A view from the troops of the Drug War

an interview with Bernie Morgan, Snr Sergeant, Hindley St Police, Adelaide 

 

What would it mean if the troops in the war against drugs (the Police) and those that are targeted by the war against drugs (young people) could find ways to talk to each other? Is it conceivable that if ways were found for the conversations to take place that together they might demand a truce from those who give the orders? The following article evolved from a conversation that Penni Moss, Paul Butterworth and David Denborough had with Bernie Morgan, Senior Sergeant of the Hindley St Police Force in Hindley St, Adelaide.

Within the 33 years that I have been in the police force I have seen many changes in relation to drugs. I’ve seen the legislation about drug use grow from one or two sections within an Act to a whole Act in itself. And I’ve had to try to keep pace with every new drug that comes out on the street. It can be pretty hard these days with the designer drugs. In 33 years I’ve also seen perspectives in the police force change – from an unawareness of drugs, to a belief that the use of law could eliminate drug use, to now an acknowledgment that this is not possible. Now it seems that most thinking people believe that drug use is a health issue and that there are legitimate arguments for legalisation. Many people now see that it is ludicrous to have a whole underworld supporting a multi-million dollar business.

Personally I think there is a good argument for the legalisation of all illicit drugs but there are many complexities we’d have to address. Moving towards legalisation we would need to think through the impact of certain drugs on people and on others around them – as we have had to think through with alcohol (in relation to drink driving) and smoking tobacco in public places.

I believe however that given the way current political processes work, that there is little chance of a sensible solution being found to the issue of drugs. Instead we’ll keep pandering to the view of the lowest common denominator. The war cry will continue to go out and we the police will continue to be called upon as troops to fight the ‘war against drugs’.

For me this brings an incredible sense of frustration. In order to counter the fear of the link between drugs and police corruption we have to go to the most tedious lengths to process and document cases involving minute amounts of drugs. Worse still, if we confiscate a pipe used to smoke marijuana, police processes demand that we deal with it as an exhibit. It has to be filed, it has to be tracked. Can you imagine the time and the cost that goes into this administration? Fighting the drug war, and ensuring that we are not corrupt in the process, is crippling us. We are not putting our resources where we should be.

Prejudice

Most police would believe that drugs are a problem that mostly belongs to young people – especially ‘alternative’ young people. The issue is, of course, so much bigger than that but most of us are not interested in the complexities. As police, in order to seek out ‘criminals’, we are encouraged to quickly identify ‘good’ versus ‘bad’. Our prejudices play a big part in this. In relation to drugs, if a person is young then for many police that immediately puts them in a suspect category. If they have dread-locked hair then they’ve gone past just being a suspect. If they dye their dreadlocks orange then we know we’ve hit pay dirt. These sorts of views really just fit the standard, conservative, judgmental perceptions of the broader Australian population. Coppers are just that, the conservative bastions of society.

With the histories of relationships between police and young people there is now animosity on both sides. Because of how we relate to young people, young people are likely to jeer and shout abuse at us. The majority of interactions between police and young people just compound the issue. Most police now expect this and just say ‘Hey, they are the enemy. I expect that from the enemy’.

I still find myself having to fight my own prejudices. To get a view on how the local community is feeling, I am much more likely to go to the owner of a large night club and ask how are things going than to go to a group of younger people who don’t have the same status, or political clout or economic turnover.

We have to do a lot of work to try to build links between the police and youth workers / street workers let alone between police and the young people themselves. It’s a constant juggling act. If you don’t also maintain your policing systems you can quickly lose credibility amongst other police.

Acknowledging the complexities

It’s pretty hard to get police in their day-to-day work to acknowledge the complexities of drug issues. Then again, try to get a magistrate or a politician to acknowledge the complexities – it’s no easier. Not many people are willing to really look at the complexities involved in drug use, let alone their role in it and how they influence it.

The only way most of the troops survive is to deny the complexities. I do this myself. If the troops look at what they are really doing then they’d have to say, ‘This is rubbish. I’m being paid to simply march these people up the hill and march them down again.’ In my view this creates a real dilemma for us as police. How can we deal with that? Once you start looking at what is really going on it can get very confusing. It’s so much easier to look for black and white solutions. For example, there’s a perception of ‘if we can identify the drug dealer then we’ll get to the bottom of it’. But, quite often, the reality is that people who use drugs are also either sharing them with or selling them to friends. There’s no clear cut difference between drug dealer and user.

Talking about drug use within the police force

Drug use within the police force is also a real issue but it’s not one we can talk about at this stage. In my 33 years in the police force I’ve seen a lot of issues that once couldn’t be talked about gradually coming out into the open – issues of sexuality being one of them. Once we would never acknowledge that homosexuality had any place within the force. We didn’t discuss it. Now though, there are a number of openly identified gay and lesbian police. I think gradually there will be the same sort of openness in relation to drug use. The only thing that will complicate that is the illegality. One of the reasons why we are now able to more openly talk about sexuality is that, instead of it being illegal to be homosexual, it is now illegal to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality.

The illegality of some drugs makes it difficult to talk about their use. The way we as police use alcohol, how it does or doesn’t help us cope with pressures, is something that has only recently been brought out onto the table. Until other drugs are legalised it will be difficult for their use to be talked about.

At the moment, no-one would be game to say to me as a Senior Sergeant that they used illicit drugs. It would put them in a position from which they couldn’t operate. It would also create a dilemma for me. We do have programs for people who use marijuana but I’m quite certain that if anyone talked about using any other sort of drugs then there’d be all sorts of investigations and complications.

Sustenance

What sustains me in my work is that at my age and length of service I’m in a privileged position of not actually having to deal with the everyday feeling of ‘this is a waste of time’. The everyday dealing with small drug-related charges does not occupy my days. I’m two steps removed. I observe the waste of time. It’s some of my people’s time and that concerns me, but it’s not my time. I’ve also found a way of living with the balance of raising the questions to my bosses and getting on with my own work, making a difference where I can. I do as much as I can do. Mostly though I’m sustained by the good work that a lot of the troops do in relation to a whole lot of things – often nothing to do with drugs. It is the good work that is done that helps me to deal with the sense of waste in other areas.

In trying to address these issues, you are fighting systems that are looking for simplicities. I wish you luck.

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