Like most of my cohort I have occasionally used illicit recreational drugs since.

Let’s be honest – most of us have used drugs, including me

Catharine Lumby

I have a shocking confession to make. In high school I was a mega dag – a vice-captain who loved debating and hit the books while her friends were hitting the pubs, smoking dope and having sex. Things marginally improved at university, where I managed to squeeze some nightclubbing in between studying law and working as a waitress. It was the 1980s and MDMA had not yet arrived in Australia.

The only illicit drug I tried briefly was a nasty form of speed. My friends staged an immediate intervention: it turns out no one wants me to talk faster or more frequently.

Like most of my cohort I have occasionally used illicit recreational drugs since. And like most of them, I have never developed an addiction to illicit drugs. Alcohol has caused many people I know far more trouble than cocaine or cannabis.

Today Unharm, a not-for-profit group which advocates for fair and realistic management of drug use, issues a survey about people’s experiences with illicit drugs. I chair the board of Unharm, because I find the social inequity of our policing and legal systems intolerable when it comes to drugs.

Obviously, some lives are damaged by drug use, whether the drugs are legal or illegal. Funding treatment services and compassionate, evidence-based care is critical. But let’s be honest about recreational drugs: lots of professional, educated and socially privileged people do them at some point. The Unharm survey shows most users are over the age of 30, earn more than the median income per year and report largely positive experiences. They are not fringe-dwelling risk-takers.

The latest Illicit Drug Data Report issued by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission recorded a 96 per cent increase in arrests of people who use illegal drugs over the past decade. Yet the Unharm survey found that most people thought it very unlikely they’d ever be caught. That didn’t surprise me given many are professionals with a roof over their head and access to good lawyers. They do not live their lives in fear of being strip-searched by the police.

There is a strong correlation between income inequality and the criminalisation of drug users in Australia. As the chief executive of Unharm, Dr Will Tregoning, said: “People continue to use drugs, including the prohibited ones. If we could have a more realistic response to drug use, we could make people safer including young people who decide to try drugs for the first time.“

Our survey also found that illicit drug users care about safety and over three-quarters would prefer to access illegal drugs via a pharmacy or regulated provider. Yet, many of our politicians ignore the evidence on drug use and like to pretend it can be policed out of existence, even while drug markets continue to expand.

When my children were little, I lived in a terrace in Redfern close to a housing commission complex. I saw the police stop and search people. These days I live in the eastern suburbs and I have never once seen someone in a Porsche being asked to turn out their well-lined pockets.

Unharm is not promoting drug use. It simply wants to see realistic and evidence-based policies that create safer use and a healthier society. At the moment, all we are doing is criminalising and harming already marginalised communities.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.