TAX TIME: A regulated synthetic drugs industry would be safer and boost government coffers.THE Eros Association is Australia’s national adults-only association, representing traders in age-restricted products and services.
Many of our members started selling synthetic cannabis and other psychoactive herbal smoking mixes a couple of years ago before some of them (not all) were made illegal.
We call these products, as a group, “social tonics”.
A social tonic is the industry’s description for a wide variety of mostly smokeable, herbal-mix products which, in scientific terms, may also contain “cannabinoid receptor agonists”. That is, they hit the two main cannabis receptors in the brain to make them work. They mostly have a mild psychoactive effect which is generally one where people do not lose control of their personality or their consciousness.
If anything, these aspects of a person’s being are heightened.
Sense perceptions are mostly more intense and emotional empathy may also be increased. The analgesic qualities of many of these substances also appear to be considerable.
According to the evidence that we have collected, we estimate that about 75 per cent of the social tonics that our members sell have a psychoactive effect that is no stronger or more intense than a couple of glasses of wine.
Possibly 15 per cent would be less than that and 10 per cent would be stronger.
As governments started banning more and more of these products, Eros decided to start surveying the retailers who sold them to try to get a handle on who is buying them, how widespread their use has become and how big the industry is.
We asked retailers to ask questions of their customers and record the answers. About 5000 people responded.
While it might not be the most scientific survey ever conducted, it is a starting point in a field which has been the subject of very little research to date.
The results contain more than a few surprises for legislators and the general public.
For example, we found that in 2012 there was a turnover in Australia of approximately $700 million in these products which raised $70 million in GST for state and federal governments.
This would be the first time ever in Australia that the sale of recreational drugs has contributed to the gross domestic product.
If these products were regulated and taxed (much like alcohol) the tax return would be closer to $200 million.
I am currently writing to government to ask them to use some of this revenue for education and rehabilitation of people who have problems with any recreational drugs but I’m sure it’s more likely to be spent on promoting prohibition and more police resources.
Another surprise was that the average age of people purchasing these social tonics was 33 years. This is older than almost any other recreational drug and dashes the myth that it is thrill seekers buying these products.
The fact that these products appeal to a more mature age demographic also aligns with our contention that, as a group, they are milder in effect than alcohol.
Middle-aged persons do not generally take drugs that make them want to leap off balconies.
The survey took in 146 retailers across Australia, roughly split 50/50 in metro and rural areas. Consumers most often purchased social tonics to relax and for socialising (44 per cent).
Nearly a third (29 per cent) said they used them as an alternative to alcohol or harder drugs. Almost another third of the survey (30 per cent) said they used them for pain or stress relief.
The biggest concerns that people had were the changing strength of the products and the lack of an ingredients label (37 per cent) while the changing legal status and the lack of government regulation caused concern for 36 per cent of those surveyed.
While 29 per cent said they took social tonics for a therapeutic effect, only six per cent had experienced negative side effects.
This figure is similar to the negative side effects of aspirin.
The most commonly reported negative side effect was an elevated heart rate (31.21 per cent) while 18.44 per cent cited ‘addiction’ as an unwanted side effect.
Only 2.84 per cent reported violent behaviour (way under the levels for alcohol) and 4.96 per cent said they had a trip to hospital as a result.
Alongside quite a few of these negative effects were admissions of poly drug use.
On the other side of the ledger, 90.78 per cent reported relaxation as a positive effect, while 80.14 per cent cited “pleasure”.
The main finding from this is that what we are being told about these products by some of our most trusted institutions – the Australian Medical Association, health ministers and medical journalists – does not align with the subjective reports of those who are supplying and consuming them. Does this mean we are being lied to about the potential for harm from social tonics and synthetic cannabinoids? Maybe.
One of Victoria’s most senior police officials has urged the government to treat drug abuse as a health issue rather than a law and order problem, saying he would rather see funding go to health and welfare services than to more police.
Assistant Commissioner Andrew Crisp, speaking at the Yarra Drug and Health Forum (Vic) last month said “we should tackle it as a health issue. Police are an agency of last resort; we’re left to pick up the pieces. At times there is too much emphasis on police. We’re one part of the solution. We don’t want to see another 1400 officers promised . . . there’s politics and then there’s public policy. We don’t like the bidding wars.”
There are signs that this wall of misinformation about these substances is starting to crumble.
Fiona Patten is president of the Australian Sex Party and chief executive of the Eros Foundation.