When I was nine years old a member of my immediate family went into rehab for drug and alcohol addiction. I remember it being an incredibly upsetting time for all of us, and as a small child I found it all bewildering. I couldn’t understand what was going on or what exactly was causing this ‘illness’ he’d been diagnosed with.
My memory of this time is sketchy but I remember a deeply uncomfortable family conference with a lot of anger and confusion. One day, we visited him in the clinic and he showed us the room he was staying in. It looked like a prison cell with a very thick steel door, highly polished and gleaming vinyl flooring and a single bed with a steel frame. I remember being very afraid that they might lock that door and we’d all be stuck in that room. Its one saving grace was sunlight streaming through the window.
I don’t recall how long he was there, but eventually he returned home. It wasn’t easy as he was in his mid teens and full of anger. My parents put him in my bed and I had to sleep on a small mattress on the floor.
It pains me to write this, but at that time I hated my brother. He was angry, he picked on me, he slept in my bed. He stank and his hair was always uncombed and ratty. I rarely got a good nights sleep. I was tired constantly and the house was full of tension.
One night I woke to hear him vomiting in the bathroom. My dad just told me he was sick and I needed to go to sleep. I couldn’t.
There was one evening where he stayed out all night and because I was tired and missing my own bed I took advantage of his absence and climbed into it. The sheets were crumpled and had an unpleasant smell but I was so exhausted I ignored the disgust I felt and fell asleep.
Eventually my brother overcame his addiction and began living a productive life. But the process left an indelible mark on me. At nine years old I had seen the dirty, smelly, dangerous and frightening side of drug addiction. I was too young to fully understand it all and once he was off the drugs the entire subject became taboo. We never again discussed it as a family.
All of this happened over 45 years ago yet as I write I have tears in my eyes and a feeling of profound sadness.
As an adult, I understand no one was to blame. My parents were blindsided by his addiction. They had three other children to look after and I don’t think they knew what to do or how to handle it. I think my brother became addicted in order to deal with some deep issues he had – I can’t blame him for that.
The legacy for me is that for most of my adult life I have had a very negative view of recreational drugs, and I have never taken any.
But drugs are never far away. Many of my friends have taken them at clubs or dance parties, and I once even witnessed a couple of people snorting cocaine after a Christmas dinner I’d been invited to. On the gay scene I’ve known people take ecstasy tablets or sniff amyl.
What I’ve realised is that not everyone is susceptible to addiction. As with alcohol, some people take drugs for enjoyment or to ease stress. And I’ve come to realise that for them these drugs are an enhancement to their life and not a millstone.
All of this has been on my mind because of the referendum on cannabis that New Zealanders are about to vote on. This week I voted early and as you know from the headline of this story, I voted YES for reform.
Because I think our society needs to treat drug use in a responsible way. We need to stop sending people to prison for possessing a small amount of marijuana when the health system should be dealing with those who have substance abuse issues.
My brother was lucky because he was not treated like a criminal. He was literally treated as someone who had a health problem.
We need to be realistic that there already is a market for drugs. The proposed legislation regulates that and has very clear guidelines as to how the market will operate. It will enable medicinal cannabis to be available.
Best of all, it means that people who need help can seek help without the fear of arrest and possible incarceration. Back in the 1980s this was one of the rationalisations around needle exchanges and the decriminalisation of sodomy in the control and treatment of HIV. It’s a strategy that works.
Personally, I loathe the smell of weed, and I know I will encounter it more often if the legislation goes ahead because people will not always abide by the rules. But the damage to our society by the criminalisation of cannabis far outweighs my personal preference.
If the referendum succeeds there is no guarantee that the proposed legislation will pass in Parliament or that it will exist in its current form. But at least we will have the chance to have a public debate about it and our lawmakers will get the chance to hear from a wide range of views in select committees and hone the law accordingly.
Ultimately, that is the main reason I voted YES – I want our country to explore this issue properly and take our time to do so that if cannabis use is decriminalised it’s for all the right reasons.