Ever Tried Petrol Sniffing? Drug Addiction in Warwick Thornton’s “Samson & Delilah”

Samson & Delilah is not just a love story. It is a story about life in aboriginal communities in Australia, colonisation, dependence, addiction and hope. Two teenagers tell the story of many aborigines: living in the heart of their ancestral lands but at the edge of the Australian society.

Samson is an ordinary aboriginal teenager, living a repetitive life in a remote community near Alice Spring, in Northern Territories, with no parental figures in his life and dependent of petrol sniffing. He is attracted by Delilah. Their love will be born and forged through a series of tragic events. Delilah will help Samson to fight his addiction,  building a life together in a small shed in the middle of the desert away from the “white” man’s city, in a land where “Dreamtime” can born again.

Samson and Delilah desert house ()

As he confesses, for Thornton the universal theme of love was just a pretext. His intention was to talk about the life of the aboriginal communities in Australia where family disintegration, alcohol and drug addiction are social realities.

Addiction and cultural domination

Today in Australia there are around 550 000 Aboriginal people. Almost two thirds live outside big cities and a quarter in remote areas (Australian Bureau of Statistics). Two centuries ago, in 1788, their forty thousand years of history was overturned as the British colons arrived.

All the aboriginal inhabitants were denied any rights to land. A colonial territorial expansion was promoted by creating special reservation for aborigines where they were juridical minors. Parents and children were under the state authority.

Such “assimilation policies” were followed by removal of many Aboriginal children, especially “half-caste” from their families and communities; deporting aboriginal people in special reservations and depriving them of civic rights like voting or free circulation.

Marika Moisseeff, a French ethnologist and psychiatrist for adults and children, argues that one of the direct effects of colonisation was the lost economic and political autonomy by the aboriginal communities that “became encapsulated in the dominant culture; struggling to maintain viable models of identity allowing them to continue to play the role of efficient initiators for the younger generations.” Moisseeff is convinced that that substance dependence of aboriginal teenagers today is “a result of historical contexts of cultural domination, as parents are themselves dependent on welfare”.[1]

Another argument supporting this thesis was brought by an Australian social anthropologist, Dr. Maggie Brady. She found that inhalation of petrol vapours was “rooted in the localities where missions had been established or the reserves whose management was in the care of white officials.” [2] On the contrary, in communities where Aboriginal people were able to maintain traditional ceremonial and a certain degree of independence, even working for the white farmers, petrol sniffing is inexistent.


Petrol sniffing – An aboriginal particularity

If tobacco and alcohol abuses are problems that the entire Australian society fights, petrol sniffing, occasional or chronic, appears to be a practice almost exclusively confined to distinct Indigenous groups from some isolated communities.[3]

Warwick Thornton grew up in Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory, where petrol sniffing or “volatile substance abuse” is a common practice. Thus he gives a lot of attention to Samson’s addiction and the way he uses it as the solution for hunger, boredom, loneliness and pain.

In 2009, in the Northern Territory, a two year study was concluded on young aboriginal attending rehabilitation for petrol sniffing. It found that almost half of the participants were engaged in delinquent behaviour: tampering with vehicles in order to steal petrol, damaging buildings or breaking into food outlets and stealing food. Having started very young, the average age of first petrol use was 13 years, the majority sniffed in groups in order to replace a normal relationship with family or parental figures. The main cause was boredom, followed by group pressure, curiosity, availability of volatile substances, poor academic achievement or poor social adjustment. [4]

In 2013, an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare research paper concluded that nearly all the patients treated for abuse of volatile solvents were identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Also, volatile solvents were the third most common principal drug of concern, accounting for 280 episodes closed in Northern Territory in 2010-2011 for aboriginal and non-aboriginal clients.

Beside the “drunkenness” effect, the euphoria, relaxation, dizziness and hunger suppressing, petrol sniffing causes brain dysfunction and decline of cognitive functions. For example, acquired brain injury from petrol sniffing was reported to be the single biggest cause of disability in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara lands of South Australia.

Finding solutions

The responsibility for the aboriginals’ situation today still haunts the Australian society even two centuries after the British Empire’s brutal colonisation. Therefore, an impressive number of programs addressing the addiction problems in the aboriginal communities have been conducted and financed by Australian Government at both national and regional levels.

Nevertheless, as a report, submitted to the Australian Parliament in 2002, reveals: “the most successful strategies are initiated by the community, enjoy widespread community support and involve strong participation of community members.”

Mt Theo – Board meeting and strategic planning

An excellent example is Mt Theo Program, conducted in Yuendemu, a remote Aboriginal community 300 km northwest of Alice Springs. This program reduced the number of petrol sniffers in the community from seventy to zero over a nine-year period.

The key factors involved in the impressive achievements of the Program, identified by Karissa Preuss and Jean Napanangka Brown are its “multi-faceted nature, the strong community support and impliction, the cross-cultural relationships supporting it and an ability to move beyond crisis intervention.”[5]

The petrol sniffing remains an important problem for the aboriginal communities in Australia, but a combined effort and close cooperation between the Australian authorities and the concerned communities can lead to a swing in the aboriginals’ fate. The way Thornton ends his “Samson and Delilah” is a good illustration of the aboriginal confident regard toward their future.

[1] Moisseeff, Marika. « Dépendance nourricière et domination culturelle » , Psychotropes 3/2004 (Vol. 10), p. 31-50.

[2] Brady, Maggie. Heavy Metal. The Social Meaning of Petrol Sniffing in Australia – Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press (1992)

[3] Cairney S, Dingwall KM. “The mysterious practice of petrol sniffing in isolated Indigenous groups. » Journal of Paediatrics & Child Health. Sep 2010, Vol. 46 Issue 9, p510-515. 6p.

[4] DINGWALL, K. M., MARUFF, P., CLOUGH, A. R. and CAIRNEY, S. , “Factors associated with continued solvent use in Indigenous petrol sniffers following treatment.” Drug and Alcohol Review, 2012 no. 31: 40–46

[5] Preuss K, Brown JN.  “Stopping petrol sniffing in remote Aboriginal Australia: key elements of the Mt Theo Program”.  Drug Alcohol Rev. 2006; 25: 189–93.

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