A vision of harm reduction


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Could pharmacies dispense ecstasy and recreational cannabis in the future? One stakeholder believes they should

But it’s not about “green-lighting” recreational drug use, says Matt Noffs, CEO of the Ted Noffs Foundation – such an initiative would be about standardising active ingredients and offering better access to treatment for substance abuse.

Last week Mr Noffs, alongside former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer, launched the Take Control Campaign, which includes a suite of ways to tackle the use of illicit drugs, and illicit use of licit drugs such as opioids.

Mr Noffs and Mr Palmer say that the campaign promotes a health and safety approach to drug law reform.

The five-pronged plan suggests that Australia:

  • Roll out pill testing services nationally to reduce harm at music festivals and parties.
  • Expand treatment services for people suffering from drug problems.
  • Establish more drug monitoring rooms to save lives and improve communities.
  • Enhance engagement services for disadvantaged young people.
  • End criminal charges that make getting help harder and ruin young lives for minor possession of illicit drugs.

“Pharmacists and pharmacies are the future – it’s how I think we should dispense all drugs in the future, and how we should certainly start dispensing things like cannabis, maybe things like ecstasy,” Mr Noffs told the AJP following the launch of the campaign.

“Part of everything that we’re doing, and the name signals this, is about control.

“Right now pharmacies are a really important part of regulating how people get drugs; in a future where we have greater control over illicit drugs, then pharmacies would be part of the answer to how we regulate the drug market.”

Mr Noffs said that initiatives such as real-time monitoring for drugs of concern, such as opioids, could be extended to illicit drugs as well.

“This wouldn’t be a panacea, or a silver bullet – and there’ll still be a black market when it comes to prescription drugs and illicit drugs – but you’d have a greater level of control than when leaving it to the black market,” he said.

“I don’t like the idea of my child using ecstasy in the future, but if there was nothing I could do about it, I would prefer they walked into a pharmacy and bought something produced by, say, the Bayer Company, and the pharmacist told them how much to take, how to take it and there was some sort of regulation around that.

“In the US, they sell cannabis over the counter. In Australia, we’ve always led the way with tobacco, and I don’t think we should sell cannabis over the counter in a 7-11 or a store called Cannabis Land, or something like that.

“Instead we should run everything through a pharmacy, so the pharmacist can ask the questions, as they do: have you had it before? Have you had a bad reaction or an allergic reaction?”

Such a system would allow authorities to regulate how much of a recreational drug a person would be able to access, he said.

“Now, someone will say we’re giving the green light to taking drugs. But nothing we’re currently doing is stopping young people taking drugs, and I would prefer drugs by Bayer sold through a pharmacy than through a drug dealer outside the store – and access to help if something goes wrong.”

Mr Noffs cited the example of the pill testing trial during the ACT leg of the Groovin the Moo music festival this year, which was hailed a success by organisers and other harm minimisation stakeholders.

While a number of the drugs tested at the festival contained unexpected ingredients such as the potentially deadly N-Ethylpentylone (ephylone), Mr Noffs also pointed out that stakeholders should not forget about the expected active ingredients found in the drugs.

“About 50% of what was found was expected – drugs like ecstasy, mostly,” he told the AJP. “We were able to sit people down and say that the safest way is not to take it.

“But if they wanted to, they could crush it, dab it, test it, and if they had any reaction that made them feel worried or sick, they could come back and there was a doctor right there. The ambulance was right there. That policeman over there was there to help them.

“So it’s not a green light: it’s pragmatic.”

Pill testing has again been in the news, as the ACT’s National Capital Authority last week decided it would not allow it to be undertaken at November’s Spilt Milk music festival. This decision was criticised by Mr Noffs.

In response to the decision, ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury spoke to the Canberra Times and again called for pill testing in the community, perhaps every Friday and Saturday nights in Canberra’s city centre.

Last year Mr Rattenbury had suggested that because illicit drugs are consumed on many occasions other than during music festivals, such a community-based approach could help prevent harms: and that community pharmacies could be one location where such testing took place.

Mr Noffs told the AJP that he would welcome such an initiative.

“I’d be very happy to see that,” he said. “I think the future of pharmacies is as a place to monitor all sorts of drugs, including currently-illicit drugs.

“We would have not a black market, but a white market with greater control.

“This could be as far as 30 years away, but it’s a future far safer than what we currently have.”

Mr Noffs also called for better integration of supervised injecting facilities, and better access to programs such as opioid replacement therapy.

“This really is about working out how we create better integration between pharmacists, doctors and treatment centres,” he said.

“Our health system is incredibly disconnected, and I think we should work out ways to strengthen that network.”

One idea could be linking real-time monitoring of drugs of concern such as opioids, with treatment centres, he said.

“Injecting centres and drug monitoring rooms should absolutely be part of this network.

“The current model means they are not integrated, and the only concern I have about them is that they’re standalone, when they need to be integrated into the health system, and with pharmacies as well.”

Mr Noffs and stakeholders are asking Australians to sign a petition to implement these drug reforms at the Take Control campaign here.

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