Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Ipswich murders and the drugs debate

The terrible murder of five street sex workers in Ipswich over the past fortnight has provoked a burst of media debate on the prohibitions of both drugs and sex work - and the potential impacts of our current criminal justice oriented policies that attempt to control the respective trades.

The media coverage has been fascinating and varied. There have been a number of opinion pieces that have argued directly for licensing of brothels and the prescribing of heroin.

Mary Ann Seighart in a Times article 'Drugs: why we should medicalise, not criminalise' writes that:

"Drug addiction is a medical condition; it should not be treated as a criminal offence. The crime that results from drug addiction is a direct result of the drugs’ illegality. The organised criminal gangs, with their violence, corruption and money laundering; the street gangs, with their gun crime, stabbings and intimidation; the muggers, burglars, car thieves and shoplifters, who steal to fund their habit; the dealers who try to create new addicts; and finally, the prostitutes who put their health and lives at risk; all this crime and suffering could be wiped out if the drugs were available, free, on prescription"

Transform, get a nod when she then goes on to say that

"In European cities, where heroin is available on prescription, property crimes by drug-users have dropped by as much as a half. And think of the effect that widespread prescribing would have on turf wars, gang violence, gun crime, street dealing and prostitution. An excellent report from the Transform drug policy foundation* also points out: “The largest single profit opportunity for organised crime would evaporate, and with it the largest single source of police corruption.”

Transform estimates that the prison population would fall by between a third and a half, ending overcrowding and the need to build more jails. Billions of pounds spent enforcing prohibition and coping with its consequences would be saved. Hundreds of thousands could be treated as patients rather than criminals. The number of drug-related deaths would fall dramatically. And desperate young women could be rescued from pimps, potential rapists and murderers."

A similar pro reform piece appeared by Deborah Orr in the Independent. She focuses on sex work, but has been a long time supporter of drug law reform. The Guardian, as mentioned in the previous blog entry has run online articles on both sides of the drugs debate, with Nick Davies, whose articles on heroin were so influential back in 2001, arguing for more heroin prescribing, and John Harris, who flags up the difficulties in making crack legally available. This week the Guardian printed a well argued piece by Simon Jenkins that focuses on the political cowardice getting in the way of reform.

Inevitably there has been a reaction to this talk of 'legalisation' from other opinion writers who see it very differently.

Will Self (who is Deborah Orr's husband) argued in the Evening Standard that the 'legalise' drugs and prostituion position was over-simplistic. This seems a bit harsh given that he appears to be basing this on other columnists without reading the detailed work done by people in the public health arena, academia and drug related NGOs. But there you go, journalists can be a bit lazy and opinionated. David Aaronavitch in the Times down a similar route but becomes a self appointed expert on the basis that he has read the Home Office consultation paper 'Paying the Price'.

Melanie Phillips has also inevitably stepped up to represent the reactionary moral-indignation position with a familiar sounding tirade against the evils of pragmatic drug law reform. As ever she studiously avoids the reality of widespread dug use and dodges well known facts (some pointed out in the online comments below her article) like; cannabis use has fallen since it was reclassified or; Holland has a far lower rate of cannabis and heroin than the UK. Her initial tack is to argue, strangely it must be said, that replacing criminal markets with legally regulated ones wouldn't reduce crime or get rid of illegal markets. Secondly she argues that legality would condone and encourage use - as if somehow prohibition has reduced/eliminated it. She assumes her self-appointed moral high ground by calling for the continuation and ramping up of policies that have, for decades, done the exact opposite of what she seeks. The reformers, we are told, would 'institutionalise harm and enslave millions in a post-moral degraded universe' - yet that is exactly what the criminal justice approach she advocates has already achieved.

There is something particularly troubling about those, like Phillips, who argue there is any moral justification for increasing harm to vulnerable individuals as a way of discouraging certain behaviours in others. Not only does the past 40 years provide no evidence that this is an effective strategy, but it is profoundly unethical.

Yet Phillips, for all her dodgey stats and intellectual wrongness, does at least make a good argument and attempt to see it through. This cannot be said for the utterly vile Richard Littlejohn who appears to deliberately court controversy by being as unpleasant as possible. In a recent Daily Mail piece Spare us the 'People's Prostitute' routine... his bile takes the familiar reactionary route of blaming the victims, but doesnt stop there. He then dances on their graves:

"the deaths of these five women is no great loss. They weren't going to discover a cure for cancer or embark on missionary work in Darfur. The only kind of missionary position they undertook was in the back seat of a car."

Despite a few grains of truth in the Littlejohn piece ('they did it for drugs'), he doesn't appear sophisticated enough to actually take his spleen venting to any sort of conclusion. He doesnt call for anything, or recommend any policy response - he just says vile things about some poor murdered women, and their families, and then levers in some unrelated insults at the Prime Minister.

So where does all this opinion lead us?

The media debate, despite emerging from tragedy and despite the efforts of some Mail columnists, has overall been a valuable and suprisingly mature one. It has provided a useful platform for those advocating pragmatic regulated alternatives to the illegal markets created by various prohibitions.

It would be wrong to suggest that a particular law or policy is directly 'to blame' for the murders. Clearly the killer could have targetted women in brothels who were legally recieveing drugs on prescribtion had he chosen to. However, these events have focused attention on the way the laws on drugs and prostitution drives these markets underground and far from eradicating the problems, makes them far worse, fuelling crime and maximising riskes for the people involved - in this case putting vulnerable women directly in harms way. So whilst not directly to blame, it is unarguable that wrongheaded prohibitions can create high risk environments that make violence more likely, and the reporting of this story has made this point very clear.

The Government has not emerged with any credit whatsoever, in particular regarding its shelving some of pragmatic recommendations made by a long and detailed Home Office consulation on prostitution that reported in 2004. The Observer front page headline concerned the fact that No 10 'blocked move to legalise prostitution' because of fears about the media reaction to such moves. Quite revealing, and one suspects, not disimilar to No.10s reaction the the drugs report produced by No.10's own Strategy Unit in 2003 (which they tried not to publish).

There is something going on here with this debate that suggest progress to me. The concept being promoted by the Government and the likes of Melanie Phillips is that drugs and sex work are morally unacceptable and on that basis alone their prohibitions are justified. On the other hand there appears to be a growing public and media awareness that policy needs to be pragmatic, accepting of reality, and be based on evidence of effectiveness rather than just moral indignation. The latter position appears to have come out on top this time round, and just for once, the Government are being portrayed as irresponsible for not legalising something.

Paying the Price - Home Office consultation document
Paying the price - final report


Anonymous said...

More pro drug propaganda.

There is no safe way to use toxic drugs. What is needed here is to help everyone who is addicted and who wishes to be drug free into detox,rehab and recovery.

Abstinence is a viable option and certainly less harmful than legislation could ever be.

Steve Rolles said...

thanks Peter

I dont see any way in which that blog entry can be viewed as pro drugs, any more than it is pro prostitution, which it also isnt. I review the coverage of the story and its impact on the drugs debate - which has been significant.

I agree there is no safe way to use drugs, and restate the point repeatedly in transform literature. All the articles I reference - on either side of the law reform debate - make it clear the harms that drugs can do. I also agree that anyone who wants it should get the traetment and support they need. I havent said any different here or anywhere else.

I also agree that abstinence is an option - although I might differ with you on whether it should be imposed by coercion or the force of law. I assume you mean legalisation at the end - is intended to reduce harms - to end the criminalisation of the vulnerable and marginalised, to redicrect resources into treatment and away from failed criminal justice measures, to reduce harm associated with use when it occurs, and to reduce criminal markets and associated harm.

talking about regulated drug markets is entirely compatible with rational prevention and treatment policies - i argue it would dramatically enhance both, it is NOT a pro drug position in any way and im mystified as to why you keep insisting it is. We accept the reality of drug use and try and minimise the harm it causes. this can obviously include:
- treatment aimed at getting people off drugs
- other treatment options including maintenace prescribing
- harm reduction measures such as needle exchanges
- delaying/preventing first use with effective education
- preventing progression from recreational to more probelmatic patterns of use

and so on - we do what works.

I dont see why discussing policy alternatives to current failings is pro drug or propaganda.

Anonymous said...

I do hope Jimmy Carr does some good jokes about them tommorow, tho (and I'm quite, quite sure he will)