In Puberty Blues (the book, not the movie or TV show), there is a classic line where the protagonist’s mother warns her not to sit on the aisle at the movie theatre because “some pusher might come along and jab god-knows-what into your arm”.
Growing up I was always being warned about malevolent people who would seek me out and trick me into trying drugs, providing them for free until I was hooked. Then they would charge extravagant prices once they had me in their evil clutches. We had police officers coming to school to scare the bejeezus out of us with descriptions of the tricks they would use, disguising them as lollies, or jabbing us unexpectedly, with one hit leading to a lifetime of addiction and certain early death.
This, I presume, is where the term drug ‘pusher’ came from. It described people who ‘pushed’ their wares onto others who otherwise might not be interested in trying them.
Of course, I never came into contact with one of these mythical creatures, though like Deb in Puberty Blues I knew where to find people with access to all manner of drugs from an early age. My work has also brought me into contact with numerous drug dealers over the years. Never, in all that time, have I met a one who seeks out customers or tries to convince the reluctant to try their wares.
The trial I attended of small-time drug dealer Paul Howard is a case in point. Several text messages to and by him were read out in court and they made it clear that customers sought out he and his products, not the other way around. A first time offender who the judge described as having excellent rehabilitation prospects, he received a sentence of 3.5 years, with a non-parole period of 1 year, 9 months. He was not a predator. He did not lurk outside schoolyards trying to tempt kids into trying drugs. He responded to demand by an informed, adult clientele.
Compare that to the sentence of someone who offended at a similar time in the same Australian state of Victoria, Ken Bayliss. (Warning: graphic descriptions of extreme child sexual abuse contained in that link). This repeat offender received a total sentence of 3 years, 6 months’ imprisonment with a non-parole period of 2 years. A very similar sentence, but I know which one I would prefer to have walking around free in my home town.
Sentencing for drug offences seems out of proportion to harm caused, especially when compared to sentences for violent offenders. Both of the above crimes (selling drugs and distributing material depicting actual child rapes) cause harm to others. The big difference is that the vast majority of harm caused by drug offences comes from the fact of drugs being illegal rather than from the drugs themselves. Selling, say, heroin or cocaine contributes to brutalities and deaths in Afghanistan and Mexico due to warring cartels in the source countries. Selling MDMA or crystal meth probably props up organised crime groups who have a monopoly on the manufacturing process. In both cases, the brutality would stop if drugs were no longer illegal and could be sourced ethically. End-user deaths and other harms that are connected with drug use would also be mitigated by a consistent and regulated product.
The myth of the drug pusher as predator persists, despite worldwide surveys repeatedly reporting that the vast majority of drug users get introduced to drugs by family and friends, not dealers. In fact, they will rarely meet a dealer until their drug use has become habitual – in other words, most users will never meet a dealer at all. And nearly all users make an informed, adult (again, borne out by the surveys) choice to start – and in many cases finish soon after – taking drugs.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the online drug markets. What with understanding Tor, sourcing bitcoins, sorting out the scammers from the real deal, working out drop addresses, and avoiding Customs or postal interception, people have to really, really want their drug of choice. Nobody who visits these places is tricked or forced in any way to ingest illicit substances.
And in at least some cases, people on these sites are committing a completely victimless crime. The most obvious examples are the vendors who grow their own cannabis or mushrooms and sell them directly to the person who will ingest them.
The time for a rethink on drug policy is far overdue. The money being spent on this immoral ‘war’ could be poured into health, education and fighting the sort of crime that actually hurts people. The first step is to stop the misinformation.