Mia talked to Lisa Pryor on the first episode of Mamamia (season two) about her new book, which could potentially change the drug debate in this country. You can buy the book here.
The following is an unedited extract of ‘The Silence’, a beginning chapter from Lisa Pryor’s new work A Small Book About Drugs and has been republished here with full permission.
As my fingers touch down on my keyboard, I am fighting against the urge of the journalist within me. The urge to tap out the words that will beckon you to keep reading— epidemic, crisis, revolution, children. News of an obscure designer drug, set to hit the streets and bring an unprecedented wave of destruction to the young.
But that wouldn’t be the real story, and anyway it would be too much like all those other books about drugs already written. This is a different sort of book— it’s about what is left unsaid in the public conversation about drugs.
A significant minority of the population has tried illicit drugs, a slight majority in certain age groups. Most commonly the drug is marijuana, followed by ecstasy. Ecstasy is particularly popular among those in their twenties, and the majority of users restrict its use to once or twice a year—the big party, the outdoor music festival, the summer season of bugging friends with contacts to round up some pills. But where are these functional and occasional recreational drug users in the public discussion of drugs and the debates about drug policy?
This is one of the questions I have set out to answer, fearing those drug users’ silence says something about the lack of political engagement of my generation, our preference for managing risk individually rather than fighting for change on a political level. As one drug user pointed out to me, it is particularly ironic—given that the demographic which uses ecstasy and cocaine includes many people who are wealthier and more educated than average—that this silence comes from a segment of the community which is usually incredibly vocal in public debate, especially when it comes to protecting their own interests.
Along the way I decided that in some ways it is a healthy kind of apathy. Most recreational drug users just don’t feel that passionately about drugs. It hardly feels worth taking a public stand over something you might indulge in a couple of times a year, particularly when any public admission of drug taking could wreck your career prospects, destroy any chance of ever holding high office or maybe even working with children. That’s a bizarre array of consequences for being fingered for an activity which is statistically normal.
And what would be the incentive for overcoming the apathy? Even in this time of prohibition, drugs are perfectly easy to obtain when you want them and it can be cheaper to spend the evening on ecstasy than knocking back beers. As for the dangers, they are real—psychosis, death, jail—but these are consequences most users rarely experience themselves. So the silence suits us. However, every now and then someone we know, some friend of a friend, will get caught and have their future destroyed by a criminal conviction for doing no more than we have done. And we say nothing.
Moving beyond the silence, towards a more nuanced debate and a more sensible drug policy, will not solve every problem related to drugs, but it would bring us a little more safety and certainty. So many of the dangers faced by recreational users are exacerbated by the quality of pills and powders we ingest, which is so variable that it is difficult to determine correct dosage, no matter how much care is applied. At present, because so much government drug information seems to describe the effects of every drug as simply nausea, dizziness and confusion, it is no wonder that too many people turn to unreliable word of mouth to determine how much to take, whether to mix drugs, and what to do if something goes wrong.
The effects of the silence ripple outwards. Policing becomes contradictory and driven by public relations serving the interests of the government and tabloid audiences. As a result, the most visible and publicised crackdowns occur at high-profile music events and dance parties, thus displacing drug taking from the very setting where doctors and paramedics are most likely to be on standby. A generation of otherwise law-abiding citizens gets used to distrusting police and the courts, and even lying to them.
Just as the silence of recreational users has effects which go well beyond them, so will ending the silence.
The greatest beneficiaries of a more rational debate about drugs will be those who are less fortunate—the addicts, whose lives are made more dangerous and bleak by a system which treats drug use as a crime. They are the victims of the organised crime networks who profit from the trade in illicit drugs. The silence must end for the sake of others. If you try your best to buy free-range eggs and fair-trade coffee, does it really make sense to support without question one of the most vicious, unethical trades in the world?
Those who fear it would be disastrous to allow free and easy access to all drugs are absolutely right. Thankfully, this is not what decriminalisation and even legalisation would mean. Moving towards more rational and effective drug policies should be nuanced and gradual, reflecting the particular nature and extent of the dangers of each drug, the way it is taken and by whom.
This book will not present a prescription for precisely how the laws should change. Its purpose is to open up for discussion the possibilities which can be considered worthy of public debate in the media and parliament. Almost certainly, though, a rational drug policy would involve elements of decriminalisation and legalisation, while at the same time introducing strict policing of regulations to limit supply.
Already the mood is changing. Whenever the drug issue is raised, the letters pages of newspapers fill with readers arguing for decriminalisation. Surprisingly, even the online forums of the tabloids fill with the same. Overseas, as we shall see, scientists, economists and law enforcement officials are daring to question the logic of prohibition.
Portugal has undergone a radical and successful program of drug decriminalisation, demonstrating there is a viable alternative to prohibition. The time is ripe for putting away fear and injecting some truth into the debate.
Join Mia Freedman tonight at 9.15pm on Sky News as she chats to author Lisa Pryor.
What do you think about drugs? Is decriminalisation the right way to deal with drugs in society?
Lisa Pryor is a freelance journalist who cut her teeth working for the Sydney Morning Herald as an investigation reporter, opinions editor and columnist. She’s a mother of one (almost two), a medical student and the author of The Pin Stripe Prison and the just published ‘A Small Book About Drugs’.