In the 1990s I spent five years as a heroin addict in Melbourne. Nothing unusual about that: thousands of others did too. When I described the experience in a memoir, the book got national coverage and readers were captivated: not because I’d been a junkie, but because I was a junkie who had an arts degree. Stable loving family, upbringing in “the leafy suburbs”, tertiary education — good girl goes off the rails! It was shocking that a nice girl such as me could have sunk so low, a Persephone abducted to the underworld.
According to the normal script, druggies are low-lifes from broken homes, abusive backgrounds, housing commission flats, with bad teeth, worse manners and a dark, self-destructive impulse that spills out into crime: best condemned, put out of the social body, an irresponsible menace to a healthy community. Or degenerate hedonists at raves, feral-haired, grossly escapist and heedless of risk. But drugs are with us all, and we would do well to quit the hypocrisy, take note of experience, and start our dialogue with the issue afresh.
Drugs are, and always have been, a part of Australian society. Hobart Museum is currently exhibiting a medicine cabinet brought to the young colony. It included opium, a standard ingredient in any medical toolbox. There will scarcely be a citizen of the land who hasn’t taken drugs, whether under medicinal prescription or as a recreational treat. We are one of the most highly medicated nations in the world and most of us also drink alcohol, which, though not classified as a drug, has similar mind-and-body-altering effects.
Drug use, particularly that of marijuana, is endemic in all our communities, and yet we persist in throwing up our hands, sputtering outrage and condemning users whenever the four-letter word is mentioned. There are several distinctions that need to be made with drugs. First, there is that between legal (good) and illegal (bad) drugs, and we must remember that there are historical reasons as well as medical criteria that apply here.
The good/bad calibration in non-medical terms is specious: rates of addiction to prescription medicine, as highlighted by the tragic deaths of celebrities such as Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson, have soared, with about 100,000 people in Australia now addicted to prescribed opioids alone. Prescription medicine is approved and socially ratified, if not actively encouraged, and yet it can be as lethal and damaging as crack cocaine. By endorsing some kinds of drugs and not others we construct an inconsistent doctrine, focusing on the social acceptance, not the actual danger, of particular substances.
We further this confusion with haphazard attitudes to abuse, not always related to the severity of the use: public figures who admit to using drugs, such as footballers, are regarded with righteous censure if the substances affect their job; not so much if it’s kept in the personal sphere. Carrie Fisher, who recently toured Australia, has made headlines for the revelation that she was high when filming The Empire Strikes Back decades ago.
Drug scandals regularly rock the celebrity world while severe lectures are given in the media about the evil of drugs and the irresponsibility of role models who let down their public by having taken them. Many parents who themselves experimented with drugs now agonise over their teenagers doing the same. Education programs come and go. Yet none of this deters young people from getting on, and in the echo-chamber of puerile public discourse on the subject, the real impacts and experiences of drug use are obscured.
Sotto voce though it must be whispered, there remains the fact that, notwithstanding the risks, many people actually enjoy drugs. There are innate reasons why people are attracted to them, and that there are alleged benefits to some, such as marijuana for pain and stress relief, or heroin (as an alternative to morphine) for anaesthesia. Not all illicit drug use is at problematic levels. The perceived benefits, or one’s ability to “handle” a drug, will continue to beguile and convince many users, just as alcohol consumption is not judged to be inherently harmful, only in excess or in problematic contexts. Telling people that all illegal drugs are totally bad is not only patronising and paternalistic, but implausible in terms of those users’ own lived experience.
My time as a heroin addict was, admittedly, almost entirely horrible. Addiction and enslavement is terrifying and, sometimes, lethal. But in my experience most of the vileness of heroin addiction is circumstantial. No one benefited by me having to fix up in bar toilets or in dirty alleyways next to rubbish bins — I might have overdosed and been found by a distressed member of the public. No addict was deterred by the high price of the drug — we simply had to find more money, often through crime.
No one was protected by me taking the risk of being criminalised for possessing and buying my stash. The only people affected by my being impoverished, feared, despised, marginalised and degraded was me and my horrified family, as my self-esteem was ground down, my prospects of rebuilding a respectable life receded and the only consolation was … more drugs.
Of the three key elements I describe, the illegality of the drug was basically irrelevant beyond what it did to the pricing (I needed several hundred dollars a day, cash, simply to function, and turned to street prostitution to find it); the effects of the drug itself on my health were negligent though it didn’t help my emotional development (it was what it was cut with that made me sick); the social opprobrium, alienation and risks I was forced into were the main degradations, and they were what I suggest we address.
Moralistic rhetoric around drugs flourishes even as it fails. Health service providers, legislative decision makers, political fixers and above all the media take it upon themselves to determine the discourse around drug use in Australia. What we need is a real-world approach, which will dissect crude generalising and re-calibrate areas of concern. We need a way to warn young people and experimenters, in terms they will understand, of the dangers involved in taking drugs. We need to acknowledge that drugs can be enjoyable, the way alcohol is accepted as being.
We need to dismantle the social stigma and unshackle addicts from the extraneous anxieties of their circumstances (in the way that distribution of clean needles has helped lower infection rates of Hep C, and minor drug offenders are guided to rehabilitation rather than incarceration). And we need to shut up the screeching and start looking more soberly — yes, soberly — at the way people use drugs. Hypocritical panic and deliberate obliviousness won’t get us there.
I suggest we start listening to users. There are thousands if not millions of people in this country who are using drugs or have used them. Why not let them tell us what they have learned? An ex-addict is worth heeding, as is someone who uses drugs as safely and occasionally as possible. Peer education and mentoring are proven valuable techniques. I suggest the federal government funds a formal, comprehensive process of interviewing those who’ve been there. What worked, what was frightening, what was wonderful, what helped. Listen to them, and put it in practice. Drugs make you high but we must work with the real world.
This essay is part of Crikey’s Big Ideas series. We’ve had enough of sound bites set on repeat, glib slogans and half-baked committees — we’re looking for the vision thing. One Crikey subscriber will also get the chance to share their Big Idea with our readers: send us a three-line pitch, on an issue of national importance that gets you fired up, to [email protected] with “Big Ideas” in the subject line.