Don't Run Before We Can Walk

In response to previous articles relating to the effects of drug policy on users and communities, Bob Martin argues that while State policy creates the illusion of prohibition, the reality is one of withdrawal and containment

My family live in one of the many areas of the Black Country currently plagued by a growth in heroin use. Robberies and burglaries are rife, hence it's no coincidence that prostitution, pimping and gangsterism are also widespread.

There's inextricable daily evidence on these streets that where one facet exists the rest will follow. Within twenty or so yards of our house in each direction there are smack users, at least two are known burglars, one is also a mugger. Another is dealing, and is rumoured to be involved in under age prostitution. One is a decent lad, but he's only been a recognised addict for three months or so, and therefore probably not yet struggling to support a £200 a week habit. A lot has changed in the eleven years we've lived in this street. A once vibrant solid community is being sucked dry. It's never been perfect, but where has? Many good families are leaving, and many more want to, ourselves included. It's not that we're isolated - we've got many good friends and allies in the community - but collectively that community structure, from the family to the street to the neighbourhood, is under sustained attack, and as things stand, ill-equipped to fight back.

All the perpetrators, from the big-shot dealers and pimps to the 'wannabes' involved in robbing and street gangs, operate with an alarming degree of impunity. It's common knowledge who's up to what, the information is freely available on the ground to any casual enquirer. Obviously, the problem is wider than just smack, but it's a fact that smack is a big component of the deterioration. An observer could only conclude that key individual police officers have vested interests in allowing 'acceptable' levels of crime, or that the police and the council as a whole are involved in a deliberate containment strategy, an active policy of 'ghettoisation'. If that's the case then New Labour, Keith Halliwell and all the prohibitionist bleatings of the government sponsored anti-drugs campaign are tokenistic and meaningless, because on the ground there's a conflict of disinterest. Regarding "the devastation allegedly caused by drug use on our estates" (RA Vol. 4, Issue 2) frankly, there's no 'allegedly' about it.

Although drugs themselves clearly aren't the root cause of run down estates, the drug economy and related activities compound the problem more than any other side effect of social decline and should be dealt with accordingly, and that means realistically. The problematic elements have nothing to gain and everything to lose from naive attempts to establish 'social contracts'. While we're at it, perhaps it might prove expedient in the long term to draw up similar social contracts with the police, councils and other anti-working class aggressors. Likewise, other arguments tabled about 'displacing' the problem are nonsense, unless we conclude the same applies to fascists, paedophiles and other equally reviled elements. We have to be both realistic and representative in our approach to the problem, lest we may become seen as a part of it. Community responses to drug/hood related problems (as more often than not the two are synonymous) aren't about the 'demonisation of powders, plants and pills', it's about fighting scum off, scum who don't give a fuck about their immediate friends and family, never mind the wider community.

We are all living in difficult conditions, and bleeding heart excuses for involvement in the most derogatory aspects of drug culture could also apply to any other disruptive, harmful or intimidating behaviour. These people are not 'Robin Hood' characters, they are shitbags with no moral regard for the consequences of their actions. The romantic images of abject drug visionaries yearning escapism don't apply, it's more about 'badass' identity, and an emulation of glorified ghetto gangsterism. This falls neatly in tow with Labour's emulation of American government policy towards it's own ghetto 'underclass'. Containment and withdrawal creates a vacuum that only the communities themselves have the potential to positively fill, and the IWCA will only contribute to that if it can establish a clear, no-nonsense strategy around the drugs issue.

There are notable examples of successful local initiatives to promote social responsibility, some of these cited by the drug users movement, but when the situation has gone so far they are the exception rather than the rule, and so naturally remain secondary to the resolution of the drug-related social problems that concern affected communities here and now. As stated, there are plenty of examples of socially responsibie people who hold down jobs and run families etc, or at the very least don't let their habits curtail their social 'decorum'. These users don't pose a problem, because on the whole if you didn't know them you probably wouldn't be aware of their drug habit in the first place. They may get into problems, some will inevitably die of misuse, but the social impact is limited. Within this community I've never heard of anyone condemned solely for drug use, without there being some adverse anti-social activity to warrant the condemnation. Ultimately, the question is, how can you realistically market collective social contracts to; 1) The perpetrators - anti-socialists, who thrive on a scared and fragmented community (Note, not all drug users, and not all of them drug users) and 2) The 'victims' (i.e the bulk of the community) who understand point one only too well?

Charlie Dow's articles have detracted from the significance of the alarming combination of drug-related economic interests, and the overall political disinterest that blight working class areas. These problems, and eventually the people behind them, must be publicly identified and confronted. Without a mandate there is no strategy, and in turn there will be no mandate unless we open a dialogue based on the apparent facts. That is not a euphemism for bowing to prejudice and hearsay, but dealing with the issue as it stands, not as we'd like it to be in a more ideal world.

There are obvious risks involved in taking on hoods, there is also a risk of touching a potentially reactionary 'raw nerve'. But such risks haven't dictated our trajectory in the past, it's only ensured we've been more careful in our preparation. We should identify a clear middle ground between prohibitionism and what could be dismissed as liberal naivete. It has to be progressively tangible without being ultra-liberal, and uncompromising without being reactionary. From that position we'll be able to, yet again, deliver a strategy that is both applicable and groundbreaking.

Reproduced from RA Vol 4, Issue 3, Oct/Nov '99