the war on drugs is a war on women!

Ok, everyone here knows i have issues with prohibition of drugs; drug prohibition drives the lucrative market underground, into the hands of violent criminals and away from accountable organisations. Since the first UN Drug Convention in 1961, which was annexed into UK law, and then formed into the 1971 Misuse of drugs act, drug use has risen by 300%, and use of more dangerous drugs like heroin has risen by 1000%. The UK government spend £19 billion on drug motivated crime that is an unnecessary symptom of prohibition. (Transforms statistics). Indeed, prohibition of drugs maximises the harm they have on our society, by putting them in the hands of unregulated, unnaccountable dealers peddling substances of unknown purity, to anyone who they can persuade to take them.

At the NUS LGBT conference, I made a speech on drug law reform comparing the prohibition of drugs to the prohibition of that stalwart of feminism, abortion. Both have similar consequences, by putting the practice underground, it causes people to accept more dangerous services in desperation, and users of those services face similar outcasting from their communities, and often find themselves disenfranchised for making a decision about what to do with their own bodies. After making this speech, I was called ‘appalling’ by another delegate for making this comparison.

This got me thinking, how else does the prohibition of drugs oppress women?

Firstly, one of the more obvious effects of drug prohibition on women, the forcing of them into sex work. In 1999, the number of women prostitutes numbered 80,000, this number is estmated to be much higher now. 95% *of those women have a problematic drugs habit, 78% of them are heroin addicts and the number of crack addicts among prostitutes are growing fast. (Home office figures). Im sure you all know, prostitution is dangerous work. More than half of UK women in prostitution have been raped and/or seriously sexually assaulted. At least three quarters have been physically assaulted. 68% of women in prostitution meet the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the same range as torture victims and combat veterans undergoing treatment (Ramsey et al 1993). The mortality rate for women in prostitution in London suffer is 12 times the national average (Home Office 2004a). The most tragic thing here is that the problem of women entering prostitution to feed a drug habit is a symptom of our governments prohibition laws, and thus completely unnecessary. In a system of substance control and regulation, quality controlled heroin/other hard drugs could be prescribed to addicts, making the need to engage in sex work to pay dealers go away. Not only would this benefit the women involved, but a Swiss study of 1300 heroin addicts, showed that prescribing heroin to addicts caused crimes in the test areas to drop by 60 per cent since it began in 1994 (Swiss Federal Office of Public Health).

A quick glance of Home Office figures show that 25.3% of white women and 51.3% of black and minority ethic women are in prison because of non-violent drug offences (dont get me started on why the drug war is racist!). According to the Ministry of Justice, the latest figures (from 2 days ago, no less)show that 4299 females/women are staying at her majesty’s pleasure. According to ‘Women in Prison’, one of the biggest complants by women prisoners is the way the prison system is structured; women are often sent to large prisons away from their families.And, in the words of one woman: ” Many women are thrown out of prison without anywhere to live, with no job, only £46 in their pocket and no real means of survival. If they put you in a hostel and you are an addict, it is usually full of drugs and alcohol, so you have no chance of going straight. There is little or no support for you outside, so the government has just thrown all the money it cost to put you in prison down a hole, as those who are repeat offenders have little chance of surviving outside”.

Having a stance of prohibition causes people to be afraid of asking for help if they need it, because of fear of legal consequences for doing so. This affects women disproportionately, as often they are primary care givers to children and other relatives and often dont ask for help for fear of having them removed from them. 12-step programmes like Narcotics Anonymous don’t usually take any figures on gender, but basic observational evidence suggest that women are massively underepresented in NA, and, to a lesser extent in Alcoholics Anonymous – probably due to alcohols more legal, and therfore more ‘acceptable’ status, as well as it being a less harmful drug than heroin and crack in most cases – . This in turn affects their chances of recovery (already so low with only 1 in 10 staying clean for 5 years or more for addicts entering the programme), as women need to talk openly about the context of their problematic drug use, often in the presence of other women as that context is so often gender based. Without a decent network of other women addicts to draw support from, the chances of recovery can be very low indeed.

The UK drug treatment scene is currently geared up for an outdated idea that most problematic drug users are heroin using men, which has lead to a national shortage of female/women drug workers, women only rehab centres, women only open prisons, and other services. At the moment, the government is considering a £1 million investment into furthuring these services, which is way too little.

One of the reasons why women who have a problematic drug use issue dont ‘pop-up’ on the radar as often as they statisitcally should, is that they often have to engage in another, less obvious, type of sex work to feed their habit. Anecdotal evidence suggests that women (especially younger, prettier women) end up with dealer boyfriends, and with having a regular supply, dont enter the realm of ‘officialdom’ in terms of stats for accessing services. However, just like 1950’s men holding the pursestrings from their housewives, these dealers can often control when, where, and what type of drugs these women take, and how often they take them. Now, as you can probably imagine, dealers arent necessarily the nicest of people and there are a surprising amount of stories of dealers coercing women into having sex with them in return for their next fix. Taking drugs out of the hands of dealers by controling and regulating the market would stop these women being exploited.

When it comes to taking drugs, women have always been seen to be cautious and men as reckless, and so drug using is more acceptable for men in this male dominated culture. Male establishment still divides women into good girls and bad girls, and drug-using women are always the latter. Women often have more to loose as a result of taking drugs (and the drug war) and have a higher rate of being disowned from their families than drug using men.

So, in short, not only does the system of prohibition force women needlessly into dangerous prostitution, but our societies patriarchal bias means that women face discrimination every step of the way, having a higher chance of disownment, having a rougher time in prison, and, when they get out, not being able to access the services they need to stay (or indeed, get) clean. I think its time that the problem of drug prohibition is placed squarely on the feminist agenda, and i think its time for a real feminist campaign against the oppression of women, against patriarchal bias, and against prohibition.

*This figure is disputed by the English collective of Prostitutes. Other studies has placed the figure between 7o- and 98%. Anyhow, the figure is high.
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