The doormat is wet when Nicole* looks down. It’s been raining, and she hasn’t changed her sweaty coloured shirt in three (gruelling) days. It’s been a particularly volatile campaign but her side has won. Nicole is happy. She thinks she’s happy – it’s her first student political victory and she’s starting to get caught up in the thrill. She understands the appeal of “stupol” now, but she’s wary.
Nicole walks into a kaleidoscopic room. It’s messy but not decrepit and the music is almost overbearing. Her eyes dart around, unsure of what to settle on. Bodies blur; mouths move as if controlled by geared mechanics, smiling, emitting pleasantries. It was quieter at the pub they came from, more hesitant even, as they had wait- ed in trepidation for results. But this is different. There’s an ecstasy-fuelled splendour in the air.
Or is it MDMA-fuelled? She barely has time to consider the differences between the two before she’s pulled into a dance circle that’s rapidly spiralling out of control.
Someone shouts in her face and she looks into their dinnerplate eyes.
“Why aren’t you on caps?”
It’s a refrain that becomes more common as the night progresses. Sometimes it’s shouted, other times asked with suspicion, and yet other times as gentle encouragement. Each time she declines with quiet conviction, and even though she takes solace amongst her close friends who have similarly rebuffed offers of illicit drugs, she can’t help but feel slightly uncomfortable in a space where she is a Conscientious Objector.
Britney Spears is serenading the partygoers now into a “new era”, a new page in stupol. Nicole philosophises on a seat outside.
This is the first, but not the last time this will happen.
What made us first interested in stories like Nicole’s were the whispers we had heard after entering factional student politics last year.**
In passing mentions and unvoiced nuances, we heard tales of the broad left’s “party days” – “party”, of course, being a thinly veiled euphemism for “drug-fuelled”.
“Back in those days…” and “it’s not like that anymore” bookended our understanding of the pulsating drug culture that existed in a time before our time, for in the student political arena every few years signifies an overturn of generations.
“Everything I had imagined in Year 9 watching Skins was definitely present in the way parties would happen,” says Lucy*, a student who’s been instrumental in several student political elections, as well as having herself served as an SRC councillor. We are hidden away in a corner behind Eastern Avenue and it is early, too early for anyone to see us.
“So many people would be on caps,” she continues. “Even when people were just hanging out casually in a group, everyone would be smoking weed. There was a very blasé attitude towards drugs.”
Lucy recalls one of her own first experiences. She was with friends at a quiet birthday party for a person in the faction she was involved with at that time when a senior Grassroots member approached them and offered them MDMA.
“I was still undecided. Mainly because, in a very ‘good girl’ way, I wasn’t sure if that was ‘me’.” The member enticed them with the allure of fun, and also promised to walk them through the entire chemical process.
“I felt a little bit coerced, but it’s definitely not in the way that you get told in PE in high school. It was because this was someone who I looked up to and I know cared about me, and wouldn’t put me in a position where I was unsafe.
“It seemed like a comfortable environment where I could experiment.”
This sentiment is shared by Sophie*, who perhaps felt more coerced than Lucy. Sophie’s relative distance from student politics, having only been involved in campaigns tangentially through her friends, meant she had never witnessed a “stu- pol” party. All of her friends, however, had first used MDMA there, and now – ostensibly wanting her to achieve the same plane of experience – urged her to take it with them. “You’ll have the best night of your life,” they told her. But Sophie was nervous, having only been exposed to “mainstream narratives of it being a really dangerous thing to take”.
And thus her first impression of the drug culture in the broad left was one of pressure, shaped by the belief that she would be left out if she didn’t join in.
“I felt really intimidated by it,” she says.
Eventually, she found herself at her first stupol party. “I was definitely the most nervous of my group,” she confesses to us, her anxiety only exacerbated by other members’ encouragement, egging her on to take MDMA for the first time.
Distanced from her friends’ encouragement, she found herself in a room with a fairly “big name on campus”.
“I feel really, really nervous. What if I die?” she asked.
The reply came swiftly: “There is no-one here who is so scared of authority that they wouldn’t call an ambulance.” Older students also supported first-time MDMA users with constant checkups throughout the night; bringing them water, checking on their energy levels. Despite her initial anxiety, Sophie came to believe that a stupol party was one of the safest places for drug use.
Part of the reason she felt safe was the seniority of the students who were supplying the substances. However, just as their social standing allows others to trust them and feel at ease with their experiences, they can also be the ones perpetuating the issue of a problematic drug culture. While she doesn’t accuse older students of consciously encouraging younger peers to participate in the culture, Sophie believes the “cults of personality” that stupol crafts inherently pave the path for more well-known figures to act as role models.
“Drugs become an avenue of relating to people who are older than us, and people we admire.”
Sophie believes the underlying cause beneath the culture of drug-taking stems from the way student politicians perceive substance use and authority. Drawing off the “ambulance” remark from before, she says the personal connections within the community outweigh the associated risks and fears of authority. “Everybody is quite close, everybody really cares about things deeply,” she notes. “There’s a very deep sense of intimacy I’d say, and I think people see drugs as something which enhances that.”
Despite Lucy and Sophie’s experiences stem- ming from different arenas of USyd’s left-wing activist environment, they seem to corroborate in many ways. Just as Sophie affirms her trust in the safety of a stupol environment, so too Lucy recalls one particular incident fondly.
“I hadn’t spoken to two of my best friends in ages as we’d had a falling out and we were all high on this bed cuddling and appreciating each other’s friendships,” she says with a barely contained smile playing on her lips.
“These two or three other women then came over to check that we were okay and consenting. It was sweet. Unnecessary, but sweet that they were looking out for me in a way that was almost too cautious.”
However, Lucy said during her time in student activism, senior factional members’ generally greater access to substances generated some logical concerns. “Drugs were becoming a coercive tool that was giving some members of the group more power than other members of the group,” she explains. The social capital afforded to the members who typically supplied drugs at events became a common topic discussed at factional meetings.
She also thinks drug use is “inevitably going to trickle down” from senior members who just want to enjoy caps or a joint with their close friends, mostly from their faction, to “newer members who will think that it’s part of being included”.
After her time in the scene, she struggles to come up with a solution. “The only way I can imagine the drug culture not existing is if, almost perversely, senior members restricted themselves from taking drugs at factional events – which would be weird and involve some kind of self-policing.
Throughout our interviews we hear that the constant refrain of “no pressure” echoed by proponents of drug-takers at these factional events alleviated first-time users’ anxiety. Trent,* an independent who has been involved in SRC and USU campaigns for the broad left over the past two years, sees this in a less positive light.
“At a party I was at a while ago, a senior fig- ure in stupol approached some first years with MDMA, but some of them expressed hesitation – ‘it’s my first time’; ‘I have bad anxiety and I’m not sure how that would interact with it’.”
Trent describes how the senior member, pref- acing each statement with “I’m not pressuring you at all”, then spent five minutes explaining to them that he had never had any ill-effects of using the drugs and that it would be “the best time of their lives”. Although Trent believes this reassurance was generally well intentioned, he also thinks it may be unconsciously coercive – especially in a context where people may feel alienated if they don’t want to participate in the drug culture.
In this instance, Trent saw the older student’s reassurance lead to some of the students trying the substance – and becoming very distressed under its influence.
Tom,* the most senior figure within student politics who we interviewed, disagrees Like Sophie, he acknowledges that hierarchies within student politics have been unconsciously rein- forced by the drug culture, but stresses it’s unfair to criticise those at the top whose personal choices may have incidentally come to influence others.
“We have to respect that this is university and it’s a time for learning and experimentation for a lot of people,” he says.
Tom was instrumental in his own first experience with drugs, which occurred after his first major campaign win. He captures the excitement he felt as he recounts the experience of encouraging older students to take MDMA with him, but sobers as he explains that the experience came after a “traumatic” campaign.
This pattern became quite common for him for a period of time, as he believes he started using MDMA frequently to deal with distressing periods of his life. “I wanted to run away from my problems,” he says.
This is a common thread amongst users of illicit substances in student politics, one that Lucy also identifies. “I think that people in the broad left can have a really tough time of it,” she explains, “and I think drugs can be a really easy way to deal with that.”
“But more than that…it’s also about projecting an image of what we need to look like, as activists.” And so we circle back to the glamorisation of drug culture not just from popular media, but also from the notes of history. “A lot of narrativising around what the 70s was like still exists,” she tells us, and instantly we understand the aesthetic that is still perpetuated by leftist legends of communes and passionate protests and rage-fuelled celebrations.
There also seems to be a preference, in some people, for using illicit substances over alcohol. Sophie leans back recounting conversations at parties where people spoke at length about how they don’t drink alcohol because of the type of “drunk” person they are – sad, aggressive – but how MDMA or other illicits make them feel good. “I found that once people get into this drug culture, they become very, very reliant on it.”
Unfortunately for them, there’s no bottle shop for illicit substances.
Sophie thinks for a minute, her eyes creasing at the edges. “I think the consequence of that is that I know quite a few people who will be on a night out, have no access to things like caps, and they’ll be like ‘oh, let’s just crush a whole lot of ’ – what’s that stuff called? – ‘Sudafed’… They’re like, ‘it makes you jittery’.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Sophie’s guilt in partaking in the culture doesn’t come from breaking the law, or the rules instilled in her by PE teachers and Healthy Harold, but from the very thing that first enticed her into the culture: the safety of taking drugs with the very particular people in student politics.
She sees the idea of having access to “clean drugs” – whose sources are known by the people around you – as a privilege.
“There’s a privilege in knowing that the peo- ple around you probably won’t get into trouble if they did take you to the hospital, and I certainly feel very guilty a lot of the time about partaking in a culture that I think disproportionately affects people who are disadvantaged and don’t have that privilege.
“And I think that’s something that, given these are groups that care about social justice, and care about the discourses around privilege, isn’t discussed enough.”
More than a year after Nicole first sat outside, philosophising to the tune of early 2000s pop hits, she’s sitting opposite us, brazen and unashamed. What ultimately makes her testimony so brutally honest is her belief the drug culture was not isolated within itself, but actually manifested in other areas of its participants’ lifestyles, lifestyles she saw perpetuated by a significant portion of her left-wing student activist friends.
“I had to arrive at their parties early,” she recounts. “Their house was so dirty…it was a terrace and it was just filthy. I had to physically clean up the house before parties and clear away belongings, otherwise they would’ve been stolen, strewn around on the floor of the living room… There’s just so much dysfunction.”
After her first experience, she began to buy into the culture, despite her misgivings, spend- ing more and more of her time with certain people who had regular and frequent substance abuse habits. But she was one of the few who successfully extricated themselves. “I was lying on the grass on the front lawn and I was so faded,” she says recalling her epiphany. “I was itchy from the grass, but I was scratching my back on the grass. I realised that I needed to stop putting myself in those situations because that wasn’t who I was. That house was fucked… my friends were too far gone. I didn’t recognise them as the people I first met.”
Not everyone was so lucky, however. And while it’s apparent that a certain level of respect should be given to individuals’ choices regarding consensual drug use, it’s only when Nicole tells us this last story that we realise the rampant drug culture within student politics is a zero-sum game.
“I was going to get my groceries one day and I saw someone who I knew from my stupol days, crying in the middle of the street.
“I have no doubt that it was his weekly substance use – substance abuse – that put the nail in the coffin.”
The drug culture experienced by the broad left mere elections ago has come and gone… or, perhaps has just spread to other campus groups. As the influence of political organisations like Grassroots has shrunk, the power plays of dealers and first-timers can now be seen replicated across closing night parties and debating tournaments.
Out out of everyone we spoke to, perhaps it is Shoshanna* who best summarises the “party days”. Having been involved in the broad left since campaigning for JAM for Honi in 2012, she’s seen more student elections than most – yet she’s surprisingly concise.
“It’s an intense environment,” she says, describing the left-wing bubble at USYD. “I think those who choose to get involved are often under immense amounts of pressure to success. Win or lose, drugs tend to be an easy way to get release from that pressure.”
*Names have been changed.
**Siobhan Ryan and Michael Sun are both members of Grassroots.