September 2016

The lure of the needle

The syringe was invented to get drugs into the body quickly and that is the primary attraction for people who use them, says Dr Matthew Frei. “There is no more effective way of administering a drug into the circulatory system, into the brain. It is so effective and in most circumstances it reduces the waste from swallowing or even smoking.”

Dr Frei, the head of clinical services at Turning Point and Eastern Health Alcohol and Drug Services, as well as an adjunct lecturer at Monash University’s Department of Psychology and Psychiatry, says injecting also nurtures a ritualistic attachment. This includes the preliminary procedures of laying out the equipment and arranging the spoon, syringe, water, filter and so on.

“So there’s that cultural ritual, the repeated behaviour and there’s often a social aspect to it, where people often (inject) together,” Dr Frei says. Thus they consider “doing it well” as a skill and “finding veins is considered a badge of honour, so the ritual becomes something of a driver”.

Dr Frei says research shows injecting is especially popular in Australia. “Snorting and smoking drugs is less popular in Australia than it is in, say, the US. Possibly because the risks aren’t seen to be as high. We never had HIV rates as high as some countries where half the injecting population has HIV. Plus we have good access to syringes, so Australians are less anxious about injecting.

“We have particularly good access to clean injecting equipment and the harm reduction benefits arising from that situation cannot be minimised,” he said.

Finding veins is considered a badge of honour, so the ritual becomes something of a driver.

Dr Matthew Frei

For Melbourne man Johnnie, injecting drugs began almost 50 years ago and he says it was because he didn’t smoke cigarettes.

“My flatmates all smoked and were getting stoned off joints but I got nothing, just a cough,” he says. “So I bought a syringe and some needles. It was 1970 so you had to scam a chemist to get a syringe and a set of five reusable needles.”

Johnnie had read some William Burroughs and listened to Lou Reed singing about getting high on heroin. While he didn’t know anyone else who shot up, it seemed cool enough to give it a go.

He says the misuse of medical technology appealed to his ideas of taking a walk “on the wild side”. Mainly, though, it got him high immediately. The economies of using a syringe also appealed as it used small amounts of drugs for a stronger effect.

Some of his friends from those early days are still around and they say their interest was all about speed and efficiency. Once the health risks became apparent, they gave up. They never became addicted to injecting to the same extent as Johnnie, for whom the ritual of setting out his kit and mixing up hits had him almost completely bewitched.

He would dream of spoons, syringes and the process of injecting. In his dreams, getting high was never the point; rather it was playing with the equipment.

“I used to love the ritual, I still do,” he recalls. “It calms me. I still have fresh syringes around even if I’m not actively using. Just seeing a fresh, unopened pack of five in the drawer makes me feel better.

“Quite a few people say they are addicted to needles as much as gear. It doesn’t matter what is around, they will inject it.”

Time and experience has changed some things: Johnnie says he balks at injecting pills now because of worries the fillers will harm him. His health is more important now than it was when he was recklessly injecting any prescription meds or illicit powders he could get his hands on.

Even so, he still puzzles at the allure injecting held for him when he was a teenager. The idea of the needle piercing the skin and entering the bloodstream made a link between him and his inner life in a tangible fashion. He feels that the link was a substitute for the lack of self-knowledge he had as a youth. He’s more sanguine about injecting now. It is a delivery system – and one with substantial risk. Risk was something he’d never considered.

Now he knows more and says the kindness of NSP staff has been a great help. “Once I develop a rapport with NSP staff and know they aren’t judging me I feel confident about asking them for advice sometimes,” he says. “The ones who handle the transaction right, by not treating you like you’re an imbecile, they can be really useful. They are worth their weight in gold.”

Royal Abbott