In Australia and around the world, the way we talk about drugs is changing. Increasingly, we’re debating the benefits of legalising them, and trying to keep users safe from harm. Shane Varcoe, Executive Director of Dalgarno Institute, says this is because of a long-term campaign to normalise drug use, which is causing more people, young and old, to become drug users.
Talking to Neil Johnson on Vision Christian Radio's 20Twenty program, Varcoe explained that Australia’s drug strategy purportedly aims to reduce the supply of drugs, the demand for drugs, and the harm they cause. But he believes efforts to normalise drug use are having an impact on the way those policies play out in real life.
Some liberal campaigners argue that we should legalise many of the drugs that are now unlawful. They will frequently quote a statistic, that 46 per cent of people are using drugs. They argue that if people are doing it regardless, legalising it will make it safer.
But Varcoe thinks that stat is used in a misleading way. 'What they don’t say is 46 per cent of Australians have either used an illegal drug, or misused an over-the-counter medicine at least once in their lifetime.’
He says pro-drug messaging is so clever partly because it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their campaigns inspire increased drug use, which they can then use as further evidence that legalisation is inevitable. ‘And of course, that’s only going to make things exponentially worse, but that conversation is difficult to have in the current climate.’
He explained that what he calls the ‘permission model’ suggests to young people that drugs aren’t that dangerous. They see their parents arguing that the rules are wrong, so they aren't as worried by the consequences.. ‘And that permission modelling is now so endemic in our culture, because we’ve had this de facto decriminalisation, that young people are doing it more and more.’
Some parents are even role-modelling drug use for their children. Varcoe said the number of middle-aged people using drugs is rising too. ‘They’re the ones taking up cannabis more and more, as opposed to alcohol, or along with alcohol, because they’re told that it’s medicinal, has therapeutic properties, and whether science says so or not doesn’t matter.’
Attitudes have changed partly thanks to the medicinal cannabis movement, which seems to have been a calculated strategy. In 1979, a spokesperson for the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in the US said the best way of getting the drug legalised was via the medical model. ‘Once we can convince people that this is a medicine, then the recreation door will open very quickly.’
As part of the harm reduction aspect of our drug strategy, we’re increasingly experimenting with pill-testing, injecting rooms, and opioid substitute treatments. Varcoe said that these ideas are favoured by the families of long-term drug users, who want to see their loved ones helped, rather than criminalised.
He says these programs have value if they’re done correctly. But in practice, they’re adding to the perception that drug use is safe, and increasingly, they’re assisting people to use drugs indefinitely, rather than providing pathways to rehabilitation. ‘Once they’re hijacked by the normalisation mechanism, then all of a sudden it’s not about exiting drug use. It’s about sustained and ongoing drug use.’
Varcoe is a strong believer in compassion, and in helping those who are caught in the tyranny of addiction. ‘But compassion always insists on transformation,’ he says, ‘never simply on servicing a brokenness that continues to maintain its own fragility, and its own disease.’
For more about why drug use is on the rise in Australia, and how drugs impact on developing brains, listen to Shane Varcoe's discussion with Neil Johnson below.
Tune into 20Twenty and join the conversation with Neil Johnson, weekdays on Vision Christian Radio. Click here for your local times.
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