18 Oct 2023


by John O’Brien

What goes up, must come down.

Say what you will, mind altering drugs are an endemic part of human existence. And have been since time immemorable.

I’ve done lots of (illegal) drugs over the years. It was fun. I also got lucky and sobered up before any of them ruined my life. I made and stuck to a basic rule of no needles or heroin. Otherwise, pretty much everything seemed worth at least one try.

And it’s the repeated tries that can quickly evolve into a problem. When a passing hobby becomes an obsession, it easily morphs into an addiction. The financial, emotional and social costs of maintaining drug addictions are high, let alone the health ramifications. I know this first, second and third hand. Speed and weed alone cost me several house deposits. Ten years or more of amphetamines likely contributed to the severe periodontitis that has seen me left with only six teeth. Without dentures, soup is all I can eat.

Other friends and acquaintances didn’t make it through, and some who did also damaged their long-term health. A few are still in psych wards. Not many people share the Willie, Keef or Iggy immortality gene (and even two of those freaks found sobriety). Funerals suck at the best of times, and I’ve attended way too many for those departed in their prime. It hurts even more when the cause was the direct result of addiction.

Why do drugs then? We all have our reasons, but typically it’s to seek an escape from reality; to alter conscience and consciousness – to bevel the edges off life, as it were. Humans have been indulging in this behaviour for eons of course. Some groups codify it into a religious experience, others just like getting off their chops. It took me a long time to identify my own reasons, but when I did, I slayed the personal demons I’d been running from and had no further need or desire, to be off my head 24-7. A few beers at the summer pub are as crazy as things get nowadays.

Other animals do it too. Plenty of lesser life forms look to adjust their own mundanity. Elephants drunk on fermenting fruits are not uncommon. Monkeys do it, and there be many a toad licker in the animal kingdom, all regularly coming back for another buzz.

The word ‘drugs’ is a loaded term commonly used to denote illegal drugs only. But which ones are categorised this way is entirely down to societal choice. Caffeine is legally consumed worldwide but can still be quite a dangerous compound. One friend was a proud polydrug abuser with the constitution of an ox, but in the end it was a caffeine overdose that put him in hospital, fighting for his life! The consequences of tobacco and alcohol are well known, yet still legal in most countries.

The US experiment of Prohibition failed spectacularly in its goal of creating a more temperate society, instead helping to establish criminal networks that prosper to this day. So then, in 1971, they doubled down with the ‘war on drugs’. Still continually tying up endless public resources 50 years on, this too has been a resounding failure, unless of course you’re part of the underground market; an edgy lawless enterprise cashing in bigtime on the double standards prevalent in our world.

The costs to society from legal drugs are equally high. Four close friends of mine all died from liver toxicity or general organ failure before the age of 50. Although there were contributing factors from other drugs, all departed primarily due to alcohol related disease after they were explicitly told by their doctors that continued drinking would guarantee their premature demise.

And Peter, David, Lucy and Chris are not alone. In 2021 in Australia, 1,559 people died from the direct adverse health effects of alcohol consumption, approximately 30 percent more than from Covid-19, at 1,122. (1)

Nicotine has long been another socially sanctioned drug that brings with it huge health costs – R.I.P. the Marlboro Man. And the opioid epidemic is no longer the hidden killer it once was. In 2020, 2,220 Australians perished from overdose, nearly 75 percent of which were unintentional. Among these, 765 were attributed to opioids. (2)

Abuse, and trading of over-the-counter medications, is rife. I hear rumours of a local GP who is entirely complicit in fuelling this trade. I’ve also lost dear ones to both intentional and unintentional overdoses of prescription pills, all legally and easily available over the counter.

When I joined the events industry, it was still somewhat a badge of honour to see how fucked up you could get and still function. This suited me perfectly. Nowadays, crew are far more sober and drug free. If nothing else, gig equipment has become so highly technical that it’s difficult to understand and operate sober, let alone fully twisted. I’m sure drug use is still around at gigs, but it seems to be a lot less prevalent than last century.

But the Entertainment Industry is not an isolated category when it comes to drug consumption. Illicit drug use occurs across all strata of society. Allegedly, anecdotally, supposedly, I may have heard from an acquaintance who might know someone who overheard a conversation at a pub – who really knows for sure? – that a local constable was recently seen buying and consuming cocaine at a house of ill-repute. Oh, the shock and horror.

Insider scoop: rich people always have access to the highest quality drugs. Four Corners’ recent exposé, Cocaine Nation, illustrated this perfectly. No sector is immune, including law enforcement. Decades ago, I was at a friend’s place, casually punching cones until I went to answer the door. My heart skipped a beat seeing the all-blue outfit in front of me, until someone yelled out; “That’s probably Matt, he’s okay.” Constable Matt (redacted) sat down and joined in on the session, still in his uniform. Last I heard, he’d quit the force and got a heroin habit.

Since then, I’ve smoked weed with Army majors and police prosecutors (in two countries!), snorted coke with both film and rock stars, shared hash cookies with Special Counsels, and tripped on acid with senior Canberra media figures. I did nangs with top-level public servants. I honestly can’t remember how many public figures I have been drunk with, let alone all the ordinary folk.

To me, the ‘excess all areas’ lifestyle had great appeal. Before joining the rock ‘n’ roll circus, my favourite book was Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The drug caché described on the first page might have been designed to shock the reader, but I took it more as a challenge. I never assembled quite so frightening a stash but did get through a fair few on the list. And, from personal experience, there is definitely ‘nothing so depraved as a man in the depths of an ether binge.’

I have one rule with crew: I don’t care what you’re on, as long as you can do your job safely and efficiently. Some I know even function better with a steady supply of their preferred toxins. One time I didn’t fare so well was when I turned up to a morning loadout still partially tripping from the night before (that tab was much stronger and went way longer than anticipated!). I got away with it until one of the others heard me giggling uncontrollably riding a case down the ramp. The cheeky buggers then jammed the lift shut when I was inside to see if I’d freak out. I didn’t, and they kept loading the truck, so I won both ways. I also held an amazing conversation with the spider building a web in the corner of the lift!

But all jesting aside, this is a serious topic, and illicit drug usage is seriously widespread. It funds huge global businesses and promotes gang violence, all while enabling large prison populations. The incarcerated consist mainly of young, coloured folk, usually users or low- level dealers, with many now destined to stay in the penal system for life. The big bosses (and beneficiaries) are rarely caught or troubled.

My drugs are now sourced almost exclusively from the pharmacy, and they are boring. I’m not fond of the psychoactive (side) effects that come with them, but I put up with it for the pain relief, though I’d prefer it if I didn’t have to. The balance of blame goes to the local baristas, peddling their nefarious concoctions of dried and brewed beans like tribal witch doctors; I know I’m not pretty when there’s too much blood in my caffeine stream.

Here’s hoping you win your own personal battles. And if you see someone close struggling with drugs or addiction, don’t judge too harshly. Just be there for them – it might be the lifeline they need.

I’ll signoff as Vice News does: ‘I’d like to congratulate drugs, for winning the war on drugs!’




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