Smoke billows from a Gatorade bong on a milk-crate desk.
The taste of solvents and scent of cigarette ash masks the odor as he enters the dingy room.
Kicking a beer bottle, he flicks another light on and sits.
Normally the room in Melbourne’s northern suburbs is bustling, but this Monday afternoon only Tupac is heard rapping about “the struggle” from some record player.
Hood pulled down, bags under eyes, he speaks with somewhat of a slur, “I know nothing else. Besides, it’s easy money. All you need is a phone,” says Gary*, 20 year-old university student, drug addict and drug dealer of almost six years.
Drug policies in Australia have come under criticism following recent rises in methamphetamine use. Greens Senator Richard Di Natale visited Portugal, which decriminalized drugs for personal use in 2001, and, in an ABC2 program, suggested change in Australia was necessary.
“This is a health issue, when people get into problems with illicit drugs then we need to realise they need access to treatment,” Di Natale said. “Criminal penalties don’t deter people from using”.
Gary doesn’t see it so simply. He explains society doesn’t understand what he’s been through and in order for reformation a greater understanding is necessary.
“He gave me my first pipe after I’d been there a week… From there it was every day. No one wants that at 14,” Gary hesitates, his eyes bloodshot. “I’d just left home and was bunking with some 30 year-old… I came from a rough family in the suburbs of Sydney.”
Gary faces another issue too; his drug dealing has left him unemployable. Narrowly escaping prison with no criminal record, he says he’s lucky. But he’s done it so long now legitimate work is something outside his reach or undesired. Crime pays far better than Woolworths.
He justifies dealing loosely as an act in which he has little choice. “I’m just a pawn and if it wasn’t me it would be someone else… Studying full time with no family, 25 hours’ work is like $500. On average I easily make $1000 a week.”
But there is a cost.
He’s lost friends to suicide, others to overdoses, prison and even psychiatric wards.
“It happens,” he shrugs it off, showing no emotion.
He explains he’s at university because he doesn’t know another way out of the lifestyle. “I can stop…. I just, I’d have nothing; no money, no friends, no family.”
Dr Monica Barratt, a researcher at the UNSW National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, says criminal sanctions are not the answer for users like Gary.
In order to not reoffend or relapse she says, “they need to have both support from their community and from their networks and also from services, doctors and employers. What’s needed is a whole of community approach and for some people they don’t have that.”
Without any kind of support system, Gary finds himself unable to break away. He’s driven by a fear of the police and a lack of understanding in society. His friends think looking for help is weak and going to the police is even weaker.
While decriminalization would greatly hinder Gary’s “work”, he says it could force him to get a legitimate job and would mean the risks involved with use, such as death, would decrease.
Gary’s phone rings and he motions to the door.
He mutters something about “having it in the next few days”.
It’s time to go.
Shuffling quickly to the bolted front-door, dodging piles of rubbish, you wonder about the life he lives.