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. 

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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.

20 comments

  • You treat harm that people do to their own bodies as health issues. You treat harm that people do to others as criminal issues. Consenting harm to ones body is treated as a health issue. Harming another where they cannot give consent is a criminal issue. Fixed.

    Commenter
    Tim the Toolman
    Date and time
    June 14, 2013, 9:20AM
    • Completely agree. The police force is supposed to be there to respond to those citizens who were a threat to other citizens (or the State, though that is made up of citizens), not to enforce a moral code determined by the State.

      Unless a person's actions are infringing on the rights of other citizens, then the police and criminal law should have no say in the matter.

      Commenter
      Markus
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      June 14, 2013, 12:35PM
  • It amazes me that a few deaths from synthetic drugs all of a sudden brings calls for some sort of Governmental regulation and not criminalizing the products, as it is too difficult to control the tweaking of a molecule etc , to change its composition from what has been banned. The problem is that we have had available to us the ability to regulate distribution of "old" drugs, marijuana, lsd, and amphetamines etc, and also the ability to regulate strengths, but no, that was too hard and would not stop the black market, hey guess what , when you don't give the punter what he wants he goes elsewhere as he or she has done with dire consequences . Some re- thinking needs to be done on drugs in our society, total prohibition does not work and leads to avoidable deaths. This would also provide governments with a lot of extra revenue to pay for all those promises.

    Commenter
    Doug
    Location
    Central Coast
    Date and time
    June 14, 2013, 9:44AM
    • So what do you propose Doug? Most people agree total prohibition doesn't work.

      Here is what we are doing in my household:
      Since my kids were young we have referred to drugs as 'good medicine' and 'bad medicine' - ie. nice and simple. As they grew, so did the discussions and descriptions. Now, in 2013, I have some teenagers and some on the way. I am reasonably confident they have knowledge about drugs (including alcohol) appropriate to their respective ages. The thing is, it has been ingrained in my kids' minds, from a young age, that illicit drugs muck up your body, your mind and may well kill you. As far as I can tell, they won't be touching them. This process has not been difficult (yet), just long-term. Sure there are other factors involved, demographics, peer groups, socio-economics, personality type, etc.

      I would encourage parents of young children to be frank and honest with their kids about drugs, and start talking about it (at their level) from an early age.

      Commenter
      Talk To Your Kids
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 14, 2013, 9:46PM
    • Politicians are too gutless. That;s why they make their true feelings hear after they retire or get kicked out.

      Commenter
      baoluo1
      Date and time
      June 15, 2013, 3:29AM
  • Never get between politicians and their kneejerk reaction to the tiny percentage of cases of harm causes by recreational drugs.

    Commenter
    rudy
    Date and time
    June 14, 2013, 10:15AM
    • I'd say instead of just focusing on deaths in direct correlation, focus on all the negative mental side effects of drug taking and the cost to taxpayers as a result. Then you've got a better argument.

      Commenter
      LaurenMaree
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      June 14, 2013, 10:15AM
      • It's astounding how irresponsible governments are in relation to this issue. Their head in the sand conservatism is the very thing leading to deaths of their constituents due to the reasons outlined by Amy.

        Many of us who have dealt with the dead bodies have been making these arguments for more than 10 years and now the problem has only become more difficult to manage and impossible to enforce.

        Commenter
        cjs
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        June 14, 2013, 10:33AM
        • Blame science for a lack of security?Too many leaks?

          Commenter
          Kane
          Date and time
          June 14, 2013, 11:00AM
          • How do we solve the synthetic drug problem? By legalising and regulating the 'real' drugs - ones that have already been extensively tested in the lab and in the field for anywhere from 30 years (MDMA) to multiple thousands (cannabis). It ain't that hard, logically, but it would be political suicide after 40 years of toeing the line in the 'War on Drugs', which has been an abject failure any way you slice it, and in fact has only made the situation worse, not better.

            Commenter
            Sir Lolsworthy
            Date and time
            June 14, 2013, 11:00AM

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