A long time ago in a faraway land…
So there’s me and 20 other foreign travellers, sitting around a bonfire on a farm in the south of France. We are there for the vendange – the grape harvest. It is well-paid, hard work − dawn till dusk − and only rarely can we find the energy to stay up late socialising.
Sitting around a campfire under a sickle moon singing, as you do, the Romanian girl I find attractive in an un-declarable way, the one who speaks only one word of English (‘cigarette’), reveals that when it comes to singing popular folk songs, she’s a master linguist: “How many rotes must a-men wark down?” she warbles.
Someone passes a joint around from hand to hand, some of us demurring, some taking a little sip and handing it on. Then it gets to the hairy German lad, who sticks the joint in his mouth and sucks until the tip glows bright red, dwindling until all that is left is a stub, which he pinches out with his fingers and promptly swallows.
“Don’t Bogart that joint, my friend,” I start singing, having not long ago seen Easy Rider for the fifth time. No-one joins in.
A short urban history
The urban dictionary defines Bogart as taking an exceptionally long drag on a marijuana cigarette (at the expense of others).
The tradition of songs that exalt the smoking of marijuana seems to have emerged in the Depression era. In 1927 blues Mama Rosetta Howard recorded “You’re a Viper” (early slang for stoner), Cab Calloway penned “Reefer Man” in 1932 and Fats Waller (pictured) rolled out “Viper” again in 1943.
“Don’t Bogart Me” by the Fraternity of Man in 1969 is best known because it featured on the soundtrack of a counter-culture movie. There was also the timing, being released in the decade when rock music, Woodstock, the Vietnam War protest movement (and the influx of drugs from south East Asia) turned a generation on to pot smoking.
I sometimes wonder about those 20-something European backpackers (and one Kiwi). How many turned out OK and how many let drugs and alcohol blight their lives?
Drugs, task forces and TV shows
You might have noticed a sudden onslaught of TV programmes about drugs this week. I watched Australia on Drugs for about 10 minutes until concluding it was just another talking heads show which would prove little and solve nothing. By far the most pertinent observations were those made on the Twitter feed scrolling along the bottom of the screen.
“Drugs ruined my life”, said one, “and you guys make it sound OK.” (or words to that effect).
“Legalise it, tax the shit out of it and pay off Australia’s debt,” said another.
Statistics on marijuana use estimate there are 177.6 million dope smokers in the world and 2.65 million of them live here or in New Zealand.
The United Nations World Drug Report in 2014 ranked Australia and New Zealand (Oceania), as, per capita, number one in the world for ecstasy use (although the trend was already tapering off). We were also the world’s third biggest user of marijuana (10.3% of the population) and fourth in the use of cocaine. The use of prescription opioids was also on the rise, with around 3.5% of people using codeine and morphine, legally and illegally. I use past tense deliberately since the data was collected in 2009 and therefore its usefulness is limited to demonstrating the scale of the issue.
What about alcohol, then?
There’s not much in the UN’s report about alcohol. It gets a mention in the section about poly drug use. The use of more than one illicit drug usually goes in tandem with alcohol, often as the fall-back substance when the favourite substance is unobtainable.
We all have a vague idea about the common statistics on alcohol use in Australia. Alcohol causes more than twice as many deaths as road accidents, killing 5,554 Australians each year. It also hospitalises 157,132 Australians each year and the harm from alcohol is said to cost $15.3 billion a year. Excise on alcohol only generates $7 billion.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) said there were 9.7 litres of pure alcohol per person ‘available for consumption’ in 2013-14. Fifty years ago, full strength beer made up 75% of all alcohol consumed. Now it is 41%, with wine making up 37.5%. The majority of Australians seem able to control their drinking to acceptable levels, and overall we are drinking less alcohol than we did 50 years ago. However, about 15% of men and 12% of women drink at very high-risk levels.
The abuse and over-use of alcohol in Oceania militates against decriminalising or legalising marijuana and other drugs. Why, governments will say, would you legalise marijuana when we already have one legal drug that causes huge social problems? But they might be tempted, as our pithy twitterer said, to “legalise it, tax it and pay off Australia’s debt.”
Not that simple, really
Just pause for a moment to consider why more governments around the world have not tried to solve the illegal drugs problem by making all such drugs legal.
Whatever you or I think of the demon weed and just how harmless it is or isn’t, there is a global push to at least decriminalise possession for personal use. Washington State and Colorado lead the way in the US (though you would not want to get busted in Oklahoma or Texas).
Some countries have already decriminalised possession of marijuana for personal use, including Argentina, Chile, Peru, The Netherlands and Ecuador. In Columbia and Jamaica you can grow plants for your own use. In May 2014, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalise the drug, allowing marijuana users three ways to enjoy their habit: grow it at home, buy from a pharmacy or join a grower’s club. Canada seems to have a relaxed attitude, with dope smoking and possession tolerated in some provinces. A petition urging the UK government to legalise pot has reached 50,000 signatures – but still 50,000 short of the number needed to trigger a debate. In South Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory you can be in possession of a small amount of marijuana or grow one or two plants for your own use without risking a criminal conviction.
I suppose you’re waiting for me to declare my hand? I refer to the line in Paul Simon’s song, “Old,” from the album, “You’re the One”.
“First time I smoked, guess what? Paranoid.”
Dope has the potential to unpick the few stitches left binding deeply buried anxieties; to stir up the first signs of mental health disorders in those with a tendency. Dope has a clearly understood way of making Dark Side of the Moon sound awesome and encourages the deep-seated human need to loll about on the couch doing not much.
Then there’s eating cheese on toast at midnight and watching The Big Lebowski (again), giggling about a joke the rest of us didn’t get.