The respectable drug-taker
Every day Simon gets up at 5.30am to do yoga. Afterwards he heads to his full-time job at a university. Sometimes, he throws in some volunteer work as well.
‘‘I’d say I’m a pretty busy person,’’ says Simon (not his real name).
The reason he doesn’t want his name used is because there’s one other part of his lifestyle Simon is explaining. ‘‘I would use drugs a couple of times a month,’’ he says. ‘‘Hallucinogens, mainly, and MDMA’’. He also uses cannabis and alcohol, although he tends to drink on only one or two nights a week.
‘‘I’m reasonably healthy, I look after myself a lot of the time, I’m probably not what a lot of people who are anti-drug have as their stereotype of a drug user,’’ he says.
But Simon is a pretty good example of the type of drug user identified by the Global Drug Survey, conducted this year in Australia in partnership with Fairfax Media.
At 32, he is a little younger than many of those who shared their experiences, about 30 per cent of whom were aged between 40 and 60.
Overall the 6600 respondents were an educated, healthy, heterosexual, Anglo-Saxon and well-off bunch – about a quarter earned more than $100,000 a year.
The survey is the biggest undertaken in Australia examining the use of illegal drugs , with about two-thirds of people using them in the past year, and about 45 per cent in the past month.
It paints a picture of the mainstream drug user, one largely ignored by our focus on the harms, and crime, associated with drugs.
Prohibition, even many police admit, is having little effect on this user.
The founder and director of the Global Drug Survey, Dr Adam Winstock, is a London-based addiction psychiatrist. ‘‘I spend my life working with one group of drug users, and they seem to be the only group that governments are interested in,’’ he says. ‘‘That’s the group whose lives are ruined by drugs, but that is a tiny minority’’.
Two years ago he had an epiphany: someone needs to talk to these other users, find out what they are doing and give them a forum to find out more. Along with the survey he started a website called drugsmeter, which allows users to get feedback on their use.
‘‘You need to start thinking about basing your policy and your services around the 80 to 90 per cent of people who use drugs,’’ Winstock says.
And, all over the world, he says, those people are similar: next-door neighbours, mums and dads, uni students.
Winstock says the Australian respondents to the survey were slightly older on average than those in Britain, and less likely to be in the clubbing scene. Although that’s probably more a reflection of the fact that in Britain the survey also partners with a music publication called Mixmag.
‘‘Your drugs are also much more expensive here, ecstasy is $25-$30 whereas in the UK it’s $10-$15. A gram of cocaine is $350 whereas in the UK it’s $75,’’ Winstock says.
Other differences include greater prescription drug use, and more gambling.
Our older, more educated and well-off respondents were also far less likely to have suffered the negative effects of law enforcement. ‘‘If you had a whole lot of minority groups and Aboriginal people the survey would have told a different story,’’ he says.
Only 5 per cent of people said they had been stopped and searched by police in the past year although the younger the person the more likely the search. Nearly one in five of the 16 and 17-year-olds surveyed had been searched. This slumped to only 3 per cent for over-30s.
Younger people were also more likely to have taken risks. About a quarter of those aged 16 to 30 had snorted a white powder without knowing what it was. Mystery white powders and nasty tablets conjure some worrying images, but the clearest problem drug to emerge from the survey was alcohol.
Emergency medical treatment was far more common for drinkers, along with users of synthetic cannabis. And the most common number of standard drinks consumed by people who ended up in a hospital emergency department was 12.
The survey also asked people about the good and bad feelings linked to drugs, such as whether they helped you relax or socialise, made you feel sick or act in ways you regretted.
When the good and bad were added up, alcohol and tobacco came out as the least pleasurable drugs. The most pleasurable? MDMA (ecstasy) and LSD.
It’s tried-and-tested drugs such as LSD, ecstasy, cannabis and cocaine that people are most interested in trying, despite the explosion in new drugs, often sold as ‘‘legal highs’’.
And most were not buying drugs online, but from friends and dealers, or, in the case of legal highs, from adult shops and tobacconists, says Dr Monica Barratt, a research fellow at the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University.
‘‘Of those who do buy online, most of them report first doing so in the last couple of years, which indicates that buying online is becoming ... increasingly popular,’’ she says.
Small, inconspicuous drugs such as LSD are easy: Barratt says she has heard of one user who received a tab of acid so well hidden in a greeting card they had to go back to the seller to ask how to find it.
But when it comes to drugs such as cannabis – which is generally sold only through Silk Road, an online black-market trading site – dealers tend to promise the drugs will not be detectable because they are vacuum-packed and sealed in ‘‘stealth packaging’’.
Yet anecdotally it appears Australians have more trouble importing drugs than residents of Britain or Europe, where borders are more porous.
When drugs are detected, Barratt says, customs tends to send the buyer a letter saying they have the package and inviting the person to pick it up if they wish. Unsurprisingly, few make the trip.
So what drives someone to try to buy cannabis online? Barratt believes some people just don’t want to maintain social relationships with dealers. And, in a pattern seen throughout the retail sector, for some it is the value and variety.
‘‘If you think of it more like the person is a wine connoisseur who is interested in a particular strand or something unusual, they might not be able to get it through their usual networks, and certainly people might be prepared to pay, and pay a lot more, for that,’’ she says.
These connoisseur drug users are set in their ways, saying they are unlikely to change their habits no matter what the law.
The public has the idea that the legal status of drugs will have a much bigger impact on individual choices that it does in reality, says Professor Alison Ritter, the deputy director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.
‘‘The legal status of drugs gets an enormous amount of airplay but, in fact, it may not substantially change people’s behaviour,’’ says Ritter.
The survey asked respondents what would happen if small amounts of drugs were legal, if they were punished with a fine, or if they were available from a government outlet, with guaranteed quality and purity.
Most said legality would make no difference to the amount they would use. About 15 per cent said they might use more drugs; 25 per cent said they would probably drink less.
Ritter, who also runs the centre’s drug policy modelling program, is frustrated by the focus on crime and drugs. ‘‘It seems crazy to me,’’ she says. ‘‘We know that providing treatment that’s accessible and appropriate to someone’s needs works, yet we invest substantially less in treatment services than we do in policing.’’
But if people would not increase their drug use if they were legal, why is alcohol so widely used?
Ritter says there is too much history and culture associated with alcohol to determine what role legality plays. ‘‘You can’t argue therefore that if cannabis for example became legal, 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the population would use it,’’ she says.
Gino Vumbaca, executive director of the Australian National Council on Drugs, says that, if anything, the experience with alcohol shows how not to legalise a drug.
He argues governments are interested in the majority of drug users who don’t develop problems, and the council is working to develop an app that can help people monitor their use.
‘‘Sometimes people don’t realise the patterns they are developing until it’s too late,’’ he says. ‘‘We’re not saying that everyone who uses drugs will have a problem, but a percentage will.’’
But besides tobacco, which has its own unique health problems, Vumbaca says, alcohol causes Australians the most problems.
‘‘It’s quite easy to say that just because alcohol is legal it shows what a problem legalising drugs could cause, but what it shows is how not to do it,’’ he says. ‘‘You don’t sit down and watch the cricket with people shoving ads down your throat saying, ‘This is the drug for you’. People are never going to support that’’.
To get some feedback on your drug and alcohol use visit drugsmeter.com or drinksmeter.com
Drugs of choice
of non users say they might try illegal drugs if they were made legal
If there was no penalty for use, I would . . .
use the same drugs in same quantities
be more comfortable about disclosing drug use to friends/family
be more comfortable about seeking help/advice for drug use
use more of the illegal drugs that I already use
probably use a wider range of drugs
drink less alcohol
SOURCE: FAIRFAX GLOBAL DRUG SURVEY