This article is re-published from AOD Media Watch with permission.
This story, written by Olivia Lambert, not only contains significant misinformation, she cites no evidence to indicate that there has even been an increase in the use of this drug in Australia despite a headline suggesting that there has. In fact, her key expert is quoted as saying that “It’s pretty rare at the moment”. My research has shown that such irresponsible reporting is actually likely to lead people who had not heard of this drug to become curious and try it. Indeed, her by-line: ” It’s incredibly euphoric and your mind loses all sense of reality”, certainly makes the drug sound appealing. In this instance, perhaps such curious use of the drug is not too concerning given that DMT is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter produced in the brain and has low toxicity; however, the story proposes that it is increasingly being synthetically manufactured citing only the NSW Drug Info website. My experience is that DMT is being extracted naturally from the local flora as it is abundant in the Australian wattle tree and this process is far cheaper and easier than synthetic manufacture. There is no reason to believe that synthetic DMT is widely available within Australia.
Lambert’s key expert, Mr Leibie, is also questionable as he runs a drug testing lab and has a vested interest in creating alarm within the community. Indeed, a number of statements that Lambert cites from Leibie are simply false. For example, he is paraphrased as stating that “DMT was a tryptamine, a new class of psychoactive substances”. The human neurotransmitter serotonin, in addition to DMT, are all tryptamines. They are hardly new. Furthermore, the use of DMT has occurred within Western society since the 1960’s and by indigenous South Americans for 1000s of years.
It would appear that the personal experience of the drug being used in a shamanic context by Melbourne based IT consultant Grant Eaton has been lifted from his Facebook post, presumably without his consent.
DMT is also not a narcotic drug, as stated by Lambert in the article, yet I suspect that this term, like reference to potential “synthetic” variants of DMT, has been intentionally used by Lambert to incite fear within the community. Such reporting is irresponsible not only because it perpetuates misinformation about drugs and prevents constructive conversations about drug policy, but as noted the evidence indicates that such reporting can actually both create and fuel an epidemic.
Dr Stephen Bright, Psychologist
This article is re-published from AOD Media Watch with permission.
On Saturday 17 of June, the Herald Sun published what they claim was an exclusive interview with Police Minister Lisa Neville. They “revealed” that ‘Police [were] to get new “stop and search” powers to stamp out drugs at dance festivals’.
Without any Bill before the Legislative Assembly, any public statement from Neville or the Premier on their individual offices’ or the Parliament’s communication platforms, nor any formal references produced by the Herald Sun in their article, the proposed “overhaul” reads as sensationalist. If “Victoria Police and the state government are in talks to change the law to increase the scope for officers to search festival-goers”, the first information available in the public domain on this matter came from the Herald Sun.
The Herald Sun notes the aim of the allegedly proposed reform is to “stamp out illicit drug use that has caused a spate of deaths and mass overdoses in recent years”. The event involving 20 transportations from Sidney Myer Music Bowl in February this year is cited as a critical motivating factor: “…more than 20 people—many fighting for their life—were taken to hospital after a mass overdose of GHB, a form of liquid ecstasy…”. Unpacking that last quote:
- None of the transports from Sidney Myer Music Bowl were time-critical, let alone fatal, with all 20 patients being discharged that night or the next day;
- GHB is not a form of ‘liquid ecstasy’. It was originally a legal medicine administered for sleep disorders and its chemistry is not similar to ‘MDMA’, the substance that attracts the colloquialism ‘ecstasy’; and
- If 20 transports from 1 festival earlier in 2017 is the most concerning example of “very serious harm at music festivals” that has “helped spur the [call for reform] action”, a reasonable corollary is that the “drug activity…at music festivals” only accounts for a fractional minority of the “10,600 illicit drug [ambulance] call-outs statewide a year—equal to 30 emergencies a day”.
The Herald Sun does not provide a reference for their statistics on overdoses, but from the ‘Ambulance Victoria 2015-2016 Annual Report’ we know the “AV research portfolio includes collaborations with key organisations, including…Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre and…In 2015–2016, a total of 66 research projects were active in the AV research governance system”. Turning Point’s AOD statistics show that in the 2014-2015 financial year, Ambulance Victoria attended 17,946 alcohol-related call-outs alone. This is almost double the 9,038 call-outs they recorded for all illicit drug-related overdoses combined in that year, and from the weekend’s article we understand that number has risen to “10,600”. Meanwhile, according to Ambulance Victoria’s records there were 10,541 prescription drug overdose call-outs too, which is addressed later below.
While there’s no formal documentation available in the public domain, a question was put to the Police Minister in an unrelated press conference on Sunday 18 June. The Premier, Attorney-General, and Minister Neville, hosted a press conference to address the ‘Door-step Terrorism Laws Review’, which lasted for 30 minutes. Premier Andrews began by stating: “Thank you for joining us this morning for an important announcement in relation to Terror and threats in our community and doing whatever is necessary to keep the Victorian community safe”.
Twenty minutes of discussion about terrorist threats and appropriate responses passed before a member of the press requested to ask a question on a different note: “talk us through the zero-tolerance crackdown on drugs at music festivals”? The Premier referred the question to the Police Minister whom affirmed the Herald Sun’s report, and arguably no new information was provided. Neville confirmed the Government and Victoria Police are in discussions about:
- The use of illicit drugs and overdoses at a “…certain type of music festival, particularly out in our rural, regional communities, the raves…”; and;
- Increasing event organiser accountability. More information is needed on these proposed reforms. Sunday’s press conference was the first opportunity the broader media had to question the Police Minister. Yet the setting, a press conference on terror and security threats, risks the conflation of the two very different matters.
Consider the few details the Herald Sun provides about this “zero tolerance crackdown on drug-riddled dance festivals” that the Victorian government allegedly intends to undertake, Police Officers would no longer require “reasonable suspicion…to look for drugs”. That is, stop and search powers without any reason. At present and in general, Victoria Police have the power to conduct stop searches upon “reasonable grounds”. ‘Reasonable suspicion’ is a lesser evidentiary threshold than ‘reasonable grounds’.
In 2015 the heavily criticised Move-On Laws (which set this lesser ‘reasonable suspicion’ threshold as the test for police to conduct searches as well as request people leave certain public spaces) were implemented and subsequently revoked within a year by the Andrews Labor Government due to their “draconian” nature. Why then, only 2 years later, would the Government be allegedly considering expanding police stop and search powers again, but this time dropping the evidence threshold from ‘reasonable grounds’ to ‘without reason’? Again, there are no official public statements nor a Bill to assess, yet the Herald Sun notes: “Music Festivals where there is significant intelligence of drug problems would be made designated events under the Major Sporting Event Act  to enable police to use greater powers”, suggesting that an amendment to the Major Sporting Event Act 2009 (the ‘MSE Act’), rather than the introduction of new legislation, would be the instrument to provide police officers with expanded search powers that target festival goers.
At present, section 90 of the MSE Act catalogues the discretion for an ‘authorised officer’ (which includes “police officers”, Section 183) for the purposes of inspection and searching of event patrons. While through its silence the MSE Act allows authorised officers to request such inspection without reason, patrons may refuse to comply and in turn be refused entry to the event venue or area (S 90(4), (5)). If, as the Herald Sun alleges, the MSE Act is the intended instrument the government will use to expand police search powers regarding festival goers, then the reform would need to be at least two-fold: with Part 2 being reformed so ‘Major sporting event orders’ can and are issued in regard to music festivals; and other parts of the MES Act would need amendment as well, for example, all ‘authorised officers’ under the MES Act or would only police be given expanded search powers, plus the removal of sections that currently allow patrons to refuse a search but be denied entry.
While the Herald Sun’s article does not provide any formal references, and therefore may be largely speculative, it is indicated that sources other than Lisa Neville were considered before publishing. For example, in a floating single sentence-paragraph, Daniel Buccianti’s “mother” is paraphrased as “calling for drugs to be legalised and made at reputable laboratories”. I called Adriana Buccianti to query her opinion on the Herald Sun’s paraphrase and she stated that she felt that her statements had been taken “out of context”. She told me that she has made comments that drug law reform considerations should include legalising and regulating some substances that are currently illicit, but only as part of broader reforms that frame drug use as a health not a criminal matter. Andriana Buccianti also advocates for pill testing to be used as a harm reduction tool, and she launched a petition last year that has gained 38,734 signatures from supporters for pill testing to be introduced in Australia, like the programs that have been successfully run in various EU nations since the 1990s.
Further, the Herald Sun’s article closes with: “Ambulance Victoria chief executive Assoc Prof Tony Walker, in a recent parliamentary inquiry submission, said illicit drug abuse was putting unprecedented pressure on paramedics, drawing resources away from the wider community”. Upon reading Ambulance Victoria’s submission dated 27 March 2017 to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into Drug Law Reform, it is obvious the Herald Sun’s article includes several two-to-three word quotes from Ambulance Victoria’s submission without any reference and, when paraphrasing Ambulance Victoria’s submission in the closing paragraph, omits that Ambulance Victoria’s submission cites “The misuse of illicit and prescription drugs…is an increasingly problem…”. The Ambulance Victoria submission does not call for some kind of ‘zero tolerance’ approach to drug policy; nor will one find the word ‘unprecedented’ or the phrase ‘unprecedented pressure’. As we know from Turning Point’s findings, the pressure placed on Ambulance Victoria by alcohol-related harm dwarfs that of illicit drug use.
To be clear, ‘Zero Tolerance’ and ‘Harm Minimisation’ are mutually exclusive approaches to drug policy. Drug law reform is an important health issue and it’s a role of the media to facilitate Government transparency on its decision-making processes and actions for the sake of public interest. Irrespective of what drug law reform the Victorian Government implements, or not; and whether such reform waits for the Parliamentary Inquiry’s findings, or not; AOD Media Watch is concerned about reports that sensationalise drug use and related health issues, and reporting practices that risk the conflation of drug use with terrorism as occurred in Sunday’s press conference. Instead we advocate an open dialogue regarding policy rather than a zero tolerance crackdown policy vacuum.
Stephanie Tzanetis, Dancewize coordinator, Harm Reduction Victoria
AOD Media Watch Reviewers:
- Jenny Valentish, Freelance journalist
- Dr Stephen Bright, Senior Lecturer of Addiction at Edith Cowan University & Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University
Disclaimer: The authors take full responsibility for the content of this article
This article is re-published from AOD Media Watch with permission.
Hannah Francis from The Age wrote a piece entitled “Police want to cut length of Rainbow Serpent Festival following death of 22-year-old”. How would a shorter festival have prevented this tragedy and might doing so actually increase harm?
Rainbow Serpent Festival’s (RSFs) gates opened for the 20_year celebration at midday on Thursday the 26th of January 2017. Opening midday on the Thursday of Australia Day weekend has been the festival’s format for years. Yet The Age author incorrectly wrote that it “ran for one day longer than usual this year”. Having music play on the Thursday, from 5pm-midnight, was a first though. Conversely, the festival’s entertainment schedule has been cut short over the past two years to encourage people to rest earlier on Monday night to mitigate fatigue among Tuesday’s exiting patrons, and this is an example of the organisers’ ongoing commitment to their impaired driving initiative.
Supt. Andrew Allen was quoted in the Victoria Police media statement released 31 January: “Every year more and more police resources are required at this extraordinarily high-risk event”. While Hannah Francis‘s article captured the sentiment of the original police statement, she misquoted the statement. For example: “…Allen said the festival posed ‘extreme risks’ to other road users”. I paid to gain access to Victoria Police’s Corporate Statistics regarding the roadside operation targeting RSF in 2016:
- Between 25-27 January 2016, at Lexton and Beaufort, police conducted 403 preliminary oral fluid tests (using Pathtec Drug Swipe II Twin, to test for traces of meth/amphetamine and THC)
- 40 drivers gave a preliminary positive result at the roadside (they were not “arrested”). It then takes about a month to get the lab-confirmed results.
- 34 drivers were confirmed positive for traces of those prescribed substances in their saliva after a secondary sample was sent to the laboratory.
That means that in 2016 9.92% of people who were drug tested after they left RSF tested positive for traces of the proscribed substances in the bodily fluids at the roadside, while 8.44% were confirmed positive and charged accordingly. And that means there were 6 (15%) false positive tests.
The lab-confirmed results for RSF 2017 are not yet available for purchase from Corporate Statistics, but let’s assume all 17+ preliminary positive results are confirmed positive. The police roadside operation ran for an additional day-and-a-half compared to 2016 (Sunday 29 January-Thursday 2 February), so it’s also fair to assume they conducted at least the same number of drug tests this year as last. This would mean that 4.22% of drivers who were drug tested leaving RSF produced a preliminary positive result. This is a significantly lower rate of positive results than the 14.29% rate of positive tests across the state over Easter weekend and up to one third in some suburbs on AFL final weekend in 2016. Clearly the Easter and Grandfinal weekends generate far more harm and are more newsworthy.
But more importantly, shortening the festival could lead to increased rates of people caught drug driving. And while in Victoria it is a summary offence to have “any concentration” of methylamphetamine, MDMA, or THC in one’s blood or oral fluid (See, Road Safety Act 1986, S 49(1)(bb) and the applicable statutory definitions), neither the law nor the technology used to enforce it tests for impairment. Shortening the festival could lead to increased people driving impaired. In turn, this could actually contribute to deaths rather than reduce the chance of deaths and is in direct contradiction with the RSFs impaired driving initiative.
Compounding the issue is what might be described as journalistic apathy. Police media statements are often assumed to be objective sources of information that the media simply accept as fact. But police media statements too can be politically-loaded. The user-pays policing system provides little incentive for police to downplay the necessity of their services at any particular event. Further, as one of the largest agencies in the executive branch of government, Victoria Police aren’t immune to human administration errors and miscommunications either, which may explain the frequent and obvious anomalies when roadside operation statistics are quoted.
Further, in RSF’s media release on the 2 February, Tim Harvey wrote “Last year one in 20 drivers outside Rainbow tested positive compared to the annual state average of one in 15 and while we believe one positive test is too many, it’s been made abundantly clear that music festivals are just easy headlines for senior police officers with political agendas”. Hannah Francis wrote “Mr Harvey played down the link between the festival and drug driving, saying one in eight drivers testing positive was ‘a fantastic result when compared to the Victorian community in general”. Compared is the only word of more than one syllable The Age accurately quoted Mr Harvey as saying.
The Police media statement claiming RSF poses an “extraordinarily high-risk” is at odds with police feedback onsite and the superlative effort placed on safety during the year-round planning process. RSF undergoes the local government’s permitting process. As such, emergency management stakeholders, including Victoria Police, advise the festival on the necessary and most prudent safety measures required. The organisers comply, and during the event an emergency management HQ, including a Victoria Police compound, runs 24/7. Some of such documentation is available through the Pyrenees Shire’s Freedom of Information (FOI) request process. The organisers of RSF made an extraordinary effort to minimize harm at this year’s event.
Two reports of sexual assault at RSF were made to police. The Age acknowledged in its closing paragraph that RSF introduced ‘The Nest’ in 2017, an inclusive safe space initiative with sexual assault counsellors and psychologists to respond to “alleged assaults”. No other festival in Australia has such a comprehensive initiative to address gender-based violence (GBV) or to educate the community on consent. Victoria’s Centres Against Sexual Assault (CASA) and all reputable research sources globally on the prevalence of sexual assault (ABS, WHO, ACSSA, OSW, AIC) stress that sexual assault is highly prevalent and that approximately 95% of sexual assaults go unreported, and only 10% of the 5% reported result in conviction. The Australian Bureau of statistics notes, “there were 21,380 victim s of sexual assault recorded by police in 2015 ”. Therefore, all evidence suggests 467,600 people were sexually assaulted in Australia in 2015. An increase in the rate of sexual assault reports to police does not mean sexual assaults are more common. Rather, it suggests the victim-survivors of sexual assault have more confidence in the criminal justice system and feel empowered to make a report. Just consider the ongoing findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. But has anyone suggested religious organisations pose an extreme safety risk?
For 20 years, increasing numbers of people have attended the music, arts, and community gathering in Lexton, with some 20,000 attending over the past few years. In 2017, the community grieved for the third life lost in RSF’s history: nearly 10 years ago an attendee died from an asthma attack; in 2012 Daniel Buccianti died from drug-related causes. This year a 22-year-old man died, and while the coroner’s report is pending, all other reports suggest he drank a bottle of “amyl nitrate”, as incorrectly noted in by Hannah Francis in The Age, among numerous other sources – amyl nitrite or ‘poppers’ is commonly misrepresented as amyl nitrate, but these are different substances. Following these reports, Associate Professor David Caldicott provided some harm reduction when using poppers on AOD Media Watch. Shortening the event is extremely unlikely to have prevented this tragedy.
Rather, it would seem from this analysis that shortening the event could actually increase harm. The veracity of the reporting by Hannah Francis is questionable. I have shown the significant efforts made by RSF organisers to reduce harm, but this was not reported in The Age. We at AOD Media Watch would encourage Hannah to engage with us to improve the objectivity and evidence-base for future reporting.
Stephanie Tzanetis, Dancewize coordinator, Harm Reduction Victoria