Bongs, booze, and blackmail: on the hauntology of drugs

The script is by now a familiar one: a public figure, ‘sprung’ with evidence of illicit drug use in their past, contrives a half-truthful, half-dissembling response as a clown might a balloon animal with all its squeaking contortions. Bill Clinton, you may recall, tried marijuana but neither inhaled nor ‘liked it’ (phew!). George W Bush ‘might have smoked something’. His brother Jeb might have too, albeit with the disclaimer that the offending doobie had been rolled an exonerating forty years earlier.

Since at least the beginning of drug prohibition the defensive dismissal of historical illegal drug use as youthful indiscretion has been something of a trope (Wikipedia provides a handy list of US politicians who have acknowledged cannabis use). We might call it, to borrow from Jacques Derrida, the hauntology of drugs—the eerie persistence of certain compounds, to paraphrase one especially ill-judged SA Police campaign, ‘long after the high is gone.’ Just as in Derrida’s example of Hamlet, with its various hauntings and temporal displacements (‘time is out of joint’—or a joint as the case may be), past drug use never properly belongs to the past, and is always poised to make, as Peter Buse and Andrew Scott put it in their discussion of hauntology, its ‘apparitional debut.’  

Last month, the tabloid Daily Mail published an eight-year-old photograph of sexual assault survivor advocate Grace Tame with what appeared to be an outsized bong in her lap. The ‘resurfaced’ photograph—in reality, of course, it had been dredged from the depths of Tame’s Instagram account by whoever passes for journalists at the Mail—provoked accusations of backgrounding by the Prime Minister’s Office, perhaps in retaliation for the former Australian of the Year’s grudging encounter with Scott Morrison at a Canberra photo-op.   

In response, Tame penned an open letter notable for its lacerating rage, one that might almost be inimitable if not for its passing resemblance to that of another neurodivergent figurehead, Greta Thunberg. It also cogently made the case that trauma and substance-use disorders often go hand in hand, and that to strip the bong photo of such a context is to do a grave disservice not only to Tame but also to sufferers of abuse and addiction in general.

What was less remarked upon, however, was this part of the letter:

in many CSA [childhood sexual abuse] cases, substances are PART of the crime. When the man who abused me first tried to rape me, he used alcohol to stupefy me. I’d only been drunk twice in my life before that. Perpetrators often use substances in grooming and offending, first to lower inhibitions, and second to build a conspiracy with the target which prevents them from reporting.

For all the tabloid media’s contrived outrage at Tame’s past marijuana use, the fact is that alcohol is the more dangerous drug by orders of magnitude. It is by far the most commonly used ‘date rape’ drug, more prevalent than Rohypnol, ketamine or GHB despite the persistent focus on these illegal substances by government health and sexual violence awareness programs.

Using forensic urinalysis, a 2001 study found that ‘detailed examination of the testing results does not support the contention that any single drug, apart from alcohol, can be particularly identified as a ‘date rape’ drug’. Similarly, an Australian study conducted in 2009 concluded that the study showed ‘drink spiking with sedative or illicit drugs appears to be rare. If drink spiking does occur, ethanol [alcohol] appears to be the most common agent used’.

Alcohol’s preeminence in cases of drug-facilitated sexual assault isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, any great mystery. Alcohol is legal and widely available, if not ubiquitous, and can be purchased and consumed openly. It’s also relatively cheap, and will become even more affordable if the prime minister’s recent, no doubt election-minded proposal to reduce the excise tax on draught beer comes to pass.

It is, of course, the prerogative of individuals like Tame to characterise their past drug use in ways consistent with their lived experiences. For some people, this will inevitably involve explanations that entail trauma, addiction, and other adverse social and psychological determinants. But it shouldn’t be necessary to couch drug use in problematising terms in order to defend against sanctimonious attacks of the kind launched by the Daily Mail.

As researchers such as Dr Carl L Hart and Dr David Jacka have argued, the vast majority of illicit drug use is ‘functional’ and doesn’t lead to dependency or social problems. Even Luke Williams, the Australian journalist who chronicled his own methamphetamine addiction in The Ice Age (2016), has noted that, of the 500,000 Australians who take powdered crystal meth each year, only 10 to 20 per cent abuse the drug or become dependent—about the same number who, according to Hart, progress from recreational use to addiction across all illicit substances. I’m reminded, when considering such facts alongside the continuing prohibition of certain drugs and the moralisation of their use, of HL Mencken’s definition of puritanism as ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.’

Tame, it seems, has emerged unscathed from Bonggate. If anything, the manufactured scandal appears to have improved her standing with the Australian public, which—as the Daily Mail and its ilk may wish to note for future reference—increasingly favours the liberalisation of marijuana laws. (Tame also stated in her letter that her foundation received a record amount of donations on the day the photograph was published.) Taylor Jane, no doubt, spoke for many Australians when she tweeted: ‘So Grace Tame is pictured with a magnificent bong a few years ago. Big whoop. Breath test Barnaby Joyce daily and let’s talk.’

But it’s worth asking, given racism’s foundational role in global drug policy, if a woman of colour would have been absolved so easily. I doubt, too, whether the public would have been as sympathetic if the drug in question had been a ‘hard’ one (recent public revelations of ice and cocaine use have had much more serious consequences). Australians like a drink, and clearly don’t mind a toke when it comes to it, either. But while we continue to denigrate other drugs and their users, reinforcing harmful stigmatisations, our relationship to mind-altering substances will remain mired in the same hypocrisy that underlies Morrison’s beer-tax cut, haunted by the unjust and unscientific demarcations of the ‘war on drugs’.  

The reality is that all drugs can be abused, and all can be used safely. Tame’s characterisation of her early marijuana use as a ‘maladaptive coping mechanism’ tells us more about trauma and its effects than about drugs, and this is precisely the point—that, as Derrida noted, drugs are not a scientific concept but ‘a political category’ with norms, as Williams writes, ‘usually tending on the side of the ‘prohibitionist’.’ As Tame astutely observes:

Survivors fear authorities will zero in on the substance use instead of the wider complexities of psychological manipulation—which are much harder to prove and explain. 

So what is to be done? In the first instance we could do a lot to help those with substance use disorders by reframing them as issues of health and sociality rather than law and order, not in the form of lip service—Australia’s drug laws have ostensibly been focussed on harm minimisation since the mid-1980s—but practical-minded policy. This means full decriminalisation at a minimum, and the implementation of evidence-based harm reduction measures such as pill testing, safe injecting rooms, and retiring police sniffer dogs.

Secondly, a Menckenian proposition: that we acknowledge that all illicit drugs, not just cannabis, can be, and for the most part are, not only used safely but pleasurably. On the one hand, then, harm minimisation; on the other, pleasure maximisation. The latent puritanism of drug use ‘gotchas’ like the Daily Mail’s are both two-faced—the British newspaper world to which the Mail can trace its roots is, after all, notoriously booze-soaked—and increasingly out of step with contemporary sensibilities.

Tame is right, in the context of sexual assault survivor advocacy, to draw attention to the complex reasons, often but not always arising from early trauma, why people abuse drugs (both legal and illegal ones). That tabloids such as the Daily Mail choose to ignore these reasons in the name of sensationalist ‘reportage’ designed to bring survivors of childhood sexual abuse into disrepute is unutterably tone-deaf.      

What lurks in the background of all this is a steady stream of ghostly presences. Neither the photograph of Tame nor the tabloid media’s response to it truly belong to the present. We might say that, just as Derrida felt the post-Cold War order remained haunted by the death of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, so too do the ghosts of another, dying war—that, at least nominally, on drugs—go on stalking the present moment. We can only hope that these apparitions, clad in their night-gowns like that of Hamlet’s father, are close to making their final entrance.        


Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

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