Consult the data and you’ll find that the majority of recreational drugs users in this country aren’t mentally ill, homeless, or perpetrators of violent crimes but controlled, productive and intelligent members of society. Dig deeper and you’ll find that it is statistically normal to have tried drugs by the time you reach your twenties and that in all likelihood you will not die from recreational drug use. Why then, is the discourse surrounding drugs in this country so irrational, hysterical and devoid of foresight? Earlier this week we spoke with journalist Lisa Pryor, author of A Small Book About Drugs (out now via Allen and Unwin), about the problematic generation gap with regard to drug use, the Portugal solution and why Australia needs to revisit the debate on legalization and decriminalization of recreational drugs.
Hi Lisa, so what prompted you to write about drugs? The literal answer is that I wrote a column about this topic a couple of years ago. I was amazed by the response and I was approached about writing a book through that. As for why I decided to actually go ahead and write this book even though it might be damaging to me professionally, I thought, I don’t actually feel passionate about drugs, it’s never been a big part of my life, but I do feel passionately about the gap between the reality and the way that drugs get talked about in the media or by politicians. And the fact that the process of improving drugs laws seems to have stalled a bit in Australia. That’s why I wrote this book.
First off I have to ask, because I may have caught you at a really opportune time. Did you go to Splendour in the Grass by any chance? I did! Were you there?
I was there. I know your husband (The Chaser’s Julian Morrow) moderated a few Splendour forums and I thought you might have gone up too. Yeah that’s right. We probably had the most wholesome festival of anyone who was there. I think I saw about two bands and spent all of my time in the kid’s club or the chai tent hanging out with my daughter, which was really nice.
A reasonable discussion about drugs feat. Mos Def, Salman Rushdie and Bill Maher.
Having written a book about drugs and its social effects and the legalities surrounding it, did it change the way you looked at how festivals operated? Like, were you surprised by anything? I was surprised by how few police there were. I thought it would have been more intense. I don’t know, what did you think?
Yeah I thought it was pretty relaxed. The police are obviously aware of what’s happening all around them. I think they accept that there are appropriate times when the law can become malleable and it’s more about safety, which I think is the correct priority. The obvious priority. I think the police are often in a bind. They’re well aware of what’s going on but it’s the people higher up the chain of command who are under all the pressure to enforce the law and get results and seen to be doing something. I did see some hilarious plain clothes police though. They obviously weren’t undercover because they had badges on their belts but they had cargo pants and sneakers on, trying to mix in.
Did you get the chance to speak with many police for the book? I didn’t actually. I spoke with police media and I really wanted to go along with a sniffer dog team and see it from the police perspective, but they didn’t want to know about it. They just totally barred me. From what I’ve observed though, in the book I mention a police officer at a beach party who says “I don’t care if you’re off your head on pills. Have a good night, just stay off the bush regeneration area,” and the issue among police is quite similar to the issue among lawyers and that’s down to a massive generation gap. I imagine police officers under say 35 would be well aware of what’s going on and would maybe feel foolish or sheepish sometimes about what they have to do. But older people and the people in charge of them have a totally different perspective and might not understand how normal it is to take drugs like marijuana and ecstasy at a music festival.
You mention that generation gap and the shift in attitude toward drugs. Is it logical to assume then, that a non-hysterical conversation about drugs might happen very soon? I hope so. I think it will gradually. People will always be worried and concerned about drugs and that’s a healthy thing. But I think it will change and that’s one of the reasons why I don’t actually feel too scared about what I’ve written. I think it’s bloody obvious to people of our age, and self-evident. It only ever seems to look terrible and bad to people who are outside of our age group. I don’t know, how old are you? Maybe we’re a different generation.
Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald on the positive effects decriminalization has had in Portugal.
I’m 24. Well I’m 32 so maybe I’m old to you. What do you think?
I think there’s a definite attitude shift between young and old people. Like it says in the book, 54% of Australians in their twenties have tried drugs. So in a couple of decades our Prime Minster or the CEOs of our companies or the owners of our media organizations are statistically likely to have taken drugs. Just like it’s statistically normal to take drugs – and not die – at a festival. I don’t know, if laws reflect attitudes it kind of has to change over time doesn’t it? Even in the world of popular culture, television and film especially, drugs are really, really normalized to the point where it’s lost all stigma. It’s no longer taboo and it’s not this glamorous thing. That’s one of things that I found when I wrote this book, it actually made drugs seem much less appealing to me. When you think about them as chemicals with certain effects and possible harms…it takes away all the coolness the more rationally you think about them. That reminds me of a story, which I thought was interesting, that illustrates how effective decriminalization is at taking away the glamour of drugs. Purely anecdotal but I had friends who went on a business trip to the Netherlands and they were asking their Dutch colleagues to take them out to a marijuana café and their colleagues were just appalled because in the Netherlands it’s seen as touristy and pathetic.
And you look at something like prohibition and it probably glamorized alcohol even more. Maybe I watch too much television… It was interesting. In my medical classes we were studying drugs, alcohol and addiction recently and the lecturer was saying that in actual fact prohibition was successful at reducing levels of cirrhosis of the liver in long term alcoholics. But of course it caused so many other social problems and crime and violence that it was a complete disaster.
What was the most astounding finding for you in writing this book? The thing that surprised me the most and also reassured me the most was that recreational drug use is largely a phenomenon of people in their 20s and not teenagers. The way people talk about drugs sometimes, it feels like the only people who take ecstasy are 16 year olds and that’s just not true. And from a health standpoint people don’t understand that the reason we always talk about teenagers and drugs is because it’s riskier and more concerning to take drugs as a teenager than as an adult, not because teenagers are more likely to take drugs than adults.
So what are the pros and cons of something like decriminalization? The more I think about decriminalization, particularly the way it works in Portugal, the more I feel like it’s all positive. When it comes to legalization it becomes very complicated and a much more difficult argument. But it’s basically all benefits in decriminalization. The only negative thing that came out of Portugal is a slight increase in recreational drug use amongst adults with a decrease in problematic users and as far as I’m concerned that’s not really a negative. There’s also been a slight decrease in the price of drugs which is considered a negative because it might encourage people to buy more. That’s pretty much it.
So the evidence suggests there are overwhelmingly more benefits than negatives associated with decriminalization? Overwhelmingly. And not even getting into the social and economic benefits yet but the perhaps the greatest evidence of its success in Portugal is the bipartisan support for keeping the laws as they are. Apparently all parties want to maintain decriminalization, even the conservative politicians who disagreed with it to begin with.
But if people only change their stance once something’s been proven to them. How do we start the conversation in Australia? It’s a bit of a catch 22. I think the best way is to point to something like Portugal where they’ve done something quite radical and the sky hasn’t fallen in. But it seems, particularly in recent years, the way that reforms to drug laws happen is piecemeal and by stealth. It’s always in a round about way. We’ve got drug courts here in New South Wales but it’s only a halfway solution and there’s not that much bravery there among politicians. I think the most important thing to do as far as getting it on the agenda is to talk about it. And for people not to be afraid of speaking out about this stuff because it’s important. Actually that’s the other thing I concluded from the book. It’s really easy to get angry at politicians for not being brave. But because of the nature of their jobs they can’t be as brave as we can as private citizens. We have to be brave first to allow them to be brave.
Have you seen The Wire by any chance? Bits of it, the only intense drug series I watch is Breaking Bad. But I have seen bits of The Wire.
I love Breaking Bad. In season three of The Wire a police chief secretly trials this zone where drugs are legal called Hamsterdam. And even with the benefits of isolating and regulating the places where drugs are sold, and reducing city-wide crime rates and helping the most at-risk drug users, the powers that be shut it down because they aren’t brave enough or informed enough to say they support it. It seems like The Wire and popular culture in general is quite effective at changing people’s attitudes toward the war on drugs. Or at the very least something like The Wire can comment on how futile a pursuit it is. I find it interesting how America is supposed to be obsessed with the war on drugs and yet it seems like there’s more debate about changing the law and more changes to the law there than there have been in Australia. It’s quite sad.
Tell us about some of the well adjusted drug users you met. One commonality that I noticed is that they weren’t using drugs as a way to escape from the rest of their lives. They liked the rest of their lives. They still had the desire to travel to exotic places, were ambitious, worked hard and had interesting jobs. Trying drugs was just an extension of that curiosity and they treated it as an interesting life experience. Another commonality among the people I spoke with was a stage in their early to mid 20s where they frequently took drugs for a period of about six months. Going out every weekend and taking ecstasy usually. Then gradually they get sick of it and go back to taking drugs only occasionally. Have you seen that?
I have, I have. It’s a fairly common story. There seems to be a point, and as you say it lasts six months or maybe slightly longer, where people party really hard and take a lot of ecstasy or whatever but once it’s over they never really take drugs as frequently ever again. It changes and becomes a special occasion thing. So I guess the question becomes how should policy making change to reflect the fact that drug use doesn’t necessarily equate to addiction? How do we accommodate for otherwise law-abiding people who hold respectable jobs and pay their taxes and all of that but who take pills when they go to something like a festival for example? That’s a victimless crime. I think we need to acknowledge that people take drugs and create more drug education that asks questions people actually want to know the answers to, that’s important. For example, how does the danger of GHB compare to the danger of ecstasy? Which drugs should I never combine? How long should you wait after having an E before you drive? Practical information which deals with the very real and direct harms that people can face and not just body bags and addiction and prostitution.
Would you suggest treating drugs as a health and education issue as opposed to a criminal one? Oh absolutely. The more criminalized and underground something becomes the higher the instances of things like HIV and Hepatitis C. Also it would lift the burden on police and the taxpayer with regard to policing and processing drug users. And it would divert revenue streams from criminal organizations. Maybe we do have to accept that 700,000 people a year in Australia are going to try ecstasy and we can’t do much to prevent that. It seems crazy to hand that market over to organized crime to profit from. Something I talk about in the book is our concern with fair trade coffee or free range eggs and we’re worried about where our produce comes from and it just doesn’t make sense to support something as dodgy as the international drug trade. An industry which has terrible work practices and terrible human rights standards. The thing about criminalization is we’re not given a choice to buy free fair trade ecstasy or marijuana. I would happily pay more for drugs that have been sourced ethically but I’m not given that option.
Not a reasonable discussion about drugs.
It’s funny you should say that because at Splendour on the weekend a friend was telling me how he thought it was ironic how people would say they were vegetarians for ethical reasons and yet they’d do cocaine. And he’d explain to them that if they didn’t eat meat because they thought the way we treat animals is inhumane, by that same logic cocaine should be the most abhorrent thing in the world. And it’s human beings not chickens. Exactly.
Where do you stand on legalization? Is it a feasible option? I feel torn about legalization. And yet ultimately I have to conclude that it’s not right for me to think it’s alright to do a particular drug myself and it not be legal. It’s too contradictory. If drugs were decriminalized it still wouldn’t be right to say it’s OK for me to take a drug that someone can go to jail for and which I have to source through criminal organizations. So I feel there should be genuine consideration for legalization of marijuana and ecstasy in particular. But I think it should only be done with much stricter controls than we currently have for alcohol and tobacco. We know that there’s a problem with alcohol companies and tobacco companies trying to promote things that aren’t healthy for people and squeezing a profit out of it and doing it in nefarious ways. We want to make sure never to repeat those mistakes or create a powerful lobby group that will push drugs as a commercial product rather than having a conscience about public health.
What can we learn from the legalization of the alcohol, tobacco, and gambling industries, industries that do carry an inherent social cost? You mentioned not giving too much power to lobby groups for example, but I’m sure there are other things to consider. It may sound a bit communist but it needs to be sold in a way that doesn’t allow a private industry to profit. We also have to be conscious of trying to contain the size of the market as much as possible and even though it’s good that drugs will be taxed, we have to make sure we don’t have the same situation that’s happened with poker machines where governments have become addicted to the revenue streams that come from that taxation and therefore the industry has an interest in expanding people’s use. One suggestion is that the tax that is gathered form drug sales is kept in a special pool just to treat drug addiction and for those sort of purposes, and that it doesn’t go in to general revenue so governments can use it for building roads or doing other things.
What’s interesting as well about the western world in general and society’s attitude towards drugs is that alcohol fatalities are much more frequent per capita than say something like marijuana. There’s obviously a bit of a disconnect to think that something that is proven to be more harmful is legal and the other is not. When talking to someone about decriminalization of marijuana for example, what should we tell them to engage them in an intellectual, meaningful way? I think it’s really difficult because the comeback those people always use is why would you open the floodgate, it’s bad enough with alcohol and tobacco, why make it worse by increasing the pool of drugs out there? I guess the answer is, well they’re going to get used anyway, there’s no evidence that decriminalizing them increases their use particularly. I guess another one is just ramming home the statistics as much as possible. Say for example, the statistic that marijuana makes you 2.6 times more likely than the average person to end up with psychosis, that’s a really good reason to avoid or curb your use of marijuana. But by comparison, cigarettes make you 20 times more likely to get lung cancer so by that logic parents should be more worried about their kids taking up smoking than the occasional joint.
I guess it’s about giving your citizens autonomy and the ability to choose for themselves. I don’t think it’s unreasonable. It’s also largely a matter of personal taste. I’d much rather have a glass of wine than a joint and for me that’s about my personal preference and not a moral position. Other people feel differently about it.
And obviously Portugal has demonstrated if given the choice, people will still act in a rational manner. One of the difficulties when talking about drug addiction is, almost by definition, drug addiction is the inability to act rationally in relation to the drug, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have rational laws to address that and to help people through it in a way that makes sense.
As a mother, how will you have the conversation about drugs with your own child? That’s always a difficult question. No matter what your attitudes are, you will always want your own child to never do drugs, never have a drink, never travel overseas, never have sex, but I think the most important thing is that what ever information you give, you make sure it’s accurate. If you don’t give accurate information kids won’t trust you as a reliable source of information and will go to other people. Also, I really strongly believe that whether kids end up in trouble over drugs is not most strongly defined by what you tell them about drugs. It’s about whether you raise them as happy, confident people who, if they do have mental health issues, they’re addressed in proper ways, all those things are much more important.
Thank you so much for your time Lisa. Thank you.
A Small Book About Drugs is out now via Allen and Unwin.