It was Easter 1998. I was 24 and driving home from Cabramatta. I certainly didn’t go to Cabra in those days for noodle soup. I’d been working, performing in a children’s theatre show and thought I deserved a special treat, it being Easter after all.
I’ve always been a little bit impatient when it comes to gratification, so of course I had to have a taste before leaving Smackramatta. Impatience and greed often go hand in hand. I was a greedy little pig and had overdone it just a bit, leaving me very stoned. So I waited for a little while before heading west on the M4 for the Blue Mountains, where I lived. Hey, I was 24 and bullet-proof.
I was driving pretty slowly along the freeway. I would have argued carefully. Every other car on the freeway was overtaking me. That is, every car except the patrol car that had fallen in behind me and turned on its disco lights.
I pulled over to side of the road and waited to be greeted by the constabulary. I always have to remind myself how much the police hate it if you get out of the car when you’ve been pulled over. I’m inevitably filled with the misguided notion to leap out of my seat and start proclaiming my innocence or explaining myself to them.
“Is there any reason why you’re averaging about 50 kilometres an hour in a 110 zone?,” asked the burly, fortysomething officer who was now at my window. “Your driving seems to be a little erratic.”
“Evening, officer. Happy Easter,” I grinned sheepishly. I noted there was an exit to the freeway just on top of the hill in front of me. Gathering my story and some courage together, I blurted “I’m a performer and I’ve been working all weekend, doing kids’ shows, and I’m really exhausted. I’ve gotta admit after the last show this afternoon a few of us did share a joint but that was hours ago. I haven’t been drinking, I’m just tired and almost home. I’m stopping at a friend’s place tonight just up the hill there near the next exit. It’s five minutes away, if that.”
He passed me a breathalyser. I blew into the machine and he looked disapprovingly when the test came up negative. Thankfully, it was dark and I’ve been blessed with brown eyes so I don’t always look too notably pinned.
The officer drew a deep breath and narrowed his gaze. “Look, I don’t know what your real story is and I don’t want to know, son. You just count yourself lucky it’s Easter and we’ve got a lot of other idiots out there to deal with. Now I’ll tell you what you’re going to do. You’re going to lock this car up and you’re going to walk to that service station at the top of the hill and you’re going to call your mate, or anyone to come and pick you up and you’re going home. You’re gonna come back and get your vehicle tomorrow afternoon. If this car moves before tomorrow afternoon, I’m gonna come and find you and we will blood test you. Now lock your car up and get on your way.”
“Thank you, officer,” I said sombrely. “Can I just get my guitar out of the boot please? It’s worth about as much as my car.”
“All right. Anything else?”
“No sir. Thank you.”
With that I opened the boot and took out my guitar case which, along with my guitar, contained the rest of my stash and fits. I proceeded to walk up the hill to the service station at the exit, called my friend and had a very happy Easter.
I hope you do too. Be careful on the roads, and not too slow on the freeway.
Illustration by Anthony Sawrey
User's Story: I Had a Dream
This story is about the death of my beloved soul mate Peter, father to our two beautiful kids. Before then, our lives had consisted of a happy, love-filled, great fun-filled days. After seeing many friends succumb to that evil hep C, I considered Pete to be “one of the lucky ones”. He fell ill on a Thursday and died on the following Sunday. None of the drawn-out horror I have seen others go through. He was 42.
Lying in my prison cell in 1984, due for release, I thought “How on earth can I stay out for good?” The scenario I came up with was one I’d avoided since I started on the gear: to find a partner. Believe me, I set my standards high – real high!I’d known Pete since the late 70s. He was a nice guy who admitted he always held a flame for me – but so did others. I had seen too many friends treated badly by blokes. Besides, I was too busy trying to keep one habit going, let alone two. So I stayed one out and played by the unwritten rules the scene dictated.
After leaving Bathurst Jail I stayed with my parents to finalise a compo claim. Two weeks later, $14 grand. I was out of there. Another three weeks on, I was sitting in a pub with no money as my parents talked me into putting it into a fixed-term account. I was waiting for some good luck to come my way.
Two guys walked in; one I had briefly run with a while back, the other I couldn’t place. They sat down with me and after some chatter I finally recognised the second guy. The last time I saw Pete he had a huge habit and looked like a wet greyhound. If he had a single white tooth, he’d have had a full set of snooker balls. After a three-and-a-half year lag-on for stick-ups, he’d got his bricklaying ticket and looked, to say the least, hot. Pete made it clear he had gear on him – always a pre-emptive thinker.
Fate was an amazing factor in all of this, like in everything we do, I guess. Off we went to Liverpool station to have a shot – later we jokingly called it “my pseudo engagement ring.” Pete and I were Liverpool locals, yet he was staying with my first cousin (can you see fate at work?) and I was at Coogee. Once on the train we both nodded off, only to waken as the train pulled out and I caught sight of half a station sign: “-field.” Fuck, we were at Ashfield and we hadn’t had a chance to catch up. If I’d had some cash, we could have gone to a motel in Liverpool. I did have $150, but I owed it to my cousin.
Fuck it, I thought.
We jumped off the train to find the “-field” I saw was Fairfield!
That night was brilliant. I knew at once he was the one. He even asked me to marry him. Years earlier, Pete had told my brother in Parra Jail, “I reckon if I got K alone for 20 minutes, I would have her for the rest of my life.” And so he did. He passed all the tests I subliminally laid out for him.
Our lives rolled on until I got pinched. I was terrified I was going back inside until fate stepped in. Methadone was available to us and after a month I was pregnant. We were overjoyed. Even with the form I had, I managed to get a bond. The ’done was heaven-sent, not only for us but for thousands of people in Sydney’s western suburbs in the 1980s.
We thrived as we had time to do all the things that using prevented. After a “sweet struggle”, we secured our own house and had two adored and planned kids, a boy and a girl. We went on picnics, took holidays, we even went once to the Melbourne Cup. We had two cars and a home chock-full of love. These were the halcyon days, the best days of my life.
In 1993 we both had liver function tests. Mine was fine; Pete’s was not. After consultation with a doctor at Westmead Hospital, Pete was given five years to live.
Denial set in. Pete continued laying bricks and was active in our son’s soccer team. We hired a 26-foot scow and had an unreal four days on the Hawkesbury River – hardly the actions of a dying man. Denial can soothe the inevitable. Pete never complained: that is, until one day he spoke the words that had never left his lips before: “Bub, I feel sick.” Three days later, he was gone.
I was crushed. I became something I never wanted to be: a single mother. Family and friends rallied around and gave him a fitting send-off, one he so deserved. I believe you can tell the goodness of a man by the number of people who take the time to pay their respects. That day was standing room only.
My world spiralled down at an amazing speed. Being diabetic, I couldn’t drink. The smack scene I once knew was no more. I found that benzos numbed the pain. Lucky for me the kids were thriving. My son was twelve, our baby was ten and I was 38. I should have been an actor: I was able to put on a front of coping really well. In truth, most of me died with Pete.
I managed to lose my 40s. Of course there were good days and even weeks, however few and far between. Depression replaced the monkey on my back. I lost all confidence. What a nightmare. Without Pete, the house fell down around us. By this time the kids were teenagers and allowed to have parties. Our place became “the House of Fun” but things for me were so sad. No hope was on the horizon.
One night I had a dream, such a beautiful dream: we had a beautiful brick house, I was nearly off the ’done, most of all I had peace of mind and was happy. When I woke up, the cold truth of reality set in. I thought “Yeah, that’s all it will ever be, just a dream.”
So here I am today. I live with my son in a lovely brick house. My daughter is married to another wonderful man and they have a five month-old son together. My lad smokes pot, but none of my family takes anything else. I’m on 3½ mg of ’done. The best thing is I’m so very happy.
The other night, after listening to a riff my son made up on his acoustic guitar and feeling a little high, I opened the lounge room door. Seeing how great it looked, I was transported back to that dream. I realised I had peace, control and, at last, contentment.
So, my friends, no matter how far out of reach some things seem, no matter that the road is long and hard, somehow, some way dreams can come true. Mine did; I truly hope yours do too.
Illustration by Anthony Sawrey
The Consequentialist: An interview with Alex Wodak
On the 29th of February, after nearly 30 years in the position, Dr Alex Wodak stepped down as Director of St Vincent’s Hospital Alcohol and Drug Service.
Dr Wodak’s achievements will be well known to regular readers of this magazine. One of the instigators of Australia’s first needle and syringe program and its first medically supervised injecting centre, he was also a key player in NUAA’s establishment. He helped found the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, and served as President of the International Harm Reduction Association for nine years.
Whilst continuing his clinical work for the next few months at St Vincent’s, he plans to concentrate his energies on drug law reform work as President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation. A fortnight prior to his stepping down as Direcotr, Dr Wodak took time out from a busy day of consultations to sit down and chat with User’s News.
User’s News: You came to St Vincent’s Hospital as a man of medicine, but through your position you‘ve become probably the most visible advocate for drug law reform in Australia. How do you feel about that?
Alex Wodak: The drug policy framework is a travesty. We have a way of approaching drugs as a community in Australia and around the world which doesn’t work. That used to be very controversial: it’s becoming much less controversial as more and more people realise it. It’s very hard to change it from inside politics because politicians are rewarded by advocating for things that don’t work and are punished for advocating for things that do work. So the change must happen from outside politics.
By a quirk of fate, I happened to end up working at an ecclesiastical hospital, which means that it is not part of the Department of Health: it’s like an NGO. Members of staff can’t be sacked by the Minister for Health; they can only be sacked by the board, by the chairman of the board or his/her delegate. That gave me a freedom to speak publicly which my counterparts in other hospitals don’t have. And I’ve used that freedom to advocate for drug law reform. Sometimes not entirely happily as far as the hospital and beyond thought, but I’ve tried to be responsible. It’s difficult but the alternative was even worse – not speaking at all. Over time, the argument’s been won and the debate is substantially over. Few people doubt that prohibition doesn’t work. And I think the political élite have known that for a long time. I don’t just think that: there’s evidence that the political élite have known it for a long time.
UN: I saw you last year in a public debate, arguing that all drugs should be legalised. You and former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery presented solid evidence and there seemed to so little persuasive evidence from the opposition. Yet the shortage of evidence doesn’t sway the resolve of people who have fixed attitudes against drug law reform.
AW: When you sit down and analyse this debate, you realise that it’s not really a debate at all. Advocates for drug law reform or harm reduction are consequentialists; they argue that the wisdom of a particular policy is based on summing-up the benefits and the negatives. If the benefits outweigh the negatives then we do it; if the negatives outweigh the benefits then we don’t do it. It’s very simple.
The opposition are arguing not on the basis of facts – they’re arguing on the basis of righteousness. “This is ordained, this is not ordained. These people are recommending we do something that is not ordained, therefore it is evil.” That’s why these debates are so unsatisfactory. They are a debate between one side that believes that evidence is everything and another side that believes that evidence is nothing. It’s two very different philosophical frameworks. It took me a long time to figure that out.
UN: How do we break through that?
AW: Well, people are being persuaded. Attitudes are shifting in the direction of harm reduction and drug reform. If you look at the National Drug Strategy Household Survey for 2004, 2007, 2009, and you look at support for a needle and syringe program, it went up from something like 64 percent to 67 to 69 percent. 52 percent of all Australians now support medically-supervised injecting centres without any concerted campaign in favour of them. If you look at the Gallup poll in the United States from 1969 to 2011 on the question “Do you support the legalisation of marijuana?” you see that in 1969, 84 percent opposed the legalisation of marijuana. By 2011, only 46 percent opposed legalisation. So there is a clear move. I mean we, we now have, in 2009, the UN Secretary General supporting the decriminalisation of drugs.
It’s gonna take some time but it is clear that support for drug law reform is growing and support for prohibition is declining. And what’s happened in Mexico and Central American countries in recent years is accelerating that trend. Now we’ve got serving presidents and prime ministers advocating market mechanisms for drugs. President Santos in Colombia and President Melena of Guatemala are now calling for legalisation of drugs. And for good reason: global drug prohibition has been implemented to the hilt in Mexico and Central America, and it’s proved impossibly costly. 50,000 Mexicans have died since December 2006, caught in the crossfire, killed by the army, or killed by traffickers.
That’s only the beginning of Mexico’s travails. It’s absolutely appalling. I was in Mexico last week, and the suffering is just unbelievable. There’s been a breakdown in law and order. You don’t know whether you’re gonna get home tonight. You might be kidnapped. Mexico is close to a failed state. And things are even worse in Honduras and Guatemala, which have borders with Mexico. Why did all this happen? Because the drugs that used to go through the Caribbean can no longer: the Americans managed to stop that. Now they go through Mexico. And after 9/11, the Americans increased homeland security operations on the sub-border, which has reduced the competition between the cartels, and the price differential between heroin, cocaine and cannabis on the Mexican and US sides of the border has increased. Abraham Lincoln said that if you want to destroy a bad law, you should implement it to the full.
UN: There are some important issues that are gaining traction, such as NUAA’s push for consumer involvement in how NSW pharmacotherapy is dispensed, CAHMA’s peer naloxone program, the ongoing push for NSPs in prisons. Do you see these individual issues as the way to push ahead for drug user activism? Or do you think activists should keep their eyes on the bigger picture of decriminalisation?
AW: There’s no simple answer. I think some issues are much easier than others to argue for. As you know, I was involved in the establishment of NUAA and it’s always been clear to me it’s been very necessary. Every other branch of medicine has a strong consumer group. Diabetes has it, mental health has it, coeliac disease has it. Why the hell shouldn’t alcohol and drugs have it? That’s at one level. On the other hand, if we’re ever gonna make progress in the policy area of drug reform and human, it’s clear that there also has to be a strong user movement – whatever you want to call it. If my colleagues and I had a stronger consumer movement that was beating us up, beating the government up, beating the community up about the crappy services that are provided, the services and funding would improve.
The easiest question of all to argue for is medicinal cannabis. The figures on that from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey indicate 69 percent of the Australian population support medicinal cannabis and 75 percent would support a trial of medicinal cannabis. I think it is outrageously wrong that in 2012 somebody dying of cancer or AIDS, or what have you... if he or she believes that cannabis is going to ease their last few weeks or months, let ’em have it. I can’t see a single rational argument to deprive a person with a serious, terminal, painful, horrible end to their life from something that compassionately could give them some comfort and peace. I have to tell you I feel so emotional and passionate about medicinal cannabis that even if medicinal cannabis were to set back prohibition for 20 years, I’d still be in favour of it. As it happens, I don’t think medicinal use of cannabis will harm drug law reform at all: I think it will only help the arguments for drug law reform.
We have massively over-invested in the law enforcement side and under-invested in the health and social interventions where we get the real benefits. Once you make the decision that this is basically a health and social problem, everything else follows. Then budgets get realigned. We allow medicinal cannabis because it’s primarily a health issue. And we make sure that that’s not a fabric for something else. And one-by-one the issues become obvious. We have heroin-assisted treatment. We don’t give that to everybody as a first-line treatment – it shouldn’t be a first-line treatment – but we reserve it for people, a small minority who are severely dependent and don’t respond to any other treatment. We run methadone programs so that they are accessible, attractive, based on science, run humanely and compassionately – very different from how we have to run them these days. And likewise we have substitution treatment programs for wherever there’s enough scientific evidence to allow them.
We used to be very progressive and enlightened in Australia compared to other countries but we’ve stayed still and the rest of the world has moved on. It’s high time that we also moved on in Australia. We still only have one injecting centre in the whole country. We don’t have a single prisoner in Australia who gets sterile injection equipment. We tried hard to get heroin-assisted treatment almost 15 years ago; it was stopped. And since that was stopped, seven trials have been carried out in six countries all of which have been incredibly positive. So it’s pretty depressing, really. Even the United States is way ahead of us in terms of cannabis. You have to ask yourself: why does a rich, enlightened, tolerant, accepting country like Australia allow an area like this to remain a backwater?
UN: You’ve seen an extraordinary amount of change and I guess an extraordinary amount of stasis too. What part of your work at St Vincent’s do you feel most proud of?
AW: I’ve enjoyed all the different things I’ve done. I’ve done a wide variety of different things. I’ve enormously enjoyed clinical work with people but that can be frustrating. I’ve enjoyed work with doctors who have alcohol and drug problems. That’s also got its frustrations. I’ve enjoyed the policy work, which is very much like the clinical work. In clinical work, you’re dealing with people who, who can’t function in an area of their life that’s important to them – alcohol and drugs – and, in the policy work, you’re dealing with communities that can’t function with an important part of their policy, which is the alcohol and drug part. The similarities just leap out at you. But it’s all been enjoyable.
I’ve enjoyed building institutions with other people, including NUAA, the Australian Society for HIV Medicine, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre. I’ve been very lucky and privileged to do a lot of travel, especially to third-world countries. That’s really been a great privilege because I’ve seen more or less what we’ve seen here in Australia, except that the people I saw in developing countries are often really struggling, who go into empty libraries and centres where people have nothing. I’ve learnt a lot from that. So I’ve been very lucky to have these opportunities. And in the middle of it all there was the gale-force wind of the HIV epidemic blowing in, and that forced people to be much more realistic than they would have been otherwise. I’ve had a great time and I’ve had terrific support from St Vincent’s Hospital, terrific support from colleagues all over the world and in Australia. I can’t say that there’s any one thing that I’ve enjoyed more thany other thing. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s all been a terrific variety.