May 2013 M T W T F S S « Feb 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31
Are you aged 16- 20?
Do you live in West Pilton?
Can you spend 45 minutes to tell me what it’s like growing up and living here?
£10 will be paid for your time.
I want to interview young people, aged 16-20, to find out about their experiences of becoming adult in Pilton. The interviews will take around 30-45 minutes.
The interviews will be totally confidential and no personal details, including your names, will be shared with anyone outside the interviews.
All interviews will be held on the premises of Edinburgh’s Telford College, Granton Campus or Pilton Youth and Children’s Project. A fee of £10 will be paid to each volunteer once the interview has been conducted.
If you are willing to take part, please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or call me on 0750 5081784.
This study is part of my PhD degree in the Department of Geography, Education and Development Studies, Birkbeck, University of London. The study has received ethical approval and is supervised by Dr. Paul Watt who may be contacted at: Department of Geography, Education and Development Studies, BIRKBECK, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX, Tel: 020 7631 6000.
Earlier this month I went to an anti-poverty conference in North Edinburgh. It was great to see so many people from disadvantaged communities not giving up but, rather, challenging the status quo of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ which characterises our society.
And I am inspired also by the protesters in St. Andrew’s Square, Edinburgh and across the UK and other countries who are bringing into mainstream discussion – at last! – the unacceptability of the increasing gap between rich and poor.
First among major UK politicians, Ed Miliband in his conference speech (which received fairly mixed reviews) raised this issue and he even linked it to the unrest that led to riots in England earlier this year. In government, however, New Labour advanced the neoliberal market agenda. Albeit that they introduced worthwhile schemes targeted at specific individuals and communities, they didn’t want to tinker with addressing structural economic inequalities. Indeed, politicians like Mandelson seemed to revel in encouraging greed and excess for people at the top. (And remember, I’m only talking here about our UK context; the situation becomes even more extreme when we consider the global situation.)
This week the High Pay Commission described the high salaries of UK executives as “corrosive” to the economy. Stating that the disparity between what top executives and average workers earn has been building for 30 years, it drew up a 12-point plan to stop “high pay creating inequalities last seen in the Victorian era”. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, said he would be “looking seriously” at the proposals.
Let’s hope he does but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Because the political establishment has presided over and even encouraged a situation where, for example, the pay of top executives at a number of FTSE companies had risen by more than 4,000% on average in the last 30 years.
In the companies’ defence, Richard Evans, president of PepsiCo in the UK and Irish Republic, told the BBC:
“If we want great people to come and work in the UK, given it’s a global talent pool, we’ve got to be prepared to pay the amount of money that those executives can get elsewhere in the world”.
To which I say, follow the St. Andrew’s Square protesters’ example. Don’t buy any of Pepsico UK’s brands. These include: Walker’s Crisps, Doritos, red Sky, Sunbites, Quaker Oats, Scott’s Porage Oats, Tropicana, Pepsi MAX, 7UP, Gatorade, Planet Lunch, Copella, SoBe V-Water. (I have to admit that it won’t be a big sacrifice for me not to purchase anything from this unhealthy list!)
Protest loudly. Lobby politicians. Don’t let David Cameron say that we’re ‘in it together’ while pay for directors of the UK’s top businesses has risen by 50% over the past year, to an average of around £2.7m. If you’re working in the much maligned public sector, strike on 30th November.
And snap out of complacency.
To return to the North Edinburgh Poverty conference that I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, one of the things that most moved me was when an old woman, describing her experience in her ‘ice box’ flat, suggested to others, as a way of managing their fuel bills, that they follow her example and make up a flask of tea or coffee first thing in the morning so that they won’t have to boil the kettle more than once a day. I met a few days later with a friend and expressed my disgust at the unacceptability of such a situation. His response was that there was no ‘real reason’ for anyone to be worried about being able to afford to boil a kettle.
But they are.
And that’s ‘real’.
Noone can fail to have been shocked by the events that we’ve seen in London and elsewhere this week. And it goes without saying that the actions of those involved are inexcusable. Also, that demoralised, under-resourced police officers are having to struggle to re-establish the public order and safety that all people in our communities deserve.
David Cameron was wrong however to describe the situation as “plain and simple”; it’s anything but. I hope that when this is done we can reflect and reprioritise prevention and early intervention activities with communities and individuals who have become increasingly disengaged. Yes, wrongdoers should certainly be punished but we need to look at how to rehabilitate young people who have done wrong. We also need to recognise that disinvestment in youth and community services may save money in the short term but it can, at least indirectly, lead to exactly the kinds of circumstances we’ve had this week.
I lived in Lambeth for a long time and until recently I was working with the Lambeth Crime Prevention Trust in Brixton, one of the ‘hot spots’. This agency engaged many young people in meaningful leisure and community activities and provided education about being a citizen, avoiding knife crime, resisting peer pressure etc. However, it wasn’t deemed to be a priority service and consequently it lost its funding and closed down in March this year.
Closer to my current home, in Edinburgh the ‘North Edinburgh News’, a community charity based in Pilton which promoted positive views about the disadvantaged areas it covered and was able to provide a whole range of community information and to support networking also lost its funding and closed in March this year. It would have needed £30K per year to continue.
In no way should we condone the violence and looting. However, we do need to try to understand and consider how we are running our society and what priorities we have within it. As a final point on this really sad blog, when I saw the scenes from Clapham Junction on Tuesday night I was reminded of Polly Toynbee’s description when she undertook an experiment, flawed of course because she always had the option to go back to her ‘real’ life, of trying to live on the minimum wage in Clapham Park estate. Her overwhelming experience was of feeling excluded from an individualistic, materialistic society where we and others assess our worth based on what we own; the Arding & Hobbs store she described in the following extract subsequently became the Debenham’s store that was ransacked on Monday.
“Well-worn and familiar tracts of the city devoted to pleasure, art, eating, clothes and shopping disappeared of my map. Why wander down the King’s Road when everything there is denied to you? Oxford Street and Regent Street vanished from my route. So did Clapham Junction and Arding and Hobbs. So did Shaftesbury Avenue, the National Theatre, the Albert Hall and the Barbican. Wherever I walked, everything I passed was out of bounds, things belonging to other people but not to me. No Starbucks sofas beckoned any more, no Borders bookshop, no restaurants, not even the most humble cafe. This is what ‘exclusion’ means, if you ever wondered at this modern wider definition of poverty. It is a large No Entry sign on every modern pleasure. No Entry to the consumer society where the rest of us live. It is a harsh apartheid. Exclusion makes the urban landscape a forbidding place where every brightly lit shop doorway designed to welcome you in to buy, buy, buy is slammed shut to one-third of the population. Shopping for the meanest food staples under rigorous cost-controls is no fun, and it becomes less so every time.”
Toynbee, Polly (2003) Hard Work: Life in Low-Pay Britain London: Bloomsbury Publishing
I am frustrated by the lack of clarity which politicians, journalists and other commentators demonstrate when talking about legal options in relation to drug use, often confusing arguments for decriminalisation of penalties with legalisation. Although people have different perspectives about the way forward, any claims of certainty about outcomes which relate to drug policy must be treated with a huge degree of scepticism. Without the possibility of having a control group to compare against, causality is impossible to measure. However, it is clear that decriminalisation of penalties for personal drug use is consistent with UN Conventions and guidance:
“Serious offences, such as trafficking in illicit drugs, must be dealt with more severely and extensively than offences such as possession of drugs for personal use. In this respect, it is clear that the use of non-custodial measures and treatment programmes for offences involving possession for personal use of drugs offer a more proportionate response and the more effective administration of justice” (Costa, A.M. 2010, p.7).
The official Commentary to the 1988 UN Convention states: “It will be noted that, as with the 1961 and 1971 Conventions, paragraph 2 does not require drug consumption as such to be established as a punishable offence”. The Commentary suggests establishing a strategy regarding the range of offences relating to personal use, similar to that practised by many states, in which such offences are distinguished from those of a more serious nature by a threshold in terms, for example, of weight. However, different countries, while embracing the concept of separating out less serious from more serious offences, have established national arrangements specific to their own setting. Some countries have opted to decriminalise personal drug use, shifting to administrative rather than criminal sanctions. Others instead have opted for a policy of depenalisation, whereby they cease to apply criminal or administrative sanctions, though the laws still exist to prohibit activities. Legalisation has not been adopted by any country and would be a clear breach of UN Conventions. Thus, for example, in Portugal possession of a small quantity of drugs for personal use has been completely decriminalised, whereas in other countries the approach has been not to decriminalise but simply to treat the offence as a low priority for law enforcement. For example, in the Netherlands, Germany and the Czech Republic, possession for personal use remains unlawful, but guidelines are established for police, public prosecutors and courts to avoid imposing any punishment, including fines, if the amount is considered to be insignificant or for personal consumption. Very few EU countries (Sweden, Latvia, Cyprus) exercise the option to impose prison sentences for possession of small amounts.
Antonio Costa, former UNODC Executive Director has argued eloquently against the criminalising and incarceration of people with drug problems (Costa, A.M. 2010). According to Costa, incarceration in prison and confinement in compulsory drug treatment centres often worsens the already problematic lives of drug users and drug dependent individuals, particularly the youngest and most vulnerable. Exposure to the prison environment facilitates affiliation with older criminals and criminal gangs and organizations. It also increases stigma and helps to form a criminal identity. It often increases social exclusion, worsens health conditions and reduces social skills.
Hughes and Stevens (2010) have argued that most studies have found there are no significant increases in use as a result of decriminalisation. They have also suggested that it is difficult to make any certain judgment on the effects of decriminalisation on drug use, given the absence of adequate comparators. However, the financial and other costs associated with a focus on law enforcement and incarceration can be high and reducing the cost of arresting and punishing drug users would enable resources to be focused on maximising the other factors that protect against drug abuse, such as prevention and treatment. It has been argued that one of the biggest impacts of changes in the law has been the reduction of pressure on overburdened penal systems and prison overcrowding (Jelsma, M. 2009). A study which considered data from the Netherlands, United States, Australia and Italy concluded that the removal of criminal penalties appeared to produce positive but slight impacts. The primary impact was reducing the burden and cost in the criminal justice system. This also reduced the intrusiveness of criminal justice responses to users (Hughes, C.A. & Stevens, A. 2010, P. 1000).
It is important to note, however, that there is little evidence that the removal of criminal penalties on its own will be likely to lead to significant increases or decreases in the overall prevalence of drug use or drug-related health harms (Hughes, C.A. & Stevens, A. 2010, P. 1000). The Portuguese experience has been arguably the most studied example of drug policy review. Portugal is the only country which has fully decriminalised personal drug use (in 2001) and it has reported outcomes which include reductions in drug use among young people and reductions in use of opiates, the most problematic type of usage. It has also noted the lack of negative outcomes, such as increased street drug use or drug tourism. However, the Portuguese legislative changes cannot be considered in isolation from the country’s corresponding investment in a range of social and health support services, intended to offer support to drug users where it is needed, while retaining the intention to deter drug use. The Portuguese evidence suggests that combining the removal of criminal penalties with the use of alternative therapeutic responses to dependent drug users offers several advantages. It can reduce the burden of drug law enforcement on the criminal justice system, while also reducing problematic drug use. Outcomes that have been reported include:
Opponents of the legal change had expressed concerns that decriminalisation would lead to mass expansion of the drug market in Portugal. This did not happen and, in contrast with market expansions in neighbouring Spain, the numbers of problematic drug users and the burden on the criminal justice system in Portugal have reduced. It is not possible to state that any of these changes were the direct result of the decriminalisation policy. However, it is clear from the Portuguese experience that decriminalisation does not necessarily lead to increases in the most harmful forms of drug use. While small increases in drug use were reported by Portuguese adults, this was arguably less important than the major reductions in opiate-related deaths and infections, as well as reductions in young people’s drug use. Other countries, such as Sweden and Switzerland, though adopting different legislative approaches, have also claimed successful outcomes from their drug policies but, as with Portugal, these countries’ substantial investments in health and social care services must be considered as at least as important as the legal framework.
Costa, A.M., 2010. Drug control, crime prevention and criminal justice: A Human Rights perspective: Note by the Executive Director UNODC, Vienna: Commission on Narcotic Drugs, 53rd session.
Hughes, C.A. & Stevens, A., 2010. What can we learn from the Portuguese decriminalization of illicit drugs? British Journal of Criminology, 50, Pp. 999-1022.
Jelsma, M., 2009. Legislative Innovation in Drug Policy:Latin American Initiative on Drugs and Democracy, Amsterdam: Transnational Institute.
I was really excited and honoured recently to chair a side event on Recovery at this year’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna. I’ve been learning a lot in the past few months through my involvement as a volunteer with Wired In. I’ve had opportunities to listen to the experiences and challenges of people who are recovering not only from addiction problems but from many difficult life experiences. They want and are planning to manage their recovery, not passive recipients of drug treatment, rather, mapping out positive life futures. Drug treatment and other social services and stronger communities can support this, they can’t deliver it. It seems fundamental but it is revolutionary and it’s about hope not hopelessness. It requires a systemic rethink, based on listening to and trusting communities and learning from people in recovery.
The Wired In website – www.wiredin.co.uk – supports an increasingly empowered community of people in recovery, supporting each other, exchanging ideas, challenging the traditional way drug and alcohol treatment services have been provided, emphasising that people with drug and alcohol problems are the experts who are best placed to map out and manage their recovery. Many people in recovery are talking about how drugs and alcohol had always been the focus of their lives and how that’s changing so that their focus is becoming not just about what treatment they get; rather, it’s about how they become integrated into their communities, how their communities change to support that and how they contribute as full members of their communities. And this movement is growing within communities and across countries.
When we think about the problems that people have with drugs and alcohol, we know that problematic drug and alcohol use almost always comes with a whole lot of accompaniments – family breakdowns, abuse, violence, housing difficulties, involvement with criminals and the criminal justice system, financial problems and poverty, social exclusion. We all need support in recovering from that. We all need to recover from the challenges we experience as we go through life. I was in Glasgow last week. I always visit this city with somewhat mixed emotions; I haven’t been there very often recently. I grew up there and have very fond memories of visits to the Kelvin Hall at Christmas and to the Citizens Theatre where I remember a memorable Hamlet set in a mental hospital. However, I also remember when I was very young being frightened of a very drunk man slavering up against our car window. I also remember the sectarianism, which sadly continues to this day – bombs to Celtic supporters! – so that it wouldn’t be unusual for me, even at the age of 48, to be asked which school I went to. (St. Patrick’s it was – no hiding one’s religion and cultural background with that one.) I can appreciate Glasgow’s incredible architecture and history and the great wit and culture of its people. However, we’re never just professionals or academics or just private individuals, nor are we ever only addicts; as individuals, we’re part of communities and as individuals and as communities we need to and can recover together from all the difficulties we encounter. I guess Glasgow makes me reflect and reframe; thus my ambivalence towards the place.
Following on from this, there seems to me to be a huge and continuing gap between how we frame the context within which drug and alcohol addictions and other social problems occur and the policy responses to it. The UK Employment Minister, Chris Grayling, was on the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning talking about the government’s plans to introduce a payment by results scheme for services delivered for people with drug and alcohol problems. Regardless of whether the government’s motivation is essentially ideological and about cost-cutting, it’s undoubtedly correct that there needs to be more emphasis on delivery of outcomes from treatment. However, recovery communities need to be trusted and supported to grow and they need to be engaged fully in a process to define what successful outcomes look like and to plan how people can be supported to achieve them. Within a new framework, clinicians need to be less arrogant and politicians less ideological and simplistic to recognise that addiction is a chronic long term health condition and that treatment can only ever contribute to delivering recovery, it can’t deliver it – individuals supported within and working as part of communities do that. Just as the law on its own can’t prevent drug problems – for example, drug use patterns in San Francisco and Amsterdam, with strikingly different legal arrangements, are remarkably similar, indicating perhaps the irrelevance of drug laws to people’s behaviours – neither can treatment on its own. And moreover, just as a treatment service which opts to work with complex drug or alcohol users rather than “cherry picking” more likely “successes”, should not be automatically deemed as failing, coming off drugs and alcohol on its own should not be deemed to be a success. Nor indeed should being employed. You can be employed and still be poor, unfulfilled, unloved and unappreciated, lonely and isolated.
I believe that there’s a very positive debate currently going on in the general public about how we re-build our communities and develop community solutions across all areas of our lives, rather than simply pathologising and blaming individuals for problems such as drug and alcohol misuse (or indeed unemployment) and penalising them. Wired In is one example of a network that is demonstrating the high aspirations of people in recovery, celebrating achievements and showing the way forward. But our politicians still have a long way to go to appreciate and embrace the full meaning of recovery, rather than just using the word as a rhetorical tool.
I greatly respect and usually agree with Evan Harris and I know that he has actively championed measures to make LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people less unequal. However, I’m afraid that he (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/political-science/2011/jan/25/political-science-evan-harris-advisory-committees) and other “liberal” commentators are wrong when they take issue with the appointment of Hans-Christian Raabe to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) on the basis of his not being clinically qualified (which I find odd, as a practising GP he must bring useful perspectives), but don’t consider that his and his colleagues’ odious and highly unscientific views about LGBT people are relevant.
Evan and others are colluding with a position where it is acceptable to hold and express repellent views about the LGBT minority which they would find unacceptable, were they to be expressed about other groups, such as women (even at Sky, ask Andy Gray) or black people (ask any non-Daily Mail reader).
Previously, when discussing drug classification, the ACMD considered at length its role in giving out public signals, especially to young people, about harms of different drugs and usually concluded that it was important to take this into consideration. Well, with this appointment and many of the arguments being voiced about it LGBT young people and others are being sent a clear signal. Imagine, if you can, an argument being made that it didn’t matter whether a fellow committee member had linked black people with paedophiles, it’s the committee member’s professional experience that counts, anything else is irrelevant. It simply wouldn’t happen if suggested links with paedophilia had informed prejudiced public discourses about black people, as they have done for many years in relation to gay men.
Of course, Melanie Phillips has waded in to express her concern about the ‘demonised’ Christian community, echoing previously voiced concerns by Dr. Raabe himself (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1349951/Gayness-mandatory-schools-Gay-victims-prejudice-new-McCarthyites.html). This woman has the uncanny ability to articulate the polar opposite of what I usually believe, despite her alleged concern about many of the same issues which worry me, issues that affect young people and communities, including drugs and alcohol, violence, bullying, anti-social behaviour, community engagement and responsibility.
Many of my family and friends would consider themselves to be Christians but they would hold no truck with the homophobic bigots who have colonised Christian public discourse. Melanie, however, trades on being extreme and controversial; it sells papers. But promotion of such views also damages people’s lives and leads to bullying and in still too many cases, depression, self harm and suicide. However, though unacceptable, in a way it’s easier to deal with than the acceptance and normalisation by usually unprejudiced people of the bigoted positions of others.
I was in a seminar last week where someone was sounding off about what she perceived as the unacceptability of discussion of religion in social situations nowadays. Without any irony, she suggested that religion had become “The love that dare not speak its name”. I wish Oscar Wilde were here to respond to such rubbish. Every day LGBT people and women are treated to bigoted argumentations based on asserted religious beliefs about how we should conduct our lives and what rights we should or shouldn’t have.
And to get back to the ACMD, ideally, it should be a committee with the best representation of scientists, researchers and professionals for it to give good advice about drugs, with a public health focus. Dr Raabe has co-authored a vile paper that asserted:
“Any attempts to legalise gay marriage should be aware of the link between homosexuality and paedophilia. While the majority of homosexuals are not involved in paedophilia, it is of grave concern that there is a disproportionately greater number of homosexuals among paedophiles and an overlap between the gay movement and the movement to make paedophilia acceptable.” http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/homosexuality/ho0095.html
Being a member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is an important public office. It should not be acceptable to hold such an office and to express and publish offensive statements against LGBT people or any other minority group.
The Foyer Federation has just published my report based on focus groups and interviews with their young residents. This was a great and really enjoyable project. These really interesting young people who have had disruptions that I never had to negotiate at such an early age told me about how they could become and remain resilient, not just to survive but to overcome their problems and disadvantages and to do well and to contribute to society. Good communication was vitally important for them to be able to assess their situations and to put realistic plans in place to manage them. This included countering the stigma and prejudice which they felt from other people. Despite their disadvantages, all of the young people I met described what made them feel good about themselves and hopeful about the future and gave suggestions about how the Foyers could support that. The lessons are transferrable to other settings. For me, it was really striking that after feeling safe and secure, the most important thing in helping them to do well was the informal communication they experienced with other people, “How are you?”, “Did you do what you were telling me about last week?”, “Your hair looks nice today”, “Can I help?”. Not difficult really. The report is available here: http://www.foyer.net/pdf/Feeling_Good.pdf
The UK Coalition’s Government’s moves on housing benefit reinforce a culture of individualism and emphasise the ‘right’ of honest, hard-working people to live in the centre of London, as opposed to the ‘wastrels’ on housing benefit who are currently being subsidised to live there. Let’s forget that many people on housing benefit work hard but are not paid a living wage. Let’s also ignore the fact that benefits support people with disabilities, mental health problems, drug and alcohol problems and carers. Far easier to tar them all in the mediaeval tradition as “undeserving poor”.
I watched Question Time last night and heard the Lib Dem Ed Davey continually repeat that we are paying these people £20,000 and that this is unacceptable. He missed the point. They don’t get to keep the money. They pay it to their landlords to keep a roof over their heads. What has been unacceptable is that since the 1980s a succession of Governments has given way to unrestricted market forces in the housing sector so that, without state subsidy, ordinary working class people can’t afford to live in the centre of London. It started with the selling off of council houses; this was for me always a wrong and immoral policy, designed to appeal to individuals’ greed and self interest. Many people were caught up with the opportunity and did it; many felt pressurised into it as the incentives to buy were overwhelmingly better than those to remain as a tenant.
Lots of research from the USA and the UK has emphasised the importance of maintaining and supporting mixed neighbourhoods to prevent and reduce social exclusion. The option to buy your council house should never have been provided. Central London has been a no-man’s land for people like me to buy in for many years. Because the unfettered attitude to the market continues with the Coalition Government, along with a willingness, nay an eagerness to stereotype and blame the most unfortunate not only for their own woes but for our entire society’s crises, central London is now going to be even more of a rich ghetto as many of those who have lived there renting for many years are now going to have to leave their homes to be moved out to less expensive suburbs and satellite towns. These, in turn ,will become poor ghettos.
Related to this, I’ve been reading ‘The History of Manners’ by Norbert Elias, written in the 1930s before his parents were gassed by the Nazis and with a really interesting new introduction to an edition published in 1968. (However, it wasn’t translated into English until 1978.) Elias argues that we need to move away from our perception of “the individual” or “ society” as fixed states and instead recognise that we exist through the ever-changing “social dances” that we engage in with our fellow human beings. Norbert describes:
“ the image of man as an “open personality” who possesses a greater or lesser degree of relative (but never absolute and total) autonomy vis a vis other people and who is, in fact, fundamentally oriented toward and dependent on other people throughout his life. The network of interdependencies among human beings is what binds them together. Such interdependencies are the nexus of what is here called the figuration, a structure of mutually oriented and dependent people. Since people are more or less dependent on each other first by nature and then through social learning, through education, socialization, and socially generated reciprocal needs, they exist, one might venture to say, only as pluralities, only in figurations.”
Mixed communities are essential so that we can engage in Norbert’s “social dances”, the interactions that define us as human beings. Previous governments have failed to recognise this and by encouraging individualism and self interest and upholding the precedence of market forces the current UK government is sounding the death knell for mixed communities in central London and causing more social exclusion. Not really such a “Big Society”, is it? Nobody would argue that the system didn’t need to be looked at. However, the current moves don’t hurt the rich. They will still be able to charge high rental prices for central London properties – and, even better, they’ll be able to get more “desirable” tenants.
I’ve just moved to Edinburgh where I’m going to be doing my front line research over the next 3 years. By chance, I was delighted to turn on BBC4 this week and see Rob Bartlett, who was one of my tutors when I studied mediaeval and early modern history a long time ago. Rob was always a proponent of the idea that people are rationale within their context. Thus, for example, miracles could be seen to make sense within a Christian/Aristotelian view of the universe. He ran a course called “The Intellectual Contours of Mediaeval and Early Modern England” which, among other things, explored the philosophies and learning which were emerging largely as a result of the Crusades and the European discovery of Aristotelian texts after 1,500 years. Fascinating and dangerous stuff to view the world from what seemed like a new perspective. In Oxford, Roger Bacon undertook experiments to understand the laws of the physical world which till then had been mysterious. He championed empirical research over blind following of previous authorities and many of his findings have informed our current scientific view of the world. Among other things, he anticipated later inventions such as submarines, microscopes, telescopes, hydraulics, steam ships and flying machines. For his troubles Bacon was kept in isolated confinement in a small cell in Paris for many years, and prevented from teaching his scientific views.
Anyway, great to be in Edinburgh. Cold though.
“Whatever the options on the table, whatever the decision to be made, the same questions must be asked: will it put more power in people’s hands? And will it equip Britain for long-term success?”
(David Cameron and Nick Clegg, UK Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, 3rd August 2010)
Apart from drug policy, everything seems to be up for discussion and possible revision by the UK’s new Coalition government. This includes a range of services for young people such as Connexions, bizarrely criticised by the Government for focusing too much on those with greatest needs, the “N.E.E.T.s”, young people who are not in employment, education or training at the expense of the needs of more ‘mainstream’ teenagers (BBC News, 4th August 2010). It is difficult to see how maintaining the embedded approach by politicians to drug policy, ignoring the reality that it is failing a generation of young people, can be useful. In a rational world the argument proposed by Sebastian Saville in this week’s ‘Observer’ that we need to “move from dogma to science in the way we manage drug use” would hardly be regarded as radical, despite there being a range of opinions about what policy should eventually look like and how necessary changes might be introduced.
Following others, Sir Ian Gilmore, former President of the Royal College of Physicians, has this week made a useful contribution to the discussion, arguing that our current approach with its focus on criminalising people rather than dealing with drugs as a health issue has led to both increased crime and health problems. However, the Coalition’s knee-jerk response, saying they don’t agree, has once more highlighted politicians’ fears and insecurities about exploring new options in drug control policy. The media are negligent in their coverage also; for example, the BBC this morning reported uncritically that “anti-drugs” campaigners criticised Sir Ian’s comments. Who are these “anti-drugs” people? What does “anti-drugs” mean? Is Sir Ian Gilmore “pro-drugs” then? In my own experience, earlier this year I was asked in a BBC interview whether I felt “vindicated” in resigning from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs because two young men in Scunthorpe who had died, reportedly with a connection to the use of Mephedrone which was then legal, had not in fact taken the drug. I thought it was an inappropriate question. How could one feel vindicated when two lives have been cut short and when two families and many friends are mourning? Whether legal (alcohol) or illegal drugs had caused this tragedy, two young people were failed and are tragically no longer with us.
I have to say that I find the hypocrisy of the UK Liberal Democrats on the drugs issue to be particularly astonishing. For example, consider the current Deputy Prime Minister’s comments in 2007:
“The present debate on classification of drugs is nonsense, with politicians second guessing science and evidence…If you’re interested in reducing harm, you need to revisit the spectrum of drugs, both legal and illegal and categorise them according to the evidence.”
(Nick Clegg, 2007)
Of course politicians can always find ways to explain their revisionism: For example:
“I did lots of things before I came into politics which I shouldn’t have done. We all did”.
(David Cameron, 2005)
Lucky for David Cameron that he was born into privilege. For his youthful experimentation, he was neither arrested, nor excluded from school, nor dragged into the circle of harms, including but not limited to addiction, that are made both more likely and more extreme for the most socially disadvantaged people in our communities. Where illegal drug use is concerned, as well as the majority of UK property crimes being related to people’s needs to ‘feed’ a drug habit, we have countless horrific examples such as the murders of three sex workers in Bradford this year and five in Ipswich in 2006 which were directly connected to their need to work the streets to raise the cash for heroin and crack.
But it seems to me that support to intervene early with evidence-based initiatives to prevent and reduce problematic drug use remains a low political priority. I have previously criticised the consensus reached by Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to abandon the last Government’s commitment to make drugs education compulsory in schools. It’s not all that it is needed but it could be a vital component which would help improve the quality and range of drugs education provision in schools. Young people themselves consistently ask for more and better drugs education, even where they have already begun experimenting with drugs. Although a new survey by the charity YouthNet found worrying levels of drug use among young people, for example, with one in four reporting cocaine use, they also found that young people are crying out for more reliable and readily available information about drugs.
More than anything, our political leaders need to be brave and properly open up the drugs policy discussion to all options. This will require finding more useful language: let’s dump “pro” and “anti” drugs, “prohibitionist” and “legaliser”. Everyone knows that establishing appropriate regulation of drug use has to be a part of any drug strategy. Criminal justice measures should be used to contribute to preventing and reducing health and social harms but the focus should be on drug use as primarily a public health issue. Transform’s ‘Blueprint’ report, www.tdpf.org.uk/Transform_Drugs_Blueprint.pdf, explores the potential for introducing a new, improved regulatory framework. I don’t agree with all the conclusions drawn but nor do I disagree with everything. Of course it includes assumptions, positions based on political beliefs and some inconsistencies and gaps, such as what to do with those, particularly young people who might choose not to go along with their suggested new regulatory framework. However, it is exceptionally useful in highlighting some new options that the new Coalition Government could at least put on the table. As Professor Gilmore put it this week,
“There are really strong arguments to look again.”
(Professor Ian Gilmore, August 2010)