(Image: WestLight/Getty)

Experts are warning that slow-moving, moral-based drug laws are useless in the face of a booming global drug supply.

In other words, relying on international drug laws is a bit like bailing out a boat with a dixie cup. 

In Australia, where we struggle to legislate something as well-known as cannabis, New (or Novel) Psychoactive Substances (NPS) — drugs which are quick to develop, hard to detect, and designed to get around laws — could present a huge problem for policymakers.

World-leading experts presented a series of four papers published in The Lancet at the Lisbon Addictions Conference in Portugal last month last month, addressing opioids, cannabis, stimulants and the challenge of NPS. Crikey takes a look at the so-called rising tide of these substances and asks… how bad could it really be? 

What are NPS?

NPS, legal highs or designer drugs, are synthetically manufactured to mimic traditional illicit drugs. They can range from synthetic cannabis (or “spice”) to synthetic opioids like carfentanil, which is 100 times more toxic than fentanyl.

They’re not picked up by many common rapid drug screening tests and, in Australia, new substances take analysts up to four weeks to identify. Nearly 900 NPS have been found around the world, increasing more than fourfold in the past decade

A major concern is their popularity and proliferation in developing nations, The Lancet report author Amy Peacock told Crikey. “The NPS market is highly dynamic and the internet and other information technology advances mean that substances can easily be shipped from one country to another,” she said.

Often, low and middle-income countries don’t have the surveillance abilities to identify NPS, meaning shipments go unseen. Ordering drugs online is incredibly easy — Silk Road, the original eBay for drugs on the dark web has been replaced with online megastores complete with reviews, discreet packaging and express postage. 

While Australians don’t go out of their way to take NPS — just 0.6% of adults report using them — they’re often ingested unknowingly, sold as MDMA or other party drugs. Analyses of wastewater samples have tentatively identified up to 22 NPS across Australian jurisdictions. And crackdowns on other drugs may lead to users making the switch.

“Surveys also show that lower price and greater availability of NPS relative to their more established illicit drug counterparts may contribute to use as well,” Peacock said.

What do our laws say? 

Australia has historically dragged its feet when it comes to drug reform. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian ignored recommendations from the deputy coroner to introduce pill testing and decriminalise personal use of illicit drugs. The ACT’s decision to decriminalise cannabis goes against Commonwealth laws. And ice use is rampant in Australian jails.

When it comes to NPS, Australia’s laws are clear as mud. While several government websites reference “blanket bans” on NPS, University of Sydney law school associate professor Tyrone Kirchengast said it’s more like “swiss cheese prohibition” with plenty of holes and exceptions.

Legislation, both state-based and Commonwealth, bans psychoactive substances which have an obvious hallucinatory effect, impact on the central nervous system, and are addictive. But there are plenty of exemptions for therapeutic goods and farming materials. 

So unless the substance has an obvious detrimental, druggy effect, it has to be added individually to lists. This is like playing a game of legal whack-a-mole, haphazardly whacking substances down as they appear faster and faster. 

What’s the answer? 

One solution would be to implement a full blanket ban, such as the Psychoactive Substances Act in the UK. But according to Kirchengast, this is even more problematic. “Broad frameworks just simply do not work,” he said, adding that the act includes classes of products that have an effect on the mind, including oils, incense and perfumes.

“We could have chemicals suddenly criminalised and we’d need to go about decriminalising what we’re already used to, like food additives,” he said. 

And, as The Lancet report authors argue, policies should move away from law enforcement and punitive measures and instead be reformed to minimise harm. 

“We need to ensure we are in a position to rapidly identify new substances that may place people at risk of harm, and that we are prepared to respond in a way that does not criminalise and punish people, but rather provides access to information and effective interventions to minimise any loss of life or other harms,” Peacock said.

Peter Fray

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