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Health Warnings On Drugs Shouldn't Be Provided By Police

We need an earlier warning system.

17/10/2016 10:23 AM AEDT | Updated 17/10/2016 10:23 AM AEDT
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Dominic Lorrimer
A portion of the MDMA drug seized by authorities on Saturday.

In recent days we have seen a lot of attention about yet another big bust that we are reliably informed by Ministers and police will be "a hammer blow for organised crime and a clear message that we will not tolerate those who try to exploit our borders for their own gain".

In reality, simple mathematics undermines the claim of a 'hammer blow' effect and I think it's safe to assume that organised crime is well aware of that clear message.

In regard to the mathematics of these big busts, the cost of production for each pill is estimated to be a few cents, and while the cost of importation can vary it doesn't cost a lot. So when announcements of 'hundreds of millions of dollar hits' on organised crime are made it is important to remember that this is based on a street price calculation of more than $30 per pill. The loss of potential income may be high but the actual loss is much smaller. It is this extraordinarily lucrative mark-up that brings organised crime to the table.

In a twist of fate, it is actually the law enforcement effort that creates the huge mark-up for organised crime. It is a game of cat and mouse with few winners as, despite all the money, effort, and tens of thousands of people who consume the drugs being punished, every year a report on the illicit drugs market in Australia describes most drugs as either easy or very easy to obtain.

On another front we have seen police in Australia and in the UK send out warnings about dangerous batches of drugs on the streets. Does it strike you as odd that these health warnings are provided by police?

The reason this occurs in Australia is because there is no early warning system on drugs in place. An early warning system is one where information on drugs is shared in real time between health workers and officials and then to the public. It doesn't exist here because, in part, that would involve pill testing and providing information to people using those drugs. And we are told this sends the wrong message and therefore can't be considered. Better to fail our kids than compromise our views. And better to let police talk to media and then hope the people using these drugs are watching the mainstream news services. The best option is to inform health networks that include peer networks and websites used by actual users of drugs so they find out quickly what risks exist.

The upshot of what we get now are scared parents and minimal impact on the drug market.

In contrast, we know that well informed markets result in better and safer products and keeping consumers informed is quite simply one of the best ways we have to make the drugs safer.

This week we also saw enhanced co-operation with Singapore as part of a historic address by the Singaporean Prime Minister to the national Parliament.

What has that got to do about drugs?

Well, buried in the detail of the announcement was a key agreement on law enforcement to share information on transnational drug crime. A usual inclusion these days. However, what it misses is the opportunity to broaden the drugs clauses in these agreements to share information on demand and harm reduction. Everyone recognises the importance of reducing demand and harm to address drug use, for some reason it's only supply reduction that is a basis of co-operation. What is that statement we hear all the time from governments about not being able to arrest our way of the problem?

It's time for Australia to get back into the business of acting on evidence when it comes to drugs and to lead in this region. If you want our kids to be safer then we cannot simply push out more of the same and expect things to change.

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