Saturday, 16 May 2015

Australians and illicit drugs: 'Struggle Street' to celebrity drug use

News.com.au interviewed me last week for a story on celebrity drug use - 'Secret drug habits of the stars: Insiders reveal what celebs get up to when you're not watching' - I'd hate to think how many people read the piece and just lapped it up! Stories about 'famous people' using illicit drugs, getting caught, entering rehab, or them writing a 'tell-all' book about the fact that they used illicit drugs, got caught and then entered rehab are always incredibly popular ... It's certainly not a bad article and does offer an insight into celebrity drug culture, which in reality reflects how many Australian adults use illicit drugs (i.e., they use to socialize, usually on special occasions and there is no other crime associated with their use).

This story comes at the same time as the final episode of SBS's 'Struggle Street' was aired. This controversial documentary, following the poor and disenfranchised residents of Sydney's Mt Druitt, revealed another side to illicit drug use. Heavily criticised as being exploitative 'poverty porn' that only showed the negatives of the western suburb, the producers defended the series describing the show as an "eye-opening glimpse at real life in under-resourced Australian communities". In terms of drug use it showed one of the sons of the central family being kicked out of home due to his ice addiction, a 47 year-old heroin user who had been using the drug for 30 years trying to avoid housing department officials who were trying to inspect his home, and perhaps most confronting, a 21 year-old heavily pregnant woman smoking a homemade bong. 

It was really interesting to watch the reaction to 'Struggle Street', with many people finding it difficult to believe that there are Australians who actually live like this, but it was the drug use, in particular, that many found really hard to comprehend. The truth is that for many alcohol and other drug workers these are the people they see every day, maybe not always so extreme, but those who usually get into trouble with drugs usually have a range of other social problems as well. Unfortunately, no-one really ever wants to hear about this disenfranchised group, certainly not the media. As one journalist told me in the late 90s when every media outlet was trying to find new stories on the 'heroin epidemic' - "No-one wants to read about a 40 year-old junkie living on the streets over their breakfast on Sunday morning. If they're in their teens, came from a good home, went to a good school and they're injecting heroin - that's a story!" (That's an actual quote - I wrote it down way back then and I've kept it ever since - horrifying!)

We're seeing the same thing at the moment with the ice issue. As regular readers of my blog would know, I have been trying to downplay the whole 'ice epidemic' - I'm certainly not saying it's a problem but although we are seeing people from across the country and all walks of life affected, when you really look at the data we have, it really is those communities who have a whole range of social problems (particularly in regional centres) who are being devastated by this drug.

Although the media is getting a little better at reporting this (mainly because those who make media comment from the alcohol and other drug sector are being much more careful with their commentary on this issue) we still see journalists far more interested in the 'extremes', rather than the 'norms'. For some time one of the first questions a journalist will ask me is "What is the youngest age you are seeing use?" As I said in a blog earlier this year, the Sun Herald told the story of four Sydney teenagers who had all tried the drug by the time they were 14 years old and the Canberra media ran a story on users as young as 12. There was even a front page story in a regional paper a while ago talking about a 10 year-old using the drug! Is this the norm? Absolutely not! Does it sell papers, rate through the roof and scare people? Absolutely and media outlets know it!

What was wonderful (I'm not sure if that is quite the right word) about the 'Struggle Street' documentary was that it showed a type of drug use that Australians aren't used to seeing and aren't comfortable watching (when was the last time that you saw a media story about a 47 year-old heroin user?). Ridiculous stories about Lindsay Lohan and the like getting busted with illicit drugs, turning up to court dressed in designer clothes and then doing a stint in rehab for a couple of days are much easier to watch, gossip about and then get on with our day-to-day lives without too much thought ... having the lives of people really struggling with a range of issues, including problematic drug use, thrust into our lounge rooms is confronting but important.
 
Getting back to the ice issue (one more time) ... Ice is a highly problematic drug that can cause great problems for anyone who uses it, from any walk of life, but if we look at it a little closer, there is a very specific group (the group the media, and sadly many Australians aren't really interested in reading about or seeing) that are experiencing the greatest problems. Viewing it simply as a 'nasty little drug' ignores the fact that there is an underlying social issue here that we're most probably not dealing with particularly well ... The greatest problems we are seeing with ice are in regional communities, particularly amongst lower socio-economic and disenfranchised groups (like those in the 'Struggle Street' documentary).
 
People use different drugs for different reasons and the truth is that many people will use illicit drugs (even ice believe it or not!) for a period of time and never have a major problem with their use. However, it doesn't matter whether you live in a housing commission home or own a mansion, go to the best private school or the local public high school, have the most loving, caring family in the world or get brought up on the street, you can find yourself with a significant drug problem. Unfortunately, the truth is that it is those who have other social problems are more likely to experience problems in this area. Sadly, media outlets believe that reading or seeing stories about those on 'struggle street' with drug problems is just too confronting for many Australians and as a result we will continue to be fed more palatable stories about celebrities and their 'problems'. Pretty sad really ...

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