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de Launey, CA 2001, 'What drug problem? Cannabis and heroin in an alternative community', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright CA de Launey 2001


Does Nimbin have a drug problem? This tiny village in north-eastern NSW has an international reputation for its alternative community and its street drug market. Ever since the Aquarius Festival thirty years ago Nimbin has fascinated the media, and recurrent headlines about the village's (undefined) 'drug problem' suggested my research topic. My research aim was to investigate the meaning/s of Nimbin's 'drug problem' in the context of Nimbin's 'alternative' culture.

Because the topic of illicit drugs is both ethically challenging and highly sensitive, my research design was strongly participant-focused, with an emphasis on confidentiality balanced by a mixed methodology to cross-validate results. My methods included an anonymous household (door-to-door) survey based on a national household survey; an anonymous mailed-back survey of Nimbin and Lismore drug injectors; taped interviews with health and legal professionals, cannabis activists and drug dealers; semi-structured interviews with 'professional' cannabis crop growers; and participant observation over several years. I found the multi-method research design to be particularly effective for investigating illegal drug marketing and use, and the design provided me with multiple perspectives on a complex issue.

Superficially, there appeared to be two drug 'problems' in Nimbin — one was the (largely cannabis) street market, and the other revolved around heroin users, and included complaints about scruffy-looking people hanging around the main street, or overdosing in the public toilet. However, my research suggested that these issues, while immediately comprehensible as 'drug problems', obscured more complex issues. For example, the village's street drug market was intertwined with the local economy and with the alternative community's values and drug use, while close to half of the drug injectors lacked secure housing (which creates problems that are not related to heroin), and all heroin users were blamed for the actions of few.

Many factors influence the creation and maintenance of what we might call 'problems', and drugs are frequently blamed for broader social problems. What is Nimbin’s drug problem? The answer depends, in part, on the drug of interest, but more importantly it depends on your definition of a ‘problem’. Some useful and meaningful perspectives on this important social issue include quantified indicators such as death, injury, arrest rates, the economics of black markets, the demographics of drug use, and estimates of ‘social costs’. Qualitative perspectives include people’s opinions about drugs, media-generated moral panics, the effects of social marginalisation, and the role of drug cultures.

A number of ‘drug problems’ arise as a direct result of drug illegality. They include black markets, corruption, drug-related violence, theft, stronger forms of the drug, and more dangerous using practices (with the risk drug overdoses and HIV/AIDS), as well as public nuisance issues. Government policy, judicial sentencing and public opinion are moving towards the social reintegration of illicit drug users, but this is almost invariably counter-balanced by a toughening of legal sanctions against supply of the same drug. Most discussions about illicit drugs fail to consider the long-term implications of harsh penalties for, and elaborate and punitive police operations (such as occurred throughout my Nimbin research) against, small-scale independent growers and dealers. The only way to directly engage with drug markets and all the attendant problems, is to legitimise and regulate the supply of recreational drugs.

I discuss several examples of the important role of the drug culture in mitigating problems caused by illegality. One example is the influence of Nimbin's alternative community on the style of the drug market. The village drug scene more closely resembles the many north coast village craft markets, than it does Kings Cross, Cabramatta or New York's Bronx. Buyers are north coast locals, along with national and international tourists (the small village is known to cannabis users world-wide, both through media attention and word-of-mouth). Nimbin offers a 'safe' village market ambience and competitive prices to a mainly cannabis using clientele.

I suggest that there are two major underlying influences on the experience of a ‘drug problem’, regardless of the drug or the place. They are:

1. Political influences — specifically the effects of government policy on black markets, law enforcement practices, and access to services and resources;

2. Cultural influences — particularly the beneficial effects of norms and functional role models for the safe use of a drug, cultural effects on the drug market, and the role/s of the drug in the day-to-day life of the culture.

These influences can operate with, or despite, each other, and can create or ameliorate many ‘drug problems’. In the case of Nimbin’s alternative culture, government policy has created a number of drug problems and the counter-culture has worked to minimise them.

In my research into Nimbin’s ‘drug problem’ I have clarified some issues and raised a number of others. I have examined the notion of a ‘drug problem’ from several perspectives using a range of research tools, and discussed some key influences on the problem associated with drug use. Drawing from the Nimbin research and my reading, I suggest legalising the recreational drugs to bring them under the dual controls of supply legislation and social norms. In conclusion, I suggest that we need to be very clear about what ‘drug problem’ it is that we are talking about, and indeed, whether the problem is really about drugs at all.