Australia’s neverending path to a proper drug policy

This article is available in print in Happy Mag Issue #4.

If you’re reading this publication, there’s a high chance you’ve been to a festival recently. And if you’ve been to a festival, there’s a high chance you’ve run into revellers getting high. Fuck it, if you’ve seen a gig in the last month I’d say the same.

The union between music and drugs is a turbulent relationship as old as time and despite everything you may hear, the breakup is never coming. Like all the most dysfunctional pairings, there isn’t a stick large enough to poke through the spokes of this gargantuan wheel.

drugs music legislation legal drugs australia policy

What obstacles lie ahead for the psychoactive ambassadors hiking the arduous path to a proper drug policy in Australia?

The two have been through millennia of ups and downs, so without a rise or fall disproportionately larger than anything history has ever seen, those revellers will keep showing up to your gigs and festivals.

And with such a contentious, blanketing presence over history, there will be sides endlessly arguing for and against the free use of narcotics. It’s a juicy competition with enough pros and cons to get a high school third-speaker frothing at the mouth… which only propagates the squabble.

We all know those preaching against the drug war are hedonists who “just wants to take drugs all the time”. It’s as easy as saying Americans love guns. Well you’re right, they want to take drugs as much as citizens of Chicago wanted to drink booze in the 20s. That’s why there’s a conversation, and all the purple haze in the world won’t smoke out that decision.

Prohibitionists tend to evangelise health and safety while booze tears Australia apart, one coward punch at a time. At the same time, the Surgeon General of the United States has named the drug war a failure and other medical professionals are undergoing studies into the treatment possibilities of cannabis, MDMA and even LSD.

There are holes in your standpoint and your neighbour’s, so don’t throw stones at them and expect to hit anything.

All across the globe people are injecting, smoking, snorting, shelving and sucking on whatever they can to chase a buzz. The only difference between them is context. Recreational drugs are harder to find and use in some places due to a number of factors; cultural, legislative or even geographical.

In Australia, many drugs are illegal but surprisingly easy to come by once they enter your world for the first time. Year 8 PE textbooks almost had the right of it – no, there’s not a shady hoodlum trying to sell you pot on every dark corner in Sydney, but there may as well be.

The frequency with which someone offers you a pill, joint or powder depends on the circles you keep, and music fans cross over into the centre of the venn diagram a little more than average. The publicity and transparency with which musicians handle drug taking is a major factor here, presently and previously from the acid-fed counterculture of the ’60s to modern EDM’s unflinching kinship with ecstasy.

Party drugs are as acquirable as ever, maybe even more so given the Flume-age popularity of dance music in Australia. Shove your way to the front of a festival tent as the night closes and you’ll see; the high-flying pleasure seekers with their tongues glued to their throats have long started to outnumber their drunk compatriots.

Access causes problems, undoubtedly. Teenagers getting their hands on bud too early has been proven to cause mental degradation, but the same is true for alcohol and cigarettes. Accessibility (whether legal or illegal) does also lead to addiction, but that is a debate for the professionals whose duty it is to treat the afflicted properly.

Hard regulation isn’t without issue either. Before a child is 15 they want to sneak into MA15+ movies. Youngsters will remain youngsters, and until they’re 18 the law is cutting them off from drugs and alcohol equally. The magic of getting your mitts on what isn’t allowed will always allure the mischievous.

I guarantee you, every time Dune Rats cracks another bong or snorts a line of coke in their film clips, an Aussie teenager wishes he was doing the same.

Restriction is the great fallibility of the modern world, and the more forcefully someone rips anything from your hands, the more you want it back again.

Australia has a long history of constricting subcultures based on their worst offenders, most apparent in recent times as conservative governing systems have seemed to worm their way back into fashion.

Drinking curfews based on exceptionally public incidents of extreme violence, ultra-harsh laws for learning drivers in response to horrific accidents and tightening, strong-armed security at every Australian music festival… none of the legislators phasing in these laws lived with these curtailments, so why are we being forced to?

From longstanding Aussie mainstays like Splendour in the Grass to newer festivals made for dance music purists, nothing will stop well-doers from bringing in their stash. When ticketholders are shoving their pills where the sun don’t shine, you’ve pretty much hit an upper ceiling on how far these munters will go.

For some people, drugs might make music sound a little better. For some people, drugs take music to a completely different plane, a level of euphoria unreachable without stimulation. For some people drugs don’t work at all, and that’s the nature of the game.

But when find yourself crowded amongst a heaving mass of music devotees steaming with the exhilaration and frenzy that only drugs and music can provide them in tandem, a switch flicks somewhere in your mind.

Yeah I know. I’m a hedonist who “just wants to take drugs all the time”. But I’m self-aware enough to know the dangers of drug taking too, which is where too many newcomers still need to be educated.

Drugs are fun to most, and centuries of use is your proof. Taking ecstasy releases serotonin, the chemical commonly associated with happiness and well, ecstasy. The amazing, sometimes life-changing reactions people illicit from taking narcotics is documented in music, art and oral histories, but the simple fact remains; too much of a good thing can still hurt you.

Which is the double-edged sword at the forefront of the debate. How can you prepare society for something with so much potential energy for harm? Australia has an entire infrastructure system; lobbies, distributors and entire units in world-class hospitals are among what has been set up to service our population’s use of alcohol. Can you imagine what we would need to change if cocaine started shooting out of vending machines?

So how do we do it? I may sound like I know what I’m talking about when it comes to throwing back substance at a festival, but the finer points of law-making are sometimes better left to the experts. Mehreen Faruqi is the New South Wales Green spokesperson on Drugs and Harm Minimisation, and her stance is one we can all adopt.

“Politicians sitting on their high horses and persisting with heavy-handed ‘law and order’ approaches aren’t helping. Harm minimisation is the only approach that we know works, whether they want to admit it or not.”

The idea of harm minimisation is in the name, a preventative strategy for reducing the amount of damage a substance can inflict upon a community or its individuals, rather than prohibiting it. The way Australia has handled cigarettes in the last few decades our greatest achievement in this field yet.

In the 1970s when smoking was originally revealed to be a leading cause for brain, lung, heart, mouth and various other forms of cancer as well as emphysema and bronchitis, Australia mandated health warnings on every cigarette packet in the country.

Nowadays the warnings have become frighteningly severe, cigarette advertising has been banned and the price of a deck has almost doubled since 2014. As a result, the rate of your pals crushing darts every day has plummeted.

One obvious action in terms of harm minimisation within drug policy is embracing pill-testing, giving drug users at high-use locations such as festivals the option to test their drugs without the fear of persecution. Faruqi completely supports this action.

“Year after year we see drug-related deaths at music festivals which in many cases could have been avoided if people were able to engage with services such as pill testing. Unsafe and adulterated drugs can be identified and discarded in amnesty bins.”

The fear of persecution isn’t stopping Australians from taking drugs at festivals, but neither is their fear of taking pills laced with rat poison.

“We know recreational drug use happens and will continue.”

The transition to an informed, unfettered land of suitable drug policy will be long and arduous. There’s no magical solution which will instantly turn Australian festivals into a gumdrop paradise where MDMA falls from the sky and Donut Time sells a glazed ring laced with THC.

If you enjoy taking drugs while you listen to music in the privacy of your home or dressed like a dairy cow at Groovin the Moo, do so without hurting those around you. Too many times we have lost the power to do as we please thanks to freak accidents or tragic mishaps, and your ability to continue sprucing up reality with your choice of poison is teetering on a ledge with a long, long drop on each side.

The mind-altering potential of drugs is something that everyone should be allowed to explore in our time, but those who have been the highest take the biggest falls. While current legislation may be steeped in problems, the path to proper policy is being walked by dedicated, progressive ambassadors.

If the harmonious pairing between drugs and the music we’re privileged to indulge in every day is to continue, we must be educated, patient and supportive. With professionals of the world beginning to fully realise the medical and psychological benefits of these substances while they slam the war on drugs as a failure, a little more than your Saturday night depends on it.

Or maybe I just want people to have a good time at festivals without worrying about 20 years of imprisonment. Fuck me, right?


This article is available in print in Happy Mag Issue #4.