My earliest introduction to drugs was indirect. As I remember it, the word first entered my consciousness as a neon sign glimpsed through a windowpane of a seedy hotel bedroom:
it flickered. The sign, the window, the hotel were not even real: they were part of a movie set. Don’t ask me which movie. Some Hollywood thriller of the forties, I guess, replayed on a Melbourne television screen a decade or so later. How indirect can you get! And how innocent! I noticed how some of the women in the film and all of the men rarely had their hands free of a cigarette or of a glass replenished from a bottle marked bourbon, and the plot involved some shifty trading in a brown sticky substance between a group of loudmouthed Yankee hoods and a plump, cackling Oriental. But when I asked my mother what that sign meant, she said it was the American equivalent of ‘chemist’.
You’ll still find signs like that in the USA alerting you to the shop you visit after the doctor’s to have your medicine made up. Call it the chemist’s, as we do, or drug-store, as the Americans say, its general connotations are still curiously innocent or beneficent: a place that will bring you good, make you better, in almost inverse proportion to the nasty taste of its wares. The word ‘drugs’, on the other hand, has taken on darker or more mystical-sublime associations; not that any of these are new, but since the sixties they have become the dominant ones in everyday parlance. ‘Drugs’ now is usually a shorthand term for a range of mood-altering, mind-altering, sometimes body-altering substances, taken voluntarily and often for pleasure in the first instance—unlike those bitter pills prescribed by the doctor—but capable of becoming addictive, and with after-effects that may well be the opposite of pleasurable and far from good. Or, as a World Health organisation memorandum defined the term in 1982: ‘any chemical entity or mixture of entities, other than those required for the maintenance of normal health, the administration of which alters biological function and possibly structure’ (my emphasis).
Cigarettes and alcohol are now routinely subsumed under the label ‘drugs’. While regarded less and less as in any way good for you, especially in immoderate quantities, they are legal in most countries, subject to various restrictions. But most other addictive substances, whether brown and sticky or white and powdery or of any other colour and consistency, are generally outlawed. Whether they should or can effectively remain so, and what the effects might be if the laws were relaxed, are now subjects of urgent and impassioned debate all over the world. In this issue of Meanjin, I have attempted to give coverage to a wide range of drugs, as the term is presently understood, and to provide a suggestive sampling at least of the range of positions and the variety of voices in the debate on drugs in Australia.
It’s been impossible, of course, to be fully comprehensive or representative. For one thing, I have been dependent on what was offered to me when I floated the idea of this issue (and for whatever reason, those who advocate so-called zero tolerance towards drugs proved far less forthcoming, even when I specifically invited some of them to contribute. For helping sustain the spirit of the debate, therefore, I am all the more grateful to those of this persuasion who did accept my invitation). I have also been restricted by what would fit within the limits of a single issue and by what I felt to be suitable for the broad, non-specialist audience of a literary magazine.
Drugs, and some of the issues surrounding drugs, can make for a very technical subject. But they have also long been a subject of literature, and of various other cultural forms; and various artists have made large claims for them as a source of their creative inspiration. It is more than appropriate, therefore, that a literary magazine should devote some concerted attention to the subject—and about time. I have tried to think of another magazine of this kind (in Australia at least) that has done this, and I can’t. At the same time, not everything in this issue is exclusively related to the theme.
In addition to the contributors, and to my overstretched Meanjin team, I wish to give special thanks to the following for their sage advice about various aspects of this issue: Cheryl Delalande, Steve James, David McLachlan, Brenda Niall, John Ryan, the University of Melbourne Legal Services department, and Jean Wyldbore.