07 November 2004

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

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