Coming out about illicit drug use: ‘The hush-hush attitude has to end’ – The Guardian
A campaign to decriminalise illicit drugs is asking people to speak up about their recreational use as a way to de-stigmatise and change the conversation
Last modified on Thu 22 Jul 2021 19.38 EDT
Nat Gombos hesitated before participating in a new campaign encouraging young professionals to speak openly about their illicit recreational drug use.
“I still struggle with it, thinking through the potential ramifications” the 28-year-old says. “I ask myself if it’s smart. But nothing happens without people agitating for change. By not speaking up, I contribute to the wall of silence harming people.”
The solicitor from Sydney, who takes drugs such as MDMA, ketamine, cocaine and cannabis every few months, says this silence presents a false narrative of what drug-taking looks like.
“I’m missing from the narrative. Like many who take recreational drugs, I have good experiences and lead a normal life” she says. “I’m hoping someone privileged and middle class like myself, with two degrees, will challenge the views of those with the ‘tough on drugs’ mentality. Those most affected by punitive drug laws are disadvantaged people” she says.
Gombos is participating in a campaign by registered charity Unharm called Let’s be honest/Change the story. One of the major tactics Unharm is employing to achieve their “legal and safe” drug use goal is mimicking the strategy of gay equality law reform movements: by persuading people to “come out” about their use – especially those who dispel stereotypes.
“Journalists covering drug stories mostly write about law enforcement and quote people like police and politicians” the campaign states. “People who use drugs are portrayed as criminals, irresponsible or troubled and almost never quoted.”
But detractors say it’s a dangerous message to send and that it’s a fallacy to suggest there’s a “safe way” to use drugs, which is why they remain illegal.
Unharm’s ultimate goal is to decriminalise all drug use in Australia by 2030.
This has been done to varying degrees by other countries: Canada and 18 US states have legalised cannabis use and supply, and Portugal decriminalised all illicit drug use in 2001 and it has been regarded as a success, with fewer drug-related deaths and less drug-related crime. Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Chile, Peru, Uruguay and the US state of Oregon have also all decriminalised drug use in one way or another.
In Australia, ACT, NT and SA have decriminalised the possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use.
Will Tregoning, Unharm’s CEO, sees a decriminalised future looking like an improved form of the system we have for alcohol: “You’re allowed to drink alcohol, buy it, serve it to your friends. If you want to sell it, you need a licence. To keep that license you comply with rules and regulations that define when, where, and what you can sell, how you package it, and to whom you sell it, such as banning under-18s from buying it,” he says.
“Just like with alcohol, the specific rules will change from place to place, or from one specific substance to another. And we can do better than the current alcohol laws, by limiting advertising and ensuring that the community gets a stronger voice in setting regulations.”
Veteran drug law reform doctor Alex Wodak says his 40 years of experience has convinced him that the more people who come out about their drug use, the better – “It humanises the issue” he says. “Stigma ultimately makes it easier for policymakers to ration help for those struggling.”
Wodak, the director of Sydney’s St Vincent’s hospital alcohol and drug service, says the starting point for any discussion about the decriminalisation of drugs must be that the current system is broken. “Most people who know something about drug policy are well aware of this. We can’t just keep on kicking this can down the road” he says.
But there are problems with aiming for legalisation: “If legalisation means ‘all drugs available in unlimited quantities to whoever wants them for a fee’, the community would never agree to this,” Wodak says. “Regulating as much of the market as possible is more achievable.”
The Australian Medical Association pointed Guardian Australia towards its policy statement which describes recreational drugs as carrying immediate and potentially long-term health risks. It supports a “major change in funding priorities from policing/prosecution … to interventions that avoid or reduce use,” adding that decriminalisation reduces stigma and increases the accessibility of treatment services.
In 2014 Unharm’s founding members psychiatry registrar Dr Lisa Pryor, lawyer Miles Hunt and Tregoning came out on SBS’s The Feed. They argued their privilege not only allows them to share their story with less fear of repercussions, but that it also bestows upon them a responsibility to do so.
The reaction, though, surprised even them. When asked on the program what illegal drugs he’d taken, Tregoning hesitated and prevaricated, saying “I’m not sure I’m actually comfortable talking about this,” before later answering the question. Pryor admitted to being nervous but listed all the drugs she’d taken saying drug law reform was a “battle worth fighting”.
Miles Hunt talks about having his face “plastered across the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald” when he expected it to be around page 10. “Lawyer: I’ve used drugs” the splash read. His mum was convinced it’d ruin his life; people in his boss’s ear said the article would damage the firm’s reputation.
Hunt says none of that happened. “I’m still a lawyer today. I had my five minutes of fame where I was called the ‘drug-taking-lawyer’ but overall there were no issues with my career that came from the article.” He says he knows this was partly due to his privilege as a white, middle class, privately educated man: “Being a lawyer isn’t just about upholding the existing laws – it’s about fighting for better ones.”
Tregoning says that given disadvantaged groups, particularly people of colour, continue to be unfairly targeted and disproportionately incarcerated for drugs offences, the onus falls on the silent elite to be more honest.
Ernie Hamilton*, 32, a practising vet from Sydney, participated in the media workshops. He was 15 when he started using ecstasy, something that became a weekly occurrence. These days he uses recreational drugs, such as ecstasy, cocaine, ketamine and LSD, monthly. He’s using a pseudonym because while he wants to make a point, he’s still not entirely comfortable with coming out.
“The negative media stereotype you see of drug users is almost the opposite of reality,” he says. “Often they’re people performing high-level tasks, they’re very responsible and community minded.”
He’s participating in the campaign because he says he wants to see policy driven by evidence rather than stigma or prejudice, adding that prohibition has been ineffective both at stopping people taking illicit drugs and providing safety for people who are.
“At sports events, I’ve seen violent, alcohol-fuelled outbreaks and yet police are often cordial,” he says. “Contrast that with arts, cultural and dance festivals: police are standoffish and aggressive, yet I’ve never seen violence there.”
Tony Wood’s daughter, Anna, died in 1995 aged 15 following acute water intoxication after taking an ecstasy pill. He has since been a vocal anti-drugs campaigner.
“I just wonder if they were more liberalised, how many more would be using and dying? Being illegal holds some people back,” he says. “There’s no safe way of using.”
He also disputes the term “recreational”: “Drugs aren’t recreational; they’re dangerous. That’s why they’re banned,” he says.
Wodak says the claim that drug use would soar if drug policy was made less punitive has been vigorously asserted for decades, but the reality is different: “It’s now clear that the effect of less punitive drug policies on drug consumption is minimal while there is a clear benefit: harsh drug policies cause great damage to young people.”
Tony Wood is more focused on the downturn in festival-related deaths of late. “Covid has been wonderful – for two years, I haven’t had a 5.30am call from the media about someone dying at a music festival,” he says. “Before, it was up to three times a week: someone has taken MDMA, drank too much water and their brain swells,” he says, adding the government needs to “fix up” the information it puts out about such risks.
Harm minimisation activists say it’s the taboo that’s dangerous because it silences users, which can deter them from speaking up and asking for help in a crisis or if it becomes an addiction, and certainly, not all illicit recreational drug users live “normal, happy, professional” lives.
Daniel Raffell, 43, lives in Brisbane and began taking drugs in his teens in Scotland. “It felt like a rite of passage, but was also a combination of relief from boredom, peer pressure and the music scene of the early 90s when ecstasy became popular,” he says. Over time, he started taking other drugs including ketamine, acid and, eventually, heroin. It became a weekly habit.
When I ask him if it affected his relationships, Raffell, who overdosed five times and was on the radar of the police for many years, says: “I’m yet to meet a person with a serious addiction who hasn’t had a relationship breakdown. It affected my relationships with my parents and friends, who had issues trusting me. I was surrounded by violence, friends overdosing and dying and isolation. It was lonely. I walked away from many jobs and was on a downward spiral.”
Raffell’s life turned around with recovery, and he’s now the National Program Manager for Smart Recovery Australia.
What does he think of the push for legalisation? “The biggest harm we see at Smart Recovery is alcohol, and that’s legal,” he says. “So a case can be argued both ways. But prohibition didn’t go so well. It isn’t the substance that’s the issue – it’s the brokenness: lack of connection, purpose or opportunity.”
The Alcohol and Drug Foundation has a position statement, which acknowledges that there is a growing acceptance among law enforcers that drug prohibition cannot eliminate drug use and new approaches are needed.
The organisation supports “de jure decriminalisation”: a law change whereby illegal behaviour attracts a civil penalty. Its position states that supply of drugs remains a criminal offence (which has occurred to varying degrees across Australia). It suggests decriminalisation with reference to the Portugese model, but it draws a clear line between decriminalisation and legalisation, acknowledging “the role of law enforcement in disrupting supply of illicit drugs by domestic and overseas criminal syndicates”.
But Gino Vumbaca, president and cofounder of Harm Reduction Australia, says current laws are failing, with a drugs-related arrest every four minutes in 2017-18: “Police can make enormous busts – data later shows there’s minimal impact,” he says. “The current approach defies logic. The level of harm for criminalising small amounts of possession far outweighs any benefit to the community.”
The organisation advocates for no criminal sanctions for possession or use of drugs but says more work needs to be done to educate the community before legalisation questions are grappled with: “We need to think through how supply would work. Would it be the private market? The government? That debate still needs to be had. We need to learn the lessons of what we got wrong and right in legal substances.”
The sticking point is the issue of supply. Wodak says it needs to happen like most social reforms: incrementally: “Decriminalisation isn’t as bad as prohibition but still leaves the pernicious problems of the black market to be dealt with one day, after the community has had time to absorb the removal of penalties for drug consumption.”
Tregoning’s idea of those increments is based on the model proposed by the Queensland Productivity Commission in 2019: “Begin by decriminalising drug use and move from there to legalisation of supply starting with cannabis and MDMA. Without the fear of criminalisation we can also have more open and honest conversations about drugs, to help get the later law reforms right.”
Meanwhile, Nat Gombos is growing in confidence and courage. She’s told her formerly anti-drugs mum about her recreational use. “She was never exposed to it, and took her stance from a lifetime of ‘war on drugs’ propaganda,” she says. “She’s very supportive now.”
“This hush-hush atmosphere has to end. Then we can divert funding to rehab where needed, and redeploy police resources to other, more desperate areas” she says.