Wednesday, November 19, 2014

7th Annual ACT Tobacco and Other Drug Sector Conference 2014 -Report By Susan Westwood

Delegate:  Susan Westwood, Health Care Consumers Representative

What is the drug policy?

Drug driving
New psychoactive substances
Medical Cannabis

What is the Problem?


A lot of theoretical ground on the conference topic was covered by the speakers at this conference, the majority of whom had academic backgrounds.  Many important questions and issues relating to drug policy were raised by the speakers, and by the delegates who had the opportunity to discuss and question some of the key points raised by the speakers at the end of each session.  No definitive answers to the questions raised were given, although some suggestions and viewpoints were expressed.  Mr Ross Bell from the New Zealand Drug Foundation provided an interesting insight into the New Zealand experience, describing a political attempt to decriminalise drugs in the public arena.  But the community turned and lobbied against the idea of decriminalisation, due to a bizarre change of political influences and an emotional advertising campaign.

Drug policy is often subject to personal judgment. Formulating the stance taken on this sometimes confronting and demanding topic may depend on one’s own personal background, experience, age, nationality and perspective.  To some extent, it may be difficult to be totally impartial because many lives in the community have been influenced by family members affected by addictions, mental illness and drug intake. 

My personal experience as a health professional has been focused on saving lives and applying the principles of public health, wellbeing and enjoyment of life.  It goes without saying that the huge diversity of opinions, life experiences and life stages of people throughout the world can offer many interpretations of what form a drug policy should take.  In saying this, I am mindful that the problem is not just confined to ‘recreational drugs’ but that certain legally prescribed drugs can be just as addictive and life‑threatening as illicit drugs.

Event Observations

The Portrait Gallery was a good venue for the meeting; however, our table was placed right next to some heavy sliding doors which were constantly being pushed aside by a facilitator to allow persons to exit the room.  At times, it was very noisy in the foyer and this caused some problems in hearing the speakers.  One person at our table left and sat elsewhere. 

The morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea were very good and much welcomed because it was a long and demanding day.  I had the onset of flu so I welcomed fluid intake and food.  I did notice, though, that there was no choice for persons on special diets, e.g. gluten free, diabetic, etc.

The delegates all had a ticket number and a raffle was held at the beginning of each session, with prizes for the winners.  This was fun and encouraged everyone to get back on time for the next session.

The Role of Narrative, Metaphor and Media in Marihuana and Drug Use

Prof. Alison Ritter reflected on the popular trend to define problems according to narrative and metaphor. She questioned whether the use of specific narratives and metaphors contribute to the problem of interpreting drug policy. She believes that the use of narrative and language are central to those who implement any policy on drugs.  She claims that these policy makers can be viewed as ‘actors’ and that their solutions to the problems do not always relate to the problem at hand.

Prof. Ritter suggested that framing and the use of language can often publicly characterise certain drug usage, e.g. What is the image of a ‘vapor’ as opposed to a ‘smoker’? This leads to the question of how do we conceptualise drug usage and users in our modern society?

Emeritus Prof. Laurence Mather talked about the discourse of pleasure around drug usage and that the opposite is also true in reality.  He said that marihuana is often referred to as that ‘demon weed’ and the media have often portrayed marihuana negatively, for example, as in the 1969 novel Marijuana Girl which tells of a young girl who sells her body in order to buy marihuana.  Similarly, the 1936-39 movie production Reefer Madness, an American propaganda film portrays marihuana habitual usage as a gradual personal descent into crime and eventual madness.

There seems to be no doubt that the power of the media can influence public opinion about alcohol and drug issues and produce a fearful reaction among the public.  The media can instil beliefs, attitudes and fears, and can bias public opinion in many different ways about the drug discourse.

What is the Problem?

I refer here to the following Australian National Drug Strategy objective:

‘The aim of the National Drug Strategy 2010–2015 is to build safe and healthy communities by minimising alcohol, tobacco and other drug-related health, social and economic harms among individuals, families and communities’.
(Collins, D. and Lapsely, H., 2008, The Costs of Tobacco, Alcohol and Illicit Drug Abuse to Australian Society’, in 2004/05, National Drug Strategy Monograph Series no. 64.).

I was interested to observe whether there had been a change to the ‘strategy’ since this report was written and whether our more liberal, humanistic approach to life in 2014 reflects the winds of change in drug reform and strategy.

Common Themes from Conference Presenters

Ms Anke Van Der Sterren, Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drug Association, ACT

Ms Van Der Sterren talked about the health and safety of modern drug usage. She suggested that there is currently insufficient research evidence on the long-term effects of drug usage.  Research outcomes, findings and evidence are often open to interpretation depending upon which ‘slant’ is taken to the research subject.  Pharmaceutical companies, politicians and interest groups all have an investment in the drug issue.  She raised the question of just how applicable the findings are to the ‘coal face’ where health workers are confronted with the everyday reality of the effects of drug usage on users and their families.

Dr Coral Gartner, University of Queensland

Dr Gartner suggested that currently there is no specific legislation or drug policy that is effective in dealing with the drug problem in our society.  She questioned who is affected by current legislation—the policy makers, the enforcement agencies, the criminal system, the list is endless.  This suggests that there is a rather indefinable area in approaching this problem in the A.C.T.

Ms Joanne Baumgartner, Health Care Consumers Association

Ms Baumgartner talked about the social concept of ‘punishment’ and that an authoritative approach has been adopted in society geared towards punishing the drug user and generating negative press.  She suggests that a more libertarian approach to this problem may remove the stigma attached to drug use, as, for example, the legalised use of marihuana in medicine.

Mr David McDonald, Social Research and Evaluation, Australian National University

Mr McDonald posed some interesting questions related to the objective of legislation to reduce costs to the community in respect to injury and ongoing medical support. He questioned the underlying assumptions made by policy makers. For example: What are some of the general and specific deterrents to drug taking? Is it valid to breach human rights?

He also pointed out that, currently, there is a lack of available research in the ACT on, for example, the effects of drug driving.  He said that there is no publicity about drug driving so how does one quantify drug thresholds for, say, drug driving?  Interestingly, synthetic drugs are not detectable in blood or urine analysis.

Dr Monica Barratt, University of New South Wales

Dr Barratt pointed out that there are many cases of teens dying from synthetic drug usage because of lack of legislation in N.S.W and the A.C.T to prohibit easy access to these drugs in drug outlets in shopping centres and so on, and that there are inadequate warning labels on these synthetic products.  Teenagers are unaware that these products are dangerous and can lead to death.
Mr Ross Bell, NZ Drug Foundation

Mr Bell was a straight-talking person who said, in his experience, governments try to control drugs through obsolete laws leading to prohibition. He said that there are many new drug products coming onto the market that produce ‘legal highs’ and that New Zealanders like their drugs.

He discussed the question of prescriptions versus restrictions and suggested it would not make that much difference to recreational drug use in N.Z.  He also highlighted the need for adequate labelling and health warnings on drug products, and the need to restrict retail licenses.

Mr Bell emphasised that any drug reform or regulation needs broad public support and consensus, and referred to a failed recent attempt by the NZ Government to decriminalize drugs.

Emeritus Prof. Laurence Mather, University of Sydney

Prof. Mather reflected on the 1937 AMA findings that concluded that there was no evidence to indicate any benefits from the use of marihuana in medicine. 

He suggested that there are three main fears around legalising marihuana for medical use: (1) political, (2) pharmaceutical and (3) business.  He said that prohibition has not and will not work as a solution.
He strongly suggested based on his experience, that regulation with prescription is necessary to monitor and control recreational marihuana usage.

Similar to popular opinion at the conference, Prof. Mather suggested adequate package labelling, and a ban on both advertising from the outset of legal use, and on all donations to political parties.

He suggested that drug reform is a socially constructed problem that focuses on one substance rather than on the perspective of the drug user as a person and individual.  He questioned the assumptions that underlie policy on drug reform.

This conference was a very interesting and well-organised event.  I sat next to a health worker from the mental health area of the Canberra Hospital, with whom I established a good rapport very quickly.  She was exceptional in her area of caring and she shared with me a lot of most informative and valuable information about the role of the worker at the forefront of the drug and alcohol scene. 

Although this conference did not provide all the answers to the related problems ‘of drug and alcohol’ in Canberra, it did pose some interesting questions, outlined problems and occasionally suggested some ideas about how to effectively bring about change in the area.

The speakers, coupled with the practical and frank discussion with the companion who sat next to me at my table, provided me with a new perspective on the drug and alcohol scene. Since attending this

conference, I have spent some time researching some of the issues, i.e. legalisation of marihuana, synthetic drugs. I have also had some interesting discussions with members of the community who have provided me with their views on the topic.

This is certainly a most convoluted and complex problem, which was highlighted at this conference.

 Marijuana Girl by NR DeMexico (Soft-Cover Library S-75124, 3rd printing, 1969)

 A novel about a fresh and fetching girl, who at 17 was ‘hooked’ on the drug marihuana— thanks to an older man.
He did not mean to harm her. He was just setting her up for love! But after that drug-induced ecstasy, her pretty feet trod the path of degeneracy.   Here we study every nuance of her disturbing relations with other teenagers, with mature men out for ‘kicks’, with colored jazz musicians! We watch her resorting to every vile device, trading her self, body and soul for the drugs she had to have!!!

Reefer Madness (originally made as Tell Your Children and sometimes titled as The Burning Question, Dope Addict, Doped Youth and Love Madness)

 A 1936–1939 American propaganda exploitation film revolving around the melodramatic events that ensue when high school students are lured by pushers to try marijuana—from a hit-and-run accident, to manslaughter, suicide, attempted rape, and descent into madness due to marijuana addiction. The film was directed by Louis Gasnier and starred a cast composed of mostly unknown bit actors.

Originally financed by a church group under the title Tell Your Children, the film was intended to be shown to parents as a morality tale attempting to teach them about the dangers of cannabis use.  However, soon after the film was shot, it was purchased by producer Dwain Esper, who re-cut the film for distribution on the exploitation film circuit beginning in 1938/39 through the 40s and 50s.

The film was ‘rediscovered’ in the early 1970s and gained new life as satire among advocates of cannabis policy reform. Although finding a popular audience as a cult film, critics have panned it as one of the worst films ever made. Today, it is in the public domain in the United States.

*Please note that this Report is the Intellectual property of Ms Susan Westwood, HCCA Representative.

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