Friday, 8 January 2010

Why should Women Liberal Democrats support a motion calling for control and regulation of drugs?

The stories of how prohibition affects women give the drug policy reform movement the strongest arguments we have. The one experience more than any other that motivated me to campaign for drug policy reform was watching the documentary film: "Killer in a Small Town" The film tackled the story of the 5 young women who were murdered by Steve Wright in Ipswich in 2006. The film-maker spoke to their families and friends and attracted attention to the fact that these young women were seemingly ordinary girls from ordinary families who had apparently just made a few bad decisions in their life and found themselves addicted to heroin and selling sex on the streets. It struck me at the time that any unhappy or rebellious girl making a few mistakes could quickly find themselves in a similar situation, a thought that sickened me.

One of the most distressing scenes of the film was the playing of footage from the ITV news showing a journalist talking to a young woman after it was apparent a serial killer was preying on prostitutes in the town. The interviewer asked "Despite the dangers, why have you chosen to come out tonight?" to which she replied "Because I need the money. I need the money." The young woman interviewed was Paula Clennell, who was to become Wright's fifth victim.

Around 95% of street prostitutes in the UK are considered to be problem drug addicts according to Home Office estimates, and nearly two thirds cite funding drug use as their primary motivation, suggesting that the vast majority could leave prostitution if they could obtain their drug of addiction at an affordable price. Having recently met some former prostitutes at a conference and witnessed them struggle to confront their past and the effect it has had on their lives, I would say that our humanity compels us to do everything we can to ensure few others have to go through similar experiences. I certainly don't want to hear anyone else standing in front of me saying "I was lucky... I was only raped once."

Were the majority of street prostitutes to leave sex work, basic economics dictate that conditions for remaining prostitutes should improve. Sex workers should be able to increase prices, work less hours and be more choosy about the clients they take business from if "supply" of sex workers doesn't meet "demand" from punters. Some of the tens of thousands of police freed up by the massive reduction in acquisitive crime rates that should accompany controlled, regulated drug supply could be diverted into shutting down exploitative brothels, and ensuring demand is not met by trafficking from overseas.

The sad truth is that there are male heroin and crack addicts out there who are identifying vulnerable teenagers, seducing them, offering them drugs and sending them out on the streets to raise money to fund both their habits. I would much prefer any decision to take hard drugs to be based upon education provided by a trained pharmacist or counsellor rather than the extent of your education being contained in the phrase "Try some of this, it's awesome." spoken by the first man you think you love.

It is also true that many of the currently illegal drugs have the potential to cause great distress to families. They can bring about changes in personality and values that create awful dilemmas in mothers and other family members, torn between the pain of holding a drug-affected family member close and the pain of pushing them away. A system combining licensing and drug tagging might be very effective in restricting provision of drugs to children in the first place and the absence of criminal sanctions for use should make it much easier to seek and receive help, as has been the case in Portugal, where drugs have been decriminalised since 2001. In Portugal prevalence rates of use of all the major drugs by 13-18 year olds reduced between 2001 and 2006.

Another tragic feature of the relationship between women and drugs is the routine removal of the children of drug addicts. There are around 10,000 children of heroin addicts in care in the UK and addicted mothers who are having serious problems are resisting seeking treatment in the fear that their children will be taken from them. Current prohibitionist policy just increases harms for both the mother and the child. Removing the chaos from addicts lives by ensuring they don't have to be constantly chasing money to fund their habit can allow them to hold their children as their number one priority. What chance does a woman have of escaping the spiral of despair and addiction if she is living in constant fear of losing her kids?

The passage below is taken from a piece written in 1995 by Mike Gray about the closure of a clinic in Widnes. Heroin prescription used to be widespread in the UK, but had been scaled back under diplomatic pressure from the US.

"In March of last year I visited the Chapel Street Clinic and met with several of the patients. I sat in on a group session where eight heroin users discussed their lives and problems with a counselor before picking up their weekly prescriptions for pharmaceutical heroin. Unlike the junkies we are used to seeing, this group was virtually indistinguishable from any other bunch of young adults on the streets of Liverpool. They were well dressed, talkative, energetic -- they had jobs -- and they used heroin daily.
One of the most attractive was a young woman named Juliette who had been an addict for 13 years. She came from a middle-class background, married a rich kid who got her into heroin, then left her with two kids and no money. She tried desperately to kick but couldn't make it. Somehow for ten years she managed to stay afloat through petty theft and prostitution, with the authorities breathing down her neck. Finally, terrified that they were about to take her kids away, she happened to find the right doctor and he sent her to John Marks. Marks gave her a check-up, satisfied himself that she was indeed a heroin addict, and wrote her a prescription for a week's supply.
"For the first time in ten years," she said, "I had spare time. I didn't have to worry that my dealer wouldn't show -- I didn't have to worry about the price or where to steal the money. So for the first time in ten years, I had a minute to look in the mirror. I looked and I said, `Oh, my God.' Then I looked at the kids, and I said, `What have I done?' All these middle-class values came flooding back in on me.
" Today Juliette has a job, a house, and a mortgage. The kids are in school and doing well. Everybody's in excellent health. And once a week she comes to Chapel Street for her prescription. I asked John Marks what will happen to Juliette on April 1 (when the clinic closes). He said, "Well, she'll go down the tubes."

Many of the young women who get involved with drugs have had difficult lives and can only find comfort in drugs, despite what their addiction makes them do. We have turned our backs on their plight for too long. Regulating and controlling drugs sensibly can take the chaos from these young women's lives and allow us to offer them comfort that will not damage them. Careful pricing has the potential to put drug dealers out of business, removing the pushers that try to recruit children as customers. Control and regulation is not throwing in the towel in the "War on Drugs", it is moving the war onto ground that we understand and can control in order to limit the damage drugs can do to our society. Supporting the Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform motion for Spring conference could help the Liberal Democrats take a massive step forward in tackling the terrible effects of prohibition in the UK and beyond.

If you are a rep for your local party and would like to support the motion (found at please get in touch with me at

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