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The Queer Politics Of Drugs

We live in a world in which the pharmaceutical industry produces and markets drugs, not merely to treat disease and restore health, but increasingly for purposes of enhancement: simply to make life better.  One only need think of the lucrative markets in sexual and mood-enhancing pharmaceuticals, which surely blur the distinction between the medical and the recreational.  It’s a curious fact that almost every substance that is currently popular at dance parties has been used or is being trialed for medical purposes (ketamine for depression, GHB for narcolepsy, even ecstasy for post-traumatic stress disorder).  In the age of biological psychiatry, where brain chemistry is posited as the explanation for just about everything, it isn’t surprising that psychoactive drugs should emerge as a significant source of sub cultural pleasure, collective retooling and experimentation.  But it is precisely in this context that a punitive war on drugs has been escalating.

It’s a balmy summer night in Sydney in 2007, and the Azure Party, part of Sydney’s annual gay and lesbian Mardi Gras, is underway.  Planning for the party, as usual, has been extensive.  Alongside the party outfits, suntans, drugs, lights, and DJs is a volunteer care team trained to deal with the drug-related emergencies that occasionally occur. But with a state election around the corner, the event attracts an unanticipated form of attention, which creates an emergency of its own.   When police appear at the gates with drug-detecting dogs, mild panic ensues. Some patrons down all their drugs at once in an attempt to avoid detection, heightening their risk of overdose. Others try their luck at the gates, hoping to evade the public humiliation of being searched and the possibility of a criminal record. Police roam around the party with the dogs and after 26 attendees are arrested with small quantities of illicit substances, the party is shut down and the remaining partygoers disperse into the night.

This scene of intervention and panic expresses certain tensions in the government of drugs – between an approach that prioritises harm reduction, and an approach that imagines it is possible to use law enforcement to stop illicit consumption.  It’s a scene whose casual intimidation of ordinary citizens is, if not already normalised, then rapidly becoming so – at youth events, in migrant and racially marked suburbs, and in the recreational precincts and public transport arteries of numerous states and nations.  What’s striking is how the status of certain substances as “illicit” provides an occasion for the state to engage in what could be described as a disciplinary performance of moral sovereignty. This performance bears little relation to the actual dangers of drug consumption – in fact, it often exacerbates those dangers. The contradictory effects of such operations are not lost on those who are subject to them. One Azure partygoer put it plainly: “I find it hard to believe the police shut down the party for the concern and health of the people at the party.  If there were genuine concern from the police for partygoers then to me it would make sense to make an announcement to patrons and step up crowd monitoring. Instead, they ejected 5000 people from what was a medically supervised event onto the streets to fend for themselves”.

The drug search cites the protection of the health of the population as its rationale, and, to be sure, the substances it targets are not without their dangers. This is why volunteer teams go to great lengths to devise care practices uniquely adapted to this environment, designed to respond quickly and effectively to emergencies. It is also why many drug users themselves devise fairly intricate dosing practices, which aim – as far as possible within given constraints – to prevent adverse events. But these care procedures are made precarious by these practices of enforcement.  The state knows this – its own agencies did the math.  Still it persists in pursuing these costly and counterproductive measures despite condemnation from the NSW Ombudsman – a point which raises the question:  why does the supposedly rational state override its commitment to public health at the very moment that it cites that commitment most insistently? The state allows many forms of dangerous recreation, such as hang-gliding, football and mountaineering – not to mention those legal, revenue-raising drugs like alcohol, which are much more likely to be associated with violent crime and aggression.  We would be horrified if the state tried to make these activities as dangerous as possible in order to discourage people from trying them. But this is exactly what is allowed in the attempted enforcement of drug prohibition, which in its present form precludes quality control, puts the drug market in the hands of organised criminals, and threatens users.

In recent years, anti-drug initiatives have been given over to ever more blatant forms of political opportunism. The illicit drug user has come in particularly handy as a scapegoat for those who wish to promote a very exclusive idea of moral citizenship while deflecting attention away from governmental failures. Exploiting drug fears has become a favourite way of promoting investment in what has become known as a “family-based, aspirational society”.  Perhaps the best illustration is the drug campaign booklet mailed to every home in Australia just before the 2001 federal election. The title proposed by the Prime Minister’s office? “The Strongest Weapon Against Drugs … Families”.   The title glows with familiar political symbolism– in which the family is proposed as the antidote to all manner of social problems. But is promoting family values really an effective response to the issue at hand? For many people, families are just as likely to make them want to take drugs!

Even in the prohibitive context, queer communities have developed ways of tailoring drug use to avoid certain harms while maximising pleasure. Some of these strategies have been effective, while others have not. But in the current climate, few are game to share these techniques. Drug use is not for everyone, to be sure, but if people are going to do it, they may as well learn from each other how to do it well. It is wrong to think that the pursuit of pleasure rules out the possibility of care. We need a new approach to drug education, one that acknowledges the legitimacy of pleasure.

It is abundantly clear that drugs are now part of popular culture. This situation presents many dangers as well as possibilities. Given the failure and unjustness of punitive strategies, it is high time we asked: What can be done to promote a more intelligent public culture with respect to drug use? What can be done to bring care into better conversation with pleasure?


Kane Race is the author of Pleasure Consuming Medicine: The Queer Politics of Drugs, recently released by Duke University Press, 2009, from which this argument is taken.  He teaches in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney.


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