Tuesday, 30 August 2016

US drug abuse researcher delivers sobering lecture on war on drugs

Hosted by the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM), which incorporates SPHPM’s Department of Forensic Medicine (DOFM), the Graeme Schofield Oration was held last week at the National gallery of Victoria (NGV). 

The oration featured guest speaker Professor Marilyn Huestis, one of the world’s foremost drug researchers from the US, who talked about the future of illicit drug use with a special focus on cannabinoids and new synthetic forms of the drug which are now widely available in the US. 

Profile Huestis’ distinguished career has been devoted to studying the impacts of drugs on users. She is an Adjunct Professor with the University of Maryland, and spent 23 years working at the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA).

The Graeme Schofield Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine Oration has been named to honour the contributions made by Professor Graeme Schofield to VIFM and to the advancement of forensic medicine generally. Professor Noel Woodford, VIFM Director, introduced Professor Huestis as “a renowned and enthusiastic mentor of young researchers, and a science communicator of remarkable clarity and ability”.

The free public lecture this year was held in the Clemenger Auditorium at the National Gallery of Victoria, with an opening address by Head of the Drug Harm Prevention Unit Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Jennifer Pilgrim, who spoke of the seriousness of the current drug abuse crisis.

Research by the Drug Harm Prevention Unit at VIFM conducted last year found that more than 100 young men have died as result of single punch assaults in Australia since 2000, and alcohol was by far the most commonly detected substance in these incidents and is still the key factor in drug-fuelled violence on the streets.

“We must prevent the harms caused by drug abuse in our society. Our research at the VIFM, with a world-class toxicology laboratory and expertise across all disciplines of forensic medicine and science is producing research that confronts the contemporary and important issues surrounding drug abuse in Australia,” said Dr Pilgrim.

Last year, research from VIFM linked the deaths of three people to synthetic psychoactive drugs, and their use has continued to expand in Australia.

Professor Huestis spoke about the US experience on drug abuse and addiction and focused on three main areas in her lecture: the global opioid abuse epidemic, the US experience of medical and legal cannabis and the emergence of psychoactive cannabinoids such as synthetic cannabinoids, which are up to a hundred times as potent as cannabis.

She warned that the long term effects of marijuana have been underestimated, highlighting studies showing it has irreversible effects on brain development in younger users, including flawed memory, below-average IQ and psychosis.

She also said that in 2016, the pendulum of public perception of cannabis in the US has swung in favour of the drug, despite scientific research that is a highly addictive drug with adverse social and health impacts.

She also warned that new ways of using cannabis, including in food, 'vaping' pens, extracted with butane and smoked in e-cigarettes, was concentrating the mind-altering tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content and increasing the long-term health risks, with US research showing a two-fold increase in odds of crashing if a person is under the influence of cannabis while driving.

Since 2005, 650 new synthetic drugs have flooded the market, and Professor Huestis says that researchers don’t yet know how these drugs are metabolised in the body.

VIFM’s program of research concerning illicit drug use and alcohol abuse in Australia has been integral in underpinning key changes by policymakers to Australian health policy and practice.

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