1999. Geraldton, Western Australia. A crayfishing pot hauler chugs along what seems like the edge of the earth. Behind it, the sun sinks below the horizon.
A surfer sits on his board, bobbing up and down on the waves. The wind is strong and hits him in the face. He hears the distant sound of the hauler. The screech of the seagulls. The faint crash of the shore behind him. And that bloody wind.
He notices the hauler has its pots down, and lies down on his board. Anywhere there’s a pot, there’s fish. Where there are a lot of fish there’ll be sharks. Big ones. Tuck your legs in.
Psychologist Dr Stephen Bright wasn’t a psychologist when he was surfing those waves. He was a nineteen-year-old who yearned to be a pro surfer.
His idols weren’t your average idols either.. His idols were the men out on those boats. The crayfishers.
They would turn up onto the pier after a day at sea. They would then head straight to the single nightclub in town. We didn’t have crystal meth in Australia then - back then, the young working man’s drug was still meth, but in its mushy, sticky form: base.
The young surfer sees these men as giants of the earth and sea. They’ll be raging into the night on meth and will hardly sleep. They’ll sometimes keep going without sleep for weeks.
Everyone’s high on meth. And all of a sudden everyone’s going, ‘Oh, bye. Bye, I’m off to work now.’ And there’s actually a number of deaths that happen in the crayfishing industry, there’s no drug testing happening up there. People get caught in the ropes and go overboard because they haven’t slept for four days.
It was a way to function, really. I saw it as… not sleeping for seven days isn’t really functional, but they were using it to live life. They were able to work in an industry that has very odd hours of use, and still go out and party with everybody else that was working in trades. So they were able to fit everything into their life, and live just 24/7 lifestyles.
It’s at this point that Bright decides he wants to study drugs and people who use drugs.
A friend of his father’s gives him some ‘valuable’ advice’.
I was at a party, my dad’s fiftieth or something, and one of my Dad’s friends said to me, ‘So what are you doing?’
And I said, ‘Oh, well, I’m studying, because I want to help people who are experiencing problems with drugs.’
And he said, ‘Well I got a solution for you. It’s called a bullet and it costs 20 cents.’
Our world imagines drug addicts in particular ways - from junkies to ice zombies to stoner sloths - their humanity now somehow invalid. To some, death from overdose is a valid punishment - like the horror show we currently bear witness to in the Philippines. Why shouldn’t death be justifiable? Inevitable? After all, these people - if we can even call them people - had choices, right? And they made bad ones. This is the modern conception of people who use drugs: ‘choice-makers’. The government has a responsibility to educate its citizens about the dangers of drugs, or gambling, or drink-driving, or whatever it might be, and then the individual’s role is to udnerstnd the dangers and avoid that behaviour.
This means people who use drugs are individuals who use while fully understanding the implications of their drug use - health risks, as well as the criminality often associated with a serious habit. Research by Dr Bright shows that the public perceives them as reckless deviants and criminals and that any use of a drug is deemed to be ‘drug abuse’.
But does it really work like that?
There is a growing body of research that demonstrates that people who use illicit drugs are not a homogeneous blob, despite the fact that they are commonly seen this way.
When we understand that people who use drugs aren’t all the same, we find it all comes down to the role of choice - and the problem is that not everyone has the privilege of complete choice.
When you are poor, you have fewer choices. The worse your mental health, the fewer choices are open to you. If you have experienced trauma, you will have fewer choices that you can make.
So the more advantaged, healthy and safe your life has been, the more you are able to utilise the privilege of choice. If you are socially disadvantaged, have reduced mental health, or have experienced trauma in your life, the greater your likelihood of addiction.
If you look at the continuum of people who use drugs, there are people who experiment, there are people who use recreationally, there are people who use socially, there are people who use functionally, there are all different kinds of people who use drugs, but what we tend to do is focus all of our efforts into understanding the group who are suffering.
We have a really good understanding of people who experience problems with drugs, but we have far less understanding of the group at the other end - the majority of people who use drugs. What is it that gives the group at the other end resilience to be able to stay there and not end up sliding down the slippery slope to end up experiencing problems associated with their substance use?
The crayfishermen - looking back on it in hindsight - they were really on that border between functional use and problematic use. The difference being they didn’t appear to be experiencing harm. And I think, to me, that’s what makes the difference. Once you experience harm, that puts you in a new category.
Stephen Bright’s words are best illustrated by a landmark study by Catherine Spooner and Kate Hetherington called Social Determinants of Drug Use. Spooner and Hetherington show how drug use is ultimately shaped by environmental factors. In a related paper, Catherine Spooner writes:
It is no longer sufficient to restrict attention to single risk factors (such as knowledge of risk or parental supervision) or even single domains of risk factor (such as family factors). It is clear that drug use and related problems result from the complex interplay of the individual and the environment across their life-course.
In other words, the way our world currently thinks of people who use drugs and addiction not only ignores these environmental factors, but our biases and assumptions can even prevent help from reaching those who are suffering.
It’s clear that when it comes to drug use and addiction, ‘choice’ is not always available.
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