The politics of discrimination

The personal and social costs of all this is not often seen or read about, because drug users’ lives and voices are discounted, just as the Lawrences’ lives and voices were discounted when they too were obscured by prejudice.

Let us take the story of Brendan Woolhead; a 34 year old Irish Telephone Technician injured in the IRA’s Aldwych bus bomb. (Feb. ’96). Wrongly branded as a terrorist, raised police suspicion when he appeared unwilling to go to hospital (he was anxious about admitting he had a methadone script to pick up); slurred by the tabloid press, whom he later sued. Then, seven months later, he entered Wellbeck Hospital for a detoxification treatment and died. At his inquest it was found that Wellbeck Hospital had made manifestly false claims about Mr. Woolheads treatment and that he had died as a result of the “reckless” way he had been treated. He leaves behind a four year old son.

A young woman as recently been awarded £250,000 in settlement from North Middlesex Hospital NHS Trust after she had been left brian damages from taking ecstacy. Her case was that with appropriate and standard management when admitted to hospital, the problems flowing from the fact she had taken ecstacy were eminently correctable. The Trust admitted breach of duty to the extent that ‘some mandatory baseline investigations were not performed on Miss Leighton’

A mother wrote in the guardian.. “I know….that no-one really cares about my son. He is 20 years old and a heroin addict…. He, too, has tried to ‘get off’. He had his two weeks de-tox, his methadone script, and after a lot of pressure, admission to a rehab unit.
He tried for three weeks to endure the continuous humiliation and confrontation they put him through. He walked out last week. So that’s it, as far as the GP and social services are concerned.”

That’s it, often means exactly that! That’s it, and no more script! This is the Sword of Damocles that staff in treatment units hold over the heads of their clients. The power to terminate a script and the despair it can cause recently resulted in a young woman throwing herself from the top of a twelve storey building just days after her discharge from Chelsea and Westminster DTC. (The matter is currently being investigated).

So, finding a voice in a society that segregates and discriminates will indeed be a struggle, but the determination and cohesiveness of the Lawrence’s and all those who have supported them is a positive inspiration to us all. In denying other people’s experience, we deny them. We have stifled black voices and denied them justice. In vilifying drug users, we embark upon the same path. We deny their experience and we don’t hear about their pain and their civil rights abuses. Our negative beliefs about them and the language we use inflicts the subconscious, and prejudice is not merely imparted, but is metabolised in the bloodstream of our society.

It translates itself into systemic and institutionalized prejudice, has no compassionate face and serves only to propound our ignorance


footnote 1. Weatherill, D.J Ed., (et. al) Oxford Textbook of Medicine, Vol. 3, sections 18-33 Oxford Univ. Press 1996 p. 4287 Email;

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The iniquities exposed by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry make depressingly familiar reading to the drug using community. Sir William Macpherson stated that thoughtlessness, ignorance, insensitivity and stereotyping were issues for all public institutions.

The teaching profession admitted to underachievement and high exclusion rates for ethnic minority children as endemic in education as elsewhere, and the legal profession as a whole was reluctant to accept that racism might be an institutional problem, although none of the 98 High Court judges come from ethnic minorities. The media, represented by Tim Gopsill (National Union of Journalists) admitted woeful under representation of black people in media and racist overtones in many national newspapers.

Systemic discrimination through ignorance, prejudice and stereotyping is not just bad practice. As we have tragically seen in the Lawrence case, it is positively dangerous and can lead to appalling social injustice, injury and death. In the first edition of Black Poppy (Dec ’98), I claimed that ‘pejorative language, partial facts, lies, spurious research plus downright hypocrisy are leading us ever backwards into a war strategy and a structure of prejudice that helps to justify neglect and medical ineptitude and ignore the ever rising health problems and death toll amongst drug users.’ As recently as 1996, the Oxford Textbook of Medicine stated that the explicit prejudice against patients with drug related physical problems can result in unacceptable practice. For example, it noted a case of a hospital doctor writing in the medical notes that a severely ill young IVDU should not be resuscitated or another example, where a young former IVDU with infective endocarditis was not considered for valve replacement, solely on the grounds of his history of drug problems. It went on ‘…..such dubious clinical practice is frequently based on ignorance, lack of experience, and a failure to consider the ethical implications of withholding lifesaving treatment…The concept that such individuals have a right to treatment is not yet readily accepted…’¹

The consequences of devaluing drug users in this way should be a grave concern to us all. It certainly ensures that they will continue to be excluded from the drugs discourse where their experience and their expertise are needed most urgently. How can any change occur if the current stereotypes of drug users are constantly reinforced by the mass media; inculcated throughout drugs education, the NHS, treatment centres, Social Services, the Police, and remain totally devoid of all political will to challenge them?

“Britain was conspicuous by its absence from a Europe wide movement trying to emphasise harm reduction as a way of tackling problems” writes Ian Traynor (the Guardian 26/10/98). He goes on.. “A full page advert in the New York Times in June declared ‘We believe that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself”. Signed by a global elite of government, political, academic and public figures, the declaration was drafted by a small band of experts in Frankfurt who have established a network across European cities to lobby for international coordination on drugs policy. The European Cities on Drug Policy Network, initiated by four women politicians from Germany, The Netherlands and Switzerland in 1990, spans 31 cities in 10 countries. Unfortunately, no British cities got involved.

As the Lawrences discovered, black voices have been raised for very many years, but have not been heard until now. As Mrs Lawrence said, perhaps if they had been white, it would have been quicker.
In fact, it wasn’t until the media got over their shock that the Lawrences didn’t stand up to the usual black stereotypes that their story became really newsworthy. The terrible effect of pre-existing prejudice and negative attitudes have now been spelt out by this damning report and its full impact experienced by the Lawrence family and other families who have lost their loved ones in similar circumstances. The Lawrences felt silenced by their colour. We know colour is not the only thing that silences people. How many drug users, or their families, dare to risk public ignominy to speak about their treatment in the hands of our public and corporate institutions?

Who will question the rising death in custody, many of whom are drug users on remand;
the lack of medical care and respect given to drug users in NHS hospitals and GP surgeries;
the prejudiced attitudes and disproportionate power of health workers employed in drug treatment centres;
the general disinterest shown to IDU’s with HIV/Aids and lack of thought to any special considerations for them in treatment centres such as NHS Drug Dependency Clinics;
the negativity of Social Services towards drug users that have children;
the limited knowledge of specific IDU related health problems and infections demonstrated by Health Personnel in Drug Dependency Clinics, Prisons, and special HIV Units, which often results in misdiagnosis, further illness, or deaths;
the biased language used by media when reporting any drug related story.

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