Let’s talk about illicit drugs.
Or, more accurately, let’s talk about what we talk about when we talk about illicit drugs. That’s the issue at the heart of Brisbane journalist Andrew McMillen’s debut book, Talking Smack, which looks to unpack some of the myths surrounding drug use.
Do drugs inspire creativity? Do they ruin your relationships? Are users bad people? Is the ‘sex, drugs ‘n’ rock & roll’ lifestyle all it’s cracked up to be? Over the course of the book, Andrew speaks to 14 prominent Australian musicians — from ‘unrepentant drug fanatic’ Steve Kilbey (The Church) to abstinent Wally de Backer (Gotye) — about their unique perspectives.
Andrew is open, frank and unapologetic about his own illicit drug use, which had a lot to do with his decision to write the book.
“I was approached by UQ Press in September 2012 to see if I had any book ideas,” Andrew explains. “At the time, I was just beginning to experiment with recreational drugs in my personal life, so I was quite interested in that world. Up until that point I’d bought into the hysteria around drug use — that drugs are bad and dangerous and if you use them you’re a villain and a bad person who deserves to go to jail.
“I’d just had some fantastic experiences with drugs that were life-affirming and allowed me to bond with friends I had never previously connected to, so I was starting to push back against the messages that we receive in our society. What I pitched was a book proposal that crossed over my life-long interest in music and my nascent fascination with illicit drugs.”
McMillen is at pains to point out that Talking Smack is not a ‘pro-drug’ book — while writing it, he saw himself as an observer, documenting honest conversations about drugs and trying not to project his own opinions onto his interview subjects.
“I was conscious of the fact that I was naïve and new to drug use,” he stresses. “I refer to that time as my honeymoon period, when I had only had positive experiences. I didn’t want to come across as a drug advocate who said, ‘Yay, drugs are great and everyone should take them!’ That’s obviously not true, and I would question anyone who has that view, because mental illness is a real thing, and it’s well proven through scientific research that the earlier you start using illicit drugs, the greater your potential for developing mental illness or disorder.
“So when I was writing the book and talking to these people, I was conscious of how little I knew. Through these conversations, I was able to expand my knowledge of certain substances and situations and lives, and see how people had organised their lives around drug use. For many of these people, drugs were something recreational to do outside of work hours, after you finished an album or a tour. For Paul Kelly, heroin was always a treat; something he’d do to celebrate an achievement, rather than something he’d do at midday on a Tuesday.
“One thing Paul Kelly said really sticks out in my mind, and is something I will take with me for the rest of my life. He said, ‘If you don’t respect drugs, they won’t respect you’. You have to be conscious of the potential that these things have to change your mood and behaviour and how you interact with people. These are powerful psychoactive substances that can and do change people in big ways. If you’re not keeping your eye on the ball, these substances can overtake your life and productivity.
“So for me, it’s always about respect and moderation and safe drug testing kits and solid research and not making spontaneous decisions. These are all, to me, harm minimisation tactics to ensure that my own use stays recreational without ticking over into anything else.”
Though he was largely content to learn and observe, Andrew was able to impart some wisdom onto one of his interviewees. In the book’s most surreal moment, he explains Silk Road — the ‘Deep Web‘ marketplace that allows users to buy and sell illicit drugs — to Tina Arena.
“I found it kind of funny that I was able to describe Silk Road to her,” Andrew laughs. “She’s one of Australia’s top pop stars, a 45-year-old mother with a highly successful career, and she started talking hypothetically about people ordering drugs off the internet, whereas I actually have quite a bit of experience in that area. So that was amusing to me.
“Silk Road is a market that has opened up entirely beyond the jurisdiction of any geographic border. It’s a stateless website. No one knows where it’s hosted. The alleged original owner of the site was arrested, but within a month, a copycat site, Silk Road 2.0, had popped up, and it’s still doing great business. It’s still allowing drug users around the world to buy, sell and trade something most Western countries agree is illegal.
“The model is quite fascinating, in that this entire technological structure has popped up out of nowhere, and is now used by thousands of people throughout the world each day to buy and sell things without the permission of state governments or federal governments. Every time I log on to the site, I think about that, that people have created this incredible market that deals in illicit goods. The fact that these behaviours are illegal hasn’t stopped them.
“Certainly, there’s money to be made, and that’s probably a big incentive for a lot of the people involved, but for small-time users like myself, it’s just amazing… Prior to Silk Road, I didn’t know anyone who used cocaine or acid or anything like that, and yet it’s allowed me to have access to those things and experiment with those things. Previously, I had no avenue to do so.
“It’s the eBay of drugs. It’s got this great feedback system where people test drugs and post about the quality of certain things. There are buyer and seller reviews, and it goes both ways — if you’re a vendor who’s ripping people off, you won’t last long on the site. But if you’re a buyer who’s not coming through on your end of the bargain by practicing your own safety and security techniques, you’ll be exposed pretty quickly, too. So it’s quite a fascinating subsection of the internet, or the ‘dark web’, and one I’m quite intrigued by.”
Ultimately, Andrew is most interested in separating the problems caused by drugs from the problems caused by the war on drugs. In much the same way that Prohibition had harmful impacts on American society that were quite separate to the effects of alcohol, Andrew suspects that many of the problems we associate with illicit drugs might actually be the result of overzealous laws.
“Many of these substances have been illegal for over 40 years,” he says. “Australia doesn’t have its own ‘War on Drugs’, which is a phrase that can be attributed to the Nixon administration in the US in the early 1970s, but we do follow the UN Convention on illicit drug use, which prohibits the distribution, sale and use of anything from cannabis upwards. So the fact that these drugs are illegal means that by their very nature, these are things that people will hide away and keep private.
“Certainly, from my own experience, I know there’s an amount of stigma attached to admitting that you use drugs and you have a good time with drugs occasionally. That’s because we only hear the negatives, and it’s so rare to hear the positives. To concentrate on the negative outcomes from illicit drug use negates the entire conversation, which could be quite productive, about why people choose to use drugs.
“The reasons people choose to use drugs are complex and nuanced and, to me, fascinating. No one takes drugs because they want to have a bad time or make their life miserable. It’s because they see a benefit on the other side.”
Talking Smack is available now. Andrew will officially launch the book at Avid Reader (193 Boundary St, West End) in conversation with John Birmingham on Thursday August 21; tickets are free but bookings are essential.