It will have escaped no one’s notice that a famous drug addict and alcoholic died over the weekend. Devastating for Amy Winehouse’s family and perhaps the greatest tragedy was just how horrifically predictable it was. Despite being arguably the single most talented musician the UK has produced in a generation if not longer, even so latterly her fame owed more to her addictions than her extraordinary musical output. I remembered seeing her on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, at best drunk, where Simon Amstell (who from the quiz masters’ chair has mercilessly humiliated any number of stars to within an inch of their careers) was moved to say this isn’t a quiz show anymore it’s an intervention. Humorous yes, but a comment made with sincere concern. It’s tragic I recalled that before I recalled seeing her at T in the Park.
I was incredibly taken with Russell Brand’s Guardian blog where he pays a beautiful tribute to Amy Winehouse but also discusses addiction more generally and his own recovery. It is the final paragraph of his exceptionally well written entry where he makes more sense on what our response to addiction should be than I’ve read in a long, long time. He argues brilliantly that we must change the way we look at addicts and addiction.
It would be so easy, and has proven so at various points in the past, to say why should we all have to pay for a drunk’s medical treatment, they did it to themselves? Why should we have to pay for a junkie’s treatment, they’re junkies? You’ll all remember reading something to this effect. But the truth of the matter is that today and tomorrow somewhere in the UK an addict will chase the dragon for the last time; a drunk will throw back their last drink. This will be because either something in their head tells them that they can’t go on like this or because the damage to their body takes its final toll.
We all know about the George Bests and Keith Moons of the world but we all also know of someone quite anonymous for whom we fear the worst. Why am I posting this on Labour Hame? Simply put because we in the labour movement are supposed to stand up for the rights of the most vulnerable, and dare I say less than popular, groups within our society. How best do we respond to addiction? I would argue that ‘the war on drugs’ was lost a long time ago and pretty soundly beaten we were too. We tried and, make no mistake, failed to make inroads into drug abuse by cutting it off at supply and therefore I would suggest that the bulk of public expenditure into addiction should no longer be loaded in favour of prevention, expedient in political and media terms though that may be, and instead load it in favour of treatment. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we give up on prevention or that we should do anything but continue to warn, particularly young people, of the dangers of drink and drugs. But bitter memories tell us no matter what information is communicated, no matter how well it is communicated, there will always be addicts. And so the choice is the continued criminalisation of this group of ill people or trying something different. If the upshot is that fewer families suffer the heartbreak being experienced by the Winehouse family then surely that is justification in itself? What we’re doing right now isn’t working.
Graeme lives in Edinburgh and works for a Scottish Labour MSP – he tweets as @Graemecorbett