Legal highs: arguments for and against legalising cannabis in Australia



File 20180417 32339 16n0gjo.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Many of the harms associated with cannabis use are to do with its illegality.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Nicole Lee, Curtin University and Jarryd Bartle, RMIT University

Greens leader Richard Di Natale wants Australia to legalise cannabis for personal use, regulated by a federal agency. This proposal is for legalisation of recreational use for relaxation and pleasure, not to treat a medical condition (which is already legal in Australia for some conditions).

According to the proposal, the government agency would licence, monitor and regulate production and sale, and regularly review the regulations. The agency would be the sole wholesaler, buying from producers and selling to retailers it licences.

The proposed policy includes some safeguards that reflect lessons we’ve learned from alcohol and tobacco. These include a ban on advertising, age restrictions, requiring plain packaging, and strict licensing controls. Under the proposal, tax revenues would be used to improve funding to the prevention and treatment sector, which is underfunded compared to law enforcement.




Read more:
Greens want cannabis to be made legal


Cannabis legislation around the world

In Australia, cannabis possession and use is currently illegal. But in several states and territories (South Australia, ACT and Northern Territory) a small amount for personal use is decriminalised. That means it’s illegal, but not a criminal offence. In all others it’s subject to discretionary or mandatory diversion usually by police (referred to as “depenalisation”).

Several jurisdictions around the world have now legalised cannabis, including Uruguay, Catalonia and nine states in the United States. Canada is well underway to legalising cannabis, with legislation expected some time this year, and the New Zealand prime minister has flagged a referendum on the issue.

In a recent opinion poll, around 30% of Australians thought cannabis should be legal. Teenagers 14-17 years old were least likely to support legalistaion (21% of that age group) and 18-24 year olds were most likely to support it (36% of that age group).




Read more:
Australia’s recreational drug policies aren’t working, so what are the options for reform?


In the latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey, around a quarter of respondents supported cannabis legalisation and around 15% approved of regular use by adults for non-medical purposes.

What are the concerns about legalisation?

Opponents of legalisation are concerned it will increase use, increase crime, increase risk of car accidents, and reduce public health – including mental health. Many are concerned cannabis is a “gateway” drug.

The “gateway drug” hypothesis was discounted decades ago. Although cannabis usually comes before other illegal drug use, the majority of people who use cannabis do not go on to use other drugs. In addition, alcohol and tobacco usually precede cannabis use, which if the theory were correct would make those drugs the “gateway”.




Read more:
Could a regulated cannabis market help curb Australia’s drinking problem?


There is also no evidence legalisation increases use. But, studies have shown a number of health risks, including:

  • around 10% of adults and one in six teens who use regularly will become dependent

  • regular cannabis use doubles the risk of psychotic symptoms and schizophrenia

  • teen cannabis use is associated with poorer school outcomes but causation has not been established

  • driving under the influence of cannabis doubles the risk of a car crash

  • smoking while pregnant affects a baby’s birth weight.

What are the arguments for legalisation?

Reducing harms

Australia’s official drug strategy is based on a platform of harm minimisation, including supply reduction, demand reduction (prevention and treatment) and harm reduction. Arguably, policies should therefore have a net reduction in harm.

But some of the major harms from using illicit drugs are precisely because they are illegal. A significant harm is having a criminal record for possessing drugs that are for personal use. This can negatively impact a person’s future, including careers and travel. Decriminalisation of cannabis would also reduce these harms without requiring full legalisation.

Reducing crime and social costs

A large proportion of the work of the justice system (police, courts and prisons) is spent on drug-related offences. Yet, as Mick Palmer, former AFP Commissioner, notes “drug law enforcement has had little impact on the Australian drug market”.

Decriminalisation may reduce the burden on the justice system, but probably not as much as full legalisation because police and court resources would still be used for cautioning, issuing fines, or diversion to education or treatment. Decriminalisation and legalistaion both potentially reduce the involvement of the justice system and also of the black market growing and selling of cannabis.




Read more:
Assessing the costs and benefits of legalising cannabis


Raising tax revenue

Economic analysis of the impact of cannabis legalisation calculate the net social benefit of legalisation at A$727.5 million per year. This is significantly higher than the status quo at around A$295 million (for example from fines generating revenue, as well as perceived benefits of criminalisation deterring use). The Parliamentary Budget Office estimates tax revenue from cannabis legalisation at around A$259 million.

Civil liberties

Many see cannabis prohibition as an infringement on civil rights, citing the limited harms associated with cannabis use. This includes the relatively low rate of dependence and very low likelihood of overdosing on cannabis, as well as the low risk of harms to people using or others.

Many activities that are legal are potentially harmful: driving a car, drinking alcohol, bungee jumping. Rather than making them illegal, there are guidelines, laws and education to make them safer that creates a balance between civil liberties and safety.

What has happened in places where cannabis is legal?

Legalisation of cannabis is relatively recent in most jurisdictions so the long-term benefits or problems of legalisation are not yet known.

But one study found little effect of legalisation on drug use or other outcomes, providing support for neither opponents nor advocates of legalisation. Other studies have shown no increase in use, even among teens.

The ConversationThe research to date suggests there is no significant increase (or decrease) in use or other outcomes where cannabis legalisation has occurred. It’s possible the harm may shift, for example from legal harms to other types of harms. We don’t have data to support or dispel that possibility.

Nicole Lee, Professor at the National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University and Jarryd Bartle, Sessional Lecturer in Criminal Law, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Four of the most life-threatening skin conditions and what you should know about them



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Some serious skin conditions are more likely to affect those with weaker immune systems.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

William Cranwell, Melbourne Health

This article is part of our series about skin: why we have it, what it does, and what can go wrong. Read other articles in the series here.


Dermatological emergencies are uncommon, but can cause devastating complications and death if not recognised and treated early. Some skin conditions require treatment in an intensive care unit. Here are some of the most serious skin conditions and what you should know about recognising them.

1. Necrotising fasciitis

Necrotising fasciitis is a severe infection of the skin, the tissue below the skin, and the fascia (fibrous tissue that separates muscles and organs), resulting in tissue death, or necrosis. The infection is rapid, fast-spreading and fatal if not detected and treated early. If not treated with antibiotics and surgery early, toxic shock and organ failure are common.

Necrotising fasciitis may occur in anyone. Previously healthy young people are often affected.

The cause may be one or more bacteria entering the body via an external injury or punctured internal organ. Group A streptococci bacteria, which are the organisms implicated in “strep throat”, are among the most common causes.




Read more:
Explainer: what causes necrotising fasciitis, the flesh-eating bug?


Early necrotising fasciitis is easily missed, as similar symptoms are commonly seen in less severe infection. The initial area is painful, red and swollen. This progresses to a dark, blistered, malodorous and blackened area, which is a sign of tissue death. Other symptoms include fever, intense pain, low blood pressure and shock.

The most important risk factors for necrotising fasciitis include diabetes, peripheral vascular disease, trauma, alcohol and intravenous drug use, and use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Treatment of necrotising fasciitis is immediate hospitalisation, surgical removal of all dead tissue, and intravenous antibiotics. Patients often require intensive care. Management of shock and other complications reduces the risk of death. Use of a hyperbaric chamber (to increase oxygen delivery to the tissue) and immune therapy may also be required.

Around a quarter of people diagnosed with necrotising fasciitis will die, and sepsis occurs in up to 70% of cases.

Most have heard of necrotising fasciitis as the ‘flesh-eating bug’.
DermNet New Zealand

2. Scalded skin syndrome

Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome is an uncommon major skin infection. It typically affects newborn babies, young children and adults with reduced immune systems or kidney failure. This syndrome is caused by toxins produced by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, which is common in throat, ear and eye infections.

Around 15-40% of adults carry Staphylococcus aureus on the skin surface and have no problems. But these adults may inadvertently introduce the bacteria into nurseries or daycare centres. Because young children have weak immunity to specific toxins, they’re at increased risk of scalded skin syndrome.

Scalded skin syndrome is characterised by a red, blistering rash resembling burns. Early symptoms include fever, skin redness and skin tenderness. Other symptoms may include sore throat or conjunctivitis.

Within 24-48 hours, fluid-filled blisters form on the entire body. The blisters may rupture, leaving areas resembling burns. Large areas of the skin peel off and fall away with only minor touch.




Read more:
Common skin rashes and what to do about them


Scalded skin syndrome requires hospitalisation for intravenous antibiotics and treatment of the wounds. Ruptured blisters require wound dressings, and the skin surface requires intense care to avoid further damage.

Other treatment includes intravenous fluid and electrolyte maintenance to prevent shock and other complications, paracetamol for pain and fever, and avoidance of severe sepsis. Sepsis is when chemicals released into the bloodstream to fight an infection trigger inflammatory responses throughout the body, which can be life-threatening.

Complications of scalded skin syndrome include severe infection, pneumonia, cellulitis (a bacterial skin infection) and dehydration. Most children treated appropriately recover well and healing is complete within a week.

Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome is more likely to occur in people with weaker immune systems – such as children.
DermNet New Zealand

3. DRESS syndrome

Standing for “drug reaction with eosinophilia and systemic symptoms,” DRESS syndrome is a severe reaction that affects the skin and internal organs. The patient may have an extensive rash, fever, enlarged lymph nodes and damage to the liver, kidneys, lungs, heart, blood components or pancreas. Symptoms usually start two to eight weeks after the responsible drug has been taken.

The death rate is estimated between 10 and 20%, most often due to liver failure.

The most common drugs responsible include anticonvulsants, antidepressants, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics and sulfa drugs (a type of synthetic antibiotic). The severe reaction is thought to occur due to a pre-existing genetic change in the immune system, a triggering illness (most often a viral infection) and defective breakdown of the drug by the body.

Early diagnosis is essential. The responsible drug must be stopped immediately and patients may require intensive care or burn unit management. More intensive treatment is needed if organs are involved.

DRESS syndrome appears a few weeks after taking a drug the patient is allergic to.
DermNet New Zealand

4. Life-threatening drug reactions

Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS) and toxic epidermal necrolysis (TEN) are variants of a life-threatening reaction that affects the skin and mucous membranes (mouth, eyes, genitals, respiratory or gastrointestinal tracts).

These are unpredictable reactions that leave sufferers critically unwell, with widespread death of the outer skin layer (epidermis), which peels off. The rash generally begins on the trunk and extends to the limbs and face, and there is intense skin pain. Before the rash appears, symptoms include fever, sore throat, runny nose, conjunctivitis and general aches.

It’s almost always caused by medications. The most common medications causing this reaction are anticonvulsants, antibiotics, allopurinol (gout medication), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and an HIV drug. The reaction usually occurs in the first eight weeks after taking the drug. It’s more likely to happen if the patient has cancer, HIV or specific genes that may play a role.

This reaction can be fatal by causing dehydration and malnutrition, severe infection, respiratory failure, gastrointestinal complications and multi-organ failure.

The responsible drug has to be stopped, and treatment (in a burns unit and intensive care unit) includes wound care, fluid management, pain management and prevention of infection. Long-term complications, including scarring, eye, oral, genital, lung disease and mental health disorders, are common. Around a quarter of people with this reaction will die.


The Conversation


Read more:
The skin is a very important (and our largest) organ: what does it do?


This reaction to medications is totally unpredictable.
DermNet NZ

William Cranwell, Dermatology Clinical Research Fellow, Melbourne Health

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Prescribing generic drugs will reduce patient confusion and medication errors



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If doctors prescribe generic drugs rather than their brand name equivalents, most times patients benefit.
from www.shutterstock.com

Matthew Grant, Monash University

In last night’s federal budget, Treasurer Scott Morrison announced an anticipated range of measures to encourage doctors to prescribe generic medicines rather than their more expensive brand name equivalents. So unless specified by the doctor, patients will receive a prescription with the generic medication name on it. The Conversation

This is part of A$1.8 billion in measures announced to reduce the drugs bill over five years. But beyond saving costs, the push towards generics may also reduce confusion among patients and medication errors.


“Are you taking aspirin at the moment?” I ask Iris, a pensioner in her 80s.

“No dear, I haven’t taken that for years,” she says, as she empties a large brown paper bag filled with medication boxes, new, old and empty.

I see a new bottle of aspirin emerge from the bag and ask if she is taking them.

“Oh yes, I always take my Astrix tablets.”

It’s not just elderly people who can be confused about which medication they’re taking. Drug names are long, complex and there are usually multiple brands for the same product.

For any medication, there are likely to be up to 15 different brands available. People are likely to use these brand names to describe the drug, like Iris did with her Astrix tablets.

In Australia in 2010 only 19.5% of scripts issued by GPs used the generic term for a drug, compared with 83% in the United Kingdom.

Encouraging doctors to prescribe generics goes beyond economic value. It has the potential to lead to a simplification of the language around medications, less influence on our purchasing decision by pharmaceutical marketing, and fewer medication errors by both doctors and consumers.

When we visit the GP, unless a specific reason exists, we should receive a script written with the generic term.

What is a generic term for a medication?

The generic term for a medication is the name of the active ingredient it contains. This is the ingredient that actually does the work of controlling your asthma or reducing your risk of heart disease.

There is only one generic name for each medication. But several different brands may be available. The brand name is usually the largest writing on the packet. Nurofen, for instance, is the brand name for the generic medication ibuprofen.

Generic medications are available for older drugs, and are commonly offered by your pharmacist as a cheaper alternative to the original branded medication. These drugs are tested to contain exactly the same active ingredients, so they produce the same effects.

However, there are a few rare exceptions, such as in some epilepsy medications, where drug levels may differ slightly between brands. So in such cases, doctors can choose to prescribe the branded version for its specific clinical benefits.


Explainer: how to generic medicines compare with brand leaders?


Which medicine name your doctor writes on you prescription – brand name or generic – can often be a lottery.

If your doctor writes a prescription for a brand name, your pharmacist may offer to substitute this for an equivalent generic drug. So, people often leave the pharmacy with a medication name or package that bears no resemblance to the prescription.

Potentially confusing for patients

The main problem with all these multiple names is the potential for confusion, especially for those most likely to use multiple medications – the elderly.

As a result, patients are at risk of not understanding which medications they are taking or why they are taking them. This often leads to doubling-up of a certain drug (taking two brands of the same medication), or forgetting to take them because the name on the package doesn’t match the script.

This problem of some patients’ poor medication literacy significantly affects doctors, nurses and pharmacists, who need to know which medications people are using. While our own GP may have your list of medications, often we visit multiple doctors who won’t have access to these list (different GPs while on holidays, emergency departments or specialists). If patients doesn’t know their medications, neither will doctors.

Many elderly patients are confused about the names of their medications.
from shutterstock.com

An advisory group for Australian pharmaceuticals, well aware of the dangers this confusion can cause, and as far back as 2005, promoted the use of prescribing and labelling with generic terms. The US Institute for Safe Medication Practices estimates that 25% of medication errors result from name confusion.

Why do doctors use brand names when prescribing?

In a busy clinic running half an hour behind, the generic name of a medication is often the last thing on the doctor’s mind. There are thousands of medications and even the most diligent doctor can’t remember them all.

Pharmaceutical companies have marketed brand name medication to both doctors and (in some countries) consumers, so they are far more memorable and palatable – for instance Viagra, rather than the generic term sildenafil.

But when doctors rely on using brand names in conversation and prescribing, this can cause confusion. Doctors using branded prescribing can lead to serious medication errors. This may be due not knowing the active ingredients in those medications, or mixing up brand names, which are becoming increasingly difficult to recognise when written in doctor’s handwriting.

So, to avoid confusion, medication errors and allowing for patient control over purchasing decisions, we recommend doctors use generic terms when prescribing unless a specific reason exists.

How does this affect me?

Everyone uses medications. The key issue here is autonomy. A script that contains the generic term for a medication allows that person to decide exactly what type of medication they wish to purchase, rather than that be influenced by what brand the doctor writes on the script.

When language excludes (for instance, by being complex or relying on jargon) or confuses, it restricts our autonomy. At present, the language of medications may have two, three or ten words for each drug, and the words we use are often influenced by pharmaceutical marketing and what a doctor prescribes.

The greatest effect of this budget announcement may be the chance to simplify this language to a singular generic drug term, to reduce confusion and allow us to be more involved with our medication decisions.

Matthew Grant, Research Fellow, Palliative Medicine Physician, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.