Monday, March 10, 2008

When all else fails: blame Amy Winehouse

This weekend saw various high profile figures, including Maria Antonio Costa, executive director of the UNODC and the Prime Minister,Gordon Brown jump on the condemn drug using celebrities bus, Costa going beyond simple condemnation to directly linking celebrity cocaine use to state collapse in Africa.

Gordon Brown, responded to question from another MP in reference to celebrity cocaine culture in the media, specifically asked him to agree that 'there's nothing glamorous about drug use'. he responded:

"I have to agree with him that it is very important when there are celebrities and role models for young people that they send out the proper messages. Some of our celebrities and role models are sending out the right message about the damage of drugs but I hope those people who take a casual attitude to drugs will think again and think about the message they are sending out to young people in our country."

It seems extremely unlikely that many potential role models are interested in Brown's view on their personal lives, especially the ones (most of them) who do not choose to be 'role models', a title that is invariably imposed on them by others (Kate Moss, is after all a clothes model first and foremost). More significant is the fact that it is the media obsession with celebrity drug use, rather than the celebrities themselves, that puts it so relentlessly in the public eye. Maybe Brown should have words with some newspaper editors - they might even pay attention.

Costa makes a more serious accusation in Sunday's Observer, that celebrities - he names Amy Winehouse specifically - are encouraging drug use, the illegal market for which is destroying West Africa, amongst other places ('Every line of cocaine means a little part of Africa dies'). He seems to confuse several things here.

Firstly a clear causal link between celebrity drug use and increased use amongst the general population is not something he nor the UN's INCB can produce any evidence or research to support. The variables that determine levels of use are poorly researched, but clearly involve a complex interplay of cultural, social and economic forces. The key motivation is pleasure (or escape) and nothing Brown or Costa say will change the human desire for that.

The suggestion that coming down more heavily on Winehouse etc. would have any impact on overall use, or the UK's £7 billion illicit drug trade is ridiculous. Most celebrity drug use is reported in the media only when it gets messy (Winehouse, Doherty etc.) which is in reality not a good advert for drug use, arguably being the exact opposite. Again, it is the tabloid media who are responsible for pushing this drug use into the limelight (some would argue contributing to it) not the users themselves. Remember that Kate Moss who is also regularly name checked by Costa (see this earlier blog on when Costa attacked Britney Spears and Moss) was very discreet about her drug use which only became public following a hidden camera sting on her by a British tabloid. She has not spoken of it before or since.

The link Costa makes between illicit drug use and the chaotic problems in West Africa and elsewhere is of course correct, but the obvious needs to be pointed out: these are problems solely due to the enforcement oriented system of global drug prohibition that he personally oversees.

Antonio Maria Costa

To illustrate the point witness the 100% legal production of both cocaine and heroin taking place within the UN legal system for the medical market (whilst cocaine production is relatively tiny, licit opiates represent 50% of global opium production). The production, transit and supply of these drugs is not profiting organised crime, not undermining and corrupting governments or small African states or anywhere else, and is not involved with any 'trails of blood', misery, or death.

Amy Winehouse: It's all her fault

Of course under the current system of global prohibition, Costa is right, ethical consumers (issues of the law criminalising their use aside) should not consume or buy certain illicit drugs. But the appeals that Costa and others make to ethical consuming drug users (whether it be on development, human rights, conflict or environmental grounds) will not have anything more than the tiniest dent in demand. At best. And he surely knows this.

Like the pointless distracting comments about celebrities this feels like thrashing around desperately for new targets, trying to be seen to be 'doing something' in the face of the shocking failure of the UN drug control efforts more broadly. The problems he flags up are the problems of prohibition, and unlike Amy Winehouse, Costa is in a distinctly better a position to do something about them. Amy Winehouse may need help to sort her problems out, but unlike Costa she is at least past the denial stage.

On a slightly more positive note:

In response to concerted campaigning by various NGOs (notably IHRA, Human Rights Watch and the IDPC) Costa has made some positive noises at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs today about drug enforcement, human rights, the death penalty, and even the futility of eradication and prison responses and the need to deal with the underlying causes of problematic use. (See IHRA blog for more info on Costa's statement and links to relevant documents)

Its not clear at this stage where it will all lead or if it is the first signs of progress and some more constructive engagement with civil society, but lets welcome progress where it happens, even if its small steps, and congratulate the NGOs involved.

Right, now I'm off to the CND in Vienna (now we have special consultative status I can actually go to the meetings), so I should have a better idea of what really happening by the end of the week. I will post reports on the blog as the meetings unfold......


Steve Rolles said...

Just to add, I did actually get a comment in the Observer coverage of the Costa story at the weekend. I did a twenty minute phone interview and detailed mmany of what i see as the problems with UNODC policy, and the INCB - politicisation, failure to engage with the debate on harms created by prohibition, straying beyond their remit in some areas whilst ignoring key issues, system coherence in the UN, human rights and so on.

Asked about Amy winehouse, I also highlighted the media role in the whole celebrity thing pointing out that it was just a distraction from much bigger issues - that i had detailed - and that he was actually part of that by pandering to the tabloid celebrity agenda instead of things like immenent mass murder in the Thai drug war, which i also talked about. One throw away line from me at the end about Winehouse - and guess what they ended up quoting me on. GAH!

Still, I had the satisfaction on hearing none other than Feargal Sharkey (formerly of the undertones, now apparently Government musc tsar) on radio 4 saying: "well as Steve Rolles from Transform says, Winehouse is the wrong target". haha. Feargal Sharky. i can now retire.

devlin said...

for sure, celebrity drug use increases the use in the general population, especially amongst the most likely to be influenced, the teenagers. The latest research (commissioned by a drug rehab center) on the numbers of people actively searching for drug related resourcs, rehab, advice and more is frightening. This page is about crack addiction research , they also have data on meth addiction, alcohol addiction, heroin addiction, xanax addiction, valium, ritalin etc - thought you might find it of interest.

Steve Rolles said...

hmm - that's non sourced search engine key word research - doesnt really show much and is nothing to do with celebrities influencing drug use. The site has loads of ads and is a rehab place, not and independent research body.

Caber1 said...

The trouble I find is that most so called "regular" people get their drug info from these tabloid type reports that only show the troubled celebrities and then somehow make the connection that all users have the same problems. They do this with their own "holier than thou" atitudes proudly displayed.