I was lucky. My mother and father were, to me, the ideal parents. They took me traveling through Indonesia and Malaysia, Europe and England. My father was an entomologist and collected insects when you could still catch butterflies and bring them back into Australia. We would get a butterfly net and pack very lightly and make sure we had a big floppy cricket hat on and look for the most remote places we could.
Once in Sumatra we went through the jungle, down this river in a remote national park on a raft for four nights. It was beautiful. We saw Orangutans in the wild and all sorts of amazing stuff. But as we came toward the edges of the national park we could hear chainsaws. I have this photo of a little monkey, bewildered, clinging on to three or four logs floating in the river. It was horrible.
We went to Tamanagara in Malaysia where you catch a boat up this river for a day and on one side it was virgin rainforest and amazing: horn bills in the trees and wild pigs rummaging around under your hut. The other side of the river wasn’t as pristine, but it was still full of life because butterflies don’t really take notice of where the edge of national parks are.
Dad and I got a guy in a boat to take us across the river and we pushed up stream through dense grass taller than us collecting butterflies and beetles. We came to this little side creek and there were these enormous fresh tiger prints in the sand and we thought, “Oh, shit.” I think Dad thought, “Oh god I’m going to end up with an eaten son? What’s his mom going to say?”
I’ll always remember this — we cut down about five or six big bits of bamboo and floated them in the water and dad got his belt out and we strapped them up to form a little raft. He put all his collecting stuff on to it and then we swam back down and across the river pushing the raft. So those are the sort of things we did. It was pretty amazing and after that entomology came naturally to me.
Then it happened. I came home from school one day when I was 13 and mum took me into her room. She said that my father had had a heart attack at work and that he’d died. That was a really pivotal point in my life. I remember looking at my little brother out the window. I was just completely empty, you know, and looking at my little brother playing monkey magic sticks with my next door neighbours, and feeling this intense anger because he could be doing that at a time like this. Totally irrational stuff.
I sort of went off the rails a bit from there. I don’t know how my mother did it, let alone with two little brats. But she did. She’s a wonderful woman. She just kept going. I don’t know how she kept going, but she did. I just withdrew into myself to start off with and the emptiness just continued for a long, long time.
You have some pretty weird thoughts. I guess I became a little bit reckless in terms of what does it really matter? I still did my work at school and but god, I’d be locked up for a lot of the stuff I did as a kid – anything that was rebellious. Breaking into labs, sourcing chemicals to make explosives. Not to blow anything up, just to see the bang. I still don’t really understand it. I think that probably the closest explanation to what was driving me – it was just a release. It wasn’t about attention or anything like that. I never hurt anybody and I never got caught. I never even had a single detention at high school.
I was also growing pot in my roof… it fell through the roof, putting a 3-meter circumference hole in the dining room ceiling. It was a big clean up mission. My partner in crime was my next-door neighbour, Daniel. So there was a quick shift to next door. It was a frantic knock on Daniel’s door and I went, “Shit, help.” We had about 45 minutes to get all these plants out and clean up all the dirt and move the lights. Oh my god. It was horrible. Then came the creative storytelling… telling mom that I was up in my room fixing a light and she actually got it covered by insurance. Plausibly deniable.
Eventually I went on to do a bachelor of science in entomology and honours in developmental parasitology looking at the developmental pathways of this very peculiar little parasitic wasp. I made a decision after university that I’d hurt too many animals in my time. There is this belief in science that insects don’t feel pain. It is the reason you don’t need ethical clearance to do studies on them. I knew very well that they did feel pain. I knew insects inside out.
One of the experiences that jumps straight into my mind is being out in the back yard and seeing this: there’s a deep green leaf and it was at eye level and there was an ant — a big, black, glossy ant — and it was sitting on its gaster — its abdomen — and it was posing like “The Thinker”. So it was sitting – instead of walking on all 6 legs it was upright, sitting on its gaster and just thinking and looking up into the distance. This ant was at eye level and it just sat there, looking… deep in contemplation… It was just incredible. It was quite obvious to me as a being, not a human being, just a being, that they felt pain and they were aware of the outside world and they had a soul. Now I can’t kill a mosquito. I can’t do it. I can’t kill cockroaches. I just can’t do it.
I never was a big drinker but I did like having the occasional joint and… I ended up in this weird situation where I knew a guy who sold pot and so I ended up getting a bit myself. Then a friend would ask me and a friend would ask me and a friend would ask me. Before you knew it, I was spending my entire time buying and selling pot. It just sort of happened because no one else knew where to get it and I could. So I became the person that everybody went to.
I moved out and became independent. When I was at university, I was dealing and working at the Museum of Queensland and the State Library and up the road as a dish pig and there was another one in there too I’m sure so… I was very busy. Eventually I met a girl who I was really keen on, so I gave away the dealing. It was taking up all of my time and I didn’t think it was fair to have somebody else involved in what could get them in some serious trouble. So I gave it all away. I guess that’s when the cycle of poverty started. It doesn’t really matter how much money you’ve got; it all ends up going.
There’ve been times in my life when I’ve had problematic drug use. My using has caused me a little bit of heartache and pain and at times I’ve had to pull up. The biggest problem is what it did to my family. They had to wrap their heads around a few things which they didn’t really want to go anywhere near. They were really down on me. I told them what was happening in my drug use and they wanted me to be abstinent and I couldn’t achieve abstinence. So I was going through uni and I was living outside of home. To them I was either straight and doing the right thing and a fabulous son, or I was using drugs and there was a problem.
When you see drug use outside your family, it’s one thing. When it’s your son or your parent or your brother, it is a lot more difficult to see clearly and you have a very emotional response. I’ve seen it all the way through. Everywhere I’ve worked in the sector, I’ve seen it. Doing stigma discrimination training, I’ve seen people sitting there and very rationally discussing how drug use can be OK. “Drug use can be fine. It depends on what that person wants out of their life.” And then when you flip it around and say, “What if this was your brother? Would you feel the same?” they reply “Ohhh, I don’t know. That’s different.” Or I’ve had people bring it up and say, “Oh geez, I’m saying this but when my brother went through it or my mother went through it…”
I think it’s a fairly typical response. It’s easy to see if it’s out of your family, but if it’s within your family there’s some emotional stuff that goes along with it that isn’t there otherwise.
Before my father died I always had a role model, and I played cricket, and I loved cricket and sports in general and then when everything went pear-shaped, I couldn’t do it anymore. I found myself not being able to do team sports or anything like that.
I didn’t feel that it was my thing and on top of that I was exploring. Exploring myself in terms of my identity, so I became involved in shamanism and growing gardens with permaculture and ethnobotanical plants. Magic mushrooms and psychoactive plants and all those spiritual ideas and ideals. Especially the idea that a shaman, who has knowledge of plants and uses drugs, is revered in traditional or non-mainstream society as somebody who has knowledge which is unavailable to other people.
At that time I went to an ethnobotanical conference in Uki, Northern New South Wales and it was fabulous. You know, there were long-haired hippies with dreads down to their butts sitting next to scientists in khaki all talking about the roles that plants have played in human anthropology and history and there are magic mushrooms growing in the foothills all around us.
The first thing I can remember about skateboarding was that I was watching a video of some guy skating on a TV screen in a surf shop. He was skating up from behind a garbage bin and he sort of crouched down and suddenly jumped up and flipped the board 360 degrees on its axis… over the bin and off… I was astonished. I remember thinking that’s magic essentially. Modern day magic and ever since that moment I was determined, I studied skating and the first time I got on a skateboard and I tried to ollie I landed on my head. To catch that trick, a kick flip, it took me 3 years. That was practicing every day.
I’ve been skating ever since. When I wasn’t studying, or working or dealing, I’d skate. I got up at 7 in the morning, maybe earlier, skate down to the skate park. Do a session. Do my study. Go to work. Do my rounds. Go back to the skate park. Skate until 7. Go to the pub for a meal and after the pub skate until 10.
Skating was my salvation, it was so empowering and it was cathartic. It was just something which was magical and divine to me. That I had a feeling of “I’m gonna do this” and then actually feeling the process of it happening and then you let the board go and it twirls and then you feel it catch on to your feet and “Wooossshhh!” and as you land a sound, a click clack, a very specific sound that you hear when you get it right. So it’s been something which whenever I’ve been in a really bad way, it’s been my back stop.
As I have gone through life with the cycle of poverty and stigma and discrimination that criminalisation of drug use brings I have seen many hard times and had many of my close friends die from overdose or be incarcerated. The turning point for me was finding a magazine one day at the local needle and syringe program. The magazine was User’s News and to my astonishment it was written by and for users!
I couldn’t conceptualise an organization that was peer-based and so I started to research and get involved. Was it really possible that there were organisations out there which valued the decades of knowledge I had about the ins and outs of drug use? That shared my opinion on the war on drugs? That were controlled by the drug using community?
There was. And their history was rich and woven into the fight against HIV and viral hepatitis and replete with people who had dedicated their lives to fighting for their human rights and to saving the lives of their community. This was the beginning of my journey into the world of community controlled organisations, harm reduction and advocacy.
It is strange where life leads you. From chasing butterflies around the world to handing out fits, educating, advocating for law reform and empowering people who use drugs to stand up for their human rights. I always wonder where I would be now if I had never picked up that magazine. But I am very happy I did.