Last year, Victoria’s state coroner recommended the state roll out a service that would allow users to check the content of their drugs and alert health officials to toxic batches. It came after three people were killed in 2017 by a toxic batch of drugs being sold as MDMA in Melbourne. Now, the Victorian Greens are trying to write something similar into law.
This week, the Greens will attempt to secure support for an amendment to Victoria’s public health laws that would force Victorian police to alert the state’s Department of Health to a legion of toxic batches of drugs, poisons and controlled substances deemed “notifiable” based on their potential risk to public health, while on duty.
Dr Tim Read, the Greens spokesperson for health, told VICE that for decades the Labor and Liberal parties have lent too much focus to criminalising people who use drugs when they could instead be working to minimise their harms.
“Sadly, this has only created black markets, fear of asking for help, and a sometimes deadly lack of information,” Dr Read said.
Victorian health officials only started to issue specific drug alerts by way of its website from March 2020. Those alerts, under current public health laws, are fed by reports made by the state’s hospitals and the Victorian Poisons Centre.
The argument pitched by the Greens is that the public’s awareness of a toxic batch of drugs moving through the community is limited. In other words, the community will only be notified about a toxic batch of drugs if it’s discovered by a government agency obliged to report it.
In policy terms, the Greens’s amendment would see the introduction of a class of drugs defined as posing a potential “serious risk to public health” rolled into Victoria Police’s reporting obligations.
According to the amendment, the definition of a “serious risk to public health” would mean drugs like alcohol, or illegal drugs like heroin – broadly seen as endemic – would not need to be reported under “normal circumstance”, despite the ongoing threat they pose to public health.
The bill’s amendment would instead shift its focus to substances like N-ethylpentylone, a designer drug often found in bad batches of cocaine; and 25B-NBOH, another highly potent designer drug that for a short stint last year was being sold in Melbourne as “powdered LSD” and put a substantial number of people in hospital.
“This simple change to our health laws would save lives and discourage illicit drug manufacturers from adding unspecified toxic substances to drugs,” Dr Read said. “It’s time we stopped treating drugs as a law and order issue, and instead use a health-based, harm reduction approach to managing drug use.”
Victoria Police doesn’t share the position.
After a toxic batch of NBOMe being sold as MDMA killed several people in Melbourne in 2017, Police officials were found to have withheld potentially lifesaving information about the lethal batch after a “safety” memo was sent around to officers warning them about its circulation in the community.
“The drug is causing consumers to react far differently to what they would expect if they had consumer MDMA,” read the internal safety alert, which was first leaked on Reddit in February 2017.
The state’s police later stood by their decision not to warn the public. A spokesperson at the time said that a general warning against taking any illicit substance should have sufficed.
A Victoria Police spokesperson told VICE that their position hasn’t changed since then, and they will continue to defer to the department of health, unless forced otherwise.
“Victoria police will continue to work closely with a range of stakeholders from the state government, health and education to progress a collaborative approach to reducing the harm caused from drugs,” he said.
“Victoria police’s stance is simple: there is no such thing as a safe tablet or illicit drug. There is no way of knowing what’s in a drug and every time someone consumes an illicit substance, they are endangering their health and ultimately, risking their life.”
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