Friday, 19 June 2009

Cocaine - Australia’s Next Drug Epidemic?

Cocaine abuse is all the rage in the media these days. From socialites to celebrities, from growing imports to night clubs, the media has found it’s new drug sensation. And it makes sense - we are told by the government and the media that cocaine is a hard drug like heroin and will turn any mortal into a manic, aggressive, single minded snow shovelling machine. But what if the World Health Organisation (WHO) told us differently? Would governments listen or take the advice of a group like the World Health Organisation? Ben Goldacre from The Guardian (UK) exposes how in 1995, the US buried a WHO report about the largest study ever made into cocaine use. The report contradicted US/UN drug policies and may have had some effect on how we approach the cocaine problem. At minimum, the report would have exposed how the UN and some countries act in complete defiance to the facts and evidence.
Most programmes do not prevent myths, but perpetuate stereotypes and misinform the general public. Such programmes rely on sensationalised, exaggerated statements about cocaine which misinform about patterns of use, stigmatise users, and destroy the educator's credibility. -WHO Report (1995)
As cocaine use grows in Australia, Europe and Africa, some governments are reacting but are their policies going to be anything different to previous drug trends? It just seems futile to keep researching and producing scientific reports that are simply ignored by governments if it doesn’t suit their political agenda. So what about Australia? What if the WHO report came out now? Would it be ignored by the Australian government?
Australia's Country Profile (CP) and the Sydney Key Informant Study (KIS) reveal limited cocaine use and few use-related problems. Most are recreational cocaine hydrochloride users. Very few are intensive injecting users. Use tends to accompany a polydrug experience. -WHO Report (1995)
The latest reports show that cocaine use is rising in Australia and the media predict there’s a cocaine shit storm coming. But the situation today is very similar to what the WHO reported back in 1995. The bulk of cocaine use is recreational and very few are hard core injecting users. According to the 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, only 5.2% of all injecting drug users chose cocaine. More importantly, only 2.4% or 2000 users chose cocaine as the first drug they injected which might indicate the level of cocaine addiction. Since the current situation reflects the WHO report from 1995, it might suggest that cocaine use is hardly a serious problem in Australia. But I can hear some minds ticking over ... what about the increase in cocaine imports?
Cocaine detections at the Australian border in 2007–08 increased slightly in weight and significantly in number compared with 2006–07. In total, 649.3 kilograms of cocaine was detected in 627 detections. This represents a six per cent increase in weight and a 71 per cent increase by number. The weight of cocaine detections in 2007–08 remained largely consistent with 2006–07. This is due to continued large detections in sea cargo, including two detections over 100 kilograms. -The Illicit Drug Data Report 2007/2008 - Australian Crime Commission (ACC)
There has been quite a bit of excitement about the recent Illicit Drug Data Report (2007/2008) produced by the Australian Crime Commission. The media highlights the news of a 71% increase in cocaine detections but dig a bit deeper and it only totals a 6% increase in weight. Surprise, surprise, this figure doesn’t make the headlines. Over 3 quarters of cocaine imports are now small packages via the post so the number of detections has increased dramatically. The important figure, weight, which has only increased slightly doesn’t make reading as interesting it seems.
AUSTRALIA is in the middle of a cocaine binge not experienced since the turn of the millennium [...] and since 2006 Australia has recorded a leap in cocaine detections of almost 400 per cent -Boom Times For Dealers As Australia Binges On Cocaine - Sydney Morning Herald
The real situation though makes these statistics almost useless. Australia only stops about 10-15% of drugs entering through our borders so the actual total amount of illicit drugs imported is never known. A small shift in unknown imports can distort the compiled statistics greatly. Even known imports can also muddy the figures. For example, 80 per cent of the total weight was from Sea cargo detections which included a single catch that accounted for nearly 40 per cent of the total weight. In other words, one big haul can make up thousands of smaller parcels sent by mail.
Cocaine use in Australia is soaring, while heroin-related arrests have dropped dramatically over the past decade, new figures show. The Australian Crime Commission's Illicit Drug Data report for 2007-08 reveals figures on arrests and seizures, along with methods of importation. There were 1,271 cocaine seizures, the highest figure on record, over the 12-month period and cocaine detections at the Australian border increased 71 per cent. "Cocaine use among the general population has increased since 2004 and is currently the highest on record," the report said. "Increases in cocaine border detections and seizures within Australia indicate a potential expansion of the domestic cocaine market." -Cocaine Use Rising In Australia: Report - Brisbane Times
From the recent media coverage, it would appear that cocaine is becoming a massive problem. But is it? 5.9% (1 million) of Australians aged 14 years or older have used cocaine at least once in their life but only 1.6% (275,000) used cocaine in the previous 12 months. Interestingly enough, of those Australians aged 14 years or older who had ever used cocaine, about 70% had not used cocaine in the last 12 months. Less than 1 in 50 teenagers have ever used cocaine. The main age group of cocaine users is 20-39 years old which might explain why very few become addicts and is largely used responsibly. I am yet to see the term “cocaine epidemic” but I guess it’s not too far away. The cocaine hysteria in the media is increasing though with stories about celebrities like Jodi Gordon and even a soft drink called Cocaine that has outraged anti-drug warriors, who claim it sends the wrong message. There’s even a dire warning about the “New Killer Cocaine On Streets” that isn’t even cocaine. As ecstasy hysteria and the cannabis/psychosis links have been done to death in the media, cocaine is ripe to take over as the media’s new scourge on society. This should play nicely into the hands of the government who love to roll out the “tough on drugs” image during a potential drug epidemic. So the big question remains - what will happen if research shows us once again that not only are current drug policies failing but they are causing more harm than good? What if research dismisses cocaine use as a major problem? I’m sure there will be many junk science reports commissioned by anti-drug warriors or biased US federal agencies to support Zero Tolerance policies . I’m sure the government will pick and choose only reports that suit their political agenda. And I’m positive the media will never print a headline like “Cocaine ... It’s Not THAT Bad”. The attitude towards the "War on Drugs" is changing rapidly and some real information is finally getting out to the public. More and more established media outlets like The Guardian are disclosing the dirty tricks that have kept the public ignorant about drugs for decades. In the end, the truth always wins out but I still get the feeling that the we have a long way to go.
Cocaine study that got up the nose of the US By Ben Goldacre The Guardian June 2009 In areas of moral and political conflict people will always behave badly with evidence, so the war on drugs is a consistent source of entertainment. We have already seen how cannabis being "25 times stronger" was a fantasy, how drugs- related deaths were quietly dropped from the measures for drugs policy, and how a trivial pile of poppies was presented by the government as a serious dent in the Taliban's heroin revenue. The Commons home affairs select committee is looking at the best way to deal with cocaine. You may wonder why they're bothering. When the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs looked at the evidence on the reclassification of cannabis it was ignored. When Professor David Nutt, the new head of the advisory council, wrote a scientific paper on the relatively modest risks of MDMA (the active ingredient in the club drug ecstasy) he was attacked by the home secretary, Jacqui Smith . In the case of cocaine there is an even more striking precedent for evidence being ignored: the World Health Organisation (WHO) conducted what is probably the largest ever study of global use. In March 1995 they released a briefing kit which summarised their conclusions, with some tantalising bullet points. "Health problems from the use of legal substances, particularly alcohol and tobacco, are greater than health problems from cocaine use," they said. "Cocaine-related problems are widely perceived to be more common and more severe for intensive, high-dosage users and very rare and much less severe for occasional, low-dosage users." The full report – which has never been published – was extremely critical of most US policies. It suggested that supply reduction and law enforcement strategies have failed, and that options such as decriminalisation might be explored, flagging up such programmes in Australia, Bolivia, Canada and Colombia. "Approaches which over-emphasise punitive drug control measures may actually contribute to the development of heath-related problems," it said, before committing heresy by recommending research into the adverse consequences of prohibition, and discussing "harm reduction" strategies. "An increase in the adoption of responses such as education, treatment and rehabilitation programmes," it said, "is a desirable counterbalance to the over-reliance on law enforcement." It singled out anti-drug adverts based on fear. "Most programmes do not prevent myths, but perpetuate stereotypes and misinform the general public. "Such programmes rely on sensationalised, exaggerated statements about cocaine which misinform about patterns of use, stigmatise users, and destroy the educator's credibility." It also dared to challenge the prevailing policy view that all drug use is harmful misuse. "An enormous variety was found in the types of people who use cocaine, the amount of drug used, the frequency of use, the duration and intensity of use, the reasons for using and any associated problems." Experimental and occasional use were by far the most common types of use, it said, and compulsive or dysfunctional use, though worthy of close attention, were much less common. It then descended into outright heresy. "Occasional cocaine use does not typically lead to severe or even minor physical or social problems … a minority of people … use casually for a short or long period, and suffer little or no negative consequences." And finally: "Use of coca leaves appears to have no negative health effects and has positive, therapeutic, sacred and social functions for indigenous Andean populations." At the point where mild cocaine use was described in positive tones the Americans presumably blew some kind of outrage fuse. This report was never published because the US representative to the WHO threatened to withdraw US funding for all its research projects and interventions unless the organisation "dissociated itself from the study" and cancelled publication. According to the WHO this document does not exist, (although you can read a leaked copy at Drugs show the classic problem for evidence-based social policy. It may well be that prohibition, and distribution of drugs by criminals, gives worse results for the outcomes we think are important, such as harm to the user and to communities through crime. But equally, we may tolerate these outcomes, because we decide it is more important that we declare ourselves to disapprove of drug use. It's okay to do that. You can have policies that go against your stated outcomes, for moral or political reasons: but that doesn't mean you can hide the evidence.
Related Articles: Suppressed report raises questions about drug policy


THR said...

Hey Terry,

You may well have seen it, but today's Age has an interesting, if Melbourne-centric piece on heroin:

Terry Wright said...

Thanks THR

Great article. I think sometimes people forget that being a heroin addict is really, really depressing and hard work. There's no glory in being hooked on smack!

Did you see Miranda the Devine's latest effort in the SMH?

She's lost the plot. Sweden is getting hammered for human rights violations against drug users at the moment. Addicts don't trust anyone anymore as the government does all it can to alienate them. It's just what they need ... more problems.

THR said...

Ergh. Miranda Devine. Ignorance speaking to ignorants.

Anonymous said...

much of the issue with addiction is the impurity of the product, where the addiction is the desire to get away from the sickness.

the worst people in the world are making truck loads of cash from illegal drugs

we could end the addiction of heroin in an instant but making the drug legal to registered users.