Massive Changes to Drug Laws in Queensland – Part 2

In our last article we discussed the massive changes that are being introduced to drug legislation in Queensland.

In case you missed that article, in brief it discussed how Queensland is introducing the decriminalisation of small quantities of drugs, meaning that in some circumstances, a person possessing dangerous drugs will not be charged by the police. Instead of being charged or arrested with the offence of possessing dangerous drugs, they will be referred to a drug diversionary program on the second and third occasions that they are caught with drugs. This program is intended to provide drug users with education and counselling and if it is appropriate, refer the person on for further and more intense treatment.

This article will discuss the second change that is being introduced, and that is the re-classification of the dangerous drugs psilocybin and MDMA such that they can be prescribed by authorised psychiatrists.

What are psilocybin and MDMA?

Psilocybin and MDMA are drugs that have for the last few decades been illegal to possess in Queensland. However, both drugs were actually used experimentally and therapeutically decades ago, before being criminalised.

Psilocybin, more commonly known as ‘magic mushrooms’, grow wild in Australia but are illegal to posses or supply. They are psychedelic drugs, which means they can affect all of the senses, altering a person’s thinking, perception of time and emotions. They can cause a person to hallucinate, meaning that a person can see or hear things that do not otherwise exist or are distorted. They look like ordinary mushrooms and there are many different types but the most common ones in Australia are called golden tops, blue meanies and liberty caps.

MDMA was originally developed as an appetite suppressant in 1912, but in the 1970s it started being used in therapy sessions in the United States. It started entering Australia in the 1980s and was used traditionally as a party drug before being declared illegal in 1987. MDMA is an empathogen, which increases an individual’s feeling of empathy and kindness, and increases feelings of being socially accepted by and connected to others. It is also commonly known as ‘ecstasy’, and is commonly found in tablet or capsule form but can also be a powder or crystal. When prepared in pill form, they are often identified by unique markings embedded onto the pill so as to distinguish them. They are very popular in the dancing and raving scene, due to the massive surge of energy and connectedness that a person experiences when using it.

What are the changes?

From 1 July 2023 medicines containing psilocybin and MDMA ((3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine) can be prescribed by specifically authorised psychiatrists for the treatment of certain mental health conditions.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) will permit the prescribing of psilocybin for depression that has been resistant to treatment and MDMA for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These are the only conditions where there is currently sufficient evidence for potential benefits in certain patients.

Prescribing will be limited to psychiatrists, given their specialised qualifications and expertise to diagnose and treat patients with serious mental health conditions, with therapies that are not yet well established. To prescribe, psychiatrists will need to be approved under a scheme authorised by the TGA under very strict guidelines to ensure the safe prescription and administration to patients.

Why are the changes being introduced?

The decision to legalise psilocybin and MDMA in certain prescribed circumstances, under very strict guidelines and only by approved specialists, acknowledges the limited options currently available for patients with treatment-resistant mental illnesses and PTSD – such as those that are often seen in war veterans. It means that these two drugs can be used in a controlled therapeutic medical setting.

Studies have shown that psilocybin can significantly reduce symptoms of depression. After receiving the psilocybin, patients entered a “walking dream-like” state for between four and six hours and then left the clinic once they had returned to their normal state. Psilocybin may also increase the brain’s ability to create new emotional and information pathways, thus assisting in breaking down barriers for those who have been resistant to traditional forms of treatment.

MDMA can assist psychotherapy by reducing defensiveness and anxiety, increasing relaxation and improving mood. Research has also demonstrated that it can increase the bond between the therapist and patient, thus enabling the patient to revisit traumatic memories and work through their emotions without being re-traumatised, or finding the associated anxiety or fear too overwhelming.

Research also demonstrates that MDMA if effective at reducing anxiety associated with recalling traumatic experiences – which can assist in insight and memory. Negative memories may feel less confronting, allowing the therapist and patient to have sessions without the patient becoming overly anxious.

Research into the use of MDMA as a therapeutic drug stopped in the mid-1980s when the USA made it illegal, despite protests from researchers and health professionals. Research gained momentum again in 2010 with a study published following successful clinical trials showed huge improvements in PTSD symptoms. Then, in 2017 the United States Government recognised MDMA as a ‘breakthrough therapy’.

These are very significant and exciting developments in drug legislation in Queensland and we will watch with much interest to see how effective they are at combating significant mental health illnesses.

If you’re needing assistance with legal matters or determining your legal rights, Cridland & Hua are the specialists amongst Brisbane Law Firms, practising exclusively in criminal and quasi-criminal law. Contact us today.

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