Women, Drugs and Violence:

Which way is out?

Abstract; The drug scene is changing – the last 25 years have seen some very difficult environments emerge for women who use and are dependant on drugs. Violence, imprisonment, mental health issues, parenting and caring –  can all mean different things for women who use drugs and the impact drug use can have on a woman’s life is often harsher, more stigmatised than males.

Yet for women who use drugs, violence is almost accepted by society as part and parcel of involvement in the drugs scene and drug dependant women are still finding themselves excluded from most refuges and shelters. It is time we looked closely at why we continue to exclude ‘some’ women, at why we aren’t utilizing their rare and specialist perspectives when developing services, and at our attitudes –  why some of society’s most vulnerable women, continue to remain so isolated.

Although I have written and presented on issues in the drugs field now for quite a few years, every time I decide to do something on women and drugs I struggle between this desperate sense of responsibility to report and convey the vast, often deeply misunderstood issues that affect drug-using women today and this paralysis that occurs every time I try to put pen to paper as the issues are just so complex.

My head starts spinning; the difficulties, the barriers, the pain, violence and injustices that surround so many women in the drug scene are clearly immense concerns, often hidden, regularly misunderstood – all thickly encrusted with overlays of distorting bias.

Societal attitudes, punitive laws, and prohibition (as women operate within what is essentially the scene of a male-dominated drug) affect ALL women who use drugs (and usually their children) – and in a myriad of ways, too many for me to go into here, and much too entangled for me to even begin to try and unweave in this small presentation today.

So, as i sat at my computer facing a blank word doc, I had to try hard to tune into what it was I wanted to say, what it was I wanted to tell you, to find some way of funnelling my own 25 years experience as a drug-using woman into something that will perhaps shed a bit of light into what’s essentially been kept in the dark, is relatively unresearched and is still surrounded by attitudes that have now moved beyond being pervasive and discriminatory to downright dangerous, – life-threatening, and even negligent.

The reasons WHY drug-using women are still effectively excluded from most DV refuges and why, still, drug-using women are afforded so little protection or real care from drug and DV services when these are women who often have experienced violence not only throughout their lives but from a variety of sources within it as well.

Because for many women in the drugs scene, the vulnerable women that we are focussing on today, violence or the fear of violence is not only coming from within the home, from partners or loved ones, but from the street (throughout the day or night), friends houses or places that were thought safe one day but aren’t the next,  violence or the fear of it when they go to work and when they get home (particularly sex workers or dealers), or even when entering hostels, prison and shared emergency accommodation.

Being robbed, raped, assaulted, abused, demeaned or humiliated, are things that some drug-using women face on a day to day basis. It is not an exaggeration when I talk of women virtually imprisoned within a psychological or physical prison, selling sex for drugs, their freedom being slowly sold for another bag of gear or rock of crack. The drug scene has changed markedly over the last 20 years, the introduction of crack and the fast turnover of money has ratcheted up the levels of violence involved and has completely changed the landscape for a woman who sells sex.

The crack-addicted women never sees any money

The crack-addicted women never sees any money for their work but are paid only in rocks. As a young woman said just the other day, ‘I never saw any cash; I was just told what car to get into, Id get in, give the guy a blowjob, then get out and walk 3 cars down to my pimps car where id be given a rock. I’ sit there for 10 minutes while I smoked it, they would have to get out and go to the next job.

I’d be given some brown (heroin) at the end of the night to go home with, I never saw any money. Whether physical violence is involved or not, the depth of addiction, coercion, hopelessness and isolation is clearly violating and disempowering and in anyone’s book, would constitute abuse.

It is no coincidence that the price of crack has consistently reflected the price of services on the street. Where there is crack for £15 a stone, there’ll be blowjobs for £20 too.

The stimulant properties of crack and its immediate but short-acting high have meant women sometimes work literally 24-7, or live in crack houses where a constant stream of crack-smoking male visitors provide pipes for handjobs, a straightforward but humiliating swap. These are environments that strip you of your dignity, where the hope of a new life is so far away it has disappeared altogether, where fear, paranoia, psychosis, and   oblivion is about all you can manage. Working girls are on the frontline of rapes, often experiencing it repeatedly, friends i know who have been tied up for hours, raped by more than one, dragged out of mugs car then run over, bashed by other women for earning too much. We wax lyrical about saving women from violence, but we still shy away from tackling some of the most vulnerable. These women are being failed, almost across the board, by our services.

I know this is depressing, disturbing and tragic, but i also know this is all true, it is happening right now, today. I want to try and convey to you today the seriousness, the violence and the barriers to support that drug using women are facing.

While drug treatment clinics for stimulant users are, very slowly emerging, many of these women remain outside them, there is rarely if ever a DV worker on staff, and opening hours remain staff focussed ie not at night. Outreach has all but disappeared and most refugees can’t or won’t touch women with such ‘complex needs’ with a barge pole. These women live in a service and treatment limbo land, a place where most services arent equipped to meet their needs, or aren’t effective in retaining them, or fear them as disruptive or mentally ill, shunting them from mental health service to drug service and back again. Where there is nowhere to go to escape but a series of mixed sex night shelters, friends floors, (who’re certainly other drug users), or into the arms of men, possibly other dealers so at least you won’t have to go out on the street to score, but who’ll probably be expecting some favours in return for a ‘shared’ bed.

Crack addiction and crack-related prostitution and its consequences, violence, STDs, HIV, Hep C, and pregnancies, within the context of the larger social issues of inner-city poverty, race, gender, and class are evidence of a long-term social exclusion that is working to destroy the self-image of poor black, white and ethnic drug-using women.

Women embody this negative image, exchanging sex for crack on a regular basis to support their addictions at the risk-and reality of unplanned pregnancies. Yet it is only when children become involved that the spotlight goes on these women, indeed, it is usually fear for the children that is overwhelmingly responsible for propelling a drug-using woman to seek help, refuge, treatment.

Although pregnancy and children are motivations for seeking treatment, the reality is that they both serve as barriers to treatment. Some programs are hesitant to take pregnant women because of the extra resources, and even when they do present for treatment during pregnancy, the discrimination at the hands of health care and social service workers within the clinic setting, is still immense. What’s worse than a Bad mother? A mother who uses drugs. Domestic violence and a womans responsibility for family and children will strongly influence treatment outcomes, sometimes treatment isn’t even initiated until the violence at home has ended.

Little has changed in the last fifteen years.

Women who have substance abuse problems are still unable, for the most part, to find inpatient services that will accommodate their children.

Those women who need outpatient services are also in need of assistance with their childcare responsibilities, such as supervised play areas for children within the treatment facility. They must also be sensitive to women’s diverse cultural needs. Ideally, alternatives to the current system should include women-only drug treatment programs, (there STILL isn’t one in the country) inpatient programs that accept children, expansion (and in some areas of the country, creation) of clinics for pregnant women, DV refuges that cater for sex workers escaping violence, more research and options for stimulant and benzodiazepine addicted women, long-term commitment of funding for aftercare, ensuring shelter and housing is available and asbos aren’t used on our most vulnerable. The violence and intimidation that occurs to drug users with mental illness is frightening and they are perhaps the most in danger of all of us – and they are catered for the least.

Understand and implement a harm reduction focus, shifting the focus away from idealistic long-term goals, such as abstinence from all drug use, toward more attainable short-term goals such as safer behaviours. And of course, special job training programs for women.

Both women drug users and treatment professionals must participate in the creation and development of advocacy and user groups that could influence the formulation of treatment policy. Such organizations would go a long way in combating the depression, isolation and low self-esteem that persists among women in treatment. The personal shame that surrounds drug use, abuse, fighting to be a better parent against the odds, is all-consuming and often paralyzing.

Getting out of ‘the life’ is, for such women, a prospect that is riddled with complications and barriers. Statistics tell us we are talking about women who have been abused their whole lives, stories of such despair it is crippling and yet – these women often aren’t believed. They’ve got to tell their story, and we have to believe it, to listen to it.

A health professional said to me she often hears her peers say about users ‘Oh, yes she said that happened like that but…well, who would know?’ And yes these stories, these lives are incredible, unbelievable, and it may be a human reaction to distance oneself from addressing it in order to cope. But I fear it is more linked to attitudes, a distaste, a distrust of the junkie and her intentions.

Somehow we fall into believing that the straight woman who dosent take drugs is somehow more worthy of being protected from violence than the one who uses drugs. A 3 year womens aid study recently reported that only 11% of refuges will ALWAYS take a women with substance misuse problems – although I fear it is actually much lower. That the drug user could cause too much trouble: we have children here, the other women wont like it, what if she OD’s or brings drugs onto the premises? We aren’t properly trained, we don’t have the staff, we don’t understand…

Let me just tell you a story. About a friend of mine. She was able to tell me what was written on the spine of every book in her bookshelf in order, due to being repeatedly raped in the same spot in the house by her boyfriend of 20 years. She was stable on a methadone programme. Her boyfriend grew dope in her garden. When she went, when she finally called the police to a particularly brutal fight, they were considering charging her with the dope plants. She was made very uncomfortable in the police station and when, after 6 hours she said that she had to pick up her methadone before the chemist shut – well, it just sealed her fate. It was just another fight between junkies.

Her need for a refuge was abundantly clear to her and myself – and I tried, we tried but got nowhere. One offer of a place up north turned up but that would have been impossible with her script. Her emergency accommodation she was given (she had no clothes, no possessions) consisted of a mixed sex nightshelter, with 7 other mentally ill males, and one other female who was never there. The lock on her door was broken and there was no worker there at night. She was bailed up by a guy in the kitchen on her first night. She couldn’t stay. Suffice to say it was the start of a road that was so upsetting, distressing and difficult, that going back to her boyfriend was beginning to look like the better option. When theres no strength left, and when you just don’t get a break…I don’t know what happened to her, she disappeared after crying down the phone to me one night about not being able to cope anymore, her GP saying he could no longer prescribe for her now she was out of his catchment area. She was lucky, she didn’t have any children to look after.

Although it is crucial for me that I try and express just how deep and constant the fear or reality of violence can be to some women in the drugs scene, I also want to make very clear the fear, mistrust and plain lack of access such women have towards protection services or even police interventions. It is usual if not somewhat understandable for the drug-using community to avoid the police like the plague. Prohibition has meant that being busted is a constant fear for drug users and has a direct effect on women who suffer with violence. Not only does it mean that you feel you cant call the police in a crisis, but if you do, a quick look at your probable record (for soliciting, drug-taking, dealing, stealing etc) means whatever you have to say no longer holds real meaning. It’s downgraded to a fight over drugs by a couple of junkies, your drug use counting against you, discrediting what you have to say – as a victim and as witness, both in general and in a court of law. If drugs are found there is a very real fear that the children will be taken away immediately, it’ll get noted down by social services and it will become a sign of, not your need for protection and safety, but of your world falling apart in a drug crazed, violent mess.

If you do report it later, or if police are seen to visit you or your friends, issues around becoming a grass, of bringing the police to the house, can just produce further violence, verbal abuse and/or alienation from perhaps the only sense of a community you know.

Amongst the relatively ‘small world’ of the drugs community, the label of ‘grass’ will be likely to stay with you for years, and is extremely difficult to shake off and follows you with often disastrous consequences to prison, should you get arrested in the process.

Thus just the fear of the repercussions is enough to keep a woman involved with drugs silenced.

Funds are being poured into treatment but it is mainly through criminal justice interventions – where are the services to support these women in the community?

Where is, in a community where there is so much violence against women – where is the acknowledgement of this reality? Where are the women only drug treatment clnics, the DV workers, the refuges and safehouses that accept you if your on a script? Why are women looking to prison – a 4×4 cell – as their only respite. Women who literally don’t want to be let out of prison for fear of what they’ll be returning too. Women who are commiting crimes specifically to move them up the priority ladder for seeking help.

Women who have to wait until they are in prison before theyre needs begin to get address. Women aren’t treated in isolation like men, you treat a woman, you treat her children, you imprison a woman, you split up a family and traumatize another generation.

I will end this with a couple of points. It is essential you become proactive in how you can encourage, not discourage these women from your services. That the DV information you create speaks to the drug using woman, that the policies in your refuges make allowances for women on scripts, that you look long and hard at your own reasons for excluding scripted women from DV refuges, that you begin to see these women through the layers of bias and stereotyping that distorts their story. Believe them, listen to them, protect them. They arent as hard to understand as you think. Find ways to speak to this group of women, get to know their lives and understand their problems. Make them feel like we wont tolerate violence against them, that violence is unacceptable and that we will be here for them if they are afraid, beaten, raped. And employ these women, work with them in user and advocacy groups, create vehicles for them into training and work within (or out of) the field, though god knows we could use them in it.

The last thing I want to say is again, back to a word about the difficulty I had in trying to formulate this presentation today. You see, these stories and images I have given you today are disturbing, they are upsetting. It might just feed into that image of the ugly, violent, desperate junkie, the abuse, the confusion, the desperation of the drugs world.

However, it is crucial you don’t walk away with just these images in your head today or I will have clearly failed in my task. Yes, these are some aspects to the drug scene – but it won’t help you or us, to think of it in those terms.

I want people to remember that we are all individuals, everyone, every woman is a person first and foremost, and although we take drugs, we all take different drugs, in differing amounts, for different reasons.

We all have our own story, our own personal narratives – it is crucial that we try to move away from being crippled by the weight of the labels of the junkie, the crackhead, the tramp. Because although you have looked into a scene that looks ugly and violent, the people within it are individuals. We have heroes too. Generous, funny, special, kind, courageous people, some of who are trying to cope with being dealt a bad hand.

Prohibition, labelling, poverty, depression, abuse, violence – it affects all of us in a myriad of ways; please don’t judge, for its not your place, but understand, listen, and offer support and safety. And ensure that women who use drugs come to know that they will not be excluded, will not be judged on their drug use, will not have to expect less protection than a non-drug using woman.

I hope you will take up the fight today to address attitudes in the DV sector, introduce well thought out policies and procedures to enable you to offer the best support, and continue protecting some of society’s most vulnerable, before prison becomes their idea of the safest place to be.

Thank you.