Archive for October, 2013

What’s worse than being a woman with a drug problem?

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Something which the Government failed to mention in its recent, polished figures is that female unemployment is at its highest for twenty five years. Women’s organisations are pointing out that austerity measures unfairly target women, by making cuts to child benefits at a time when childcare and household bills are rapidly increasing, whilst those that do have jobs still get paid less than men (in 2010, in the public sector – which one may imagine to be the least discriminatory employer – the pay gap between men and women was still an incredible 21%).

An interesting article in Drink and Drug News this month considers the impact of austerity on female drug users. I touched on the stigma faced by women who use substances in Baby wants a double vodka, but this article looks at the effects of the cuts to service provision, given the complexities that often come hand-in-hand with being a woman with a drug problem.

As Caroline Lucas MP points out, women’s substance misuse is often more complicated than men’s, regularly associated with parental and sexual stigmatisation and shame, childcare issues, domestic abuse and prostitution. Yet these specific needs were omitted entirely from the 2010 Drug Strategy, and the ‘bulk-buying” approach to commissioning has meant that gender nuances are now ignored.

The women’s drug service in our area has vanished during the cuts, and their work absorbed by generic drug workers who have less capacity for home visits and parenting work. Many of their clients, who have experienced issues such as sexual abuse, may now need to be seen by male workers, unless they have the confidence to make demands (confidence not being a trait often associated with this group – neither the balance of power when your script depends on it). And whereas having a family may be seen as increasing someone’s ‘recovery capital’, is this necessarily the same when, for women, this may include single parenthood and domestic abuse?

Attempts to maintain and develop best practice are further stretched as fewer staff mean workloads increase – and research into joint-working models has exposed that workers who attempt a multi-agency approach to supporting women often report having to hide this from their managers, as the extra work they do cannot be directly evidenced statistically and so is considered ‘out-of-remit’.

And then there’s what social worker Gretchen Precey has tagged ‘start again syndrome’ – the desire to see every woman’s pregnancy or birth as a fresh start. The dilemma working with this client group is balancing the constant need for motivation and positivity, the belief in the possibility of change, with prioritising the needs of helpless foetuses and babies. As workers, when we see chaos, we often understand vulnerability – and we desperately focus on the glint of positive in the shit pile of someone’s life. But to ignore a woman’s past experiences of motherhood is dangerous, warns Precey – and in a culture where professionals are blamed for any harm that comes to a child (as though, I always feel, they are the perpetrators), workers are left to balance hope against risk. It creates a moral clash. These are the cases that keep you awake at night.

Almost ten years ago, I was involved in a consultation on the Government’s white paper, Paying the Price, which looked at how best to manage prostitution. It seems sad that, years later, the comments I made then ring truer than ever. My point was – the links between child abuse and sex work are well-documented, and yet Social Care are increasingly under-funded and over-stretched. What was once a support service now exists almost exclusively for the purpose of risk management. And so, whether we consider female sex workers, female drug misusers, or women who struggle with motherhood, the common themes remain the same – and as long as we fail to address the root causes of these issues, we are producing the next generation exhibiting these behaviours. The chain continues.

And some of you will know how it feels to see the kids you tried to protect all those years ago arriving at your door with baby bumps, track marks and utter disgust at the world.

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Lord Coca Leaf vs Baron Cocaine

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

Those cheeky peers have been at it again. Following their revelationary recommendations back in January, which suggested we dropped the moral stance on drug use and took a more pragmatic approach, this week the All Party Parliamentary Group For Drug Policy Reform have come up with an idea so good and so politically-unaligned that it has blown my socks off.

Using the same level-headed, true harm-reduction manner as Towards a Safer Drugs Policy, Baroness Meacher and Co. have this week published Coca Leaf: A Political Dilemma?. This new document, commissioned and published by the peers but written by a specialist in The Americas’ human rights, tracks the damage done in Latin America by the War On Drugs, and then looks at the ancient benefits found in the coca leaf in its unprocessed form.

The report provides a historical context to the current UN Drug Conventions, which, since 1961, have prohibited not only the production of cocaine but also the coca leaf. This has resulted in mass fumigation programmes, leaving huge areas of South America desolate. The poverty has left populations open to exploitation by drugs barons, and massive territories have fallen under criminal control. This has, in turn, undermined democratic systems, and destroyed large areas of jungle and wildlife.

Attempts to counter this movement have met strong opposition. Publication of evidence from the World Health Organisation, which stated that coca leaf had “no negative health effects”, was blocked, and when Bolivia made its case to exclude coca production from the UN Convention for traditional use, the USA and fourteen other countries objected. Despite this, Bolivia won, and legal coca leaf production is now underway. The report released this week appears to be in response to this change, and to President Santos’ recent call for a more pragmatic approach to the impact that drugs are having in the region. It looks towards the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, where, it seem, it is hoped that the international sanctions on coca leaf production will be lifted.

In terms of the benefits offered by the coca leaf, it has long been used to enable working at high altitudes. However, it is now thought that this may not be, as originally thought, related to oxygen saturation or blood pressure – instead, it appears to moderate blood sugar levels. This indicates its possible uses in diabetes treatment. Because of the UN restrictions, it has been impossible for any research to be carried out in the modern era, but the high iron and calcium content, along with its richness of vitamins and minerals and a variety of other health-giving properties, mean that there may potential in the future to use it in the treatment of asthma, anaemia, gastrointestinal illnesses, low immunity and colds, and as an analgesic and antibacterial.

Its potential use in the food and nutrition industries, too, is possible. Containing seven times more iron and seventy-four times more calcium that the average plants we eat, it is thought to be useful for those with broken bones or osteoporosis, and its high protein content also has dietary implications. (It contains more calcium than milk or eggs, and more protein than meat.) It could also be used as an appetite suppressant for treating obesity, or taken like caffeine to increase energy levels and enhance performance. Given that it can be processed into flour, its use in the modern diet has great potential.

And finally, it is also thought to be usable in the treatment of cocaine addiction. Research is needed to test claims that the coca leaf could be used as methadone is in the treatment of opiate dependence, or whether it can also be used like buprenorphine by limiting the neural rewards available from taking the drug.

For any of these hypotheses to be rigorously tested, legal access to the coca leaf needs to be improved. Unsurprisingly, the report calls for restrictions on coca leaf production to be lifted, work to be done with the local governments to ensure that production be channelled for legal purposes instead of being made available to the drugs trade, and for farming communities to be supported in freeing themselves from black-market slavery.

These are big asks, and not requests to be implemented half-heatedly or quickly. However, with international political unity, and humanitarian aid from the countries that caused the damage in the first place (for example, maybe the four thousand US troops currently based in South America fighting the War On Drugs could be redeployed to protect the farmers?), maybe there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon for millions of South Americans.

Well done, peers. You continue to surprise and educate me.

The end of the Road

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

Some interesting updates on previous articles have appeared in the news this week.

Silk Road has finally been taken offline, and the alleged administrator, the pseudonymed Dread Pirate Roberts, has been arrested. The website appears to have been a one-man operation based in San Fransisco. The suspect, Ross William Ulbricht, kept his operations so secretive that his housemates knew him only as Josh, the guy who spent all his time in his room on his computer, and the FBI had to scour years of data to find very rare glitches in his online personas in order to identify him. It was only when a package containing fake IDs were seized at the Canadian border with Ulbricht’s picture on them, that investigators linked this to online activity – Dread Pirate Roberts had asked for advice on gaining fake identities to set up more servers. Given that Silk Road had a estimated $1.2 million worth of trading each month, and the FBI have seized $3.6 million worth of Bitcoin during the operation, it is astounding that Ulbricht has evaded identification and capture for so long. I wonder whether the US authorities will now power on with their War On Drugs and hunt down his suppliers and customers..

It will also be interesting to see whether previous Silk Road customers see a decline in the quality of their purchases now they have lost access to the Ebay-style seller rating system.. If there are any ex-customers out there, I would love for you to get in touch and let me know how you are buying your drugs now and what impact this has had on you.

Following on from last week’s blog about the normalisation of alcohol, a couple of interesting articles have been suggested to me by staff at Sheffield University. The first informed me of the alcohol industry-driven marketing concept that is Arthur’s Day. The producers of Guinness launched this national event in Ireland four years ago to ‘celebrate Arthur Guinness’, and then refused to accept any responsibility when alcohol-related ambulance call-outs increased by thirty percent. This somewhat sinister celebration, cleverly timed six months after St Patrick’s Day and on the busiest drinking night of the month (Thursday – student night, 26th – payday), has been described by some as exploitation of Irish culture for capitalist gain – and the way it has been embraced by the public suggests that alcohol marketing is even more powerful and socially influential than anyone could have predicted. (Apart from the Dr Evil-style masterminds at Guiness, obviously.)

This seems somewhat in conflict with the Irish health minister’s claim today that he wants to ‘denormalise’ tobacco use, and achieve a ‘tobacco-free state’ by 2025. Yet another example of policy-makers’ bizarre lack of parity between substances. Given that the Irish Government are encouraring Arthur’s Day as a tourist opportunity, I’m guessing from this that they would take a different approach to smoking were Marlborough produced in Galway…

The second article recommended looked at the normalisation of women’s alcohol use in the UK. It presents some scary facts about women’s health, and considers how the pressures of being a working mum are influencing alcohol intake. Again, it is pointed out that wine is sociably acceptable whilst cooking, and suggests we really need to question what has become ‘normal’ behaviour. It does make me wonder whether our kids think we drink that like all the time, been as that’s all they see of us. And with our young women drinking more than any others in the western world, maybe we need to look at ourselves and the patterns our children emulate.

And finally – I know you will all have seen this, so I will be brief – in a brave move which may mean he does himself out of a job, Chief of Police Mike Barton has stated that decriminalisation is the way forward. Drawing a clear division between drug dealers and drug users, Mike is making a bigger statement than many of us realise, given that many Police targets focus on homogenising and prosecuting anyone associated with drugs because ‘drugs are bad’. Mike draws the same comparisons that have been previously drawn here between the War On Drugs and alcohol prohibition in 1920s America – instead of stopping the trade, it routes the profits directly to criminals. It’s a relief to know that the frontline last bastion of the moral crusade, the Police, are willing to make their voices heard – instead of, as with the Police in 20s America, seeing the battle as a way of either lining their own pockets or buying their way into heaven. I think it is an honest and altruistic move by Mike, one which may well both damage his career and sit him outside his peer group, but I for one am heartened by his stance.

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