Cassie Vaicekonis: Saying no to drugs is no strategy at all
They are last words which nobody would want for themselves, and which no parent would ever want for their daughter.
“Daniel, I’m f…ed please get me now,” was one of the final text messages 20-year-old Cassandra Vaicekonis sent her boyfriend shortly before being found dead in a spare room at a Bondi Junction party in May of last year.
Cassandra’s death is the subject of an ongoing coronial inquest and full details surrounding her death will emerge over the coming days. At this stage we know that this intelligent and attractive young woman appears to have taken a combination of cocaine, anti-anxiety medication, painkillers, sleeping tablets and alcohol on the night of May 23.
As the inquest continues Cassandra’s friends – principally her boyfriend Daniel Cartwright - will have some explaining to do. While there is no suggestion of criminality, the level of care Cassandra enjoyed from her friends that fateful night was poor, to say the least.
When Cassandra finally passed out after taking some different pills from a blister pack in her purse, her friends made the pretty casual decision to simply carry her into a spare room and leave her there to sleep it off.
She never woke up. The inquest heard that when she was found the following morning “she was blue”.
Aside from hopefully bringing some kind of peace to her grieving family – and addressing the (probably unlikely) prospect of any charges arising from her death – it’s difficult to see what this inquest will achieve for the broader community in the context of the drug debate.
If anything, the death of Cassandra Vaicekonis demonstrates that society is still completely ill-equipped to deal with people who choose to load up on drugs.
The drug debate is one of the most polarised and volatile areas of public policy. There is a seemingly permanent stand-off between the harm minimisation crowd who believe that drug abuse should be treated like drug use – framed around the belief that individuals can make an informed decision to ingest a narcotic and then do so in the safest way possible - and the Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” brigade who are wholly oblivious to the fact that young people have no interest whatsoever in their abstemious sloganeering.
The harm minimisation approach would have done nothing to save Cassandra as the very concept of introducing an element of planning to your drug use runs contrary to the instincts of the young drug-taker. Recklessness and spontaneity are obviously a big part of the drug experience for young people. I doubt that they want the process to feel as routine and pedestrian as picking up a prescription from the chemist after visiting the GP; rather, they want to push themselves as far as they can, and on the spur of the moment.
On the night she died Cassandra had started off drinking at her best friend’s place, before going to parties in the inner west, then a Kings Cross club, before ending up kicking on with friends of her boyfriend at a Bondi Junction unit. There was nothing planned or structured about anything that happened that night, all the decisions that she and her friends made were affected initially by alcohol and, as the night progressed, a lethal combination of other substances.
But if the harm minimisation message would have been lost on her, the Just Say No mantra would have been laughably ineffective. You would think by now that the zero tolerance brigade would have realised that they are largely talking to each other, not young people, as they insist that the only way to beat drugs is to resolve never to take them. You might get a round of applause at a Rotary Club with such a puritanical approach but if you take it to any schoolyard you will come up against a lot of kids who are already taking drugs, and a lot of kids who will inevitably try drugs a few times before they settle down into adulthood.
I’ve just finished reading a new book called The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World, in which author Tom Feiling examines the effectiveness of both approaches in the drug debate, while also providing an incredibly detailed and compelling account of the economics of the drug.
Having copped a fair bit of flak over a column I wrote last year about the drug violence in Mexico, where I said casual coke users in Sydney should take a small bow for contributing through their actions to the sickening bloodshed in that country, Fielding’s book is illustrative in that it documents the creation of a multi-billion-dollar distribution network in Mexico which now services the entire world in meeting demand for cocaine.
But the strongest take-out from his book is that a new approach is obviously required, not just on cocaine but on other narcotics, if we are ever going to stop people from descending into addiction or dying.
Feiling argues that prohibition has been such a failure that there is no point persisting with the ban on cocaine. He doesn’t really spell out how that would work though, and I am stuffed if I can think of a way either. But a good starting point would be for the two camps in the drug debate to try to get together, framed around an admission that nothing seems to be working, and to start afresh.
As for the tragic case of Cassandra Vaicekonis, I wonder whether the anti-drug message is currently too focussed on individual choice, and not focussed enough on a sense of collective responsibility.
Instead of urging young people to say no to drugs, or to think about how they can most safely say yes to drugs, taking a much stronger message to their friends might be a handy new addition to combating this scourge.
The only people somebody like Cassandra would really have listened to on this issue were her own circle of friends – the same people who (you would hope) are now looking into their souls and wondering whether they could have actually done something to avert her death on May 23 last year.
Her death will haunt their conscience forever more. It is something which no sane person would ever want to grapple with as they go through life. Getting that message out to other young people, and urging them to act when they see that a friend is screwing themself up on drugs, would do more to change a young person’s behaviour than any amount of Nancy Reagan-style lecturing that it’s as easy as saying no.
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