I had this article published in 2012 as part of Fairfax Media’s series of pieces on drug decriminalisation. It was the ‘most commented’ piece on The Age website for a week!
For five anguished, exhausting and educative years in the 1990s I, like thousands of other ordinary Australians, was addicted to heroin. And I can honestly say that during that time the thought that heroin was illegal was very far from the top of my mind. I was focused on protecting myself from violence, hoping to avoid overdose, battling overwhelming messages of shaming and hostility from society, and simply getting through each day without collapsing. In this way, although I was never actually charged with using heroin, the criminal penalties attached to the drug would inevitably propel me further and further into a dark, unhappy, alienated and criminal world.
When society already hates and fears you, what is your interest in observing a law that seems so arbitrary (alcohol is legal) and unjust (addicts are the most vulnerable in the drug supply chain)? Everything has already been lost. What’s a criminal conviction to someone whose body is screaming in pain and has nothing further to forfeit?
I’m not expecting pity for heroin addicts, though I believe sympathy, at least, is more useful than revulsion. What I propose is reconsideration of prejudicial legislation that is wrong, no matter that it is based in genuine concern for the well-being of society. Criminalisation of drugs such as heroin simply doesn’t make sense. Whether you view drug addiction as illness, affliction, vice, symptom or destiny, my experience was that I never intended to become a heroin addict, legality wasn’t my concern when I was one, and that my suffering was truly punishment enough, if punishment were even warranted for what is basically a problem more akin to mental illness than criminal malice.
I never, ever, met a junkie scared straight by the law. ‘You’ll be next,’ a counselor told me, pointing out a girl headed for prison. Even that dire warning couldn’t permeate the slimy combination of shame, defiance and disbelief I was wrapped in. The drug owned me: it was that simple. All I could fight for was the dignity being steadily stripped by prejudice, poverty, desperation and illness.
Illegality did not deter me from heroin for a moment, any more than it had prevented me and every (well educated, employed and emotionally stable) friend of mine from experimenting with other drugs. And soon I was not only a victim, a sufferer and a patient, but I was also a fugitive and criminal.
Heroin is expensive, even in the 1990s when it was comparatively cheap. By the high point of addiction I needed several hundred dollars a day—every day. Black market economics grossly inflated the price. This ‘prohibitive’ expense in turn pushed me first to petty pilfering, then illegal sex work on the street. There was simply no other way to finance my habit, nor could I defeat it. I ended with a criminal record, not for heroin possession but for street soliciting. (This police record, incidentally, threatened my entry to the USA several years later on a tour to speak about recovery and rehabilitation to drug users.) Others—usually males—turned to burglary, mugging and scams. Thus one supposed criminality engendered real others.
Buying drugs on the street I risked rip-off, arrest and violence. The dealers I met were generally fellow users (or gambling addicts), as captive and hapless as I was. Unregulated supplies of potentially lethal drugs meant injecting unknown substances, abscesses of the veins, organ damage and dangerously fluctuating potencies. Being present at an overdose meant risking further criminal charges, from possession to manslaughter. Stricken people were left to die alone as their associates fled in apprehension of the law.
I shot up in lanes, on railway sidings, among rubbish and in café and bar toilets. Being a junkie doesn’t mean you don’t find rubbish smelly. Fearful of discovery, I fixed up hurriedly and therefore carelessly; there are public toilets in Melbourne that still fill me with a sense of humiliation and horror. If I had overdosed in a lonely, weed-grown lane, no one would have noticed for some time. Unconscious and vomiting in a public toilet cubicle, I would have traumatised an innocent discoverer. Heroin addiction was a geography of exile, of shunned wastelands, repulsive illness, and constant furtive anxiety. Becoming a pariah only made me seek the drug’s consolation all the more.
Medical practitioners regarded me with varying degrees of sympathy or contempt. Magistrates sighed and made examples of me. Newspapers called for the extermination of my kind. My family wept; and terror grew in my heart by the year until it was all I knew. Hope, like heroin, was too expensive.
But none of this was soothed, or avoided, by the threat of criminal charges. No one, neither myself nor the community, was protected. Rather, it was shame, suffering, silence and stigma that flourished in the shadow of those punitive and futile laws.
This piece was first published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.