In the past 25 years, I have known a number of drug users and
some dealers and have come to three conclusions. First, hard drug
taking can harm neighbourhoods. Families can be torn asunder. I
have seen mothers reluctantly eject sons who have stolen from them
to feed their habit. One drug dealer and his queues of customers
were located opposite a primary school. The outcome was a drop in
the school roll as some parents opted for other schools.
Second, it can mean fear. Most residents in our neighbourhood are
not drug users, yet often they are fearful of the violence that
accompanies it. Early one morning, a drug user banged on our door
and demanded money. When I refused, he produced a meat cleaver.
After much talking, I persuaded him to leave. I am a wimp: when I
closed the door, I was shaking with fear.
Third, there is an association between inequality and drug abuse.
Professor Richard Wilkinson explains that, in unequal societies,
those at the bottom of the pile may just retreat into apathy or
anger which finds expression in crime or drug taking.1
Today there are significant numbers of young people with no jobs,
no benefits and no hope. Some of them turn to drugs. Of course,
inequality cannot explain all misuse. The children of some wealthy
MPs go astray, but it is a contributory factor.
In December 2002 home secretary David Blunkett updated the
government’s drug strategy with more resources directed at
treatment for hard drug users. Certainly, treatment should be
available but the government fails to appreciate fully what happens
when those treated return to the very circumstances that
precipitated their drug use. A young woman came back from a
treatment centre looking healthy. But she also returned to poverty
and a friendship circle of users. A dealer offered her a free shot
and before long she was addicted again. The dealer soon told her
that she was in debt to him and suggested ways in which she could
raise the money.
What is needed? In the long run, a more equal society. In
particular, young people in deprived areas want education and
training suited to them, proper not grotty temporary jobs, a decent
wage, a career that offers satisfactions. They should not be placed
at the bottom of society.
I dream. Among Labour’s numerous targets there is one notable
absentee – one to radically reduce the gap between the affluent and
the poor. In the meantime, a welcome must be given to specialist
drug agencies which counsel users and to self-help groups which can
help users and their relatives.
What about the role of locally run community projects in
neighbourhoods of high drug use? There is a dilemma. Some years
ago, at the annual meeting of the project with which I am
associated, some participants proposed that more direct help be
given to those with drug problems. However, a number of parents
responded that if such a service were provided on the project’s
premises they would not let their children attend the youth clubs
there. This view prevailed but the project has developed more
indirect approaches as follows:
- Two staff take groups in schools to discuss social issues which
include drug use. The line is that children can choose to be
assertive, can say “no” even when pressure is put on them.
- The youth clubs, the holidays and, it is hoped, in the future
an adventure playground can offer safe leisure which may divert
some children from harmful activities. One 20 year old said: “Most
of my friends went to the clubs which had the same influence on
them as it did on me. None of them have got into drugs.”
- Young people in their late teens and early twenties, often
unemployed, are encouraged to choose activities to which staff
transport them. They want sport and tenpin bowling. They appreciate
the chance to do something different and to form relationships with
adults they trust.
- When drug users do want help, staff can take them to specialist
- Occasionally, “new start” help can be provided. A long-term
heroin user was offered accommodation and a job in London by a
relative. Our project paid for the coach ticket. He settled in
London with a partner and was clean for three years. Unfortunately,
the job and the relationship floundered and he is struggling
Local projects are not the answer but they can help. But one
thing is for sure. None of the £1.5bn for the drugs strategy
will go to local neighbourhood projects.
1 R Wilkinson, Unfair Shares,
Bob Holman is the author of Champions for Children. The
Lives of Modern Child Care Pioneers, Policy Press,