Carrot and Stick?

Markedly different perspectives on the issue of drugs surfaced during debate on the subject at Red Action 's National Meeting. Here Charlie Dow again puts the case for a more 'enlightened ' approach.

Drug use remains a minefield for many on the Left. On one hand working class activists see the devastation allegedly caused by drug use on our estates and in our communities. On the other, many people themselves take part in non-problematic drug use or at the very least enjoy the 'occasional' drink. This has led to a widespread confusion, and a general avoidance by the Left, of community campaigns on drug use.

This position is in contrast with the priority placed on drug use by those who live in working class areas. This urgency arguably shows the power of anti-drugs propaganda which leads people to express their frustrations about poor housing, run down estates and the absence of youth services, in terms of their fears about drug use. Undeniably, it also reflects the prevalence and impact of drug use in these areas. Whatever, the underlying cause, if drugs is the starting point for a discussion about the neglect of working class estates, then to fail to have a strategy becomes a major handicap to the Left.

However, it is important to recognise that drugs use is becoming increasing normalised among young people. Over 50% of young people have experimented with drug taking and their experience rarely matches the sensational headlines and Government poster campaigns. A pro-prohibition stance may set Left-wing activists against young people and serve to reinforce divides within local communities and workplaces.

In striving for more effective strategies, we need to acknowledge that drug use is here to stay. In doing this we need to question the central myth of prohibition which casts all drug users as hopeless losers. In reality the vast majority manage their drug use without significant problems. To make successful changes in our lives, we need to have good self-esteem and believe in our capacity to change. Condemning drug users, undermines these factors and forces people to become outsiders. If you are outside a local community, it is easy to disregard your neighbours and behave in an anti-social manner.

At the same time we need not to romanticise drug takers. In deprived areas, drug dealing, and the knock on effects of problem drug use, can cause significant aggravation and damage which working class activists cannot walk away from. Therefore, we need an approach which enables us to remain engaged with local communities without condemning drug use out of hand. This may be described as looking for the course of least resistance in terms of community politics and drug use.

As has been argued before in Red Action, the starting must be to allow local communities to have a platform to express their frustrations and aspirations. This allows us to expose situations where drug use is being used as a smoke screen for the failings of the local council or national Government. Where problems are directly associated with drug users and drug taking, activists should be unafraid to let people express these concerns. When local communities step out of the anti-drugs hysteria, it is possible to identify rational and effective strategies that can lead to real benefits for both drug using, and non-drug using, members of working class communities. For the rest of this article, I will give an overview of the main areas for intervention:

Drug Education Backfires:
One of the greatest fears of all parents is that our kids may become involved in drug taking. Today, almost all young people will have to make choices as to whether to use drugs or not. Availability is now reaching into even the most remote of areas.

Drugs prevention campaigns are a widely favoured strategy. However, bill board campaigns are known to be largely ineffective and at times can even be counter-productive. The 'Heroin Screws You Up' Campaign was initially thought to be a huge success as young people rushed for copies of the poster. Later, it was realised that the spotty character had become a counter-culture hero which was displayed, as a sign of rebellion, on many teenagers' bedroom walls.

Schools based 'Just Say No' Campaigns can also backfire. Research indicates that children who have received such drugs education are more likely to go on to use drugs, than their non-drugs-educated peers. The problem is that many young people reject the anti-drugs messages, and in doing so may enter drug use without taking any precautions. Also, they may switch from one drug type to another, without any awareness of the varying risks of different substances. Anti-drugs campaigns give simplistic slogans instead of thoughtful guidance.

Integrating advice on drugs into wider health and social education, avoids the issue of drugs from becoming singled out for special attention. It also allows us to offer appropriate advice to different age groups in a non-judgmental manner. Drugs becomes one of the factors of risk that young people have to make choices about as they grow up.

Importantly, we need to look at the underlying factors that leave young people on the streets without facilities or opportunities. Waiting for the impending revolution may be a good excuse for inaction, but it does nothing to help young people. Again diversion schemes do better if they avoid an explicit drug focus but it stands to reason that where kids are occupied and engaged they are less likely to fall into problematic drug use. It is unsurprising that we have seen a massive rise in problem drug use among teenagers at the very same period that we have seen massive cuts in youth and community services.

A Harm Reduction Approach:
Problem drug use can cause significant harm to individuals, as well as distress to families and friends of those who get into difficulties. Responses to drug use are too often limited by the moral judgements of those who fund or provide services. There needs to be a dual approach which recognises the needs of the many who don't want to stop illicit use, while also providing effective drug treatment options for those who want to move away from street drug use or stop altogether. This is the basis of a harm reduction approach.

For those who are using drugs, needle exchange, methadone prescribing, health education and peer based support schemes, have all been demonstrated to be highly effective in protecting people from the damaging consequences of drug use.

There is a direct relationship between social policy and public health. In the mid-1980s it was found that 50% of injecting drug users in Glasgow had HIV infection. This was closely linked to a police policy of restricting the supply of syringes into the city as an anti-drugs strategy. This led to rooms of injectors sharing a single syringe thus widely transmitting blood borne viruses. This was not an active choice but a response to the environment. Liverpool, another city renowned for its high levels of heroin use in the 1980s, had an HIV rate below 1% because it intervened early and made available needles and syringes on demand.

Despite the strong evidence to support methadone maintenance, access to this important service varies dramatically across the country. Drug users are left to commit crime, or be at risk from health problems, which affects not just the individual but the wider community. Community campaigns to fight for improved services reunite local communities, challenging drug users to respond constructively to their new allies.

Drug Use and Working Class Communities:
Drug use impacts on local communities through crime, nuisance, discarded needles or open dealing scenes. This raises legitimate concern for local communities. A liberal approach, which only promotes tolerance and understanding, is inadequate. It is right that local people should seek to improve their local environment, however, driving drug users out of local communities may just displace a problem. A more effective approach may be to set standards for all local community members and to agree local social contracts.

Where drug users are invited to be part of the solution, peer pressure and user-based strategies can be applied to tackle local problems. In east London, local drug users set up user patrols in a local park to pick up discarded needles, and raised the problem with other local users. This was so successful that those running the local park are now providing a payment to those running the patrols.

The response of both the Basque separatists ETA and the Irish Republican Movement provide examples of how local communities can be mobilised against individuals who come into conflict with local communities.

Opening up communication between drug users and local communities may initially be volatile but it enables people to understand each other's problems and to develop social contracts about what is, and what is not, acceptable to local communities. Making demands of drug users, without offering them any rewards for their social responsibility, will just be experienced as further discrimination against an already repressed community. A genuine partnership allows both groups to change their immediate situation, providing a chance for both sides to win.

Drug Dealers:
Open drug dealing scenes in particular pose huge problems. Where dealing takes place on the street, it makes areas unsafe, increases noise pollution, and causes concerns about the safety of the frail and vulnerable. Many approaches, whether from the police or community activists, target those who supply drugs rather than the users. Undeniably such approaches do have an impact on the targeted dealers, but what about the wider impact on the drugs scene?

Studies on the impact of severe police action on drug scenes suggest that such approaches increase the risks for local users, at best displace drug dealing for a period and rarely affects the levels of use in an area. With continued demand, the most ruthless dealers survive and control the market. Where drug scenes are repressed, either by the State or by community activists, the result is probably the same - drug users suffer, levels of drug taking tend not to be affected and dealing becomes more organised and controlled. This experience adds to their sense of alienation which increases their likelihood to take personal risk and anti-social behaviour.

Irish Republicans have mobilised local communities to campaign against key local dealers. Dealers can be 'named and shamed', dealer's houses can be marched on or dealers physically targeted. It is not to argue that such models can never be appropriate or effective, rather that they can have greater success, and cause less collateral damage, when applied more selectively. To target dealers who deal to young children, commit acts of violence, or otherwise abuse the local social contract, allows people to change their behaviour, or supports the adoption of replacements who are able to operate within social contracts. The application of social contract can be effective in stabilising the drugs scene and reducing its wider social impact. It may also isolate problem dealers from the wider drug using community. In fact, where social contracts can be secured, drug users can apply their economic power to boycott dealers who bring conflict into the community. Drug users successfully improved the quality of drugs by boycotting poor quality suppliers in the 1970s in Amsterdam.

Drug testing: the Bosses New Weapon:
Drug use is also being used as a means to ferment division in workplaces and there are also reports of drug testing being disproportionally targeted at working class activists. The effective model proposed in this article allows workers and unions to defend colleagues against such attacks by arguing that workers should be judged on their capability not their choice to use drugs.

To summarise, drug use poses problems for local communities and the Left. However, it is important to distinguish between the affects of prohibition and drug taking. The State uses the scapegoating of drug users to divert attention from wider social problems and it is a powerful tool of divide and rule in working class communities. The solutions are not easy but require an application of an effective response which recognises the needs and rights of all who live in working class communities.

Reproduced from RA vol 4, Issue 2, Aug/Sept '99