If the Queensland government’s proposed new drug laws take effect then be on guard: your next cheese and avocado foccacia might be illegal, write Greg Barns and Stephen Bright. In the past 24 months the Queensland government has been busy banning new drugs as soon as they hit the streets.
So far 20 drugs, including so-called 'legal highs' and 'party drugs', have been declared illicit. As is always the case in the war on drugs, every time a drug is banned, a new one emerges. To stop this game of cat and mouse, the conservative government of Premier Campbell Newman is proposing to amend the State's Drugs Misuse Act.
This sounds like a reasonable proposition doesn't it? Well actually, it isn't.
One of the changes the Newman government is contemplating in a bill currently before the Queensland Parliament will mean that a substance is considered to be illegal based solely on its chemical structure being similar to drugs that are already banned.
The fundamental difficulty with this change is that just because a drug is similar in structure doesn't means it is similar in effect.
For example a chemical called tyrosine that is contained in cheese and avocadoes is similar in chemical structure to many banned amphetamines.
The changes to the Drugs Misuse Act that are being proposed by the Queensland government would effectively make cheese and avocado focaccias illegal drugs – as much as you might like a focaccia, you don't typically experience extreme euphoria, aggression or psychosis after eating too many.
Some medical research scientists have expressed concerns that these proposed laws could impede the development of important medicines. How will they be able to ensure that substances that they develop are not considered illegal based on the similarity of their structure to banned chemicals?
A number of pharmaceuticals that have already been developed would be considered illegal had they not already been approved for medical use.So much for Queensland marketing itself in recent years as a biotech state!
The proposals also involve making illegal any substance that is "intended to have the same pharmacological effect as a scheduled drug". This means that a person could be prosecuted successfully despite not having any knowledge of the actual chemical of which they are in possession.
For example, a store selling parsley as a cannabis substitute could be prosecuted for selling an illegal drug since it is being sold with the intention of having an effect that is similar to cannabis. Similarly, somebody who is in possession of caffeine that is packaged as legal ecstasy could be at risk of prosecution.
While the Queensland Attorney-General's Department has sneered at these types of examples as trivial and highly unlikely to result in a prosecution, those who live in the world of drug law enforcement know that some police have an unhealthy habit of using laws designed for another purpose to harass individuals they do not like.
Laws designed to ensure people understand the substance they are consuming is one thing, but the Newman government's proposed changes will create significant uncertainty as to what constitutes an illegal drug.
And in practice, how do police know what the intended pharmacological effect of a substance that is not labelled?
What is perhaps most disturbing about the amendments to the Drugs Misuse Act is that the Newman government's MPs on a parliamentary committee examining the issue have ridden roughshod over evidence which illustrated the inherent unfairness and difficulty with the approach being taken by the Newman government.
The committee, in a report tabled earlier in March, preferred to believe the bureaucrats in the Attorney-General's Department over the Queensland Law Society among others that rightly focused on the dangerously loose proposed laws.
Clearly the emergence of new drugs on the street needs to be monitored since it places people at risk of harm. But simply banning the drugs as they emerge only further increases such risks since newer and lesser known chemicals emerge in the place of the banned chemicals.
The proposed changes do not provide a solution and are unlikely to have much impact on the use of illegal drugs.
If the Newman government was serious about public health and drug use it would regulate the use of substances in the same way that it, and other governments have with tobacco.
That is by regulating, and having control over the market, the government has been able to significantly reduce the incidence of tobacco-related harm. But having abolished the State's fine Drug Court it seems that it is intent on continuing its primitive and bound-to-fail hardline approach to drugs.
Meanwhile on the streets of Brisbane and elsewhere in Queensland the drug trade flourishes as it has done for decades.
Greg Barns is a barrister an a Director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance. View his full profile here. Stephen Bright is a PH D student at Curtin University and teaches addiction studies.
29 MARCH 2013
GREG BARNS AND STEPHEN BRIGHT
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