Yvonne Roberts argues that photographs of dead
drug misusers have little effect on young people.
It is surely one of the saddest uses to which
a family album can be put – creating a public obituary from
snapshots that capture a happy childhood, a successful academic
life and then a premature and sordid drug-related death. The image
of Rachel Whitear, bent double, a syringe in hand, was published
last week with the permission of her mother Pauline Holcroft and
Rachel’s stepfather Mick.
The photographs are part of a video intended
to deter young people from taking drugs. In 1995, the parents of
Leah Betts, who died after taking ecstacy, published a photograph
of her in intensive care. Her father, Paul, has since given talks
in more than 3,000 schools. Yet, statistics suggest that ecstasy
users rose from 9 per cent of 16 to 29-year-olds in 1996 to 12 per
cent in 2000. Paul Betts says: “If you save one person’s life, it’s
Parents may have been appalled by the image of
Rachel’s final moments but the impact on many of the young has
inevitably been more muted. Partly because they have been reared in
a culture of heroin chic where such images are the norm in youth
magazines. Second, because many young people are either regular
“soft” drug users themselves or know others who are – so they know
from first hand experience that very few die young.
In the spring, the House of Commons home
affairs select committee is expected to recommend that the
government establish clinics to provide free heroin and methadone
to addicts in controlled circumstances. The government should go
further and decriminalise all drugs since the “war” has already
been lost. Drugs are cheaper than ever and their use is growing. In
1970, 15 per cent of people had used an illegal drug, by 1995 this
had risen to 45 per cent. In 1993, deaths from morphine-based drugs
stood at 187; in 2000, the figure had reached 926.
Young people should be given the (sometimes
disputed) facts about heroin, ecstasy and cannabis, just as they
are now on alcohol and tobacco on the basis that some will make an
informed decision while others will take the risk of addiction and
for a variety of reasons.
What kills and harms is the existence of a
black market and the adulteration of heroin; the unhygienic use of
needles and the lifestyle that goes with depending on the illegal.
Experiments in which addicts are officially given heroin see a
reduction in crime and drug-related deaths. What is truly shocking
is the failure to acknowledge that and act appropriately not from a
moral or medical standpoint but because of the politicians’ fear of