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Thinking differently about drugs

26 minutes


Alison Ritter

UNSW National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre

Episode Notes

Are you one of the 50% of Australians who have tried an illicit drug? Or do you believe all drugs should be illegal? The field of drug policy is in a state of flux. Whilst drugs are being legalised in some parts of the world, other countries are cracking down. In this episode, Professor Alison Ritter, Director of the UNSW Drug Policy Modelling Program, explores Australia’s drug policies: who makes them, who influences them, and who is being left out of the discussion?


G’day, Ginger here. On today’s episode, we are discussing drug policy with an internationally recognised drug policy scholar. And I want to make it clear that we recognise people can die from drugs and that they can absolutely wreck lives for the drug taker, for the family, and children of people addicted to drugs, and also, drugs can do grave harm to the wider community. But at the same time, what we’re doing just isn’t working. We need to come up with new solutions. Our aim with the pod is always to share research that sparks discussions. Let’s get started.

Kim Lester (00:41):

So I’m a 24-year-old female. I’d rather not disclose my profession just due to the topic. I’ve used marijuana recreationally. I’ve used MDMA, cocaine, and LSD. I’ve used marijuana the most and the other drugs just occasionally.

Ginger Gorman (00:58):

This is our producer, Kim Lester, reading a message from a woman who doesn’t want to be identified.

Kim Lester (01:04):

I normally take substances like MDMA and cocaine at a concert or a festival with my mates. And in those cases, it’s actually more to elevate the experience. You tend to be able to just prolong the night and you’re able to stay up later and have more energy.

Speaker 3 (01:23):

I’m a 39-year-old bloke and I’m a journalist. Recreationally, I mainly use ecstasy and ketamine these days. I love MDMA. I refuse to accept the stigma.

Speaker 4 (01:33):

I’m in my 40s and I work in education support in a high school. I smoke marijuana a few nights a week, and I love sharing joints with friends when I’m out at a gig or at a show. I love the chill it gives me and how philosophical I get. When going to a dance party, I use MDMA because I love how great it makes me feel and how it helps my social anxiety. I can talk to so many people and have the best time.

Ginger Gorman (01:56):

Once again, they’re not the voices of the people who shared their stories. They don’t want to be identified because the drugs they use are illegal. Depending on where they live, if they were caught, say, with MDMA on them, they could cop a fine, community service, or even a stint in prison. And you might be thinking, “So they should, it’s illegal. And if you do the crime, you do the time.” Right? Okay. But what if I’m talking about someone you know, someone you love, or even someone you respect, or maybe both?

Professor Alison Ritter (02:32):

Everyone knows someone who’s run into trouble. Everyone knows someone who has lots of pleasure out of drugs.

Ginger Gorman (02:38):

That’s Professor Alison Ritter. She’s the director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the University of New South Wales. And she’s also a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

Professor Alison Ritter (02:50):

Around half of Australians have used an illegal drug at some point in their life. About 15% use them regularly. There’s a real sense of us and them, I think, in the policy process. So drugs that are more acceptable, perhaps like cannabis, perhaps like ecstasy, certainly like alcohol, no one has a problem with.

Professor Alison Ritter (03:12):

And then there are the other people who use other drugs like crystal methamphetamine or heroin or cocaine, and they’re somehow completely different. And if you just take the example of alcohol, alcohol’s really interesting. 85% of Australians drink alcohol, and it’s just treated completely differently from any of the illicit substances, and yet it actually causes more harm than the illegal drugs.

Ginger Gorman (03:39):

The Australian Institute of Criminology says alcohol is one of the biggest risk factors for violence. Around 73% of reported assaults in Australia are alcohol-related. And it’s actually a factor in 10 to 15% of emergency department presentations. And on average, more than 100 Australians die each week as a result of excessive alcohol consumption.

Kim Lester (04:04):

You could have a good time, but there are a lot more incidences of aggression. Plus with alcohol, there are other damaging effects like people who drink-drive or with long-term use, you get liver damage.

Speaker 3 (04:15):

Alcohol can make me feel heavy, lethargic, even aggressive. Alcohol killed my dad and is ruining the life of my sister. It makes people lairy, argumentative, slurry, annoying.

Speaker 4 (04:27):

Alcohol affects me in ways that I truly don’t like, but even when I’m hallucinating on acid, I’m way more in control than when I’m drunk.

Ginger Gorman (04:35):

This is Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman. And a long time ago, lawmakers realised that alcohol prohibition doesn’t work but using drugs like marijuana, MDMA, LSD, and cocaine can still land you in court. What’s the difference? When it comes to illicit drug laws, do we only consider the worst-case scenarios without looking at the whole picture?

Ginger Gorman (05:00):

On the podcast today, a look at Australia’s drug policies, who makes them, who influences them, and who is being left out of the discussion. I’ve spent the last few years working on a project about ice addiction and recovery. I’ve interviewed a range of people who use methamphetamines and I’ve interviewed the family members who lost a loved one to drug addiction. Certain illicit drugs like ice and opioids can devastate people and also communities.

Professor Alison Ritter (05:44):

They are associated with a lot of social, economic, and health-related harms. And they’re connected to all of the major issues that we’re dealing with today in society.

Ginger Gorman (05:55):

But Professor Alison Ritter has some criticisms of how we as a society form drug policies.

Professor Alison Ritter (06:02):

Well, we do it badly. Look, there’s this fantasy that it’s this kind of technical rational process, identify problem, select solution, implement solution, evaluate. That’s not really how it’s formed. Drug policy is made through a whole bunch of different forces. Sometimes it’s an accident or a coincidence. Researchers have an important role to play in putting the evidence in front of politicians and policymakers. Policymakers are driven by their own experience. What’s happened in their lives and their families? And then there’s also vested interests, whether it’s from industry representatives or whether it’s from vested interests to do with law enforcement and policing. And this whole mashup sort of comes together when a window of opportunity opens and there’s a chance to change policy. So it’s really an incredibly messy and erratic process.

Ginger Gorman (07:01):

One of her criticisms is about the role experts play in making policy. She says we should democratise the policy-making process by involving the people that are most affected by drug use.

Professor Alison Ritter (07:13):

I think research and evidence have a really important role to play, but I don’t think they’re the be-all and end-all. And I think the problem with the evidence-based policy movement is that it presents policy as if it’s a technocratic problem-solving opportunity. And I don’t think it’s like that, the policy process isn’t like that, and I don’t know that we want drug policy to be technocratic.

Ginger Gorman (07:42):

What Alison means is when lawmakers only listen to the people whose knowledge comes from books, studies, data, it may not be reflecting the experiences of the actual people impacted both by illicit drugs and by drug laws.

Professor Alison Ritter (07:57):

I think what we want it to be is to reflect the values that are important to society. I think we want to engage people, everybody in that process, not just the experts. And I think when you privilege researchers and privilege experts in policymaking, you, at the same time, accidentally often marginalise other voices. And I think that’s to the detriment of policymaking. And in the case of drugs, where there are strong values and people have strong opinions about it, it’s a problem to just present it as if it’s a technocratic problem-solving process.

Ginger Gorman (08:39):

I’m sure there’ll be people listening though, who have been researching and do have expertise in this area who’ll be throwing their hands up thinking, “What is Alison saying?”

Professor Alison Ritter (08:49):

I know, including myself as a researcher.

Ginger Gorman (08:53):

Well, you’re kind of writing yourself out of a job a little bit, aren’t you?

Professor Alison Ritter (08:57):

Well, I think my critique is that policy has privileged researchers at the expense of other voices. Not to throw the baby out with the bath water, we need research and we need evidence. And that’s a really important input, but it’s one input into policy, it’s not the only input into policy. I think that’s the important message. And in terms of doing ourselves out of a job, there are so many questions we don’t know the answers to. So there’s loads of research that we still need to do to contribute to the policy debate. But I think we have overprivileged research and research evidence at the expense of other voices. And as a result, I think our policy is poorer.

Ginger Gorman (09:42):

Alison makes the point in her work that across the world, drug policies are actually in a state of flux. In some countries and jurisdictions like Portugal, the Netherlands, the United States, and even in my hometown of Canberra, you get progressive policies like decriminalisation or even legalisation to the point that whole industries are growing around cannabis. But while those policies become more common in some parts of the world, prohibitionist policies are also on the rise in other places like the Philippines.

Professor Alison Ritter (10:15):

As some countries move to legalise and liberalise their position, other countries increase the death penalty for drug use. And then you get unexpected examples like Thailand announcing changes to cannabis, a more liberal approach to cannabis. Partly it’s driven by drug type. So all of the liberalisation has been in relation to cannabis, notwithstanding some countries still strongly prohibit cannabis. But also, I think it reflects that we are in a state of flux.

Professor Alison Ritter (10:45):

And I don’t know that we, as a global community, have decided what we think about drugs. Do we think they’re really bad? Do we think they’re not so harmful? And what is the best regulatory approach? Alcohol has obviously been a legal substance for many years and shows no signs of going back to prohibition. There are calls to outlaw tobacco, to make tobacco illegal. And New Zealand’s introduced some tobacco laws along those lines at the same time as we’re legalising cannabis. So there’s these funny patterns that are very difficult to make sense of.

Ginger Gorman (11:26):

What we have are two very different policy trends. There’s the war on drugs approach, which has been proved politically popular, and the harm minimisation approach.

Professor Alison Ritter (11:37):

The harm minimisation idea is that drug use can be part of normal human existence. It’s always existed. And our job as a society is to look after people who experience harms. And there’s lots of ways of doing that, providing them with clean injecting equipment so they don’t contract HIV, providing pill testing services at festivals so they know what they’re taking, and a whole range of other harm minimisation, harm reduction strategies.

Professor Alison Ritter (12:09):

The other camp, drugs are bad, they should be prohibited, they’re not in society’s best interests, think that the harm minimisation approach basically sends the wrong message. The irony, of course, is that they both share the same goal of reducing harms, it’s just that the prohibitionists think the best way to not experience harm is not to consume drugs. And the harm reductionists think the best way to reduce harm is to provide strategies to reduce harm.

Ginger Gorman (12:40):

What’s fascinating about Alison’s analysis of these two seemingly divided camps is that they’re actually working to achieve the same outcome.

Professor Alison Ritter (12:50):

So there are shared values. I’ve done some analysis of the pill testing debate or drug checking debate. So there’s been a lot of debate about whether introducing drug checking in festivals is a good idea or not and people who are pro and people who are against. And what’s striking when you analyse that debate is that the common position is that we want to save young people’s lives. But that never gets surfaced in the debate because it’s never a debate about values or goals. It’s always a debate about the means to achieve those, whether that’s drug checking or sniffer dogs.

Professor Alison Ritter (13:28):

So my hypothesis is that if we shifted the debate to actually talk about values and appreciate that there are some shared values like saving lives, we might be able to find some common ground or some way in which we can advance the debate beyond slagging off at each other and being incredibly dismissive of each other. So at the moment, people roll their eyes and there’s no kind of coming together. If there was recognition of shared values, there might be an opportunity then to have a productive debate about the kinds of strategies that would best achieve those shared goals.

Ginger Gorman (14:10):

Which is people not dying.

Professor Alison Ritter (14:12):


Ginger Gorman (14:14):

There’s another camp, not necessarily one driven by harm minimisation, that tends not to have much sway in the drugs policy debate. That’s the recreational users, people whose drug use doesn’t have impacts that we often associate with addiction like crime, violence, and self-destruction.

Professor Alison Ritter (14:35):

They’re a really important group of people because one of the features of taking drugs for fun is that group of people recognise pleasure, and they recognise that drug use can be very pleasurable and isn’t inevitably associated with harm.

Speaker 4 (14:50):

I like using cocaine at chill parties or hanging out with friends, but if I do it at home with mates, I like to add ketamine. We call it spicy boys. Both of these are very recreational and I use them maybe once a month.

Kim Lester (15:02):

With drugs that are illegal, the government or law enforcement can’t regulate what’s in them or how they’re made. And that’s obviously going to have way more damaging effects than if they were legal. If people were able to try it safely and it didn’t have that negative stigma behind it and if it was more normalised, it would be safer.

Speaker 3 (15:21):

If drugs policy were up to me, I think this is fairly simple, we should follow Portugal and decriminalise. It’s a health issue, not a criminal one.

Speaker 4 (15:30):

I’ve been using drugs since I was 16. I think there’s awful stigma around drugs. And what people don’t seem to realise or want to admit is that addiction comes from trauma and mental health issues. So I would advocate for more funding on these issues. Drugs need to be decriminalised, especially marijuana.

Professor Alison Ritter (15:45):

The trouble is that’s a really unpopular message, particularly for politicians. The idea that you can take drugs for pleasure and not experience harm. It’s almost one of those ideas that’s verboten, that we can’t allow a platform for people. And yet the reality is, as I said, half of Australians have used an illicit drug. Lots of people use drugs for pleasure in the same way as which people might have a couple of glasses of wine on a Friday night, and it’s perfectly acceptable, it’s not harmful, and it’s part of enjoying life.

Ginger Gorman (16:22):

That’s so radical, what you’ve just said in one way, but in another way, I’m just nodding because I am in very creative circles and these are everyday activities for a lot of people.

Professor Alison Ritter (16:36):

Indeed. And not just in creative circles, in all sorts of circles. There’s enormous permission in a sense socially for non-harmful recreational drug use of currently illegal drugs.

Ginger Gorman (16:49):

So if there’s a considerable chunk of people out there using drugs safely just for fun, why aren’t politicians willing or able to openly court their votes with more lenient drug policies?

Professor Alison Ritter (17:03):

The problem with the public discourse is that it just reflects the focus on the illegal status, and it doesn’t give permission for these other perspectives and it actively shuts them down, to be honest, which is another reason why we want to democratise drug policy. We want to have all of those voices because they’re all part of understanding, how can we respond to these issues better, how can we help people who need help, and how can we leave people alone who are perfectly fine being left alone?

Ginger Gorman (17:39):

So how can lawmakers get the best out of these shared goals? How do you get opposing voices like, for example, Jeff Kennett who recently called for a two-year pay ban for AFL players caught using illicit drugs, and Victorian MP, Fiona Patten, who has been pushing to decriminalise all illicit drugs, how do you get them to work together to form more effective drug policies?

Professor Alison Ritter (18:07):

Well, the first thing to say is this is the sort of stuff that I’m trying to research, to create these opportunities for what I would call value-led dialogues. Secondly, it needs to be a safe space. So if we’ve got Jeff Kennett and Fiona Patten, we’re not going to be doing that on 3AW or 2GB, we’re going to be doing that in private. Thirdly, I think there needs to be a diversity of voices in those kind of conversations. And the kinds of voices that Jeff Kennett and Fiona Patten would productively engage with include people who are currently using illicit drugs, people who have stopped using illicit drugs and are in recovery, they might be members of the Fellowship, family members, parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, clinicians, who are working with these people.

Professor Alison Ritter (19:00):

And it’s bringing all of those voices together in a safe space that I think has the potential to shift things. And we’ve got an example of this in the New South Wales Drug Summit held in the 1990s, which is where the approval, the recommendation for the injecting centre came from. That brought together all of those voices, as it turns out in Parliament House, where they debated these incredibly difficult issues and moved forward.

Ginger Gorman (19:33):

The question is, are the experts whose research helps to shape drugs policies at the moment, going to want to listen to this vast range of voices, everyday members of the public, on such a morally divisive issue?

Professor Alison Ritter (19:48):

Experts don’t trust the public because sometimes the public aren’t very knowledgeable, particularly about science and scientific things, but also because I think there’s a lack of mutual respect, I guess. I think experts have become incredibly defensive in response to the populism and those kind of movements. And then you have people like Trump saying we need to drain the swamp and Gove in the UK saying we’ve had enough of experts. So then experts become very defensive, I think, and are more nervous about engaging with the public.

Professor Alison Ritter (20:26):

And at the same time, the public become very lairy of experts and you get this kind of mutual reinforcing disdain where there’s the experts and truth and fact on the one hand, and then there’s stupid public who don’t know what’s good for them on the other. And neither of them are accurate characterisations. The public is actually much smarter and given time and good information, they can think through these problems. And experts aren’t the only ones that hold the truth.

Ginger Gorman (20:58):

And if you’ve got this downward spiral of mutual distrust, it’s a slippery slope to hell.

Professor Alison Ritter (21:06):

Absolutely. And I think that’s what we’re confronted with at the moment and why I think democracy and democratising drug policy is part of the solution.

Ginger Gorman (21:18):

When Alison talks about democratising drug policy and engaging impacted parties, she’s not only talking about drug users and their families.

Professor Alison Ritter (21:27):

As a researcher, we have been fantastic at giving voice to people with lived experience, both of active drug use, and I work with people who use drugs every day, and people who have recovered from drug use. The voices that we ignore are the taxi driver and the conservative drug policy voices. And I do it along with everybody else. And I think the challenge is to work out a way to bring all of the voices together.

Ginger Gorman (21:57):

But it’s interesting, I’m doing a huge project about ice addiction and recovery. And in fact, some of the people that have opinions on those drugs are people who’ve had the front of their shops smashed in and so forth. It’s not just the person who often has come to ice through very traumatic means and has lived experience, it’s actually lived experience of being the recipient of the harm.

Professor Alison Ritter (22:21):

Absolutely. And that’s the kind of lived experience that I think we need to engage with.

Ginger Gorman (22:27):

But I can imagine many drug experts, who I know in some cases you’re calling technocratic, would abhor the idea of talking to the taxi driver who picks up drunk people on a Saturday night and maybe incredibly right-wing on these issues. You’re suggesting that this kind of person, alongside many other types of people, should be included and given what, equal voice to experts?

Professor Alison Ritter (23:00):

In these dialogues, absolutely.

Ginger Gorman (23:03):

And if you conceptualise this in some way, in practical terms, how would we bring people together?

Professor Alison Ritter (23:12):

I think it’s creating a diversity of different places. So on the one hand, you can have the kind of round tables or what’s commonly called town halls now where the community comes together and expresses their points of view. I think they’re really important. And particularly the notion of a community meeting or a town hall meeting can be really productive. The other example is the more formal deliberative dialogue. So calling a citizens’ jury where you get a representative sample of citizens, consider all of the information, and then make recommendations. And citizens’ juries have been shown to be a very effective dialogue method.

Ginger Gorman (23:52):

And then if you imagine that we do this, we bring all these diverse voices together with expertise and we put this into some kind of wonderful drug policy-making machine, what would the future of drug policy-making look like in five years, 10 years, and how would it be different from your technocratic policy-making machine that we currently have?

Professor Alison Ritter (24:17):

Firstly, I think it would be more compassionate. Both more compassionate towards people who use drugs, but also more compassionate to people affected by drug use, whether it’s the shopkeeper or the taxi driver. I think what we lack at the moment is compassion about the nature of drug use and the nature of the harms and the problems associated with it. So I think it would be more compassionate for everybody.

Professor Alison Ritter (24:47):

Secondly, I think it would be much less costly. I think many of the technocratic solutions are not necessarily the most cost-effective solutions. So I think it would cost less. I think one of the big drivers of cost and harm is the way we police drugs. And I would like to think that those kind of dialogues would shift how we police drugs and how law enforcement works in this space. And that would be a huge cost saving to society.

Ginger Gorman (25:22):

Thanks for listening to Seriously Social, I’m Ginger Gorman. If you’re enjoying the podcast, one of the best ways to support us is to subscribe. And if you listen through Apple Podcasts, drop us a review in there for us as well. We love listening to them and it helps other people find us. Seriously Social is produced by Kim Lester, engineered by Mark Gageldonk, AKA Baldy, and executive produced by Sue White and Bonnie Johnson. It’s an initiative of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. See you next time.

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