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'They're always outside the same venues': Doctor calls for alcohol legislation reform

One of Canberra's foremost emergency medicine specialists says more needs to be done to enforce the city's liquor laws, following a sickening one-punch assault which left a man with serious injuries on New Year's Day.

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If you dropped a pin on the places where frontline emergency service workers respond to alcohol-fuelled violence on Friday and Saturday nights, Dr David Caldicott says there are some areas in this city which would light up like a Christmas tree.

"If this was an infectious disease, there would be quarantines, there would be body bags, there would be refrigerated portable morgues. This is an enormous problem causing billions in taxpayer's money [nationally] and there's almost no conversation about it whatsoever because it's alcohol," the Calvary Hospital emergency department physician said.

Dr David Caldicott has vowed to continue with pill testing at the Stereosonic music festival despite the threat of arrest.
Dr David Caldicott has vowed to continue with pill testing at the Stereosonic music festival despite the threat of arrest.  Photo: Melissa Adams

Dr Caldicott said surveys conducted by the Australian College for Emergency Medicine frequently show a third of emergency room presentations about 2am are due to alcohol.

And while not as common as in other jurisdictions, alcohol-charged assaults still occur in Canberra with frightening regularity.

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"If you talk to any cop in the street or paramedic every single time they'll tell you ...they happen in the same place all of the time. They're always outside the same sort of venues."

Part of the reason alcohol-fuelled violence occurs lies in its propensity to free us of our inhibitions, Dr Caldicott said.

"When we are not drunk, the frontal part of our brains are helping control and moderate our behaviour but as we get more and more drunk we become more and more disinhibited,' he said.

"The Ancient Romans used to have a phrase for this, in vino veritas, in the wine there is the truth, even back then they recognised that alcohol would strip back all of their social norms and leave us much more like an animal than a human."

But the fundamental behavioural changes which can make someone an aggressor under the influence of alcohol can also make them a victim, Dr Caldicott said.

"They probably aren't reading the signs that there's danger, so their awareness is greatly diminished, they probably are more likely to say things which would cause provocation.

"The other interesting thing is when you're hit like that, you're less likely to protect yourself as you fall. We all have these protective reflexes, we put our arms out and we brace but what you see again and again in [videos like the CCTV footage of the Civic attack] is people are hit and they fall without trying to catch themselves at all."

The end result is a secondary injury which can be just as deadly as the primary blow, he said.

"If you take a human being six-feet-tall and put their feet above their body and drop them from that height, that is absolutely potentially life-threatening.That is more than enough to do substantial damage to the brain."

Dr Caldicott believes the ACT government is in a unique position to make meaningful reform to alcohol legislation due to our size and demographics.

He said this could help us "fly under the radar" of alcohol lobby groups, who generally target areas with greater numbers of drinkers.

"The ACT has not a bad track record for alcohol legislation.The ACT could serve, with some enthusiastic support, almost like a sandpit [for alcohol legislation reform] as we're small enough that you can introduce novel initiatives and not break the bank.

"If licensed venues cannot meet their requirements by negotiation and discussion, I suggest they be required to meet them under duress."