Is there hidden trauma behind strict drug laws?

Hester Wilson

9/07/2020 2:02:11 PM

Dr Hester Wilson raises concerns over the ‘drugs are bad’ mentality, when there is a proven harm-minimisation approach.

Police interviewing man at festival.
NSW police will continue to undertake strip searches and use sniffer dogs, despite health experts advocating for a different approach. (Image: AAP)

A few months back, a young man came to see me.
At first he seemed fine. He spoke confidently. He is close to his parents, who are supportive and financially secure. He is university educated, a white middle class man. He has privilege. I’ll call him John.
But it soon became clear that all was not well.
Last year, John was arrested at a music festival in NSW in possession of recreational drugs. He told me that he remembers that day vividly and replays it in his head, over and over. He couldn’t stop looking for different paths.
What if he’d said this to the police? What if he had been able to have this conversation with them in that moment?
What actually happened was that he was taken to the police station and charged.
John rang his parents, who were able to get quick legal advice from a friend. From that, he told me he felt he was able to manage the interview process, though not without what he describes as a ‘major emotional cost’.
John described the approach the police took in the interview as ‘heavy-handed’. They were looking for something; his desire to have a good time with friends was, in their eyes, something more sinister.
To prepare for court, John shaved his beard off, cut his hair and wore a good suit as instructed by the legal counsel his parents had paid for. He had to appear to be as mainstream as possible.
He told me it felt like he was giving up some of his identity – but he was terrified of what could happen if he didn’t heed the advice.
In court, the police prosecutor claimed John must be of bad character as he was found with drugs and had friends who used drugs. But the magistrate felt differently, seeing instead a white middle class man with good family support. Most of his charges were dismissed, and he was given a one-year good behaviour bond.
Prior to this, John had never had any problems with his occasional recreational drug use. It was fun. He has no health issues, no relationship issues. He was doing well in his studies and work.
‘This traumatic experience did not open my eyes to the dangers of psychoactive substances,’ he told me. ‘Nor did it foster a newfound respect for the role of law enforcement.
‘My friends tell me that they feel that every dancefloor has a team of police officers watching, that they don’t want to risk being strip-searched. Some of my friends fear the triggering of past sexual trauma.
‘They say they’d rather go to music festivals overseas instead of feeling targeted in a festival environment with such high feelings of tension and risk.’
For John, these stories are now only second-hand. He has given up recreational drugs because he is scared. He no longer goes to the music festivals he loves.
‘I don’t want anyone I care about to get mixed up in the legal system. It’s not worth it,’ he told me.
Why? Because the whole experience has had a long, nasty tail.
Even though he had avoided the worst outcomes, the trauma of the experience kept resurfacing. He described severe anxiety, stress and hypervigilance – even a year on.
John told me how his approach to life had been irrevocably altered. That things he once took joy in and engaged in wholeheartedly had lost some of their shine. That the world seemed a darker place, more unsafe.
John told me the whole process made him acutely aware of what it must be like for those who are not able to appear familiar or likeable before the court.
He told me he knows that he is comparatively very lucky.
‘What if I had brown skin, no money, no support and limited education?’ he asked.
‘What would have happened then?’
After he left my consultation room, I got to thinking; what had this process, John being arrested and taken to court, achieved? Had it resulted in criminals being punished?
In February this year, the NSW Government announced they would not reconsider their crackdown on recreational drug use. That was despite the important evidence-based expert consensus presented to them in the 2019 inquiry into ‘ice’ that supported a change to NSW’s approach to drugs.
This means that for the foreseeable future, NSW police will continue to undertake strip searches and use sniffer dogs. They will not support drug safety testing at festivals or anywhere else for that matter.
We’re firmly back in the ‘drugs are bad’ mentality, rather than the harm-minimisation approach that we know works.
John is not alone. I see many people who have had these nasty brushes with the law.
I know our magistrates work to do the right thing for vulnerable people, but the system is not perfect. 
Sure – drugs can cause harm. Tobacco kills two out of three people who use it. Alcohol is our number one drug of harm, for individuals, families and the community.
Illegal drugs can also have negative impacts. But as a GP who specialises in drug and alcohol, I feel that the harm our current system causes to people like John, who use drugs recreationally, is not balanced by the harms that their drug use causes.
John did not have to undergo such trauma.
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Prof Max Kamien, AM   10/07/2020 9:20:19 AM

Hester Wilson is a compassionate doctor who advocates for common sense. Police culture is to get convictions, by hook or by crook. Sadly any brush with the legal system is traumatic. It moves so slowly that it makes the public hospital outpatient system look efficient. Court appearances, adjournments, medical and psychiatric reports, lawyers, aggressive police prosecutors, magistrates who lack the courage to make a decision, all add up to anxiety and expense for the charged even if the offence is trivial or the charged is clearly dementing. My comments apply to the experience of middle-class Caucasians. For Aboriginals, especially in country towns, it is much worse with fines and imprisonment for trivial offences contributing to poverty, malnutrition and family breakdown.

Dr Cindy   10/07/2020 2:28:00 PM

Drug users are used as the public face of 'the drug debate'. The actions of a few are used to demonise the many, as harm reduction support languishes. Who benefits from keeping the culture jaundiced, and from keeping the whipping boy alive? Follow the money.