From magical nights spend waking along the beach on magic mushrooms, to a head planted firmly in the toilet, Fiona Patten has seen it all.
In this frank interview, the Reason Party leader explains how her personal experiences with drugs have shaped her desire for drug law reform.
Q: Were you raised to see drug use as a health issue, or was there a personal experience that changed your mind?
A: I know I was definitely raised with the image that drugs are bad – just say no. But when I first tried drugs was when I realised that was a lie. I think that was the turning point for me in my attitude towards drugs.
If you say that one toke on a cannabis cigarette will send you mad or will cause you to be addicted, and then people try it and go ‘that was pleasurable, I felt in control and I had a good time,’ well, am I going to believe someone telling me to be careful when taking ecstasy? When you get false education it’s hard for us to break through with actual drug education.
This is what I consider for pill testing. It’s getting people in the tent, and once you have them there then you can start actually giving them info that will really help them. Telling them how strong their pill is, or telling whether their pill has MDMA in it or something they weren’t expecting is important, but telling them how that drug might interact with any prescription medication they’re on or alcohol or any other substances they’re planning to take – to me that is the real important part of harm reduction.
‘Wonderful, intimate experiences’
Q: Best experience with drugs?
A: Going out in my early 20s – picking mushrooms, taking them and walking along the beach, watching a sunrise or a sunset – that was awesome. And it’s not to say you don’t do that without drugs – I’ve had awesome similar experiences walking along the beach without taking drugs – but the times I’ve taken drugs and done that they’ve been wonderful experiences. For me they weren’t necessarily life changing, but they reaffirmed and confirmed friendships while we were having this sort of intimate experience together.
They’ve said, ‘Look I don’t have cannabis, I have got this…’
Q: Worst experience with drugs?
A: Generally speaking, I’ve had quite good experiences with drugs and I think I’ve been fortunate that when I have taken drugs it has been a very conscious decision.
It’s not been a ‘3 am – let’s do something stupid’ thing. I feel like generally speaking I’ve made conscious and good decisions.
But there have been circumstances where I have taken a synthetic substance – I certainly remember trialling some of the synthetic cannabinoids after they’ve said, “Look I don’t have cannabis I have got this” and being passed what you would think was a joint and finding that to be a very frightening experience. One that I knew would pass, that I was conscious I would just have to wait out, but it was a very unpleasant experience nonetheless.
To be honest, some of my worst experiences have probably been with alcohol – with my head over a toilet with someone holding my hair.
Q: Why do you think alcohol has been given a free pass in our society and by our government?
The non-clinical side of me says it’s historical: It has been part of our culture for hundreds of years and it has been an accepted psychoactive substance.
The cynical side of me says it’s the money. We look at the revenue via alcohol taxes that governments receive – the billions of dollars, the ubiquitous pressure, the ubiquity of the alcohol industry (and look I don’t mind a glass of wine) but the ubiquity of the industry… look at the hoteliers association. They’re huge employers, but they are also huge donors to political parties and they provide an enormous amount of revenue to governments.
I used to live around Darlinghurst and Woolloomooloo during the heroin years and I always felt safe on the street. I always felt safe with sex workers around, with people using heroin around me, and even with people using ice around me. It was only when those giant pubs that took 500-600 people emerged, that was when I felt less safe walking around at night.
I suppose because it’s so readily available that many of us will have had some sort of experience where we have felt at risk because of our alcohol use – some more than any other drug.
A ‘sophisticated, discerning’ marketplace
Q: Have you ever aspired to 100% sobriety?
A: I’m an ‘everything in moderation’ dkind of person. Certainly I’ve done Dry July or Feb Fast from time to time, but I like having a glass of wine after work. I like the relaxation effect it gives me. I like having a joint from time to time. If I have to vacuum the house there’s nothing better.
I was in Vancouver recently, a year or so ago, and I walked into a dispensary and said “I would like something that I could enjoy smoking while going for a big long walk through the park and along the beach. What would you recommend?” They could recommend me a vape pen that had Orange Crush or something, and it was just a lovely way to spend an afternoon, which that is what legalisation provides. It provides us with a much more sophisticated marketplace where we can be more discerning.
Q: What’s your decriminalisation stance – all drugs decriminalised or only low-risk drugs? Are there any drugs you absolutely hate?
A: I want to see everything decriminalised. I don’t want to see the decision to use a substance – whether it’s alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy – treated as criminal activity. When you legalise something, it creates a regulated market. In a perfect world, we as adults could make those decisions – do we want to have a bottle of shiraz tonight, or do we want to have some ketamine.
We have to dig out of the hole that is the “war on drugs” before we can have those types of conversations.
I just think we need to be clear about the terminology here. When we decriminalise something we say ‘look it’s not a crime to do this’, but decriminalising use and possession is not making the sale legal. I split decriminalisation into use and possession.
I then consider legalisation, where we start to regulate a product and set up controls. As far as cannabis is concerned, we should be ready to go into legalising cannabis, regulating it and setting up licensing – that could bring in millions.
Q: How can we as a community fight the negative stigma that generally comes from the older generations in regards to our music festivals and events?
A: Quite often when we are passionate about something we forget to listen. And we forget to ask the question ‘why don’t you like these festivals?’ We all love telling people what we think and how things should be done, and as a member of Parliament I get hundreds of people telling me what I should do in the most helpful way.
They genuinely want to help – they’ve got these great ideas – but quite often the best way to get change is to ask questions. I think it’s important to be engaging in a conversation, not having a one-way monologue.
‘Coming back from the war on drugs is going to be a step-by-step process’
Q: What are some ways to influence narratives from within a larger structure to enact meaningful change?
A: It’s about bringing people along with you – arriving at consensus rather than being combative. And it’s getting the community behind you.
When I looked at the safe injecting centre, we reached out to the ambulance drivers, the fire brigade, the Salvation Army, the medical professions, the residents. We reached out to a whole range of people that were affected by the drug use in North Richmond.
And I think the same goes with cannabis. I want to be reaching out to the Farmer’s Federation. I want to be reaching out to Indigenous communities. There is a whole range of people who should be joining us in this campaign.
Politicians respond to community engagement. They respond to their constituents writing to them. It does affect them, despite what they say and despite the cynics’ views.
I see it in my colleagues; now that I’m in my second term, I see that my colleagues listen to what their community says. They might not act on it, but they hear it.
To me, coming back from the war on drugs is going to be a step-by-step process. I think part of that will be a coming-out process. We are actually going to have to speak about the fact that we take drugs and that’s a very risky thing to do.
It used to be a very risky thing to say “I’m gay”. So, often people couldn’t, but it was only when there were brave people talking about it honestly and in an engaging and helpful way that we saw changes in attitude around the LGBTI community.