7 January, 2013, Nick Kilvert
Thousands of recreational drug users are playing the role of human guinea pigs as manufacturers come up with untested compounds to dodge failing drug laws, and scientists are being left in the cold.
That’s the message from Craig Motbey, a University of Sydney School of Psychology researcher currently studying the long-term health affects of a new, untested, and highly addictive party drug, mephedrone.
Results from the research, published in peer-reviewed journal PLOS One last month, describe long-term memory damage in rats that had been exposed to the drug.
Mephedrone is just one of a litany of new drugs to hit the market and Motbey claims that scientists are under the pump. “In 2010 alone, the EU authorities identified 41 brand new psychoactive drugs that had hit the market in that year only, and it is impossible for the research community to keep up with this.”
Ecstasy use has declined world-wide over the last few years as authorities cracked down on the manufacture and distribution of the popular party drug. But Motbey claims this just created a void in the market that has been quickly filled by new and untested chemical compounds.
Motbey argues that the push for new drugs may have catastrophic consequences. “If we’d never banned ecstasy (sic) in the first place, mephedrone would probably never have happened. By reflexively banning relatively less dangerous drugs, we create a continuous push to more dangerous drugs. Prohibition doesn’t make drugs less dangerous, it makes them more dangerous!”
While mephedrone was fetching about 40 Euro a gram on the street, the University of Sydney research team was paying more than $10, 000 a gram to have the drug synthesized in a laboratory. By the time their research was sufficient, thousands of recreational users had ingested the drug.
But Motbey claims, this time, they’ve been relatively lucky. “It’s just a matter of time until they [manufacturers] stumble across something really, really nasty, and we could end up with tens of thousands of people with trashed brains before we even have done a single bit of research.”
Drugs in the UK fall under the Medicines Act, which works on the chemical make up of a substance. When a compound is identified and banned, minor tweaking of that formula can create a new, legal, and untested product.
In Australia, drug laws are less clearly defined. That is, all chemical compounds of similar structure to an illegal drug, or compounds that may produce similar effects, are themselves illegal.
Motbey says this leaves great room for interpretation by police and the courts. So much so that up to two thirds of Australian backyards may be home to plants containing compounds that can be classified as illegal substances under Australian law.
Calls for an overhaul of Australia’s drugs policy including quality controlled manufacture and distribution of certain substances under a harm minimisation approach, came earlier in the year in a report by research and strategy development group Australia21.
The report, which included contributions from former Howard defense secretary Paul Barratt and former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer, was drafted after an open letter signed by a litany of Nobel Prize winners, doctors, UN staff and former presidents such as Jimmy Carter, was sent to the UN declaring the war on drugs a failure.
However, three months down the track and Australian politicians are still mute on the issue. Paul Barratt AO, Chair of Australia21, is not surprised. “It’s one of those sort of ethical-moral issues that governments seem frightened of”, he says.
“It’s very telling that when Julia Gillard responded to our first report saying, ‘Oh no we’re not going to decriminalise it we’re just going to go on supporting the people who are victims of this trade’, why she thinks putting people in jail is an appropriate means of support is beyond me.”
The Australia21 recommendations draw parallels with models from other countries that have decriminalised drugs such as Portugal, Spain, and Italy.
Proponents of the Portuguese system, which decriminalised drugs in 2001, cite falls in HIV, crime, “problematic” drug use, and drug use in the 13-15 year-old age bracket as evidence for the efficacy of drug law reform.
But opponents of reform, including peak lobby group Drug Free Australia, argue that a tough on drugs approach is the only way forward. Drug Free Australia is currently canvassing the idea of introducing drug testing in Australian schools in an attempt to crack down on the teenage demographic.
In contrast, Australia21 are organising a national summit for next year and are calling for a productivity commission report to evaluate the performance of the ‘law and order’ approach to drugs.
But Barratt admits the task of convincing politicians to pick up the issue is a tough one. “The world’s been through this [prohibition] before, and it seems we’re going to have to learn the lessons again”.
Image: “Only a matter of time”, say researchers concerned about the dangers of rapid street drug innovation.
Photo: © Joe Sullivan http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en
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