All posts tagged drugs

  • Good Weekend story: ‘Risky Business: How a bad LSD trip taught one Sydney teenager to think twice about experimenting with drugs’, September 2017

    A feature story for Good Weekend, published in the September 30 issue. Excerpt below.

    Risky Business

    How a bad LSD trip taught one Sydney teenager to think twice about experimenting with drugs

    'Risky Business: How a bad LSD trip taught one Sydney teenager to think twice about experimenting with drugs' story by Andrew McMillen in Good Weekend, September 2017

    Tom* closes his eyes, settles back on his bed, breathes in the aromatherapy oil he’s burning and listens to psychedelic trance while waiting for the onset of the trip from the LSD he’s just swallowed. It’s 8pm on a Friday night this year, he’s home alone in the sanctuary of his bedroom and he tells himself that this is his reward for finishing his exams (except for business studies, which he doesn’t care about). Within moments, the 17-year-old’s heart rate goes up, butterflies flutter in his stomach and waves of colour dance across his field of vision, regardless of whether he closes or opens his eyes. This is the fifth time he’s taken the hallucinogen, the first four with no unpleasant side effects, so he’s trying a double dose to see whether the sensations become more intense.

    Tom takes precautions: he uses a drug-testing kit he bought from a “hippie store” near his house to make sure the drug is LSD rather than a more risky synthetic alternative. He cuts a tiny sliver from one of the tabs and drops it into a glass tube containing a small amount of liquid. He watches as the sample reacts to the chemicals, turning dark purple, indicating its purity. Satisfied, Tom eats four tiny pieces of LSD-soaked blotting paper known as “tabs”.

    The trip starts well, reaching an idyllic plateau, but the come-up keeps climbing – and with it, his anxiety. He doesn’t hear his dad Karl* unexpectedly arrive home and climb the stairs. Sitting at his desk, Tom is so shocked when his dad opens his bedroom door that he can barely speak and doesn’t make eye contact. So odd is his behaviour that his father imagines he’s walked in on his son masturbating. Embarrassed, he bids his son good night – he’s off to meet Tom’s mum Jasmine* at a fund-raising dinner across town – and closes the door.

    Tom is alone again, and the drug’s effects continue to intensify. Trying to counteract the restlessness he’s feeling, he walks onto the second-floor balcony off his bedroom and paces up and down. By now losing his sense of reality, Tom tries talking to himself in a bid to sort out the strange thoughts invading his mind. “Who’s doing this to you?” he asks, raising his voice. “Who’s doing this?”

    Neighbours hear this bizarre phrase ringing out from the balcony. At first, they don’t associate the deep voice with Tom: it sounds almost Satanic. In the darkness, they can faintly see a figure pacing back and forth. They call out, asking if he’s all right. Well-known as an early morning runner, and well-liked as a trusted babysitter to several families in this quiet, affluent neighbourhood in Sydney’s north where he’s spent most of his life, Tom is clearly not himself. The family cats are howling, too, apparently as disturbed by his behaviour as the onlookers.

    From the balcony, Tom scampers up onto the tiled roof, but loses his footing. A round, wooden table in the front yard breaks his fall not far from the edge of the swimming pool. The force of his weight smashes the furniture to pieces but he miraculously avoids serious injury. A concerned neighbour rings 000. Tom may be bleeding, but he’s still got the speed of a cross-country athlete and seemingly superhuman strength, despite his reed-thin frame. He rushes back inside his house, tracking blood through different rooms, before smashing a back fence then running onto the street again, tearing off his clothes.

    What happens over the next hour or so – Tom breaking a window of a neighbour’s house, neighbours chasing him, making him even more paranoid and fearful – is a blur. He winds up several streets from home, lying naked in the middle of the road, surrounded by people looking down at him, including two female police officers and paramedics. It takes a few of them to handcuff him.

    Hovering not far away is a television news crew, which has received a tip-off about the disturbance. Tom is at risk of having the worst moment of his life spread over the news, but the police are able to keep the media at bay because he’s a minor. All the while, Tom continues to ramble incoherently: “The universe is against us! The universe is against us!”

    At the fund-raising dinner which his parents are attending, Karl is perplexed when his phone begins to vibrate during a speech. Jasmine also grabs her phone, which is lighting up with messages from five different neighbours asking her to call them immediately. The couple hurriedly excuse themselves before Jasmine calls a trusted friend. “Tom’s all right,” she’s told. “But you need to go straight to the hospital.” On arrival around midnight, they’re greeted by a sight that haunts all parents: their teenage son unconscious in a hospital bed, covered in dried blood, with plastic tubes snaking out of his mouth and nose.

    To read the full story, visit Good Weekend. Above illustration credit: Clemens Habicht.

  • Good Weekend story: ‘Trips To Remember: Psychedelic drug use and bad trips’, June 2017

    A story for Good Weekend magazine, published in the June 3 issue. Excerpt below.

    Trips To Remember

    They call themselves “psychonauts” – people who use drugs like LSD to embark on journeys of self-discovery and creativity. But how wise is it to go on a trip after life has taken a bad turn?

    Good Weekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'Trips To Remember: Psychedelic drug use and self-improvement', June 2017

    A few days before Christmas last year, two friends and I planned to take LSD together. We set a date and location: 10am Saturday morning, in a comfortable home, with a sober friend to keep a wary eye on us. The three of us are fit, healthy men in our late 20s; we are university graduates now employed in our respective fields. We have stable relationships, strong senses of self and a shared interest in occasionally ingesting substances that we know will twist our perceptions of the world in strange and fascinating ways.

    It would be a trip to remember. In my mind, I had already started rehearsing the day. The tiny cardboard squares of “blotter acid” would be removed from the freezer, carefully cut with scissors and placed beneath our tongues. The chemicals on the cardboard would be gradually metabolised by our bodies, before the pieces were chewed up and swallowed.

    For eight to 12 hours, the shared experience would further solidify our friendships. The LSD’s visual effects would make the walls and ceiling seem to bend and swoon. Colours would become intensified. It would inhibit our need to eat and drink and impair our sense of time.

    In conversation, our minds would make unexpected leaps between subjects, drawing inferences and relations that we might not have ordinarily seen. These leaps might make little sense to our sober friend, but perfect sense to us. In quieter moments, we would query the order and routine of our lives. Were there efficiencies to be made, or changes necessary?

    We would also laugh a lot – no doubt about that – and we would hear our favourite songs with ears attuned to different frequencies.

    Just a few days before the scheduled Saturday, however, I experienced a major professional disappointment. A writing project to which I had devoted more than a year of work would not be published. My self-confidence was shaken to its core, and despite unerringly good advice and support from those closest to me, I entered a period of mourning wherein I found myself questioning everything, even the wisdom of taking drugs that had been helpful before.

    To read the full story, visit Good Weekend.

  • Good Weekend story: ‘Shock Tactics: Preventing trauma in Australian teenagers’, November 2016

    A feature story for Good Weekend, published in the November 19 issue. Excerpt below.

    Shock Tactics

    As Schoolies Week kicks off around the country, emergency specialists are using hard-core methods – graphic dashcam videos, horrific injury images, emergency-room simulations – to deter adolescents from risk-taking behaviour.

    Good Weekend story: 'Shock Tactics: Preventing trauma in Australian teenagers' by Brisbane freelance journalist Andrew McMillen, November 2016

    It looks like a classroom, but today there’ll be no maths, English or history. It is a Wednesday towards the end of 2016’s final term, and no ordinary school day. Today’s curriculum will be taken largely from life experience, and the lessons will revolve around confronting simulations of what these students’ lives might be like if they don’t think before they act.

    This group of about 30 year 10 students from St Peters Lutheran College, in the inner-west Brisbane suburb of Indooroopilly, has travelled across the city to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH), at Herston in the inner-north. All aged 15 or thereabouts, the boys wear short-sleeved white shirts with maroon ties, grey shorts and black shoes, while the girls wear long white dresses with vertical maroon stripes. Just like in any average high-school classroom, the front row of seats is empty – other than two teachers overseeing the group – and the back row is mostly occupied by boys, who provide a constant stream of whispered wisecracks to one another.

    Today, the hospital is hosting what’s known as the PARTY Program. The acronym stands for Prevent Alcohol and Risk-Related Trauma in Youth. It’s a concept licensed from an initiative that began 30 years ago at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, Canada, and now operates out of 15 sites across Australia, including every state and territory besides the Northern Territory. PARTY began at the RBWH in 2010, and since then, 51 schools and more than 3000 students have participated in a day-long, intensive itinerary of hands-on activities and talks designed to open these bright young eyes to some of the difficult situations and decisions they’ll be exposed to as they edge from adolescence into young adulthood.

    “Some of the things that you see, hear, feel and smell today may give you some feelings you haven’t had before,” says statewide program coordinator Jodie Ross. “It’s quite normal that you might feel a bit off at points. If you feel a bit ill, or feel that you might faint, please let us know, and don’t run away to the toilet. We have had a young boy who fainted in there, and it was really hard to get him out.” At this, she is met with a few chuckles. “Today, we want you to learn from other peoples’ poor choices, because we want to see you come back here as doctors, nurses or allied health people – but definitely not as patients.”‘

    Ross has worked here as a nurse since 1996, and still puts in the occasional shift with the trauma team when needed, but coordinating this program at hospitals and schools across Queensland is her full-time job. Laidback in nature, the 41-year-old mother of two marries a warm presence with a wry sense of humour, yet some of what she has seen inside this building across two decades has informed her own parenting. “I have a 13-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl, and they already know they’re never allowed to ride a motorbike, or even think about getting on one,” she says with a laugh. “I think I’ve scared them off, which is great.”

    The morning’s first guest speaker is Danielle Brown, a paramedic who has been with the Queensland Ambulance Service for more than a decade. She wears dark green cover-alls, pink lipstick and bright red fingernails. “I’m here to tell you about consequences,” she says, as the screen behind her flicks onto an image of a car wrapped around a pole, surrounded by emergency services workers. “If you ever do find yourself in a situation with us, please just know that we’re not here to make things worse for you, or get you in trouble. We’re here to look after you.”

    When she asks whether any of the students have visited the emergency department, a few of the boys raise their hands; all sporting injuries, as it turns out. Brown talks about alcohol and drug use, and about assault injuries. “Aggression isn’t cool,” she tells the group before she leaves. “For those guys out there trying to impress girls, can I just tell you – we’re really after the gentlemen, the funny guys. There’s no point in trying to impress someone by being ‘tough’.”

    Ross moves onto discussing sexually transmitted infections, and the kids crack up at how she frames the lifelong consequences that can come from a few minutes of fun, such as having to tell every sexual partner from that point on, “I’ve got a bit of herpes – hope you don’t mind!”

    Although none of these students have their learners’ licences yet, she dwells on the topic of road safety for some time – which makes sense, since the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads is the program’s primary funding source: in August, it provided an additional $1.54 million to keep the statewide initiative topped up for another three years. During this part of the presentation, the screen shows dashcam footage from cars where teenage drivers were distracted by their phones. These videos are horrifying to watch: the drivers’ eyes remain in their laps, even as the car veers outside the painted lines and towards needless trauma.

    To read the full story, visit Good Weekend‘s website, where you can also see a short film by photographer Paul Harris that was recorded on the day we attended the P.A.R.T.Y. program. For more about the program, visit its website.

  • Matters Of Substance story: ‘The Snowball and the Avalanche: Medical Cannabis in Australia’, July 2016

    A feature story for the May 2016 issue of Matters Of Substance, the quarterly magazine published by the New Zealand Drug Foundation. Excerpt below.

    The Snowball and the Avalanche: Medical Cannabis in Australia

    Stories of personal suffering, where debilitating symptoms are eventually eased by medical cannabis, are appearing ever more frequently in the news. Andrew McMillen argues it is these sorts of stories that have engendered compassion in Australia, eroding the stigma around medical cannabis use and paving the way for science and more evidence- based legislation.

    Matters Of Substance story: 'The Snowball and the Avalanche: Medical Cannabis in Australia' by Andrew McMillen, July 2016

    The story of medical cannabis in Australia is much the same as in other countries around the world that have tiptoed this path before us. Here across the ditch, as in New Zealand, the United States and many other advanced economies, it is a situation where two strange bedfellows have been pitted against one another: stigma and science. For many years, because of their preconceived attitudes, staunch opponents of illicit drug use have remained wilfully blind to the benefits of medical cannabis experienced by sick people. Here, as elsewhere, this is not a campaign for the impatient. Change is slow, often painfully so, as it relies on a willingness for opponents to reconsider their positions in light of compelling evidence.

    In the last few years, though, the situation has appeared to change rather quickly and dramatically. The appropriate image is that of a single snowball rolling down a hill, gradually gaining mass and momentum until it forms an unstoppable avalanche. To this end, a raft of touching personal stories have been told in the national media. As a result, many state and federal politicians have sensed a shift in public sympathy towards sick people who are attempting to access medical cannabis without further complicating their lives by crossing paths with the criminal justice system.

    Support for plant-based medicine has gone mainstream, as evidenced by a July 2014 ReachTel poll that found that almost two-thirds of Australians believe cannabis should be made legal for medical purposes. It is telling that compassion is the driving emotion here, rather than fear – long-time advocates might well wish they had cottoned on to this tactic earlier.

    These personal stories don’t come more dramatic and heart-wrenching than Dan Haslam’s. In fact, his journey to accepting and using medical cannabis has become emblematic of changing attitudes to the drug across Australia. Dan was the snowball, and his descent down the hill began when he was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer in February 2010 while living in the regional New South Wales (NSW) city of Tamworth. There, the then 20-year-old eventually discovered that the only treatment that soothed his nausea and stimulated his appetite while undergoing chemotherapy was cannabis. His parents wished there was another way. The fact that his father was head of the Tamworth Police Drug Squad made this desperate decision even more ethically and legally tortured than usual.

    To read the full story, visit Matters Of Substance.

    Further reading: my book Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs, published by University of Queensland Press in 2014.

  • GQ Australia columns, December 2015: Fear, climate, guns, suicide and cannabis

    In July 2015, I was invited to write occasional online columns for GQ Australia. I’ve collected these five columns as excerpts below, with the publication date noted in brackets beside the title.

    Are We Living In An Australia Led By Fear? (July)

    An increase in national surveillance powers has an equal and opposite reaction of a decline in civil liberties – writes Andrew McMillen

    'Are We Living In An Australia Led By Fear?' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    One particular sentence on nationalsecurity.gov.au catches the eye: “Protecting all Australians from terrorism and violent extremism is the Australian Government’s top priority,” it reads.

    This sentence appears on a website which is home to the National Terrorism Public Alert System, among other cracking reads such as a list of ‘foiled Australian attacks’ (four incidents) and ‘overseas terrorist attacks’ (six).

    The National Terrorism Public Alert System informs us that the nation is currently at a ‘high’ level of alert, indicating that a terrorist attack “is likely”. This is just one step down from ‘extreme’ – where a terrorist attack “is imminent or has occurred” – but a step above the previous ranking of ‘medium’, which warned that a terrorist attack “could occur”.

    It was in mid-September 2014 that the alert rating changed from ‘medium’ to ‘high’. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine captured the change, between September 12 and September 18.

    The switch-over itself was pretty simple stuff, really: the web copy is practically identical, and a blue map of Australia with an ugly black font in the centre was replaced by a white diagram ringed by blue.

    To read the full column, click here.

    Why Australia Is Headed For An Avoidable Climate Calamity (August)

    Climate change is the iceberg of our times and Australia is steering straight into it – writes Andrew McMillen.

    'Why Australia Is Headed For An Avoidable Climate Calamity' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    One of mankind’s greatest achievements is the discovery that the energy from coal – ancient sunlight buried in the ground – could be used to drive our technological progress.

    In 2015, we continue to reap the rewards of that discovery, yet most of us acknowledge that coal, like oil and gas, is a finite resource: there’s only so much of it beneath our feet, and sooner or later, the supply will be exhausted.

    There is a simple logic behind this problem. When one generation selfishly chooses to use as much coal, oil and gas as humanly possible, the next generation will suffer the supply shocks, as well as the environmental effects: burning these fossil fuels adds a toxic combination of pollutants to the atmosphere, increasing the speed at which the planet warms.

    Intelligent governance acknowledges this as a fact, and a problem to be solved swiftly, lest future generations suffer for our inaction. For a time, Australia led the developed world in this regard, when then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced in 2007 that climate change was “the great moral, environmental and economic challenge of our age”.

    These were sage words from a leader who ultimately failed to install an effective mechanism to solve that challenge. Politics got in the way of true progress, cruelling an admirable long-term vision.

    To read the full column, click here.

    Why Encouraging More Guns Into Australia Is A Terrible Idea (August)

    In the wake of the Martin Place siege, Australia’s relationship with its long-standing gun laws might be about to change and that’s a very scary thought – writes Andrew McMillen.

    'Why Encouraging More Guns Into Australia Is A Terrible Idea' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    A gunman named Martin Bryant forever changed Australia on 28 April 1996, when he used a semi-automatic rifle to kill 35 people at a cafe in the Tasmanian town of Port Arthur.

    Within twelve weeks, John Howard’s government had devised, drafted, debated and implemented legislation which saw the banning of semi-automatic weapons and shotguns, and triggered a compulsory gun buyback scheme. As a result, the ownership and storage of other firearms were tightly restricted, too.

    The Australian approach to gun control was shown in stark contrast to the United States in September 2013, when John Oliver’s brilliant threepart series on The Daily Show neatly skewered gun-mad Americans who mindlessly oppose any change to gun laws.

    “Obviously, gun control doesn’t work. It can’t work. It will never work. So how was your scheme a failure?” Oliver asked a bemused John Howard, who replied, “Well, my scheme was not a failure. We had a massacre at a place called Port Arthur 17 years ago, and there have been none since.” Australia’s rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people was 1.03, compared with 10.69 in the U.S., according to 2012 figures from gunpolicy.org.

    In the 18 years prior to the Port Arthur massacre, there had been 13 mass shooting incidents , where five or more people were killed by a firearm. The gunman’s destructive actions so shocked and appalled the electorate that Howard’s sweeping changes to gun ownership laws were widely supported in the community.

    To read the full column, click here.

    Why Australian Men Need To Talk More About Suicide (September)

    Too many Australians die of suicide – around 2,500 per year, or 48 per week – and too few talk about it, or its surrounding issues – writes Andrew McMillen

    'Why Australian Men Need To Talk More About Suicide' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    The numbers are shockingly high: suicide is the leading cause of death for Australian men and woman aged between 15 and 44.

    I’m a member of this demographic, but stating sad facts such as these in plain black-and-white can have a numbing effect. Though mentally healthy myself, I have seen the devastating effects of severe depression up close with someone I love, which is one of the reasons why I’ve made a few attempts as a journalist to uncover stories about Australians who have faced mental illness with courage and openness.

    The first was an article for Australian Penthouse in 2012, The Low Down, about an online campaign named Soften The Fuck Up, which seeks to challenge the low levels of mental health literacy recognised by its founder, Ehon Chan, after he moved to Australia from Malaysia.

    “What’s the most common thing that Australian men get when they talk about any kind of weaknesses?” he asked me during our interview. “The response is generally, ‘Harden the fuck up.’ There’s no equivalent phrase for that in Malaysian!” he said with a laugh. Soften The Fuck Up aims to encourage offline conversations, by equipping young people – in particular, men – with ideas of how to recognise signs and symptoms of mental health issues among their peers.

    My most recent story on this topic, Over Troubled Water, was published in The Weekend Australian Magazine in early September 2015, ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10. This article explored the topic of suicide prevention at an iconic location in inner-city Brisbane: the Story Bridge, which is the site of at least four suicides per year, on average. Counterintuitive though it might seem, installing anti-jump barriers on high bridges has been shown to greatly reduce the incidence of suicide, and the problem is not simply shifted to another location.

    To read the full column, click here.

    How We Could All Benefit From Cannabis Regulation (October)

    The potential benefit of legalising cannabis means drug reform in Australia should be taken seriously – argues Andrew McMillen.

    'How We Could All Benefit From Cannabis Regulation' by Andrew McMillen for GQ Australia, 2015

    A few years from today, once other Australian states have followed the lead set by Victoriain early October 2015 to move toward the legalisation of cultivating cannabis for medicinal purposes, the nation might finally be ready to have a conversation that needs to be had. Namely: why don’t we regulate and tax the recreational use of cannabis, our most popular illicit drug?

    At least 1.9 million Australians use cannabis each year, according to the most recent data from the United Nations 2014 World Drug Report. This is a huge proportion of Australians, and it’s significant for a couple of reasons. First, that’s a lot of adults of voting age, who’d probably be keen to support political parties that provide reasonable alternatives to the tired, ineffective tough-on-drugs approach we’ve seen in this country for generations.

    And second, this number represents an enormous amount of disposable income that’s leaking from the national economy into an unregulated market, far beyond the reach of the Australian Taxation Office.

    Given that recreational cannabis use is illegal, the only way to obtain the drug in 2015 is to associate with people who are, by definition, criminals. Once that transaction has been made, and you hand over your cash in exchange for the product, you’ve become a criminal, too. If caught by police, you will face charges of possession which may result in fines or, at the extreme end of the spectrum, imprisonment.

    This reality is known, understood and accepted by most Australians who choose to interface with illicit drug use. Perhaps a small minority of particularly inflammatory cannabis users get a kick out of breaking the law in this way, but most would probably much rather avoid the hassle of potentially being exposed to the criminal justice system purely because of their desire to use a drug that’s increasingly being legalised by state and federal governments throughout the world.

    To read the full column, click here.

  • Backchannel story: ‘The Heroin Heroine of Reddit’, July 2015

    A story for Backchannel, the technology section of Medium.com. Excerpt below.

    The Heroin Heroine of Reddit

    How a former addict uses the internet to save drug users’ lives

    'The Heroin Heroine of Reddit' by Andrew McMillen on Backchannel, July 2015

    On a quiet night in late April, Brad Treseler slipped off to his bedroom at his family’s home in Cumberland, Virginia. His friends kept on chatting in the living room, but after a few minutes they began to wonder what Brad was up to. They found the 25-year-old slumped on the floor of his room, blue and unresponsive. He had overdosed on heroin and benzodiazepine.

    Brad’s friends cycled through the options. They could call 911, but the responders might not arrive in time and might tip off the police. Or they could run to the apartment next door and wake Treseler’s older brother, Bill. They knew that Bill had a small vial containing a clear liquid called naloxone, which can counteract the effects of an opiate overdose. In a panic, they opted to make the short sprint and bang on Bill’s door.

    Together, they carried Brad into the bathtub and cranked on the shower. Bill dipped a syringe into the vial and drew in the naloxone, then injected the the liquid into the fatty part of Brad’s thigh. Nothing happened, so Bill refilled the syringe and injected him again. Brad stirred, and opened his eyes to see his brother and terrified friends peering down at him. As he came to, he thought: This is what being dead is like.

    Brad had acquired two vials of the naloxone months earlier. Some states—including New Mexico, Washington, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and California—allow it to be sold over the counter. But it is illegal in Virginia, so Brad received his shipment in the mail from an unlikely source: the online forum Reddit.

    Brad is an active member of the Opiates subreddit, a lively forum where queries about safe injection practices and rehabilitation are posted alongside tactics for hustling cash and coping with constipation, an unwelcome side effect of frequent opioid use. He saw a thread where a moderator known as the “mother of r/opiates,” named Tracey Helton, was offering to send clean needles to fellow Redditors. When he reached out to Tracey about the free needles, which were rare in his scene, she told him that the package included naloxone. Brad replied, “Oh man, that’s awesome! That’s a great idea!”

    Five days later, a yellow padded envelope arrived from San Francisco, where Tracey lives. Inside was a bag of clean syringes, two vials of naloxone and a post-it note with a hand-drawn smiley face. “I thought, ‘Holy crap!’ I didn’t send her any money. All I did was send her one little message,” Brad says. “Somebody out there cares that much.”

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Tall Poppies: Tasmanian opiates’, March 2015

    A story for the March 7 issue of The Weekend Australian Magazine. Excerpt below.

    Tall Poppies

    It supplies up to half the world’s legal opiates, but Tasmania’s poppy industry sees danger ahead.

     The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Tall Poppies: Tasmanian opiates' by Andrew McMillen, March 2015

    Perched in a corner of Keith Rice’s office, atop a cupboard and behind a bright yellow hard-hat, sits an old white sign that warns of grave peril.DANGER. Prohibited area. KEEP OUT. Trespassers ­prosecuted.

    In front of it, an updated version includes a skull-and-crossbones captioned POISON. In bold red text, the bottom of the new sign reads: ILLEGAL use of crop has caused DEATH. This recent shift in tense — “may cause” to “has caused” — came after three deaths from poppy misuse in the last three years here in Tasmania. Clearly, something had to change, beginning with the signage that borders roadside poppy crops.

    Rice, chief executive of Poppy Growers ­Tasmania, keeps glancing at the sign as we chat over coffee on a cool Launceston morning. A tall 66-year-old with tanned features and thinning white hair, he’s talking me through the complex web of politics, painkillers and, more recently, protectionism in which he has been involved for nearly 30 years.

    Above Rice’s desk hangs a wall calendar ­bearing a colour photograph of green countryside flanked by snowy mountaintops, as well as the name of Tasmanian Alkaloids, one of two pharmaceutical companies to have invested heavily in the poppy industry. It has been a big earner for the state, which grows up to 50 per cent of the planet’s legal ­opiates — from which morphine, codeine and thebaine can be extracted — that relieve the pain of humans throughout the world in the form of medicines such as OxyContin and Nurofen Plus. The warning signs are required by law to be displayed on all ­roadside paddocks to deter would-be drug experimenters from picking poppy heads and brewing the ill-gotten plants into a tea. “It’s a dangerous crop because you don’t know the alkaloid content,” says Rice. “Thebaine is like strychnine in your system.”

    Tasmania produces around 90 per cent of the world’s thebaine, which causes convulsions in humans at high doses. In the past two decades thebaine production has eclipsed the old fav­ourite, morphine. A more effective painkiller, ­thebaine is also much more dangerous, as two Danish backpackers found last February after stealing 40 poppy heads from a farm near ­Oatlands, in the centre of the state. The pair brewed the plant into a tea; one of the drinkers, a 26-year-old male, fell asleep and never awoke. In November 2012, morphine toxicity also killed a 17-year-old who stole five kilograms of poppy capsules from a farm at Lewisham, near Hobart, and consumed a poppy tea. In February 2011, a 50-year old man died in similar circumstances in the Launceston suburb of Ravenswood.

    Tasmania’s $100 million dollar poppy ­industry is hidden in plain sight: drive north from Hobart towards Launceston in the ­summer and rolling fields of white, pink and purple flowers dot the landscape. At its peak a few years ago, 30,000ha of poppies were planted in a season; that number is now closer to 20,000ha per year due to a dip in world demand following changes in US prescription policies arising from drug abuse.

    The pharmaceutical companies who pay farmers to grow their products have a long ­history on the island, but mainland state ­governments have been paying attention to the economic consistency of Tasmania’s poppy crop, too. Last September, then federal health minister Peter Dutton wrote to his state and ­territory counterparts asking them to revise a 43-year-old agreement that has restricted poppy production to the island. Soon after, legislation was passed in Victoria and the Northern ­Territory that allowed the narcotics to be grown under strict licensing conditions following small-scale commercial trials during the 2013-14 season.

    It’s a worrying development for Tasmanian farmers who for more than four decades had cornered a secure and lucrative market. The path of Tasmania’s poppy industry so far has been one of prosperity and productivity, with the occasional pothole when misuse of the crop has caused death, or when heavy rains have ruined crops or a mildew outbreak occurs, as it did last November. The great unknown is how big a pothole the mainland expansion will be in the state’s proud history of painkiller production.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

  • The Guardian story: ‘The drugs do work: top Australian musicians discuss their illicit drug use’, July 2014

    A comment piece for The Guardian’s Australian culture blog, published the day after my book Talking Smack was released. The full story appears below.

    The drugs do work: top Australian musicians discuss their illicit drug use

    In a new book exploring the relationship between musicians and illicit substances, some of Australia’s most successful artists say there’s more to the story than the usual chorus of condemnation

    'The drugs do work: top Australian musicians discuss their illicit drug use' story on The Guardian Australia by Andrew McMillen, July 2014

    “Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” is a well-worn cliche that music fans and journalists use as shorthand for “someone else’s job is more fun than mine”. We fantasise about the wild excesses and rampant hedonism experienced by the world’s top performing artists on a regular basis.

    And yet, in writing my book Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs, I discovered there is a kernel of truth to the cliche. Some of Australia’s most successful musicians – including Paul Kelly, Tina Arena, Steve Kilbey, Phil Jamieson and Holly Throsby – openly admit that the use of both legal and illegal drugs has contributed to some of their creative achievements and personal insights.

    Of the 14 musicians I interviewed, all of them have had contact with illicit drugs at some point in their lives. The preference for substances varied widely, from cannabis and MDMA to methamphetamine and heroin. I discovered that the reasons individuals are drawn to the risky business of ingesting, inhaling, snorting or injecting foreign substances are complex and nuanced.

    Although stories of drug abuse, overdose and addiction have been part of the popular musical lexicon for decades, while working on Talking Smack I found an important distinction to be made: that despite the noisy negatives often associated with drugs at all levels of society, many of my interviewees had positive experiences. This is a rarely-acknowledged truth for many Australians, regardless of whether or not they’re employed in the creative industries.

    Illicit drug use in Australia is often rendered as a black-and-white battleground: you’re either a drug user and thus looked down upon as a loser and a criminal, or you’re an anti-drugs totem of purity. My goal was to explore the shades of grey by talking to public figures who know what they’re talking about when it comes to a tricky topic, and where rational, expert voices are sorely lacking.

    Usually the discussion is dominated by politicians, police and sensationalist media outlets who stand together in condemnation of anyone who would dare consume a drug that isn’t alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or a prescribed medication.

    What I found during many hours of face-to-face conversations about this topic with such distinctly different musicians is that there is no simple story when it comes to drugs. Some people are early bloomers, and try substances in their teens; others, like myself, avoid the matter entirely until their mid-20s, or later. Some, like Gotye, choose to abstain completely. Drug tastes vary greatly between individuals; the chemicals that resonate with one person may repel the next.

    For some of these musicians, subjective experiences and sensations felt while under the influence had a powerful effect on songwriting. Steve Kilbey told me that The Church’s 1992 album Priest=Aura was an attempt to recreate the feeling of heroin through music, soon after he had started using the drug.

    “That was the honeymoon,” said Kilbey. “You can hear it’s working. You can hear that I achieved that thing. And then it went downhill after that. For 10 or 11 years, I still made records [on heroin]. But I struggled a bit. When the gear arrived, I’d get so stoned I couldn’t work.”

    Managing these motivations is a struggle met by many creative people, whether their task is to play an instrument, paint a canvas or scribble words. Sydney hip-hop artist Urthboy is unsure whether smoking cannabis while writing lyrics is an effective way to tap into creativity: “I’ve never really had any clear proof of that; you can’t say that’s a fact when you write really good stuff without smoking,” he said.

    “To ever suggest that weed is an essential ingredient in that process is almost to give up on your own abilities.”

    For Melbourne pop artist Bertie Blackman – who has struggled with alcoholism, depression and anxiety – abstinence is a matter of prioritising her mental health. “Recreational drugs in a safe environment are cool,” she told me. “I’m around it occasionally, and I don’t frown on it. I mean, they exist. It’s just that I make the choice now to not partake, because I know that, for me and my mental health, it’s not good.”

    That’s the bottom line for many Australians: an individual choosing whether or not to use a particular drug for an intended benefit, whether that’s buying a bottle of wine or a gram of cocaine. The illegality of the latter choice rarely comes into account. Humans are clever: where there’s a will to snort or smoke something, there’s a way.

    Almost all of my interviewees agreed that the prohibitionist “war on drugs” is failed policy that has had little to no effect on their overall consumption. As Steve Kilbey of The Church told me:

    “I think it’s becoming obvious to people that the whole [war] about drugs was a fucking lie,” Kilbey said. “It’s like fucking burning witches at the stake, or having slaves. I believe one day people will, in some enlightened time, look back at this and say, ‘You know they used to throw people in jail for five years for smoking marijuana?’ Why? What the fuck have you done except disobey some fuckwit in authority? That’s all it is. People are realising that taking drugs is a medical issue; it’s a social issue. It’s nothing to do with the law.”

    Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs by Andrew McMillen is published by University of Queensland Press.

  • Announcing my first book, ‘Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs’, July 2014

    I’m proud to share the news that my first book will be published on 23 July 2014, via University of Queensland Press. Back cover blurb below.

    Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs by Andrew McMillen

    'Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs' by Andrew McMillen – book coverOf all the creative industries, the most distinct link between drug use and creativity lies within music. The two elements seem to be intertwined, inseparable; that mythical phrase “sex, drugs and rock and roll” has been bandied about with a wink and a grin for decades. But is it all smoke and mirrors, or does that cliché ring true for some of our best-known performers?

    In this fascinating book, journalist Andrew McMillen talks with Australian musicians about their thoughts on – and experiences with – illicit, prescription and legal drugs. Through a series of in-depth and intimate interviews, he tells the stories of those who have bitten into the forbidden fruit and avoided choking.

    This isn’t to say that stories of ruin and redemption are avoided – they’re not. These celebrated performers have walked the straight-and-narrow path of alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and prescription medication, as well as the supposedly dark-and-crooked road of cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, heroin and methamphetamine.

    By having conversations about something that’s rarely discussed in public, and much less often dealt with honestly, McMillen explores the truths and realities of a contentious topic that isn’t going away.

    Talking Smack is a timely, thought-provoking must-read that takes you inside the highs and lows of some of our most successful and creative musicians, including Paul Kelly, Tina Arena, Gotye, Steve Kilbey (The Church), Phil Jamieson (Grinspoon) and Holly Throsby.

    For more about Talking Smack, view the below book trailer (designed by Brisbane studio IV Motion) and visit the standalone website at talkingsmack.com.au.

    The trailer premiered at Australian music website FasterLouder yesterday with a feature interview entitled ‘6 myths about drug taking in the Australian music community‘ published by the site’s editor-in-chief Darren Levin, who first began editing my work at Mess+Noise five years ago. This interview will tell you a little about the book’s origins and my personal interest in the topic of drug use.

    Talking Smack will be available in print and e-book format from 23 July 2014 via all good bookstores and UQP’s website. In the meantime, I encourage you to make an enquiry via Brisbane bookstore Avid Reader, who will be hosting my book launch on Thursday 21 August.

  • The Vine story: ‘What Was Silk Road? A eulogy for an online drug revolution’, October 2013

    A story for TheVine.com.au. The full story appears below.

    What Was Silk Road? A eulogy for an online drug revolution

    The Vine story: 'What Was Silk Road? A eulogy for an online drug revolution' by Andrew McMillen, October 2013

    Prior to its seizure by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the early hours of Wednesday, October 3, Australian time, a website named Silk Road was the holy grail for illicit drug users of all stripes. Since mid-2011, dealers and consumers had been drawn to the site like iron filings to a magnet. Their reasons for downloading a Tor browser and copy-pasting the complex URL that housed Silk Road (SR) can be reduced to two key motivating factors: cash and product.

    For drug dealers – or, in SR-preferred parlance, ‘vendors’ – the lure of a steady supply of international buyers was enough to motivate the investigation of innovative, stealthy shipping techniques that would see their packages of powders, crystals and pills delivered to intended addresses without raising the alarms of border security. This quickly became a point of pride among the most dedicated vendors, some of whom marketed their packaging options as ‘undetectable’ and cherished buyer feedback that praised innocuous, ingenious delivery methods. Subterfuge was the name of the game.

    It helped, too, that SR offered vendors the opportunity to turn the risky, dangerous job of face-to-face dealing into the ultimate work-from-home gig. When I began poking around the site in late 2011, while researching a feature story for Australian Penthouse, I interviewed several vendors via SR’s plain-text messaging system. One told me that SR was “better and cleaner” than dealing drugs offline. “Customers are more educated and nice, and it leaves you more spare time to study, play with the kids, and clean the house,” I was told. “It’s telecommuting at its finest.”

    This was the defining image of Silk Road: a mild-mannered, sober, white collar professional who casually fielded an order for a gram or two of cocaine, printed the buyer’s address and applied it onto an anonymous envelope, vacuum sealed the illicit product inside and dropped the package into a random mailbox – with the correct amount of postage stamps attached, naturally.

    That image clashed violently with that of the stereotypical drug dealer, who stands on a street corner and controls his territory and product distribution through coercion, extortion and violence. Both operate outside of the law through necessity, since the supply, traffic and use of many drugs remains illegal in all but a handful of countries, most notably Portugal.

    Where once small-time dealers were confined to a few inner-city blocks, or their regular clients within nightclubs on Saturday nights, enterprising Silk Road vendors were limited only by their own ingenuity and imagination. Both online and off, intelligence is what set apart savvy dealers from those behind bars. In February, a 32 year-old Victorian – SR username ‘shadh1’ – was sentenced to three and a half years in jail for importing and reselling drugs purchased on the site, with reckless disregard for anything resembling security, self-preservation or stealth, three of the essential values on which SR was founded.

    It is telling and troubling for long-time SR users, too, that even the man alleged to have established the site was not above careless security slip-ups; he advertised his personal Gmail address on public forums requesting an “IT pro in the Bitcoin community” to assist with the site’s early growth, according to an FBI affidavit.

    Cash aside, the motivating factor for users was always the product. Cocaine, heroin, LSD, MDMA, cannabis, methamphetamine, psilocybin; Silk Road did not synthesise any of these compounds, nor discover the natural substances. It simply revolutionalised their distribution. My interview with a newbie SR buyer for Australian Penthouse was emblematic of what the site offered buyers.

    “I’m interested in taking drugs casually, but I hate the process,” the 24 year-old Brisbane resident told me. “I don’t know any dealers. Even if I want to get weed, I don’t know anyone, so it always becomes this drawn out process of finding someone who knows someone who knows someone. It’s a real pain in the arse. Whereas this way, it’s so direct and private. I didn’t leave my room, and then nine days later there was something in the mailbox that was for me. It’s discreet and exciting. Imagine the fun of shopping on eBay, but then you can also get high.”

    While Silk Road’s days are numbered, and its founder seems set for a long prison sentence, the cat is certainly out of the bag. The site was a brilliant intermediary between drug dealers and users right up until it wasn’t. But to imagine that humans will suddenly cease synthesising, cultivating, pursuing, distributing and ingesting substances that alter mind and mood is at least wishful thinking; at worst, high folly.

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Department of Homeland Security and associated organisations can today congratulate themselves for a job well done in seizing Silk Road and its significant stockpile of assets and intelligence. It is their job to catch criminals. Although the plug has been pulled on the most open illicit drug marketplace that the world has ever seen, tomorrow is a new day.

    The seemingly infallible Silk Road has been beheaded, but two heads will appear in its place, hydra-like. Right now, its competitors will be quadruple-checking their security practices and managing server loads, while new registrations and orders pour in. The mail won’t stop. At the heart of this conversation is the fact that humans like to get high, and they’re willing to pay for that privilege. This is but a stumble on a very long walk. Absolutely nothing has changed.

    Further reading: Australian Penthouse story: ‘The High Road: Silk Road, an online marketplace like no other’, February 2012