Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Heroes needed in the drugs debate -- part2

Continued from part 1

An interesting stat to add to the drugs debate - apparently there were 47 heroin addicts in the UK in 1955 (ie approx. 1-in-a-million).

About a decade ago now I came across a statistic that there were an estimated 150-200 heroin addicts in the Reading area (ie 0.1% of the population), classified as regular users (more than once a month) whose habit was fed by the black market - I remember this because the report also said the number of home pharmacists were negligible, but impossible to quantify. At first I was surprised that people could make smack at home, but then I'd seen students make whisky in a washing machine...

It is easy, too easy, to argue that the single difference between now and then is the change in the legal status of the drug whereby it was criminalised. To say this solitary change is the root cause of all the problems and that simply reversing the law change will reverse the scale of the problem (if not overnight then in the medium-term) scores a fail of epic proportions. While the law does set the tone in the first instance, it is the social architecture, both formal and underground, which has been built up around the law since introduction that creates the state of everyday life in communities across the country - so if you want to change the social effects it is necessary to change the social architecture and address the foundations they are built on.

On the overground side this does eventually mean the law, but where the law was the first step in criminalisation, to institute a policy reversal the law will necessarily be the final step in the chain of decriminalisation - not the first.

Because formal society is a reflection of informal society the first step in addressing the problems of addiction must be to understand the cultural problems which lead ordinary people to decide to take the choice to self-medicate harmful substances.

The classic stereotype of a junkie is of a person who is alienated from themself and their life. They may have had family problems and sought solace in their drug buddies over a shared chemical romance, or they may be simply seeking escape from daily routine and were caught unawares when casual weekend experimentation escalated.

In many ways this kind of disengagement and escapist tendency is a sign of society's failure, which makes drug addicts a form of excluded oppositional constituency. More figuratively drug dependence may be described as a physical manifestation and consequence of society's conservatism: the glazed-over look of apathy submitting to pre-decided choices made for them by cynics profiteering from the misery of others for which they deny any shared responsibility.

But of course the range and type of addictive behaviours is far wider than the stereotype. Every drug culture has its own behavioural rituals and traits (think beer culture, ecstasy, or the smoker's corner) - it is society which builds a consensus on the acceptability of those patterns.

At a rough estimate (using my own eyes, ears and occasionally nose on the street) where 0.1% of the local population may be intravenous drug users (though judging from the increasing numbers of discarded needles I've seen scattered around almost every park bench I'd say this number has grown significantly in recent years, a quick scout suggests heroin use is now at 0.8% and crack is at 0.5% but this obviously includes smokers etc), I'd be completely shocked if the total proportion of regular illegal drug users for recreational purposes was less than 10% and surprised if it weren't nudging 20% or higher.

So as far as I'm concerned the problem of drug use is primarily a cultural one. We face a choice about society's own hypocrisy if we wish to simply sweep such a prevalent behaviour under the carpet.

If there is to be a law it must be enforced consistently, which raises the second problem of practicalities and funding - what do we say about what people do behind closed doors? Do we station a policeman in every house in the nation?

And then thirdly, educational support must be provided to reinforce the lessons - which means better parenting, more responsive schooling and stronger communities.

Ultimately this comes down to politicians presenting a clear choice at the ballot box so that the public can see that we have made a decision and that this is what will be upheld.

It is no good for successive Labour and Conservative governments to tinker at the edges in reaction to a periodic media outcry because that just undermines state authority and loses popular support for the policy-making process in general. What is required is some political leadership which will set down a marker and gain a real mandate by telling us that our voices do matter.

So what would I do about the heroin addicts on the streets in my town?

As a voter I demand a choice - for this I require that there be a change to our politics and as a consequence I would advocate voting against the incumbent MP.

As a politician I would encourage clearer debate on the issue - for only this will inform voters about the choices we face.

But as a policy maker I would tend towards greater tolerance, and argue that we must look to ourselves and take greater active responsibility for preventing problems arising.

The interaction between the state and wider society has become increasingly incoherent as more policy responsibilities have been assumed by government and it is this which is leading individuals to fall between the gaps.

The welfare state is more of a safety blanket for the state than a safety net for the public, as things like tax credits are often an expensive administrative burden which often become a restrictive trap. Target driven performance in schools fails to meet many individual needs and can force the downgrading of pastoral responsibilities. And where state structures in health, education, employment, housing and the like fail to raise people out of their social poverty and into respectability then they are at increasing risk of falling into derivation and depravity.

It is exactly this underclass which the majoritarian political class structure is disincetivised from representing from where the social problems spring from, so until this disincentive is removed they will persist. It's not principally a wealth thing, it's principally a matter of social engagement.

So to say what I would do if I were King for a day is to fail: for me to declare that I would impose my singular vision on what should and therefore must be may win some support among those who've already made their own minds up and see that I am in agreement with them. But that is only to instigate a new vicious cycle of disagreement and dispute and opposition among those who don't.

In other words to react to problems can have the perverse effect and make them more strongly ingrained than ever.

If you want to change society you must challenge society - you cannot play to pre-existing audiences - it is necessary to find a way to reconcile those who disagree.

The habit of drug addicts to seek a quick fix is mirrored by the desire of politicians to satisfy the vocal urgings of the public with a quick fix of their own, but just as the junkie will sink to the gutter dragging those around him (and as often as not, her) into the gutter, so too will the politician's obsessive hunt for a pure ideological truth undermine the vision they seek.

Where we are now will take years if not decades of concerted social regeneration to repair, so I'm sorry to tell Gideon that the best thing to do about any heroin addicts you find in the stairwell of your flats is to give them a steely stare of your own in return and know they are there because of they way those in high office behave who are there because we put them there.

You may be able to protect yourself in the immediate event with locks or bars or walls, but the barbarians will continue clamouring at the gates until people build community networks which are deep enough and resistant enough to pick up on the smallest indication of dissent or dissatisfaction and act on it.

Individuals need the tools to express themselves openly, honestly and we must have the confidence to use them productively in creative ways which fulfill our potential. For this we need a theory of power that enthuses everyone to step up and be counted!

Ok, this post has turned into an endless polemic, so I'll pull back and draw a simple correlation between the number of people who vote in elections and the number of dropped out drug addicts on our streets.

It's not about what I would do about them, it's about getting the 'them' to understand how their actions have an impact on the whole. Currently politicians and drug addicts are comparable in that neither have consciously considered the full consequences of theirs as a whole.

The drugs debate is only one tangible part of a much greater subject about privacy and state intrusion or intervention, and I'm sorry to be a pessimist, but I don't think it is going to be wrapped up any time soon.

The first thing must be to restore faith in democratic society so that we can give addicts the confidence that their problems will be dealt with properly.

So in the first instance selfish and corrupt politicians must come forward voluntarily to set an example which can be followed - or they must expect to be arrested and charged for their conduct.

People at the very highest level of society like Tony Blair or Andrew MacKay cannot wriggle out of the responsibility for being honest and acting within the spirit of the rules because it suits their personal ambitions - to do so suggests they weaseled their way into positions of responsibility for personal advantage and private gain: to know they can get away with lying and cheating legitimises it for everyone else and says it is Ok for us to deceive ourselves about the acceptability of the worst of our own behaviour, whatever that may be (and I know I make excuses for myself).

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