Mini-Worlds in the Earth Provide Forensic Clues

Linking soil at a crime scene to a potential offender has just been made easier through the help of tiny microbes. In a study published in Forensic Science International, researchers were able to analyse the genes of bacteria found in samples of soil to develop a unique genetic fingerprint of soil origin.

Turns out, much like human communities, bacterial communities can be characterised by shared genetic characteristics – allowing forensic experts to compare microbes across soil locations.

Using the same equipment and procedures for analysing human DNA, researchers were able to identify a unique genetic fingerprint of the bacteria populations in soil. This, in turn, acts as a point of comparison for soil samples taken from a crime scene with samples taken from a suspect, victim or potential witness.

Forensic soil analysis has been used to solve many high-profile Australian cases. In 2000, Mathew Holding was convicted of murdering his mother and grandmother largely as investigators were able to link the soil on a shovel found in the trunk of Mr Holding’s car with the land where his victims were buried.

Microbes are the new hot topic of discussion in the forensic sciences as they are unlikely to be considered by offenders when cleaning a crime scene. The great forensic scientist Dr Edmond Locard once said that “every contact leaves a trace” – turns out sometimes that ‘trace’ is alive.

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Has Forensic Science Improved?

It is nearly nine years since the US National Research Council produced a damning report on the state of forensic science in the US (and by extension the international community). As such, it is worth asking: has forensic science improved?

The report made a myriad of findings in regard to the forensic science community including that:

  1. Criminal laboratories lacked clear standards across jurisdictions.
  2. Forensic practitioners had inconsistent accreditation requirements across jurisdictions.
  3. Many forensic techniques raised issues of interpretation. Some methodologies (such as DNA analysis) were capable of expression statistically whilst others (such as blood splatter analysis) were up to expert interpretation.
  4. Many forensic techniques were under researched with little evidence establishing reliability as well a little understanding of the limits and measures of performance of techniques.
  5. Criminal laboratories were under resourced and under staffed. This issue gave rise to perceptions that labs were under political sway  to ‘produce’ for prosecutors.

The most damning aspect of the report was the suggestion that many forensic techniques currently being used in criminal prosecutions may not be reliable. Some of the biggest causes for concern were comparative techniques subject to contextual bias such as fingerprint comparison, striation analysis (toolmark, ballistics etc), microscopic hair analysis and bitemark analysis.

So, after nearly nine years – has the evidence base improved?

In regard to fingerprint comparison, several studies have been conducted to determine the extent to which cognitive bias can impact analysis. However, many of these studies have suffered from a lack of ‘real world’ scenarios. Nevertheless, the National Institute of Standards and Technology have developed  a variety of protocols and standards which limit the likelihood of human error. Moreover, technology is greatly improving the ability to conduct fingerprint comparisons without expert interpretation.

Striation analysis remains more of an art than a science. There have been a few attempts to understand contextual bias in striation analysis (mostly in regard to ballistics). There have also been attempts to express comparisons statistically.  Nevertheless, more research is needed in this area.

Comparative hair analysis (as opposed to toxicological hair analysis) remains under-researched and poorly understood. My attempt at finding any comprehensive evaluation of the technique turned up no results. However, this may be due to the fact that the increasing effectiveness of DNA has rendered the technique largely irrelevant.

The real failure in the years following the report is bite mark analysis with study after study after study showing the unreliability of the technique for forensic identification. This includes very obvious errors in the techniques used, inconsistencies in the approach of practitioners and a very real risk of contextual bias.

So, has forensic science improved? Somewhat. It is still incredibly worrying that all of the techniques above remain admissible in most criminal jurisdictions globally, without sufficient legal scrutiny. This is particularly worrying in the cases of bite mark analysis, which has been identified as a possible source of wrongful convictions.

If the forensic science community wishes to ensure its legitimacy within the legal system there must be a consistent and very high standard for the evidence base of forensic techniques used.

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The Right to Die… In Prison

For many, the right to choose the time and manner of one’s death is fundamental to human dignity and liberty. But what if that liberty has been taken away by the State? This was the question raised by Frank Van den Bleeken, a Belgian prisoner and murderer who in 2014 requested to be euthanised under Belgian’s liberal euthanasia laws.

The potential for prisoners to access euthanasia raises intriguing questions about patient autonomy, the nature of suffering and the purpose of punishment. In Van de Bleeken’s case, the issue was even more controversial as his main reason for seeking the procedure was psychological distress – which is allowed under Belgian law.

With an aging prison population combined with an increased acceptance of euthanasia laws globally, the validity of a prisoner’s right to die is likely to be a key question within the next decade.

One of the key issues raised by the case is what is the purpose of imprisonment? Is it to detain dangerous individuals? To punish them? To make them suffer? The contradictions present in our current criminal justice goals should be painfully obvious. After all, in the US they save people from suicide attempts on death row.

For Dr Phillip Nitschke, the suffering caused by imprisonment justifies the prisoner’s right to die. Writing for The Guardian in 2014, he noted:

Imprisonment for life, with no hope of parole, is torture. I thought then and now that a modern civilised Australia should not be involved in torture, no matter the crimes of the prisoner.

But there are concerns that such reasoning hinders efforts for prison reform. Auke Williams argues that shifting the discussion to a ‘right to die’ focuses responsibility for psychological suffering away from corrections, allowing the  poor provision of psychiatric treatment to prisoners to go unchecked. Moreover, Carine Brochier of the European Institute of Bioethics has referred to the Van den Bleeken case as “death penalty through the backdoor”.

Then there were the views of the families of  Van De Bleeken’s victims. The sisters of Christiane Remacle, a 19-year-old girl raped and strangled to death by Van Den Bleeken, were very public that they wanted to see him “languish in prison”. What significance do we place on their need for retribution?

Ultimately, Van Den Bleeken’s request for euthanasia was rejected. However it is unlikely he will be the first prisoner to request a quick release over a lifetime of incarceration.

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In Defence of Simple Pleasures

Given our rather tumultuous and troubling political times, a proposed 40c per 100 grams sugar tax seems like a rather minor issue. Nevertheless, when the Grattan Institute put out a media release last week proposing the the response was loud and overwhelmingly negative.

From the Right, we got the rather predictable outcry of the ‘nanny state’ treating us like children who can’t make our own choices. From the Left, concerns were raised that the tax was regressive, and was adversely targeting lower income families.

Missing from the discussion was any real acknowledgement of why we are collectively eating ourselves into an early grave: it feels fantastic.

The pursuit of simple pleasures, whether from sex, drugs or Coca-Cola, tends to get a bad wrap in moral and political discourse but is fundamental to who we are as a species. John Stuart Mill famously made the distinction between the lower pleasures – the old ‘swine rolling in mud’ kind – and superior intellectual delights such as poetry and art. More modern criticism of ‘lower pleasures’ are that they are inherently self-destructive – either mentally, socially or physically – whether or not there is any evidence to back this up.

Among the baseless criticism of simple pleasures made in modern political discourse are assertions that pornography is ruining our sex lives, cannabis is making us listless and unproductive, and alcohol is turning us into violent brutes. Of course, many pleasurable activities carry risks, but rarely does the hype live up to the reality of potential harm.

It comes as no surprise that moralising in regard to simple pleasures is also one of the prominent underpinnings of the global (and very much failed) War on Drugs. Peter Hitchens, one of the few still willing to support drug prohibition, argues against drug intoxication on the basis that:

“If … we deliberately dull [our cognition], so that we do not see or hear or feel or even smell the wickedness which is going on around us and turn ourselves into passive, giggling beings, self-satisfied and set apart from the world around us, we are shirking our responsibility as human beings”

An absolutist ‘right/wrong’ picture underpins Hitchens’ viewpoint as well as demand reduction strategies globally . Most drug policy goals envision a world where drug taking not only doesn’t exist, but where humanity is without a curious or pleasure seeking nature.

Whether we are talking the odd cigarette or an evening with a skilled courtesan, the pursuit of simple pleasures remains a fundamental and enriching part of many lives. As such, we should be frank in our defence of pleasure seeking behaviors and move beyond Mill’s (and Hitchens) world of “higher” and “lower” pleasures.

How Gay Crystal Use Is Busting Myths About Meth

If you’ve read the news, you may be under the impression that methamphetamine (‘crystal’ or ‘ice’) is a brain destroying, highly addictive toxin which turns users into psychotic thugs. But amongst gay club scenes in Melbourne and Sydney, it’s just a regular party drug.

This is the finding of the first FLUX study undertaken by the Kirby Institute, which surveyed over 2000 gay men about their experiences with drug use. The survey found that despite high rates of methamphetamine use amongst gay men, there appear to be very low rates of drug dependency and drug associated harm.

Over a quarter of gay men surveyed had used crystal methamphetamine in their lifetime and 1 in 6 had used the drug within the previous six months.

The experiences of gay men who used crystal were overwhelmingly positive, with the majority not ascribing any dependency or harm from their recreational use. Of those who did indicate some harmful consequences from drug use, the most common harm identified was unprotected sex.

If you are to believe the media accounts of meth use in Australia, these statistics will come as a bit of a shock. Aren’t we caught in the grip of an ‘ice epidemic’? Isn’t methamphetamine one the ‘most addictive substances on earth’?

The moral panic surrounding methamphetamine use has been one of the most unhelpful media trends in the last decade, and something of a thorn in the side of policy and public health experts advocating for a harm reduction approach.

That isn’t to say there is no harm associated with crystal use – far from it – but there is a great deal of misinformation being propagated by journalists, politicians and ‘concerned citizens’ about the nature of such harm.

Despite reports of a dramatic increase in methamphetamine users in Australia, the percentage of regular ice users has remained steady for over a decade at around 2%. There has however been a significant increase in the number of ice users seeking treatment for dependency as well as an increase in the number of hospitalisations as a result of ice related overdose and psychosis.

These harms can be connected to an increase in drug purity, as well as more frequent ice use amongst drug users. For example, there are indications that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of weekly and daily ice users.

The reasons why gay men appear less impacted from their use of crystal, is likely the result of its designation as a ‘party drug’ Amongst participants in the Flux survey, very few participants were weekly users and even fewer were taking the drug daily.

So what lessons can be learned from this? First of all, the survey indicates that public health messages which focus on a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to drug use are unlikely to have an impact on gay men, who don’t see any obvious harm from their occasional use of crystal.

Moreover, it indicates that interventions for ice-related harms across Australia need to target the particular reasons behind heavy methamphetamine use. Researchers are beginning to paint a pretty good picture of the heavy ice user: mid-twenties, male, with a complicated mix of mental and physical health problems.

Finally, the survey appears to bust a particularly pernicious myth about the gay club scene – which, due to increased rates of drug use is often depicted as inherently harmful and self-destructive.

If anything, patterns of drug behaviour within the gay scene are demonstrating responsible, safe, recreational drug use. From a harm reduction perspective, this pattern of behaviour is something to be encouraged amongst users of methamphetamine across the country.

Let’s Talk about Synthetic Cannabis

The Guardian has an article on the rise of K2, a common brand name variant of ‘synthetic cannabis’ which has been eluding legal frameworks across the globe.

Synthetic cannabis or, more accurately, ‘synthetic cannabinoids’ are new psychoactive substances that attempt to replicate the effects of THC, the active component in cannabis.

If you read the news, you are probably under the impression that synthetic cannabinoids are highly addictive, toxic compounds which are cooked up in some guys bathtub. However, this media narrative ignores the considerable variation in synthetic cannabinoids that have been on the market and the role of prohibitionist government policies in increasing their harm.

Synthetic cannabinoids have actually been around for some time, showing up in Europe in the early 2000s. Their purpose was to exploit gaps in current criminal and therapeutic goods laws which only prohibit ‘THC’ and variants of the cannabis plant.

Synthetic cannabinoids (at least in their early iterations) create chemical mimics of THC which bind to the same CB1 receptor to elicit similar – or in some cases more potent – cannabinoid effects.

These synthetics are being manufactured in China, India and Eastern Europe by chemists who then repackage and sell them to local markets as ‘herbal incense’ with a wink and a nudge to consumers. Along with K2, another common brand name of synthetic cannabis is ‘Spice’.

Most early synthetic cannabinoids were variants of the research chemicals developed by Dr John W. Huffman and bare the ‘JWH’ prefix. These include JWH-018 (the most common in early herbal incense brands) and JWH-073.

The first generation of synthetic cannabinoid products were relatively benign.  Most early reports of hospitalisations due to synthetic cannabinoids were the result of the anxiety of the users, who were not used to the more potent effects of the ‘full agonist’ synthetics.  A 2012 study of synthetic cannabinoid users in Australia found fairly typical effects you would associate with “natural” cannabis.

However, in late 2011, many governments became concerned about synthetic cannabinoid use. One of the chief concerns was that these substances were being used to subvert drug testing laws.For example, the Australian government’s crackdown on synthetics is a direct response to reports of miners in Western Australia smoking it whilst on the job.

Suddenly ‘JWH’ and other first generation synthetic cannabinoids were being listed and their use criminalised. This led overseas chemists to think of novel chemicals which could exhibit similar CB1 receptor effects, but are yet to be listed in global drug schedules.

The result? A toxic batch of synthetics hitting the market which have been linked to overdoses, addiction and death. The most pernicious of the bunch: “Black Mamba” or ADB-PINACA, has been shown to be both neurotoxic and cardiotoxic. Other variants such as AB-Chminaca and MAB-Chminaca, have been linked to kidney damage, seizures and cardiac arrest.

The increase in harm associated with synthetic cannabinoids is a very direct consequence of government policies which focus on prohibition rather than harm reduction.

When you read media reports on novel substances, it’s important to keep in mind that not all under-researched recreational drugs are harmful, nor is outlawing them the only solution.

As for my thoughts on how to solve the increasing use of synthetic cannabinoids? Well, it seems to me that we already have a well understood, safe and popular CB1 agonist which can out-compete these legal synthetics on the market: it’s called cannabis.

For the Sake of Secular Democracy, Tick ‘No Religion’ This Census

The Australian Census will take place on 9 August this year, which means it’s a good time to remind you to tick ‘no religion’.

61% of Australians classified themselves as Christian in the 2011 census. This is despite the fact that only 7.5% of Australians regularly attend church services, and most take a secular approach in their personal and political affairs.

Census statistics are used and abused in political discourse, and also play a major role in the allocation of funding. As the Australian Bureau of Statistics notes, religious affiliation data is used:

for such purposes as planning educational facilities, aged persons’ care and other social services provided by religion-based organisations; the location of church buildings; the assigning of chaplains to hospitals, prisons, armed services and universities; the allocation of time on public radio and other media; and sociological research.

Even if you are religious, the use of your affiliation to outsource social services to private religious groups should give you some reservations. It moves the role of religion away from being a private, ‘spiritual’ affair to an institutionalised doctrine which determines which civic organisations get support.

Religious affiliation statistics are also manipulated to justify the conservative bent of many hot-button social issues from gay rights to euthanasia. This is despite the fact that the majority of Australians support a progressive, secular perspective.

If you are not religious, or even if you are somewhat spiritual but don’t want your beliefs to shape public affairs, make sure you tick ‘no religion’ this census.