On Drug Policy

It’s been a while since I’ve posted in my series of Canadian-experience-in-Australia posts – I still have another handful of posts prepared that never made it up so I’ll try to intersperse these with the travel blog catchups.

I wrote this particular entry months ago – probably in early 2011 – and it’s suddenly become a bit more relevant with the impending passage of Canada’s omnibus crime bill.  I’ll try to update the text to make it time- and place-relevant.

Compared to Canada (or, according to Americans that I’ve met in Australia, even compared to the US!), the Australian government is very, very, concerned about recreational drugs.  I’ll say up front that I generally don’t do drugs.  The hardest drug I’ve done is pot, and it’s pretty uncommon for me to do that.  Much of what I’m writing here comes to me as hearsay, or is now hearsay by virtue of me writing someone else’s comments.  That said, most of these observations have been made consistently by multiple people with whom I’ve discussed the topic.

In Canada, there are a lot of illegal drugs, and people do use them.  This is especially true, I’ve found, in the queer community, and in the circuit party scene which is often so closely connected to it.  From what I can tell, it’s all pretty harmless.  It’s quite common for people to do a tab of ecstasy before going out to the club, and as long as they’re smart about it (drinking enough water, being with trusted friends or in a space they feel safe, etc), there are very few negative consequences – certainly none that are any worse than a night of drinking.  And smoking pot is really not a whole lot worse (nor is it much more uncommon, especially here in Vancouver) than smoking tobacco, again with some obvious exceptions.

As for enforcement – police in Canada seem to target dealers and producers, at least lately.  I for one think a lot of these things should be decriminalised so they can be produced and sold safely, but I will accept that while they are criminal, they are often produced and sold rather dangerously.  It’s not uncommon in Toronto for an apartment building to blow up because someone was mixing some sort of chemical in their apartment.  That’s a problem.  I’d prefer to deal with it by legitimising (and regulating) the chemicals, the current regime prefers to deal with it by high-profile busts.  Either way, the only time the average person hears about or witnesses enforcement is at an international border (i.e., you may get checked on the way into Canada), or in some large-scale takedown of producers.

In Australia, I’ve known that people do drugs, but I have no idea how they don’t get caught.  Enforcement is everywhere.  I personally endured a half-hour-long search of all of my luggage when I landed in Australia the first time, which I eventually figured out was a search for drugs, since the only thing he had any interest in was my bottle of prescription acid reflux pills.  Why anyone would attempt to traffic drugs from Vancouver to Sydney is beyond me – I imagine drug profits are high, but are they really worth it after the 20-hour-flight each way, and the $2,000 return fare?

There are “sniffer dogs” virtually everywhere.  An oft-repeated rumour is that they were left over bomb-sniffers from the 2000 Olympics and they needed something to do with them.  Many of them are used in airports (even domestic ones), supposedly to detect contraband biological products that could harm local ecosystems (a serious problem), but it’s pretty obvious they’re also looking for drugs.  The police bring them to popular party areas, large events where people might be doing drugs (like the Mardi Gras parties, where I’m sure people were doing drugs but probably did them before they came), and anywhere else you can imagine.  They even ran the dogs through my train when I went from Darwin to Alice Springs on the Ghan.  We had a stopover in Katherine, and before we could get off the train we had to wait for the police to run the dogs through.  Again, why anyone would bother trafficking drugs within the Northern Territory (especially by train) is beyond me – is it easier to grow / manufacture stuff in Darwin, and so much so that it’s worth selling it to Alice Springs residents who don’t grow/manufacture their own?

There are also some strong advertising campaigns designed to discourage people from using drugs by pointing out to them the ways in which they are made (which is entirely a result of them being prohibited, and not a result of the very nature of the drugs).  And every once in a while they make a point of parading in front of the media some high-profile busts (even when the busts are on things that are available over-the-counter in Canada, like pseudoephedrine – having a cold in Australia is even more unpleasant than normal due to the difficult of getting cold medication that actually works).

The real problem, though, with this enforcement insanity is that it doesn’t prevent people from doing drugs, nor does it make them (or anyone else) any safer.  People find ways around it.  I heard a story from someone whose friend had 4 tablets of e on her when she saw police with sniffer dogs approaching.  Her only way not to get caught was to swallow them.  Which she did.  She apparently made it through the night okay, but that’s an incredibly dangerous thing to do – she was lucky.

To avoid getting hassles, some people will do whatever they’re going to do before they leave the house.  Often, they’ll do a lot of it all at once, to ensure the high gets them through the night.  Doing a whole night’s worth of any drug all at once is, again, rather dangerous – where doing it over the course of the night (depending on what it is) is likely quite safe, or at least much less dangerous.  Other people have turned to alternate drugs, or drugs that are less likely to be noticed.  There is a general belief (which seems to hold true) that GHB (aka the date-rape drug, which can be far, far, more dangerous than e) is undetectable by sniffer dogs – so people do it instead of e.

Which do I prefer, even as a non-drug-user?  Canada’s existing approach, by far.  Frankly, I grew tired of the accusatory looks and searches that happened on a regular basis in Australia.  It’s paranoia to the extreme – and doesn’t accomplish anything.  People still use drugs, and now they use them more dangerously.  Who is that protecting?

What worries me the most about the efforts to increase drug enforcement in Canada is that we will develop a similar culture.

To be fair, many legal drugs contain these substances too...


2 responses to this post.

  1. […] the way business is done there, and the use of alcohol and / or drugs.  I recently blogged about drug policy, so I’ll leave that one there.  The other issues are sort of related, at least in the minds of […]


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