Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Drug Usage Is Not Black And White

The airing of the Ben Cousins story recently has certainly fired up passions. It seems everyone has an opinion and so do I. Interestingly within the next week we saw more drug related headlines from another AFL player, Travis Tuck and actor Matthew Newton. Drug problems are not uncommon.

Ben Cousins has been a champion footballer in the Australian Football League (AFL) but his story could equally apply to a baseball, soccer or rugby or basketball player. It is the story of a kid who was thrust into the limelight at a young age and went off the rails and got into drugs. The television documentary followed the path of his journey through rehabilitation.

To be honest there was not a whole lot new revealed in the program. Most of the events had been reported in the media previously. However candid interviews with his family and his father in particular were revealing. In addition Cousins himself was straight up about his addiction.

There has been much debate as to whether the program sent the “right” or “wrong” message about drug use. Did it glamorize the use of drugs or show the downside. Good questions but they miss the point.

The documentary was about the journey of Ben Cousins. It was showing what happened to him. It was not about a message –it was a story. Rightly or wrongly this is a man who managed to combine a successful sports career with ongoing use of illegal substances. This happened under the noses of his club and the officiating league.

During this time he won the Brownlow medal (for fairest and best in the competition) and played in two grand finals. He managed to slip through various tests for substances and despite drug problems being an “open secret” in his hometown somehow nobody at the club seemed to notice. It is fair to say that drug users are good at deception. It is also fair to say that sporting teams do not want to know things about star players that might rock the boat.

This is the key point and it applies across the board. For as long as you are “useful” your indiscretions will be overlooked or excused. Here was a popular and extremely good player at a club looking for (and winning) a premiership. So long as he did his “day job” and kept his drug use discreet, neither the club the league or the fans really want to know. As soon as he ceased to be discreet and the issue was played out in public then there was outrage sacking and hand wringing over the game being brought into “disrepute”.

Much elite sport is played by men aged 18 to 30.This is the same demographic which has the highest levels of drug alcohol and violence related problems. Give some of these young men large salaries, lots of spare time and “hero” status because they can throw or kick leather around a park and you are inviting trouble. When it arrives everyone acts surprised. What is really surprising is that there are not more young sports people going off the rails.

Ultimately the outrage over Ben Cousins is not that he used drugs and “got away with it”. It is that he has dared to state this publically. The reality is that not all drug users are in the gutter, they live among us and we do not recognize them because they do not fit stereotypes. The notion of addiction, which is promoted by governments and health authorities, applies to a small percentage of users. Disturb this image and you get the sort of response Ben Cousins got.

Drug usage is not as black and white as health authorities and governments like to portray it. Some people go quickly downhill. Others function “normally in society. Some use often, some occasionally. Young people are not scared by horror stories because they see a different spectrum of reality day to day.

Honesty rather than lecturing would be far more productive.

Use of illicit drugs can and does destroy lives. So too at times does use of prescription drugs-witness Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson. Rather than demonize people perhaps we need to understand what drives them to make these choices. It is through this type of understanding rather than making the drug the problem that we may be actually able to advance our capacity to help people heal and regain their health and their lives.

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