Monday Music: Highs and lows

It may come as a surprise to some people who know me, but the only illegal drug I have ever indulged in is marijuana. And I guess that for followers of this blog who don’t know me personally, that previous sentence itself may be something of a surprise.

Let me explain.

I was a teenager in the 70s and a young adult in the 80s. Need I say more? This is the kind of thing I was listening to (for those who don’t know, golden brown refers to heroin).

And this. Rita Marley’s not talking about getting high on life, she’s talking about sensimilla, a ‘potent form of marijuana’ very popular with rastafarians.

Back then, I lived in the inner city and hung out with artists, actors, dancers, musicians, hippies and students. Most of the people I know from those days will have tried not just dope but ecstasy or speed or heroin or magic mushrooms, or all of the above and more, at one time or another. Not me — although people speak to me sometimes as though of course I know what it’s like to be on speed, or whatever. Nope. Only by observation, and what I’ve learned from popular songs.

Well, okay, I didn’t learn much about being stoned from Cab Calloway, but I did learn that people have been singing about drugs for quite a long time.

I smoked dope for a few years when I lived in a share house and we had it growing in the backyard. I stopped when it started to induce paranoia, rather than pleasure. I never felt any desire to try anything else. Call me uptight, if you will, but I like to be in full control of my brain, and mind altering substances, even when badged as ‘mind-expanding’ substances, hold absolutely no appeal.

Although I have to say, I am grateful to all those musicians who haven’t shared my reservations and have thus created an amazing legacy of drug songs.

I suppose that sounds a little flippant. Illicit drugs definitely do have a downside, as Rodriguez tells us.

[I chose that clip for the intensity of the live guitar; you can hear the original here.]

But part of that down-side is to do with the fact that these drugs are illicit. I’m not saying there aren’t health risks associated with drugs like heroin and amphetamines. Of course there are, but if drug use was decriminalised, those harms could be better managed, and a whole lot of drug-associated health and social problems wouldn’t be plaguing our society (or not to the extent that they do now). Imagine — no more drug wars or warlords. Fewer overdose deaths. No more drug-related crime. Fewer transmissions of HIV and hepatitis C. No more young Australians on death row in Indonesian or Singaporean prisons.

You don’t have to take my word for it. There’s a mounting body of evidence that the harsh, punitive war on drugs isn’t working. Most recently, last week, on the eve of International Drug Users’ Day (1 November), the British conservative Government released a report that, having compared a range of different international approaches to illicit drug use, found that punitive laws did not reduce drug use. Conversely, they found that the Portuguese approach, which included decriminalisation, reduced both drug use (if that’s really your bottom line) and also drug-related HIV infections.

Having grown up when I did, I suppose I naturally had a fairly permissive attitude to drug use, but I also believed some of the stereotypes about ‘hard’ drugs and the people who inject them. That changed when I started working in an HIV organisation 25 years ago. I changed my mind not just because the research and evidence-based policy analysis on drug use and harm reduction were convincing, but because, through meeting and working with people who inject drugs, I realised that they don’t all fit the stereotypes. I had to re-evaluate my opinions.

Of course there are plenty of people who are dysfunctional heroin addicts, but there are also plenty of people who are dysfunctional alcoholics — the only difference is social acceptability. You could argue in both cases that the dysfunctionality is almost always related to other unresolved issues in their lives. Drug/alcohol use can make things worse (even though it may feel like a solution) and of course this needs to be addressed, but it isn’t the sole cause. And it’s no reason to stigmatise people.

There are also plenty of people who use illegal drugs who are not dysfunctional. Their lives are rich and fulfilling and productive, not chaotic. They are smart, compassionate, creative. Like the musicians who write songs inspired by their trips. Like the ordinary people who use occasionally, just for fun at a dance party or to chill in the park with friends (cue Lou Reed’s Perfect Day). Like the people who established and maintain the Australian League for Injecting and Illicit Drug Users (AIVL) and other user groups in Australia. If not for their advocacy, we would by now have a raging HIV epidemic in Australia among people who inject drugs, as has happened in many other parts of the world. Those people are not ‘dirty junkies’, they are heroes.

So if you’ve found my post a tad confronting, I ask you to just open your heart and mind, question your stereotypes and take the time to explore some of the links. Like so many things that push the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable, illegal drug use isn’t a black and white issue. It’s a human rights issue.

Enough of the rant. We’ve lost sight of a crucial piece of the puzzle here. Human beings everywhere have sought out mind-altering substances for many reasons probably ever since we came down from the trees. And because for so many people drugs are simply about pleasure, I leave you with what may be the most famous drug-inspired song of the 20th century. Call it propaganda if you like; it certainly makes LSD look like fun. But … nah … still not tempted.



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