), but do end up taking some random, untested drug from the internet.

And the more we ban the new drugs the more we push people into newer and more untested territory.

Politicians like to dress their moralistic attempts to ban these drugs under the cover of community safety, but that is at best ignorant blindness and at worst dishonest misrepresentation.

By incentivising the creators of new “legal” drugs to become more and more creative – and reckless – in developing new drugs to skirt bans, they are pushing people to make more dangerous choices.

But the very debate, too, ignores the harsh truth that we allow far more dangerous things to be legal in our society.

(Drug expert David Nutt famously lost his job in the UK after writing a paper “Equasy — An overlooked addiction with implications for the current debate on drug harms”which showed horse-riding was a more dangerous pastime than ecstasy use.)

Even the NSW Fair Trading Minister has only been able to point out two deaths from these drugs, along with some serious injuries.

Every death – particularly of an innocent child simply trying to experiment - is tragic. But to put this in perspective, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more people died in 2010 from venomous snakes, bees, wasps and lizards (6 people), playground equipment (3 people), ice-skates, skis, rollerblades or skateboards (4 people) and power tools (5 people).

It’s interesting to note that the only sensible comments from a politician so far have from Greens MP Richard Di Natale - a former drug and alcohol clinician. He said simply banning drugs will lead to “a pharmacological arms race where bans are always one step behind”.

“The status quo is unacceptable but we also need to take a measured approach that ensures we put the health of the community first,” he said.

Sensible words in a sea of posturing. Barring the rest of the political world agreeing to listen to what Senator Di Natale has to say, our only hope may be the successful introduction of a harm-reduction scheme in New Zealand.

Maybe once they have been brave enough to move in this direction Australian politicians will be able to inject more evidence into the national conversation around drugs.

Only then will the high moral ground in this debate be able to shift back to the people who want to talk about the realities of drug use in Australia, rather than simply repeating the rhetoric of failed prohibition.