Fixing the Fix
The war against drugs is being lost, and it’s time for a fresh approach with active support and treatment at its heart, says Gina Miller
We hear in the media tragic news of wasted lives of talented individuals such as Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson lost through addiction. Then follows a chorus of heartfelt platitudes, and whilst I often agree, as a mother and philanthropist who works with fourteen community charities, many dealing with addicts, mental health issues and young people, I find myself mulling over the debate on drugs in the wider context of addiction.
In the UK, it is 40 years since the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed. However, many experts appear to agree that the Act has failed and that drugs, whether soft, hard or prescriptive, are available to anyone who really wants them. In addition, the last ten years has seen a distressingly steady growth in synthetic variants from the Far East, and most of these ‘legal highs’ are not covered by the Act (e.g. previously Mephedrone, known on the street as ‘meow-meow’). According to a report by the UK Drug Policy Commission, published in May 2011, 40 new substances appeared on the streets of the UK during 2010 alone.
The recent Global Commission on Drug Policy report, written by, among others, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, stated: ‘Political leaders and public figures have the courage to articulate publicly that… the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won.’ The report then concluded: ‘Break the taboo on debate and reform. The time for action is now.’
But the lead on the war on drugs is coming from Latin America, not the West. I recently visited the Columbian ambassador in London to secure his help for a project with street kids in a city called Cali. Not only did he welcome us with open arms but our conversation moved to the crisis his country is facing and a passionate speech recently given by Colombia’s President, Juan Manuel Santos, about the price his country is paying as a drug ‘producing nation’ servicing the demand for illicit drugs in ‘consumer nations’, principally in Europe and the US.
President Santos raises the prospect of a regulated market for marijuana and perhaps even cocaine. But he is insistent that this can only come through international consensus. Those in the ‘producing nations’ in Latin America are increasingly impatient at having to suffer the bloodiest collateral damage in the service of the consuming nations.
I saw this first hand last summer when I took my family to Georgetown in Guyana and then deep into the heart of the rainforest. In the cities, drug money pervades every moral fibre of a once caring, educated society. Teenagers carry weapons, prostitution is rife and the only measures of success are big houses, cars and bling. Deep in the rainforest, as we flew over huge cleared areas of supposed protected lands, I was told it was damage caused by devastating fires. But when we spoke to the heads of the villages, they said they were being given computers and the internet, as well as ‘big money’, not to protect the forest or grow their crops but to grow and process drugs.
In my mind, it is unconscionable for the leaders of the largest consuming nations – the US, UK and the rest of Europe, to remain silent. Not only are we responsible for the wasted lives of many Latin Americans, but we are now culpable in the destruction of the Amazonian rainforests as coca producers move to ever more remote parts to harvest the raw material of cocaine.
PROHIBITION HAS FAILED and the violence and criminal activity around it is flourishing. My husband and I are currently one of the funders of a report into modern day slavery being conducted by The Centre for Social Justice and one of the areas it is examining is human trafficking in the drug’s trade. The police in the UK are closing down a frightening number of drug dens and houses, many of which are in quiet residential streets, and are being run by organized gangs who are illegally trafficking mainly under-age women and children to work in them.
The roll call of international figures who have called time on the drugs war is long and distinguished, but there has been little from British politicians even though a poll commissioned in 2010 found that 70% were in favour of legalising and regulating cannabis. Previously, The Independent newspaper supported this stance, but it has now changed its view based on increasing evidence on the societal harm and benefits of legalizing cannabis.
So, if the winds of change will not be blown in by politicians, maybe they need to be driven by economic and moral factors. Over the course of the last 40 years, America has spent $2.5 trillion on the drugs war and the debate has widened to the economic and business community. The Economist has argued for the legislation of drugs for more than 20 years, and in 2005, Forbes magazine published the names of 500 prominent US businessmen and women who favoured a regulated drugs market.
The clear message to policymakers appears to be that governments should consider decriminalisation or legalisation of some illicit substances. But drugs and other addictive substances are props that are used for instants fixes for much deeper problems. Drugs in themselves are not the cause of addictive behaviour, but rather they are a facilitator.
Having spent time over the last two years visiting and working alongside four of our fourteen grantee charities who work at the coalface of the negative trends in our society, I have reservations that decriminalisation alone would work. My observations and the statistical evidence I have seen seem to indicate that we are becoming more and more of an addictive society. In December 2006, Iain Duncan Smith wrote that ‘Around one and half million children are growing up in substance abusing households — over a million with parents abusing alcohol and 350,000 where there is drug-taking. A worrying development is that children as young as 11 are drinking and taking drugs.’ (State of the Nation Report, Centre for Social Justice, December 2006.)
I AM VERY proactive in seeking out and working with individuals and organisations in the community, and my first hand evidence of what is happening in the UK today is terrifying. We urgently need to tackle the laissez-faire attitude in the UK to young people taking psychoactive substances, both legal and illicit. The impact of substance abuse in our society has a crossover on the rates of mental illness and on rates of violence in all forms. This is having an impact on rates of domestic abuse and childhood trauma, and adds costs and time for the criminal justice system time.
In a further report by The Centre for Social Justice (Green Paper on Criminal Justice and Addiction, 2010) the authors stated that ‘Drug and alcohol abuse ruins lives, fuels crime and destroys communities. Numerous addiction workers, former addicts and social commentators claim Britain is now in the grip of an addiction epidemic.’
Statistics provided by The Mental Health Foundation in 2010 on the UK are alarming:
• 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in the course of a year
• Anxiety and depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain
• Women are more likely to have been treated for a mental health problem than men
• About 10 per cent of children have a mental health problem at any one time
• Depression affects 1 in 5 older people
• Rates of self-harm stand at 400 per 100,000— rates of self-harm are highest among the young, and the UK has one of the highest rates in Europe.
• 1 in 8 mothers are suffering from post-natal depression.
There will not be one simple answer, but maybe what is needed is a holistic approach that seeks to bring about change legally, socially and behaviourally. The work I have been doing with a mental health trust in London has shown that having a substance misuse strategy which tackles the life-long cause of mental disorder and addictions can lead to resilience building early in the onset of harm, and to future prevention.
An interesting example of this approach is Portugal, which decided to treat addicts rather than punishing them. Their 2001 Act did not legalise drug use, but forced addicts to appear in front of special addiction panels rather than in a criminal court. Panels composed of psychologists, judges and social workers recommend action based on each case. In a report published earlier this year, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) said Portugal had dealt with this issue ‘in a pragmatic and innovative way.’ As a consequence, the number of addicts using ‘hard’ drugs has fallen by half.
A holistic approach could not only result in a significant drop in drug-related crimes but could tackle the more deep-seated causes of addictive behaviour with a focus on early prevention and detection of the risk for future dependency. On one of my visits to a very deprived part of London I met a nine-year-old boy whose parents are both addicts — his mum an alcoholic, his dad a cocaine user. He told me when they ‘were bad’ they would scream, shout and fight with his mother often being beaten ‘till she passed out then I would have to clean her up and stop the blood.’ There was often no food in the house, so he would steal from the local supermarket.
The charity we support goes into schools and helps them to identify the children in crisis and luckily this young boy was spotted. Instead of reporting the parents, the charity supported the whole family. It turned out the father had been treated the same by his father who was an addict. The mother said she was evil because she let her father and uncles rape her as a child and she deserved what she got. She also drank because she couldn’t face being so weak and what she was doing to her son. So three generations were suffering inhumanly due to the cycle of addiction and it was due to continue.
We started supporting them with a variety of services including therapy sessions for the parents individually, respite days for the boy and encouraging the school to be involved. I visited them again five months later and you would not recognise this family who are now well on the road to recovery. But this is only one family, think of the thousands in the UK that do not get help.
Based on the statistical evidence, it is fair to conclude that we are a society and culture that is not dealing with our emotional and mental issues. As families, communities, schools and mutual caring continues to break down these issues are set to continue at significant human cost. So if we decriminalise drugs in this epidemic state we could be pouring fuel on the fire. An approach that would allow those who are emotionally and mentally disconnected to recognise their potential psychological and societal risk for addictions would pay dividends in the happiness economy David Cameron is so keen to promote, and build a safer, stronger society for us all.
Gina Miller has a ‘roll-your-sleeves-up’ approach to philanthropy and works with small community charities