Saturday, 28 September 2013

Why everyone, particularly parents, should be questioning the use of drug detection dogs


Let's start by making a few things clear - illicit drugs are just that - illegal. If you make the choice to use illicit drugs, whether it be cannabis, ecstasy or whatever, one of the greatest risks you face is that you could be caught and, as a result, face consequences that could change your life forever. This blog entry does not deal whether particular drugs should be legal or not. If you believe there should be drug law reform then there are a range of organisations that you can join that are working to change policies in that area. I also want to make it completely clear that this is not a criticism of the police or policing - I have worked closely with police from across the country for close to 25 years and when it comes to the illicit drugs area they have a clear job to do - to uphold the law. Overwhelmingly, I have found the vast majority of them to be great people who are often passionate about what they do and simply want to do their job well. That said, in recent years the introduction and gradual increase in use of one particularly law enforcement strategy concerns me greatly - drug detection dogs.

Drug detection dogs have been around for more than ten years in NSW, the first jurisdiction to introduce this particular law enforcement strategy. Since that time it has been adopted by most (if not all - I'm not too sure about the ACT) jurisdictions across the country. Most people I have spoken to that have not been directly affected by the dogs (i.e., they haven't seen them in action), particularly parents, regard them in a positive way. Their usual view is that if people get caught with illegal drugs by a drug detection dog, so be it, they have broken the law and they should suffer the consequences. The problem is that this is not the only issue here and, most importantly, it's not only drug users that are being affected.

Drug detection dogs were introduced to provide police with greater powers when it comes to searching people - that is it, pure and simple! If a dog displays a particular type of behaviour (we are unclear as to what that behaviour is - we used to believe the dog had to sit down in front of someone - but that certainly isn't the case anymore), the police then have the power to 'pat down' that person and search their belongings (something they previously didn't have the power to do unless they arrested them). They can then go one step further if they believe there is 'cause' and 'strip search' the person.

I'm sure that this sounds fine to many, particularly if the end result is that illegal drugs are found and that the person is prosecuted for breaking the law, but in most cases this doesn't happen. The NSW Ombudsman found that the dogs were wrong 73% of the time, i.e., there were no drugs found on the person when they were searched. In 2010 there were 15,779 searches conducted in NSW after dogs had 'detected' drugs, of those less than a third (5,087) were found to be actually carrying drugs on their person. That means more than two thirds of those people who were put through this process were completely innocent. I'm sure it sounds fine to some, but if you were one of those innocent people I'm sure your attitude would change.

What has continued to baffle me is that parents have not screamed from the rafters complaining about this strategy ... what if it was your innocent child who was put through this process? Ask any young person who catches a train to school and they will tell you that they have seen the dogs on the platform in the morning and have also witnessed people being searched in front of them or taken somewhere to be strip-searched. Once again, some people will say, well doesn't this provide them with a disincentive to use drugs? Watching this process could be a good thing ... The problem is that the dogs are not perfect and they get it wrong (remember, more than 70% of the time!) ... Add to that, what if your child has been to a party over the weekend and he or she happened to be in the vicinity of a group of other teens smoking a bong? That cannabis smoke could be lingering (particularly on a girl with long hair) and as a result they could be subject to a highly intrusive and embarrassing search.

Earlier this year I met a Year 10 boy who had gone to a Clipsal 500 event with his father and brothers in Adelaide. He approached me after my talk to discuss his frightening experience with sniffer dogs. He had gone to the toilet and was walking back to his family when he was approached by a small group of police officers and a dog. He had never even heard of drug detection dogs and didn't think anything of it until the dog came closer to him and started sniffing around his feet. One of the officers then asked him if he was carrying drugs and if he was he should hand them over. He told them he didn't take drugs and was then told that he was about to be searched. Terrified, the young man stood there and was patted down and asked to empty his pockets and take his shoes and socks off. No drugs were found and he was allowed to return to his family.

When I asked him if he had told his father what had happened to him, he said he had been too embarrassed about the ordeal and just wanted to forget it.

I have no idea whether this was even a legal search - I have asked many times for police services across the country to provide information about operational procedures involving dogs and whether juveniles are able to be legally searched without a parent or guardian present (I'm sure they're not and experts in the area have agreed with me) and I have got no answer (regardless of whether it is legal or not, it is happening!). Here is an extract from a letter I sent through to the NSW Police Commissioner earlier this year requesting information on the use of drug detection dogs to assist me in providing education to the students I present to ...

I am writing to you at this time in regards to the provision of some information on the NSW Police Force’s operational procedures around the use of drug detection dogs. My company, DARTA, provides information sessions to secondary school students across the country on alcohol and other drug issues and in my Year 12 presentation I try to provide some information on drug detection dogs from a prevention perspective, i.e., this strategy exists, these are the illicit drugs they target and this is the procedure that police follow should you come into contact with a dog.

Unfortunately I have been unsuccessful in my attempts to get any information on the operational procedures on drug detection dogs in this state and currently the only information I can provide is based on anecdote, which as you can imagine is not at all satisfactory. I have made numerous attempts to make contact with the NSW Police Dog Unit but have never received a response.  The RTA has been extremely forthcoming in providing information regarding the procedures around roadside drug testing and, as a result, the prevention messages I provide to Year 12 students on this topic are accurate and received extremely well. It would be wonderful if I was able to provide similar information around drug detection dogs.

I quickly received a response stating that my request had been forwarded to the Dog Unit but have heard nothing since - that was on July 9, almost three months ago!

So why should everyone be concerned (particularly parents) about the use of drug detection dogs? Here are a list of just some of my concerns:
  • 'innocent people' (i.e, those who are not carrying drugs on their person) are being subjectd to highly intrusive searches
  • some of these innocent people are juveniles, most of whom never report that they have been through this process either because they are embarrassed or they simply want to forget it as quickly as they can
  • police have provided no information on the operational procedures involving drug detection dogs, so they can therefore do what they want and it becomes very difficult to establish whether or not what they did was legal or not
  • it is almost impossible to provide any education to young people on this issue as we don't know what the process is. We could certainly just say 'don't take drugs' (which is what the police have suggested) but that's not the whole story here - dogs get it wrong, what do we tell young people about that? 
  • although the media usually only covers drug detection dog operations at dance festivals and nightlife areas, dogs are regularly used at public transport facilities, particularly train stations, and if your child catches a bus or train to school they could be subjected to a search at any time
  • this is an incredibly expensive strategy and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that it is in anyway effective - has it reduced drug use or any drug-related harm? I know of no evidence to suggest that it has ... Couldn't this money be spent on evidence-based policing strategies?
I am a supporter of giving police greater powers to keep them safer. Drug detection dogs do not keep police safer, it just enables them to enter particular places without a warrant (something they weren't previously allowed to do) and search people when a dog displays a particular behaviour. I'll repeat what I said earlier, we don't know what behaviour the dog needs to display, but based on that police officers are allowed to pat people down, search them and their belongings and actually strip search someone ... Why are we not all yelling and screaming and saying that this has to stop?

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Is your drinking problematic? What can you do to be a better role model?

As much as some parents would like to pretend that it's not the case, the truth is that our children learn more about alcohol from watching Mum and Dad and their socializing habits than from anywhere else. There is no way around it - parents are key role models when it comes to their kids' attitudes towards alcohol and future drinking behaviour. Of course, this can be great if both parents are responsible drinkers and have positive attitudes towards alcohol that are conveyed effectively to their children, but it can be a potential nightmare if the reverse is true.

Alcohol is a part of many adult Australians' lives and, if we're going to be completely honest, most 'slip-up' at some point or another! No-one is suggesting that parents who enjoy a drink occasionally are bad parents and should stop enjoying themselves, but on the other hand it is important for parents to every now and then take a good, hard look at their drinking behaviour and consider what their children may be picking up from watching them on a day-to-day basis. As confronting as this can be, for some it can be devastating when this self-examination results in the discovery that their drinking is in fact problematic and that they may need help.

People drink alcohol for lots of reasons - to have fun, to relax or to fit in with friends. Lots of people try alcohol and it is important to remember that most Australians drink responsibly. However, drinking too much can lead to severe problems.

The following may be signs that drinking is putting you at risk of harm and you may need to seek professional help:
  • missing work due to your drinking.
  • drinking in dangerous situations (e.g., driving while drunk).
  • drinking-related legal problems.
  • having to drink more to get drunk.
  • withdrawal (e.g., shaking, sweating, feeling sick or vomiting, sweats, sleep problems), or drinking to relieve or avoid withdrawal problems.
  • drinking more than you want to drink.
  • no longer doing what you really enjoy (e.g., going to the beach, surfing, shopping).

If you are experiencing any of these, it may be time for you to try to reduce your drinking at the very least, or stop drinking altogether, at least for a period of time. As a guide, if you have been drinking a lot for years and you get signs of withdrawal when you try to cut back or stop drinking, you may need to stop drinking for a minimum of three months. This is so your body can get used to being without alcohol. During these three months, any depression and anxiety caused by alcohol should also settle down. Usually, very heavy drinkers have the best results by stopping drinking altogether. If you have had withdrawal problems when you’ve cut back or stopped drinking in the past, or you are a very heavy drinker, you should speak to a health care provider about doing a supervised withdrawal from alcohol.

Realistically if these are issues you are dealing with it would be hard to imagine that your children are not being affected by your behaviour. In my book I wrote about a Year 12 student I had met called Peta who believed her mother was an alcoholic.

Peta did not approach me for advice or information – she simply wanted to share her story. She was concerned that even though I warned about some of the short-term harms associated with alcohol, I failed to mention the possibility of dependence. Her mother had had a problem with alcohol for as long as she could remember, although she believed that it had got worse since her parents' divorce. Just some of the incidents that she shared with me were as follows: the nights that she had to try to put her mother to bed after she had become to drunk to make it to the bedroom; the many times that her mother had either driven her to or from school intoxicated; and the evening Peta had to take her to the emergency department of the local hospital after a drunken fall had resulted in a broken arm.
 
Peta was definitely street-smart. It was quite obvious that she had had to grow up very quickly and as a result, she had a very mature attitude towards alcohol. She rarely drank, and when she did, it was usually a very small amount. She had seen the 'ugly' side of alcohol and it had impacted upon her life in an enormous way. She wanted more young people to know that this was a very real consequence when alcohol was abused.
 
Of course, this is the extreme end of the drinking spectrum (research suggests that about one in ten drinkers will experience some sort of issue with alcohol), and there are other types of problematic drinking that may also have an impact on a child's attitude towards alcohol. 'Binge drinking', for example, sends powerful messages to young people about how adults socialize. It is also important to remember that many adults regard 'binge drinking' as something only teens and those in their early 20s do, when in fact the reality is that Friday afternoon drinks with people from work can easily be classed as 'bingeing' for some if we look at the behaviour honestly!

Alcohol is not going to go away. It is going to continue to play a significant role in many Australians' lives. It is such a huge part of what defines us as Australians that it can be quite challenging for many of us to acknowledge that it actually can cause major problems in some peoples' lives. Positive conversations with your children about alcohol and the role it plays in your family will assist your sons and daughters to develop a healthier attitude towards this popular drug. As a parent it is vital that you discuss that some adults experience problems with their drinking. Too often, the fact that alcohol is a significant community issue is ignored in favour of highlighting the youth alcohol problem. Sharing any useful strategies that you may have developed in helping friends and family members in this area could assist your child to deal with their friends they believe are exhibiting similar problems.

If you think you are drinking too much and would like help, you should see your GP or local community health or alcohol treatment service. For some that can be terribly confronting, if you would rather speak confidentially and anonymously to someone for advice call the Alcohol and Drug Information Service in your state and territory. The trained counsellors can offer advice or information on details of your nearest service. If you go the DARTA website you will find a list of the services and their contact numbers.

Monday, 23 September 2013

What do you say when you call a parent hosting a party?

Teenage parties (or 'gatherings' as they're now called) are by their very nature events where adolescents are going to let their hair down and as a result, things can go wrong, particularly when alcohol is added to the mix. The decision to allow your child to attend a party or not is one that all parents will face eventually. Parents need to make their decision based on a range of information that unfortunately can be extremely difficult to collect.

As I've written in a previous blog entry, one thing for sure is that your child will not want you to contact the parents holding the party. As far as a teenager is concerned that is the ultimate embarrassment, however, if you want to make an informed decision when it comes to your child attending a party or not, you are going to have to bite the bullet and take the risk. 

If your child was going on a school excursion and there were any potential risks involved in the trip you would want to know as much as possible about the activity they were taking part in. The school would hopefully provide a whole pile of information on where the students were going and let you know what precautions they were taking to make the trip as safe as possible. If you felt that they trip was too risky, you would refuse permission for your child to take part. That is your right as a parent. It should be exactly the same for a teenage gathering. 

It never ceases to amaze me how many parents do not find out more about where there teenager is going on a Saturday night. Of course, contacting a parent you don’t know and asking them questions about a party they are holding is not necessarily going to be an easy task, but that’s what parenting is all about – a whole pile of not very easy tasks!

When you contact a parent to ask them about their party make sure you plan what you are going to say beforehand. Write down the questions you are going to ask and make sure they are asked in a way that is not confrontational and accusatory. Some of the ways you could approach the subject when you make the call could include the following:
  • My son has just started going to parties and I’m still trying to negotiate my way through setting some ground rules. I’m just calling to find out how you’re dealing with the alcohol issue.
  • Thank you so much for inviting my daughter to the party. We have some basic rules around parties and alcohol that we have developed and we just want to find out some information about what will be happening on the night.
  • I know it can be very difficult to host a party and I really do appreciate that you are offering your home to the young people. We’re considering holding an event in the future, can you let me know what you’re doing about adult supervision and alcohol use?

Some of the questions that you will most probably want answered will include the following:
  • Will there be adult supervision? Does this mean actual supervision or will there just be adults in the house?
  • Who are the adults?
  • Will you be providing alcohol?
  • What will you be doing about underage drinking?

There are a whole range of other questions that you could ask and if you have an existing relationship with the hosts I would strongly advise that you ask them, if only to ensure that they have thought all possible scenarios through. However, if you do not know the parents they could take offence that a complete stranger has even considered asking them such questions. These include things such as:
  • What have you got planned to deal with uninvited guests?
  • Have you registered your party with the local police?
  • What will you do if you discover underage drinking?
  • Have you got plans in case things get out of control?

It is important to remember that every family is different and that not every parent is going to have the same views as you on the issue of teenagers and alcohol. If they do have a different viewpoint, this phone call is definitely not the time for you to give them a lecture on what you believe is the right way to bring up a child. Thank them for their time, wish them luck for the evening and get off the phone. Getting into a dispute about the right way to hold a teenage party is not necessary. You are highly unlikely to change their opinion on the subject and the whole experience will only leave you angry and frustrated. Putting the phone down and walking away is the best thing to do. Then thank your lucky stars that you did the right thing and have now prevented your child from getting into what you perceive as a high risk situation.

As a parent you can only do what you think is right for your child. How other parents raise their children is their business and it really is not your place to become involved in their parenting decisions. This will only change if during the course of your discussion you discover that there are young people at risk of experiencing harm, e.g. physical violence.

Be a parent when it comes to parties, particularly for the first couple of years. Take an interest in where they are going and who they will be with and do a little bit of parenting when it comes to finding out what type of party it will be and whether there will be alcohol present. Make your decision on whether they should attend or not based on good information and involve your child in that decision. Let them know why you made the decision that you did.

Most importantly, when they go to the party continue to be a parent. Make sure you are available to them should they need you. Your child should feel comfortable calling you in any situation, at any time. As a woman I know says to her children at every opportunity – “You can call me anytime, anywhere and I will be there to pick you up, no questions asked ……. then!”

Sunday, 15 September 2013

What does 'a bad batch of ecstasy' really mean?

With the reported death of a young man at a dance festival in Sydney over the weekend it did not take long for a news service to start talking about 'a bad batch of ecstasy pills'. So before we get onto what that ridiculous statement might actually mean - let's take a look at what we do know at this time and what we don't ... All we do know is that according to media reports a 23 year old male attending the Defqon.1 festival in Penrith was taken to the event's medical centre around midday and died at around 10.30pm last night. The reports also state that the young Victorian man suffered a series of seizures (and a number of cardiac arrests according to some media outlets) and that's about it ... We don't know what drugs he supposedly took (ecstasy or not) and we certainly don't know if those drugs were potentially more dangerous than those typically available on the street, but very quickly the media jumped onto the possibility that there may be 'a bad batch of ecstasy' out there!

So what does the term mean and most importantly, does it lead to any changes in ecstasy users' behaviour?

Firstly, 'a bad batch of ecstasy' implies simply by definition that there must be 'a good batch of ecstasy' somewhere, whatever that may mean! As far as an ecstasy user is concerned, a 'good ecstasy' would mean a pill that contains a high amount of MDMA - the substance that provides the user with the effects he or she wants - euphoria, a sense of intimacy or closeness with others and an altered sense of perception.

The trouble is that some ecstasy users believe that a pill containing MDMA is also completely 'safe', that it can't cause harm. Even though MDMA poisoning is rare, they have occurred and where there have been high levels of MDMA found in ecstasy pills (such as have been identified in European pills in recent months) we have seen increasing numbers of users experiencing problems, including hospitalisations and in extreme cases, deaths. It is also important to remember that one of Australia's highest profile ecstasy-related deaths was found to be due to MDMA poisoning - the death of 17 year old Gemma Thoms from Perth who died at the Big Day Out in 2009.

So when the police or the media start to talk about 'a bad batch of ecstasy' are they simply meaning that the pills contain something other than MDMA, or a substance that is particularly poisonous? One would imagine that if there was something particularly poisonous to be found in a batch of pills then we would see many people die, particularly considering how many people use ecstasy each and every weekend. We certainly have seen times when a substance like PMA appears in pills and a number of deaths have occurred. PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine) is a synthetic amphetamine-type drug with both stimulant and hallucinogenic properties.  Much more potent and far more toxic than MDMA, its danger is related to the over-stimulation of the central nervous system, often resulting in the user overheating, which in turn may cause internal organs to melt. 

The reality is that this doesn't happen often and thank god for that! Unfortunately though, people still believe that the majority of problems caused by ecstasy are due to impurities i.e. the other substances that are found in a tablet, and this myth is regularly reinforced by statements made by those who should know better about so-called 'bad batches'.  Although there are exceptions, the major problems that we continue to see with ecstasy are related to the context of use - dehydration and overheating. The other thing to remember is that ecstasy, like any drug, can also attack weaknesses in the user. There have been cases where seemingly perfectly healthy young people use the drug and experience fits, strokes and heart attacks. Many times these are people who have used the drug many times and have never had a bad experience. Put simply there seems to be no rhyme nor reason why these deaths occurred at that particular time.

What infuriates me about stories like the one this weekend is that at this stage we know absolutely nothing about what caused the death of this young man - nothing! We certainly don't know anything about the content of a pill that he may or may not have taken. Regardless we still have the media talking about a possible 'bad batch of ecstasy' - truly, it is no wonder that young people don't believe anything we tell them when it comes to drugs. What will happen when we actually do know something about pills that are on the street, when we have toxicology results that prove we have a particularly poisonous substance out there? Do we have a chance of getting that message believed by potential users? I very much doubt it! You can't keep issuing warnings without real proof and not expect your credibility to be affected.

When you're contacted by the media after a death has occurred at a dance event, as I was today, it doesn't matter how many times you tell the journalist to be careful about how they report it, it is inevitable that they will find some idiot to make a comment based on little, if any, information. Today the journalists relied on a Twitter comment from a partygoer to report the possibility of a 'bad batch'! If we had some toxicology to go on, or some hard evidence to provide to potential users, I would be the first to disseminate it as widely as possible, but we don't and once again we run the risk of becoming 'the boy who cried wolf'!
 
When a drug-related death occurs (if this is what this death proves to be), the best message to get out to users is that it is important to remember that you never know how a drug is going to affect you and if you are going to use any substance, give it the respect it deserves! You should never underestimate the risk associated with any drug, because no matter what you think, all drug use entails a certain degree of risk!
 

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Supporting your child in their decision not to drink alcohol

Once in a while I will have a mum and a dad (it's always both parents!) come up to me after my Parent Information Evening concerned about their son (it's always a son!). It often takes them a while to get to the point but finally they tell me that they are becoming worried because their teen is 15 years of age and he's not interested in alcohol! When I ask them why this would be a problem the answer is always the same - "Well, he won't fit in will he?"

First of all, let me make it clear that I totally get where they're coming from. As I state quite clearly, I don't drink alcohol and never really have to any great extent. As a non-drinker I have found it more and more difficult over the years to find things to do with friends and family where alcohol is not firmly positioned at the core. As I always say, the only place I can think of where you can truly socialise without alcohol is an AA meeting and I have no real desire to go there! If I find it difficult at my age (and I do, much more difficult than it was in the past), how difficult must it be for our current generation of teens who are constantly bombarded with messages that to socialise you must have a drink firmly placed in your hand?

If you look at all of the data that is being released in the area of young Australians (particularly school-based young people) and alcohol it is evident that we have a growing number of adolescents that are choosing not to drink, not just reducing the amount they drink, but not drinking at all! I think there are a range of reasons for this - certainly the young people I meet who choose not to drink tell me that it could be due to them wanting as healthy a brain as possible, they have sporting goals they want to achieve or it may be as simple as that their parents don't really drink and, as a result, they have made similar choices. Whatever the reason, this group of non-drinkers need their parents' support if they choose this path and not be thought of as 'social rejects' who are never going to have any friends and will never be invited anywhere ...

The reason I raise this is I met a wonderful young man this week who highlights this issue and the struggles that some young people have in this complex area.

When I met Jason last year he was a Year 10 student. He approached me after my presentation to let me know that he had made a decision not to drink as he simply couldn't see the point to it. He didn't like seeing adults who had been drinking too much and couldn't understand why any young person would want to get to that point. I made it clear to him that not everyone drank to excess and some people drank alcohol responsibly but if he made a decision not to drink that was great! He asked me for some tips for going to social gatherings and still having a good time and not drinking and we had quite a long chat about the issues he may face in the future. This year he came up to speak to me again - he still was not interested in drinking but had been facing great pressure at home to 'have a sip'. His father had told him that he should try a beer so that he could get used to the taste and 'learn how to drink properly'. Jason finally tried the beer and hated it. He was now quite embarrassed as he didn't finish off the glass that his father made him drink in front of him and wondered why he was unlike everyone else and couldn't drink - was there something wrong with him?

I'm not too sure what Jason's father was trying to do here. Was he actually trying to teach his son 'how to drink properly' or was he attempting to make sure that Jason was going to turn out to be a 'real man' who could have a drink with the boys when the need arose? Whichever it was the young man was having huge problems trying to work out what was wrong with him because alcohol was not a part of his life at this time ... once again, all he wanted from me was an affirmation that a grown man could choose not to drink and still function socially.

There are basically three options that a young person (or anyone for that matter) has when it comes to alcohol. They can choose to drink to excess, drink as responsibly as they are able (acknowledging that there may be a slip-up here and there!) or they can choose not to drink at all. All are valid choices (with varying degrees of risk) but all too often parents will make huge statements like "everyone drinks" or "they will all drink at some time or another", or an even bigger cop-out - "they're just doing what we did!" that are just plain ridiculous! It needs to be said that these outrageous statements are usually made to justify bad parenting - they don't really have the time or energy to fight with their teen about rules and boundaries around alcohol, so these type of throwaway lines justify that there wasn't any point to trying to stop them drinking anyway. In actual fact, not everyone drinks, they won't all do it at some time or another and I don't know about you but I certainly didn't take part in some of the riskier alcohol-related behaviour that we know is now occurring (albeit amongst a small number of young people)!

Your child learns so much about drinking from you. If you have a brown paper bag with a couple of bottles in it under your arm every time you go out to socialize with friends, you are sending a very strong message to your children about the role alcohol plays in socializing. Is there anything wrong with that? Of course not, you're an adult and can do what you want. It's just important to discuss this with your teen. It is also vital to discuss the three options for drinking - ensuring that you highlight that 'not drinking' is a perfectly valid option. As I always say, if you have a strange relative like me who doesn't drink, wheel them out occasionally and talk about them and their decisions around drinking with your teens - they need to know that adults can have a good time without alcohol and that if they choose not to drink they will not be a social outcast. It's the least a parent can do for their child that has made this tough decision.