07 November 2004

Spinning Wheel Blues

Inconsistent policies on drugs and gambling demonstrate Government confusion on both habits.

Amidst all the sound and fury regarding the Government's plans to reform gambling, few commentators have spotted the obvious comparison between Government's approach to gambling and to drugs.

Simon Jenkins, writing in the Evening Standard, was one of the few. He noted "If any law is in urgent need of reform, it is the thus ineffective 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. It does far more harm to minors than do fruit machines. Yet Ms Jowell and her colleagues will touch it."

Looking at the arguments put forward by the Government in support of it's reforms of gambling, one would be hard put to fault exactly the same arguments if put forward for drugs reform.

In an article, again in the Standard, Tessa jowell defended her bill thus:
"if adults nake the rational informed decision to gamble, they should be allowed to do so. They should be encouraged to do it in places tha are crime free and properly regulated. Above all else, children should be protected from the temptation to gamble."

A key thrust of the Govenment's thinking is that a lack of control has created greater risk to young people. The arrival of high-prize gaming machines in venues used by young people exposes them, the argument goes, to temptation and risk. A licensed and regulated market would remove these machies from these arenas, and limit them to venues where only adults would access them.

If one substitutes "use drugs" for "gambling" in Jowell's argument, the argument is all but identical to the arguments put forward by drug policy reformers.

Fear has been expressed, both in terms of drugs and in terms of gambling that proposals to change the law will result in an increase in problem gambling and gambling addiction.

Here, Jowell offers a different analysis, and again one that is wholly appliable to the drugs field. She argues:
"to judge an entire industry by the people who can be addicted by its product is similar to closing down every pub in the country because of the lif story of an alcoholic. It is not possible to close down an industry and prohibit people from what they consider a pleasure because of the tragedy of a few."

Again, these are sentiments that most drug reformers would recognise and applaud.

After this, however, the Government's approach to gambling and the vision of the drugs reform lobby go in sharply different directions. While the current spin put on the gambling reform is one of "protection through regulation," the other is one of "profit through expansion." The licensing and development of larger casinos, the facillitation of local authority licensing and the projected profits for local and state profits are aspects which demand an increase in the number of gamblers and, by association the number of problem gamblers.

This is where the approach to gamblig and to drugs part company. Drug reform proposes control and safety through license and regulations. A key model is distribution through medical routes for some drugs and controlled and regulated markets for others, notably cannabis. Most drug reformers would abhor an approach which saw big corporations take over this market and actively recruit new users.

The Government is, on the one hand, right to think that regulation is safer than a absence of safeguards. This applies to drugs as much as gambling. But to then actively promote and expand such a market would be indefensible to both too.

The Met ain't so pretty either:

The new metropolitan Police campaign that uses the images of drug-dependent women to highlight the dangers of drug use is grotesque.

The images themselves are disturbing and distressing, but they are not new. They have been circulating on the internet, and the Nimby-wesbsite "Crack Cocaine in Camden" has had a link to the images for a couple of years.

Pictures of three women are used; Roseanne Holland, Melissa Collara and Penny Wood. Holland is believed to be dead, Collara was not contactable and Wood is in treatment.

So the Met are exploiting the images of three tragic women. Depersonalised and exposed to the shocked looks of public they disintegrate before our eyes. UK arrest pictures could not have been used as it would breach confideniality. But the Met have no such qualms about scooping images off the net and using them. They are exploitative, breach decency and ultimately they are ineffective.

The images are as much a condemnation of the US war on drugs, and the failure of the US penal and treatment system as they are of the drugs themselves. Collara was arrested 18 times in three years. Where were the interventions, the opportuities to engage with both harm reduction and with treatment. Holland was arrested at least five times in eight years.

Collara had (according to the Daily Mirror) been sexually abused and had lost her mother at an early age. She was engaged in drug use and prostitution. But despite repeated arrests, the help she so badly needed was clearly slow in coming. Ultimately it was not that the "system" got it right for her but one police officer who viewed her as a person needing help rather than a criminal.

The failure of the war on drugs is manifest. The failure of the criminal justice system that failed these women is written across each face. And the failure of a policy that makes needle exchange illegal and fails to offer adequate education past "just say no" is etched across these billboards.

In the good old days of drugs education, the police used to use the gore fest "Better off dead" to scare would-be users away with footage of autopsy - again of a dead female user. Thirty years later they are using the same approach - but with new images. But where do they go next? More shocking images? More gore? As any body with any media-awareness knows, this process is ultimately self-defeating. We become inured to horror, harder to shock. We cease to care or even notice and the images cannot touch us.

The effects of crack can be extremely damaging; but ill-considered advertising can damage us too. And this damage is so much less obvious