While NYE will bring about its usual party-filled wave of casual drug use, Michael Burrill opens up the discussion on more serious drug use, pleading the need to start shaping drug policy with compassion and intelligence rather than fear and punishment.


We are well and truly into the party season now, culminating with the biggest party of all – New Year’s Eve.

During this time, amongst all the “What are you drinking?” and “Can I scab a smoke?”, another question will be asked by revellers (black hole pupils in their eyeballs), police and medical staff alike – “What are you on?”

Whilst they are  particularly relevant at this time, the war on drugs and illicit drug use in general (which doesn’t seem to be going away despite the war) are heated topics all year round and almost everyone seems to have an opinion.

My views?

Granted, my enthusiasm may have faded slightly with time, but from my first drink at age 14 (alarm bells are ringing for some I’m sure) intoxications of various kinds have intrigued and enticed me. Don’t take this as a boast, but I have consumed psychoactive substances most people have never heard of (and no, I don’t think that makes me cool or interesting). With that in mind, people tend to view my support for across-the-board drug legalisation as some kind of self-indulgence largely powered by a blinkered positive attitude towards illicit drugs. Despite this, I think I’ve experienced enough in my travels through the gutters of this town and others to possess a somewhat balanced view.

For all the fun and inspiration I have experienced and for all the times the universe winked at me, there have also been the horrible hangovers and comedowns or situations involving addiction, freak-outs and the rest. As a result of this, I have come to think of drugs as neither positive nor negative. Chemicals, despite differing risk profiles, are mostly defined by the person using them and the situation in which they do so. Therefore, I can’t help but think that instead of demonising certain drugs and those that use them with expensive and futile prohibition, we should rather treat them as neutral, if volatile, substances; as an issue of health; and as a personal choice like drinking alcohol, eating fatty foods or leaving the fucking house in the morning. People should be provided with undistorted facts and allowed to make their own decisions.

In recent years things seem to have been moving slowly in the right direction with the liberalisation of drug policy in Portugal (across the board decriminalisation of personal amounts), Uruguay and parts of the US (cannabis legalisation), with respected international figures like ex-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan labelling the war on drugs a failure. After the not-so-respected international figure PM Tony Abbott voiced his support for medicinal marijuana (admittedly a somewhat separate issue to recreational use), people could be forgiven for thinking we may be on some sort of home stretch. However, there are a lot of people employed due to the war on drugs, with a lot of funding given to police, and it’s an issue that provides a lot of political capital, so I guess it should be no surprise that scaremongering and misinformation in the media and general discourse will continue. Whether it’s a made-up “ice epidemic” to make us fear being overrun by violently masturbating meth zombies, or “dodgy pills” used to justify sniffer dog programs that are neither safe nor effective.

I’ll start out with the “dodgy pills”, which play on fears of what I will term the “lightning bolt” – the fear that taking just one pill or one dose will kill you due to dangerous adulterants. The “lightning bolt” is a lot like getting hit by lightning (surprise, surprise) in that it’s theoretically possible, but highly unlikely. Very few people die from taking pills (dodgy or otherwise) and when they do, there are usually other contributing factors. This isn’t to say adulterants are not an issue – I’ve taken enough strange pills in my time to know otherwise – but it seems rather obvious to me that justifying continued prohibition by one of its symptoms, a potentially unscrupulous black market, doesn’t really make sense. Similarly, the safety argument (that generally includes “dodgy pills and the “lightning bolt”) is used to justify sniffer dogs at musical festivals and the like, which tends to encourage unsafe behaviour, such as people taking all their drugs at once to avoid detection. They also tend to rack up more false positives than actual arrests (with the majority of arrests being for personal possession).

Onto the “ice epidemic”, the second we’ve supposedly had in Australia in the last decade. Even though it doesn’t actually exist, (I’ll leave it up to readers to analyse why the police and sections of the media might manufacture an ice epidemic), I understand why the idea scares people so much. Due to its potential for addiction and the behaviours it can trigger, crystal meth is one of those drugs that is spoken about with trepidation in a lot of drug-using circles. The fact that I have encountered some people who are able to use both of those drugs occasionally without falling to addiction will be shrugged off as “the lucky minority” by most, as people understandably choose to focus on the addicts. With the revulsion and fear these addictions stir up, many shirk away from policy suggestions that are perceived to be soft on such drugs, an attitude that is counterproductive on a couple of levels. Practically speaking, the further you force addicts underground, the more likely they are to engage in risky or criminal practices and the less likely they are to seek medical help.

I’m reminded of a recent philosophical conversation on addiction that I had with a friend. Something he said stuck with me – “People like us aren’t the issue, sure we teeter around the edge a bit, but we have plans, things we want to do in the future and we have escape routes, support networks to fall back on if we need to. It’s the people with nothing and no one who get taken by the shit. They have very little else in their lives, so the drugs just take over.”

While it may be simplifying things somewhat, I still see an inherent truth in that statement. We all need to start looking past the addiction and see the person. I’d hazard a guess that most people who get hooked on drugs are in some kind of pain, feel alienated and alone or have something else missing from their lives. I know it can be tricky, as addiction sometimes causes people to act horribly, but generally I think addicts deserve our sympathy and understanding.

By that measure, I think we need to start shaping drug use policy with compassion and intelligence instead of fear and punishment; to start looking past the argument over the value of drugs and start looking at the value of the war on drugs.

One of those things isn’t going to disappear…the other could disappear tomorrow if we and our politicians allow.

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