Archive for the ‘poverty’ Tag

Random drug testing is ‘grievous and oppressive’

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

Drug testing is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon in the UK, and is gaining popularity both in workplaces and criminal justice systems. Agreeing to random drug tests is often a contractual requirement – no drug tests, no job – and refusal to provide a specimen is considered tantamount to a positive result by Police, social workers and employers.

It is therefore extremely interesting to hear that this week, in Florida, a Supreme Court has ruled that in all but exceptional circumstances, drug testing without justifiable suspicion of drug use is unlawful, and is only legal if it protects public safety.

The ruling was made in relation those in receipt of state benefits for childcare, so, whilst not directly transferable to our own systems, it may have future relevance – given that drug testing benefit claimants in the UK has already been mentioned in the Government’s recent poor-bashing campaign (scapegoating benefit claimants for bankers’ fuck-ups), and is only one step further than setting Jobcentre staff targets to stop payments, and making systems inaccessible so as to exclude more vulnerable recipients.

But the reasons for the ruling are very relevant here in the UK. In the first part, political attempts to align the poor with illegal drug use were thwarted when the court case revealed that only 2.6% of child benefit recipients tested had provided a positive sample. This percentage of illicit drug use was lower than in the general population.

Even more poignant were the legal challenges to random drug testing brought forward by the case, which was filed by a Navy veteran-turned-student whilst single-handedly caring for a disabled mother and young son. He refused a drugs test given there was no reasonable suspicion of drug use, and as a result had his claim for public assistance turned down. He won the case on the grounds that random drug testing is “unconstitutional”.

The judge deemed mandatory random testing outside the law because, under the Fourth Amendment of US Constitution, drug tests are classed as a search, and as such can only take place in response to suspicion that a crime has been committed. This law was introduced in 1700s when British search warrants enabled the colonists to enter and seize property at will. Fury at this lawful breach of human rights was thought to have started the Amercian Revolution. The resulting Declaration of Rights clearly stated that any searches on a person “whose offense is not particularly described and supported by evidence, are grievous and oppressive and ought not to be granted”.

How incredibly refreshing. Especially at a time when, in the UK, choices we make outside of work, which have no impact on our professional functioning, can mean we lose our jobs; or when a substance we used days ago, which has no effect on our ability to drive safely now, can mean we lose our driving license. Cannabis, a drug with a very weak relationship to social harm which is now legal in parts of America, can show up in urine tests for up to four weeks. Yet what, over such timescales, is the relationship to reduced ability or function, either in the workplace or behind the wheel?

I am sure that, forty years ago, employers felt that had a right to know the sexuality of their employees. Their choice not to employ homosexuals would have been supported by the authorities, despite this lifestyle choice having no impact on their professional capacity or any relevance in the workplace.

I hope this week’s ruling is the start of a thought revolution on the issue of drug use. What a person chooses to do behind closed doors should be private, unless this choice poses a risk to the other people. So in the case of drug use, unless an employer can evidence reduced productivity or increased risk as a result of suspected substance use, drug tests should not be carried out. Most employers condone, even support, the use of alcohol outside of work, despite use of this substance being well-documented to increase risk when operating machinery – the difference in the handling of the use of other drugs outside of work can therefore not be justifiably linked to risk.

This case is a reminder that we have human rights, a fact which seems to have been lost in this country where drug use is concerned. It is possession, not use, of a drug that is illegal. We cannot be arrested for having a drug in our system – yet we can lose our livelihood, without putting a foot wrong. That certainly strikes me as grievous and oppressive.

What’s morality got to do with drugs?

Friday, September 13th, 2013

My beliefs about the criminalisation of drug use have changed over the last few months of researching and writing this blog. Although I always supported a health agenda, I spent years working alongside criminal justice agencies and, in essence, being part of the machine that maintained the War On Drugs. Drugs caused harm – that was for sure – and whilst I insisted on working for health services and within a harm reduction agenda, I still had to contribute drug tests and pre-sentence statements to criminal justice organisations on behalf of people I didn’t really think were doing anything wrong. Besides, most of the criminal justice drugs services were part of the NHS. The whole agenda was blurred – and the lines between health and justice disappeared under the weight of morality. As we all know, drugs are bad, kids.

But let’s face it – they’re not. They’re just drugs. If it’s a moral compass we’re using, some of them, such as anaesthetic, are definitely good. But this isn’t the issue I want to discuss here – I want to showcase a couple of the best resources I have found which outline the damage caused by unquestioningly taking this legal and moral standpoint on drug use.

Count The Costs has published an Alternative World Drug Report to coincide with the UN’s Global Commission On Drugs Policy (which I wrote about in The War On Drugs versus livers, and focuses on the public health implications of socially excluding drug users). Instead of relying on self-reporting by international governments, the Alternative Report collates its own data, looking at the unintended negative consequences of the War On Drugs.

It is organised into seven main areas of damage that is caused by the continuing approach taken by drugs policies across the world:

undermining development and security, fuelling conflict
threatening public health, spreading disease and death
undermining human rights
promoting stigma and discrimination
creating crime, enriching criminals
deforestation and pollution
wasting billions on drug law enforcement

For those of you who haven’t considered some of these arguments before, or if there is a particular issue that catches your attention, do have a look at this website. It really is the best, most comprehensive single resource I have seen, and isn’t so arrogant as to presume it has the answers – it merely forces the question.

A more capsule summary of the War On Drugs is available from Peter Watt of Sheffield University, whose recent piece on the upcoming legalisation of cannabis in Uruguay identifies the main motivations behind the problems in South America, the continent most damaged by the US-driven criminalisation agenda. Uruguay is an experiment worth watching – and it seems that the countries most crippled but the War On Drugs are starting to take matters into their own hands and make some interesting moves when it comes to drug policy (as previously discussed in Santos speaks out).

A specialist in the South American drug wars, Peter also identifies the value to the US economy of perpetuating the War On Drugs, by generating the private prison industry. Quoting journalist Chris Hedges, “Poor people, especially those of colour, are worth nothing to corporations and private contractors if they are on the street. In jails and prisons, however, they each can generate corporate revenues of $30,000 to $40,000 a year”.

This sentiment is shared in Eugene Jarecki’s excellent documentary, The House I Live In, which looks at the impact of the War On Drugs on the USA’s poorest, predominantly black, communities and asks who this system is benefitting. Despite drug use being proportional across racial groups in the US, almost all those incarcerated for drug offences are black – one in three young black men spend time in prison in the US.

I hope some of you will look at these links, and that, if you find them interesting, you will share them. This is not a small problem – areas of Asia, South America and Africa are being destroyed by this nonsensical battle, where poverty is exploited by organised criminals using fear and violence – and the continents providing the target markets, North America, Australasia and Europe, are also seeing their poorest and most excluded communities injured by the trade. Drug use isn’t bad – whether it is smoking crack or having a quiet pint on a Friday, we all do it to some degree, and until the moral and criminal precursors are removed from the debate, a practical, just solution will remain evasive.

Addiction is sooooo passé, darling

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

Two substantial pieces of research have recently considered people’s perceptions about drug use and how this might influence their choices. Unlike the usual, predictable drugs research, these consider two pretty interesting variables – pleasure and social class.

The first, carried out in Australia, used some fairly complex formulas to grade respondents’ socio-economic status (I’d imagine things like ‘How many kangaroos do you own?’, ‘How big is your beer fridge?’, ‘What do you throw on your barbie?’), and then correlated this with their opinions about which substances they associated with drug problems. The results were compiled into this rather lovely diagram (apologies to email subscribers if this doesn’t come through as intended, it’s worth having a look on my actual blog by clicking on the link at the bottom):


As you can (hopefully) see, heroin, considered more of a problem by those further up the social ladder, has become less of a perceived problem over the last few years. Conversely, and unsurprisingly given the massive ‘P’ problem in Australia, methamphetamine has become more of a concern over the years, regardless of social class – although wierdly is still less of a worry than heroin. Concern around cannabis use seems bizarrely high, but has remained fairly stable over the whole research period, and those in higher social classes feel cannabis is significantly less problematic than those further down the scale. And alcohol and tobacco, the substances most associated with addiction and serious health problems, seem to be seen as largely unproblematic by the people questioned. But then they are Australian.

I’d love to see this piece of research replicated in Britain. I think the boundaries of socio-economic status would be more blurred here, with our very old and complex social structures, but I think we could all help the process by thinking of some potential questions: Staffie, rescue mongrel, or labrador? Aldi, Tesco, or Waitrose? Jeremy Kyle, Jeremy Clarkson or Jeremy Vine?

The second piece of research is grandly titled The Global Drugs Survey – although it’s UK data was collected from readers of Mixmag and The Guardian, so The White Middle Class Survey might have been more accurate. However, the concept was novel – using an (unvalidated) scale called the Net Pleasure Index, it looked at positive and negative experiences of each substance and how they impacted on an individual’s ability to function.

Mephedrone and ‘unknown white powders’ caused the most concern in terms of after-effects, with psychadelics and ecstacy coming out the most pleasurable overall. Those who had been caught in possession of small amounts of illicit substances had a good chance of not facing criminal charges. The role of Silk Road in shifting drug purchase trends was acknowledged.

Old Nuttbag got involved, of course, to point out that alcohol and tobacco were perceived as the most problematic by respondents. Banging the pro-drugs drum with his headline ‘The real driver behind most drug use is pleasure, not dependence’, he seemed to be missing the point that sample was biased, being a cohort of reportedly happy, healthy, educated and employed Mixmag and Guardian readers. Obviously most of them are still able to work and function, otherwise they wouldn’t be buying publications about spending all your money having fun, either wearing designer garns and sunglasses in a warehouse at midnight, or carbon-neutral eco-camping in France. And clearly, therefore, their experiences of drug use are bound to be more positive than if they had asked the same questions at a Jobcentre or a needle exchange – where the focus might have been less “hey life’s great, I’m financially stable, confident, and fulfilled in my working week, so drugs are about weekend pleasure” and more “I am dragging myself through yet another degrading fucking groundhog day and cannot wait to smash something into to me to block out the banality and misery of my own existence”.

Or had the research population been Sun readers, I would imagine the results would have been skewed somewhat differently. But then the questions might have been a bit too hard for them to understand. And it’s difficult to find time to do surveys when you’ve got to sign on, get the transit ready for the scrap run, sign bail and make it in time for Wetherspoon’s happy hour (every hour’s a happy hour at Wetherspoon’s).

So there we go – my conclusion is that both pieces of research told us more about socio-economic status than they did anything else, and that in fact problematic drug using behaviours may well be symptomatic of poverty, poor education and lack of aspiration. And if you’re white and middle-class, you will probably get off a possession charge without so much as a caution. Ground-breaking stuff.

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