Drugs in sport: dissecting the untold harms of stigmatisation.

In News by AIVL

Aussies love their stimulants nearly as much as sports! We punch well above our weight on the international level. On the world stage, we just miss out on a podium finish for our average total stimulant consumption, securing 4th place at 59 doses per 1,000 people per day [following Czechia (76 doses), the United States of America (USA; 74 doses), and the Netherlands (66 doses)].
Our drug use really shines when it comes to MDMA and methamphetamine, with a bronze medal finish for average per capita consumption per 1,000 people per day. For meth, we consume 49 doses, compared with 60 doses for the highest-ranked country, Czechia; and MDMA, 3.1 doses, compared with 9.2 doses for the highest-ranked country, the Netherlands.

Lifetime use for Australians of ecstasy currently sits at around 12.5%. For cocaine, it is around 11%. Our 20-29-year-old cohort of cocaine users sits at roughly 20%. That’s one in five. So does that make one in five people aged between twenty and twenty-nine bad people?

We love our drugs and we love our sport, so why is it that we are willing to make sports people who use drugs into sacrificial lambs? Shouldn’t we love them even more? But drugs are bad, right? I can hear Mr Mackey, the elementary teacher at South Park repeating the phrase “Drugs are bad…mmkay?” And that’s what we constantly hear. And if I do “bad things” then that’s going to make me a “bad person”. How long can we tolerate this kind of thinking, when we know, in our hearts, its not a true reflection of reality?

If you have the “misfortune” to use drugs (that’s one in five 20-29 yos at least), your road to redemption requires an almost Orwellian admission of wrong-doing. You must see drug use as bad, even if your personal experience tells you otherwise.

Case-in-point: Bailey Smith. A 21 yo Western Bulldogs AFL player who sports an old-school mullet, and an impressive amateur ALF resume prior to turning pro. He has reached, what many have referred to, as cult-like status. He was “the next big thing”.

I can only imagine the kind of chemical release Bailey would experience playing in front of thousands of fans. There might be a time when hyperfocus sets in, but before that the visceral experience of a deafening crowd chanting your name would have to have an effect….and then the off-season comes around. You're paying your bills and putting the garbage out. No more “home-brewed (endogenously produced) chemical release”. So being the resourceful person you are, you investigate ways your experience can be partially replicated. You procure a “bag of white powder”, or as Gorillaz affectionately referred to it, ‘Sunshine in a Bag’.

For poor Bailey, the next thing that happens is an image of appears on social media of him holding a “bag of white powder”. He more or less fesses up to it being an illicit substance, reciting the well-worn phrases of being “out of control” and his actions were “shameful”. Bailey, maybe without even knowing it, is re-enforcing the dominant paradigm: Drugs are bad and I was weak. Now I'm full of shame.

This type of framing ignores some deeper questions that could be asked. More appropriate questions might be: Overall, has my drug use provided me with a greater benefit than harm? Have aspects of my life been accentuated through drug use? Have there been areas in my life negatively impacted by my drug use?

Maybe Bailey does have some underlying issues related to his mental health. I'm guessing any twenty-one-year-old kid put in his situation would be stressed…most people that age would also be questioning many aspects of their being. He is on the cusp of making his way into the world. Maybe he could benefit from engaging with a mental health professional. The paradoxical thing is that some potential pathways to treatment or therapy could involve the use of entactogens (chemicals that help people get in touch with their inner selves); potentially the very thing he had been previously accessing.

Bailey‘s story is just one example of many in the continuing saga of drugs in sport that genuinely puzzles Australian society in the manner in which they dissect them. We apply many lenses to drug use in sport: moral, cultural, legal, health and social to name just some. Yet despite how we look at it, we are still left with a foul air of prejudice and inconsistency when determining what the outcome will be. Indeed, we continue to see some athletes vilified for their drug use, whilst others who have also engaged in illicit drug use either recreationally or for performance and enhancing purposes, are considered greats of the game. Andrew ‘Joey’ Johns is arguably Australia’s most iconic example of this, made a rugby league immortal (higher than hall of fame status, a title revered to only the greatest players of their generation) he is also a current commentator, journalist and TV presenter. ‘Joey’ was known to use recreational drugs throughout his elusive football career, despite this and a slew of racial, and gambling scandals, not one of his accolades has been stripped from him.

Whilst the nature of the drug use of each athlete who engages in such behaviour will have its discrepancies, and opinions on illicit drug use will differ among various communities, there is an ever apparent need for the conversation to be had surrounding how vilification of illicit drug use ultimately creates more harm than good. This is not to say, illicit drug use in sport should not be without consequences, though of the consequences faced, stigma, discrimination and humiliation for engagement in actions that a considerable number of Australian youth engage in or experiment with, should not be among these as it only leads to further harm, and allows false narratives to proliferate regarding drug use in Australian society.

Article By

Charlie Lay - Project Officer, AIVL

AIVL is the national organisation representing people who use/have used illicit drugs and is the peak body for the state and territory peer-based drug user organisations.

CEO, AIVL – email ceo@aivl.org.au

Want to know more?

Contact the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL).