Addict in the Family
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Addict In The Family

by Dr. Andrew Byrne



The current wave of illicit drug use in Australia began in the days of the Vietnam War when large numbers of American troops spent rest and recreation leave in our big cities. For five years from 1967 they brought their pent up frustrations from the war zone, their pay packets and their drugs.

It is believed that up to 20% of these young Americans were using heroin regularly. With opium being a traditional crop in adjacent countries, the refined end-product, heroin was also readily available in Vietnam. When going on leave, personnel could purchase sufficient for a week or two. In Australia, heroin was hardly known as a social problem and customs inspections were usually waived for allied military staff.

But these soldiers were not 'junkies'. They were highly trained military staff fighting a war. Their drug was easy to obtain and their salaries were sufficient to cover the cost. For today's addict, just obtaining the drug can be a full time occupation, to the exclusion of normal daily life. For these troops, however, heroin was used more like tobacco.

Interestingly, the majority returned to America and spontaneously ceased using drugs. A small proportion who could not cope with normal civilian life required special services such as residential rehabilitation, detoxification or methadone treatment. For some reason very few Australian service personnel used heroin in Vietnam.

These Americans were called 'R & R' boys, being on rest and recreation leave. While in Australia, they mixed with young sociable singles as well as fringe dwellers, alcoholics and prostitutes. A number of these associates also developed a taste for the new drug. Many began by smoking or 'snorting' the drug. When it is injected, a given quantity of heroin goes a lot further. Intravenous use also gives a transient but intense pleasurable feeling called a 'rush'.

These consumers were mostly habitués of Sydney's Kings Cross and they formed the first substantial market for illicit narcotics in the white Australian community. Opium had been used discretely in the Chinese community for many years and only rarely came to the attention of the authorities.

Hence we can see that part of what makes an addict 'visible' is the illegal nature of their drug-of-choice. The other necessary condition which makes a 'drug user' into an 'addict' is that they become unable or unwilling to cease their drug use.

The popularity of cannabis and amphetamines also increased in the 1960s, while cocaine was still rare in Australia until the 1980s. The market for these drugs has grown to such an extent that they are now larger than many legitimate crops and industries.

We may have difficulty being objective about 'drugs'. Many people regard 'drugs' as the illegal ones, forgetting that tobacco and alcohol are not only more damaging, but also more addictive than some illicit drugs such as cannabis. Many average Australians are also addicted to tranquillizers, but these problems are beyond the scope of this book.

A patient with migraine was asked: "Do you take any drugs?" "Certainly not!" came the offended response. Closer questioning revealed a very different story, however. This woman was a smoker and quite a heavy drinker. She also took laxatives in an effort to lose weight. Apart from over-the-counter pain killers, she was taking the contraceptive pill. She also drank an average of eight cups of brewed coffee per day. And this lady had stated that she did not take drugs!!

Most traditional societies had access to a mood altering substance, be it alcohol, coca leaf, betel nut, peyote cactus, tobacco or coffee. In the modern world, unprecedented choices and unfettered consumerism give us the choice of a variety of 'drugs', sometimes by other names. Our mornings start with tea or coffee. The day is punctuated with 'smoko' breaks which are sanctified into Australian industrial law. Often, sleep is ushered in with a glass of tawny port or another sedative draught.

Our country's first currency was rum. Australia's inherited institution of 'shouting' drinks leaves non-drinkers out in the cold. This peer pressure yields a feeling of 'safety in numbers' despite the risks. People's sense of responsibility diminishes when things are done in concert. This is reflected in such unsavoury events as football riots and other unruly crowd behaviour.

At least half of the most popular items in supermarkets are based on 'drugs'. Tobacco, coffee, tea, cola, paracetamol, aspirin and laxatives are all big business. If we include monosodium glutamate, fluoride, the xanthenes from chocolate and liquorice as drugs, then drug-free mouthfuls would be exceptional indeed! Governments depend heavily upon tax revenue from these luxury items. In Australia, all confectionery, soft drinks, alcohol and tobacco are taxed, in some cases more than once.

The harmful effects from some these substances has been well established scientifically, while for others it is simply unknown. Although some are quite hazardous, some others may be relatively harmless. Tobacco and alcohol have been studied closely. Aspirin is not without its potential for harm, nor are large quantities of caffeine in susceptible people.

We are taught that 'taking drugs is bad', yet drug use goes on all around us. Children perceive this inconsistency at an early age. How do we confront this dilemma in the young?

The answer is to start by being open and honest. 'Yes, we take drugs. Yes, we enjoy taking certain drugs. We know there are risks, just as there are with surfing or hang gliding. We accept those risks and take these drugs within certain constraints'.

This informed freedom of choice is fundamental in a modern society. Only a strange, irrational jurisdiction would again try to ban drugs outright. History clearly demonstrates that the outlawing of popular psychoactive substances is counterproductive and pointless. Coffee, alcohol, cannabis, steroids, heroin and methadone have all been banned at some time, each with untoward, and sometimes tragic consequences. We already know more effective ways of regulating the consumption of these substances. Means such as education, taxation, honest labelling and advertising restrictions are more effective than putting young people in jail for using drugs.

The decriminalisation of prostitution and pornography may have caused an increase in their visibility. However, their actual extent in society probably remains constant. Criminologists have known for years that raising penalties has no effect on the incidence of crime.

Even capital punishment has not eliminated heroin related crime as was hoped in some Asian countries. The perceived chance of being detected is the only controllable factor which can alter individual crime rates. After thousands of years of popularity, opioids continue a love-hate relationship with our civilisation.

So, do not be shocked by reality. While it is often stranger than fiction, it is real people who are involved, and they may be very close. We need to use all the humility we can muster, as the next to fall from grace may be our own near and dear, or even ourselves!

On to the 2007 Update to the Introduction


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Dr. Andrew J. Byrne received the prestigious Marie Award at the 2006 national conference of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence.
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