During research for my forthcoming book on psychedelic drugs in Australia, I’ve come across some pretty lurid examples of anti-drug misinformation and propaganda. You may have heard the one about psychedelics causing people to look at the sun until they go blind, or users believing they were an inanimate object for months after having dropped some acid.
In Australian newspaper reports of the 1960s and 70s, it was common for users of magic mushrooms and LSD to be referred to as ‘addicts’ despite available evidence that, if anything, psychedelics are anti-addictive—as attested by the fact that Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, wanted to introduce LSD therapy into the organisation’s recovery program.
In the same outlets, psychedelics were often linked to a host of health outcomes, from chromosomal defects to leukaemia. You’d think such pseudoscientific reportage, with its not uncommon invocations of racist and classist stereotypes, belong in the same cultural dustbin as unintentionally funny propaganda efforts like Reefer Madness (1936).
But it was precisely this kind of nonsense that came to mind when, last week, I chanced upon the Australian Federal Police’s latest anti-drug campaign: a series of cigarette warning label-style advertisements posted to the more than 500,000 followers of the AFP’s Facebook page using Halloween as an extremely thin pretext for whipping up fear about methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin.
‘Chasing the dragon?’ asks the heroin ad, linking thieving addicts with rising insurance premiums. ‘You’ll get burned and so will the wallets of Australians’. In another, cocaine users are warned to ‘get off the junk to protect your junk’, a reference to the (still contested) impact of chronic use on male fertility. In a classic piece of drug-war hypocrisy, both ads implore readers to ‘have a conscience’, simultaneously moralising the health and human rights issue of substance use disorder and failing to show empathy for people who use drugs problematically.
The most egregious of the ads, however, is the one targeting meth—which, tellingly, has drawn the most positive responses on the AFP’s Facebook page as well as the most backlash on social media.
‘Australia seemingly has an insatiable appetite for ice,’ the post reads, ‘which can make users really violent and unpredictable’. Accompanying before and after images of a meth addict (actually a composite, the AFP conceded, dreamed up by its Forensics Facial Recognition team) is the following warning: ‘Scared of monsters under the bed? Imagine thinking bugs are under your skin’. While the face of a meth user might be horrifying, the ad proposes, we should be truly terrified by the thought of one behind the wheel of a car.
Drug researcher Nicole Lee was not alone in suggesting the post was inspired less by evidence-based harm reduction strategies than the notorious American ‘Faces of Meth’ and Montana Meth Project scare campaigns. The main consequence of those campaigns was to increase the stigmatisation of people with substance use disorders and deter them from seeking the help they need. Looking at the AFP’s ham-fisted imitation, with its cringey appeals to youth speak (‘Netflix and chill’, ‘be a lover and not a fighter’), you could be forgiven for thinking the last forty years hadn’t happened.
Since 1985, Australia’s approach to drugs has been officially centred on harm minimisation and grounded in a public health model. In this approach, according to the Department of Health’s own website, ‘AOD [alcohol and other drug] use is viewed as the result of the interaction between … the individual; the social, economic, cultural and physical environment; and the drug itself.’
None of this is reflected in the AFP ads, which recapitulate harmful anti-drug rhetoric of the past by characterising drug users as people who are a problem rather than people with one. The target audience is not invited to view substance use disorders as the result of complex interactions between cultural, socio-economic, and pharmacological factors, but as evidence of individual moral failure (‘have a conscience’). The ads don’t motivate the public to feel compassion towards people with substance use disorders but, on the contrary, are designed to stoke fear and disgust, engaging our desire to blame and punish rather than empathise.
Of course, under the so-called ‘war on drugs’ the police have a vested interested in making bogeymen out of drug users who, we are told by the AFP, ‘bankroll criminals who enslave women and destroy the environment’ and cause ‘needles in the street, overdoses, pressures on frontline workers [and] grieving families.’ Each of the ads trumpets the efforts of law enforcement agencies to police the trafficking of drugs despite the minimal impact of arrests and seizures on drug crimes and harms.
The war on drugs, far from deterring organised crime, actually incentivises it. The reason criminal gangs don’t generally see alcohol as a way to make money is that its manufacture, sale, and use is regulated. If we banned alcohol tomorrow, as happened in the US in the 1920s, a black market and all its attendant problems would spring up immediately. There’s another irony here, too: if the AFP were serious about reducing the damage caused by substance use, it would be focussing not on ‘hard’ drugs but the far more prevalent alcohol, which topped the most recent Australian Drug Harms Ranking Study ahead of heroin and meth.
In the end, as Nicole Lee writes,
even if you have a moral objection to drug use, making simplistic links between drug use and physical appearance, offending and other behaviours does nothing to stop people using.
In fact, there is evidence that scare campaigns like the AFP’s can have the opposite effect to the one intended by making drugs seem more alluring. There is little doubt as to what does work: factual education, harm reduction such as pill-testing and injection rooms, and treatment programs that offer evidence-based help rather than judgement. It’s a sad indictment of Australia’s approach to illicit drugs that the majority of the $1.7 billion per year we spend on ‘fighting’ them still goes towards law enforcement instead of far more effective treatment and prevention strategies.
It’s a good thing that the general public’s view of illicit drugs is much more sophisticated than the AFP would appear to give it credit for. A majority of the population now supports harm reduction measures like pill-testing, and there is growing support for decriminalisation and even legalisation. Most Australians understand that the taking of illicit drugs, while still a minority activity, doesn’t inevitably lead to the kind of ‘crazed abandon’ depicted in films life Reefer Madness, and is for the most part unaccompanied by significant individual or social harms. In Drug Use for Grown-Ups (2021), Dr Carl L Hart, himself a recreational user of heroin, notes that
research shows repeatedly that [substance use] issues affect only 10 to 30 per cent of those who use even the most stigmatised drugs, such as heroin and methamphetamine.
For those who are affected, substance use disorders can be shattering. But increasing shame and stigma, as the AFP’s outmoded and irresponsible campaign does, will only discourage people from seeking help when they need it, and harden the hearts of others towards them.
If you need drug treament or information, you can contact the free National Alcohol and Other Drug hotline on 1800 250 015.