Overdoses at Electric Parade and White Night fuelled by dangerous new drug: A missed opportunity to provide harm reduction?

On the 20th of February, Chanel Kinniburgh published a piece in the Herald Sun entitled “Drug overdoses at Electric Parade and White Night fuelled by dangerous new drug, doctors fear”. Unfortunately, the tone of the story stigmatises people who use drugs by insinuating that they are irresponsible to “risk their lives by taking dangerous drugs”.

The journalist missed opportunities to provide information about how people who use GHB might reduce their risk of overdose. Speaking with Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) researchers familiar with GHB would have helped avoid these issues in the first place.

In fact, the way in which the story was reported could have actually led to increased harm. It was alleged in the article that the drug involved was GHB, which the article suggests is also known as “liquid ecstasy”. This is an archaic term for the substance, but more problematically it could lead to increased curiosity about the drug. And if people actually believe that GHB is a liquid form of ecstasy or MDMA, they may expect stimulant rather than depressant effects, which means further overdoses could occur.

The article quotes Professor George Braitberg, head of the Emergency Department at the Alfred Hospital. He said, “the weekend’s spike might have been caused by people unwittingly taking a derivative of GHB, known as GBL, which has a slower release time in the body and prompted unwitting users to increase their doses”. He adds, “There’s no pharmacist or chemist at the end of these drugs – people shouldn’t have any confidence in what they think they’re buying being what they’re actually getting.” People who use drugs already know this and such information is unlikely to dissuade them from using.

Research shows that people who use drugs often know about risks and want to mitigate them as best they can. As such, the quality of the article would have been improved through providing information about reducing harm when using GHB.

Such information could have been sought from AOD researchers with expertise on GHB. For example, in a Huffington Post article, Josh Butler interviewed Associate Professor David Caldicott, who suggested that through the provision of harm reduction initiatives at the event there could have been fewer people requiring paramedical services. He noted that drug checking at the event would have provided an opportunity allow people to know if they have GHB or GBL. Such information could be used to educate the person about the longer onset and to ‘start low and go slow’.

In a separate piece published in The Huffington Post, Caldicott goes on to state further harm-reduction advice, such as not using alcohol with GHB as this increases the risk of overdose. Such advice could have been reported in The Herald Sun article to help inform the public of ways to mitigating risk. Similarly, during a story on ABC News24 I was provided with an opportunity to highlight that providing people with a safe space in which volunteers are able to assist people who have overdosed on GHB to stay conscious would have reduced the need for a hospital admission and the demand on paramedics at the event. I also noted that harm reduction could have been provided by handing out syringes (without needles) so people are able measure out their doses rather than just adding the drug to a drink that does not allow them to monitor how much they are consuming.

The Herald Sun article also cited Ambulance Victoria’s State Health Commander Paul Holman, who stated that the event was “awash with drugs”. Such sensationalism is unhelpful since it normalises the use of drugs and increases people’s perceptions that more people are using drugs than actually are. In doing so, people might be more likely to use drugs assuming that everybody else is. Such language is also stigmatising as it implies that the use of drugs is immoral. Further, he stated that “It’s frustrating that so many people were prepared to risk their lives by taking dangerous drugs”. Again, this portrays people who use drugs as ignorant, irresponsible and reckless. However, research shows that such messages lead to people being less likely to access healthcare services.

Ms Kinniburgh did speak to Senator Di ­Natale, who noted that “We know that young people will continue to try drugs. We can’t stick our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not going to happen … What we need to do is give them the tools they need to make educated choices.” This is consistent with the suggestions made in this analysis of Ms Kinniburgh’s article, such the use of harm reduction services at festivals.

As per the AOD Media Watch Guidelines For Journalists, it is important that journalists speak with AOD experts, in addition to people on the front line.

Dr Stephen Bright, Senior Lecturer of Addiction at Edith Cowan University & Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University

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