This is mostly a personal story, about my son Damien, who died from heroin use in 1997, at the age of 23. I feel sure that his death could have been avoided if we had at the time an approach to drug use that was based on harm prevention rather than punishment.
In June 1996, my life changed forever. My wife Sandra and I had just returned home from an overseas trip to find our son Damien sitting on the doorstep.
I immediately knew something was wrong… “The shit’s hit the fan Dad”.
Damien told us he’d been using heroin for 18 months, that he and his girlfriend had spent $32,000 on drugs, and each had developed a $300 daily habit. To feed this habit, they had sold all their valuables, used up their savings, stopped paying bills and borrowed money from everyone possible. That week Damien had lost his job, and they’d been evicted from their residence. Crime, dealing and prostitution were not far from their contemplation.
When I first learned of Damien’s drug habit, I was overwhelmed by a range of emotions:
Fear of the dangers of heavy narcotic use.
Guilt for what I sensed was my fault. After all, I was a counsellor, a therapist, and had worked with other people on their problems. Yet I didn’t see this happening with Damien.
Grief for what might lie ahead for Damien, whom I knew was so loved by family and friends. I thought of the huge potential that lay before him, which was now taken away.
Anger at the fact that this had happened at all. This emotion often masks the other three. I called Damien every name under the sun, told him how stupid he was and that he’d wrecked his life. But at the same time I assured him: “We’re gonna beat this, son”.
Struggle for control
Fathers with problems solve them. I call this “fixit” approach masculine control. Feminine control, by comparison, involves looking after the drug user, keeping them safe, rescuing them, sometimes colluding with them to conceal their habit from their angry male partner. Feminine control involves continuous juggling.
Of course, control (whether masculine or feminine) doesn’t work. I sort of knew that, but it didn’t stop me trying. My attempts to get help for Damien were to no avail. Back in 1997, support services were far less helpful than they are today.
Some of our friends and workmates unhelpfully suggested that we practice tough love and throw Damien out, otherwise he might bleed us dry for money to feed his drug habit.
Our attempts to help Damien
My daughter Gillian offered to do a cold turkey detox with Damien. Over nine days in her care, he detoxed and largely withdrew from heroin, replacing it for the most part with alcohol. When he was feeling black, he would still use heroin. He wrote poetry, reflecting on the pain relief that heroin provided. Pain which was physical, psychological and emotional. Yet he was clearly ambivalent, as he also wrote about a poison that seeped into his body and took his mind, spirit and soul.
Damien died on 24 February 1997, at the tender age of 23, when he still had so much life to live. Hundreds of people came to his funeral to say goodbye. There was so much support. He was so well liked by so many people. But from that day forth, everybody went back to their lives. For me, the pain was excruciating. I’d dream of him being alive, and then awaken to the grim reality. I was so angry.
At the time Damien died, heroin use was really on the rise. Four people a day in Australia were dying from the use of illicit drugs. In Victoria it was higher than the road toll.
Early political responses
In early 1996, the ACT government proposed a trial of prescription heroin. They obtained agreement for the trial from all the health and justice ministers throughout Australia, including federal minister, Dr Michael Wooldridge.
I’d been talking to people like Alex Wodak, who told me about drug law reform and prohibition and the war on drugs, and I was fired up. I knew it was not going to bring Damien back, but I sensed it was going to save a lot of families.
Just after the proposed heroin trial was announced, then Prime Minister Howard canned it, arguing that it would send the wrong message to young people about these drugs. He vowed not to allow heroin to be imported for use in the trial. I discovered later that we have the biggest crop of opium in the world, in Tasmania, which we export for legal opiates.
The Wood Royal Commission into corruption in the NSW Police force, much of which was drug related, reported in 1997 with a range of recommendations for reform. Most of these were largely ignored by government.
Harm reduction strategies, including supervised injecting facilities
In March 1998, I attended a Harm Reduction Conference in Geneva, and checked out their heroin dispensing and injecting facilities. I was astounded by the humane approach to drug users. The offer of a cup of tea, a bowl of soup, somebody to talk to, a chill-out area where people could relax and watch videos. What impressed me more though was the acceptance by the locals, whether in commercial or residential areas. Nobody batted an eyelid. I came back empowered, convinced that we needed to do the same thing.
Some of us started meeting in secret, plotting to open an injecting facility. It became really powerful when we were offered use of the Kings Cross Wayside Chapel. We spoke to the police and other law enforcement officers and also, quietly, to some politicians. After obtaining legal advice, we opened the “Tolerance Room”, in the Wayside Chapel in January 1999.
Not surprisingly, the injecting centre caused a media storm and the usual suspects came out in opposition. Fred Nile and others demanded it be closed down. The police raided it, arresting the minister of the Chapel and three drug users. But we had made our point.
NSW Premier Bob Carr called a drug summit, with injecting facilities on the agenda. The Labour Party came onside, together with some brave souls from the conservative side of politics, and the outcome was approval of the injecting centre.
We really believed this was the start of a wider rollout of supervised injecting centres. Yet it’s taken two decades for a second facility to open – in Victoria. Steve Brack reneged on his campaign promise in the 1999 election of six injecting centres in Victoria.
Urgent need for reform
The need for drug policy reform remains as urgent as ever. We need to talk to our politicians, write to the newspapers, enlist the support of young people who are so often damaged by current drug policies. By educating people on the pitfalls of current drug policy, we stand a chance of getting the community onside.
Damien’s death is my family’s tragedy. That will never go away. The burning pain of the first few years is gone for me, though I still dwell on what might have been. The missed conversations with Damien, seeing him grow, get a career, marry and have kids. That pain will be with me until I die.
Since Damien’s death in 1997, some 20,000 Australians, mainly between the ages of 14 and 40, have died from drugs. If people were dying for any other reason there’d be an outcry, and action would be taken. We must decriminalise the use of drugs.
Just as with so many other moral issues, including prostitution, homosexuality and abortion, perceptions change over time, as society becomes more aware of the downsides of a punitive approach. We need to recognise that the use of illicit drugs is a health and social issue, rather than one for the criminal justice system.
Adopting a compassionate rather than moralistic and punitive approach will help save lives and benefit the whole community.
Tony Trimingham, OAM, is the Founder and CEO of Family Drug Support