Curious how human tragedy changes public attitudes. It took the deaths of five women in Suffolk for us to discover that we no longer regard prostitutes as moral outcasts. They are now “sex workers” or “working girls”, as if streetwalking was a perfectly normal occupation for a young woman.
And maybe that’s how it is gong to be in future. In a few years, perhaps they’ll be offering sex therapy courses at night school. As the word “prostitute” falls out of favour, legally-sanctioned brothels and tolerance zones will replace street life. And a good thing too.
Zero tolerance has never worked and never will. So long as men want sex there will be women prepared to sell it to them. Better to regulate than denigrate. A more liberal attitude to prostitution may be the only positive thing from the Ipswich Ripper case, leaving the Suffolk five as martyrs to outdated attitudes toward sex and personal freedom.
However, the real tragedy is that, even with enlightened prostitution laws, these “working girls” might still have met a grisly end. For they were all drug addicts – hopeless crack heads and heroin junkies. These girls would not have been allowed to work in the saunas of Edinburgh because of their addictions. The proprietors wouldn’t have wanted them there, and neither would the other working girls.
It’s debatable whether they would be tolerated in properly managed tolerance zones either since they would attract the unwelcome attention of the police and the drug gangs. They would likely seek the darkest most dangerous corners of our cities to ply their trade, almost inviting early death.
Suffolk was really about the drugs industry and the failure of our society to combat it. Zero tolerance is failing on drugs just as it has failed over prostitution and we need new language here too. The same cloud of moral confusion obscures clear thinking about the drug epidemic.
And it is a kind of disease. The parents and relatives of the Ipswich victims told the sad old story of how their nice ordinary girls contracted it after they had been exposed to heroin or cocaine during periods of emotional turmoil and relationship breakdown. Once infected, the prognosis is poor.
This disease is supported by a massive industry – one of the biggest in the world, and it is part of the fabric of every day life in the estates of Scotland as in Suffolk. We are now seeing second and third generation drug abusers. Fifty thousand children living with addict parents – a future army of drug traffickers.
Politicians are paralysed. They know perfectly well that the war against drugs isn’t working – that’s what the police keep telling them – and that prison doesn’t work either. As an expert witness revealed in Perth Sheriff court last week, our prisons are becoming drug supermarkets.
In desperation, the Scottish Executive is threatening to take the children of drug abusers into care, en masse, if their parents don’t accept a contract on rehabilitation. But since a large proportion of drug addicts and prostitutes started their criminal lives in care homes, this is unlikely to contain the disease. Nor is the proposal to prevent drug abusers having children by mixing contraceptives with their methadone, a policy which would be impossible to implement in a democracy.
The only way to deal ultimately with the drug problem is to kill the industry which spreads it. And that means decriminalisation and ultimately legalisation of all drugs backed up by rehabilitation. Crack heads aren’t criminals they are mentally ill.
The existing laws are anyway becoming unenforceable. Models like Kate Moss and pop stars like Pete Docherty flaunt their use of highly addictive substances. Ex addicts like the novelist Will Self, who is being feted as the new George Orwell on Jura, are no longer treated as pariahs because they have been to the underworld and back. With stars like Russell Brand and Davina McCall on the box you begin to wonder if being an ex addict is now a job qualification for television presentation.
Like the new language of prostitution the social acceptability of individuals who have used drugs is a sign that public attitudes are changing fast. These people are no longer treated as social outcasts, pariahs, lepers. They are respected, even, as people who have overcome health problem to emerge more effective human beings.
This is how we will have to address the drug problem in future – as a public health issue. Destroy the monopoly of the drugs industry by legalising heroin on prescription, and you rob it of its army of pushers. Addicts then become patients suffering from an unglamorous medical condition, similar to aids or diabetes.
Of course, some people may continue to take drugs, just as people continue to smoke cigarettes. But at least it would be possible to control the quality of the substances, manage the distribution, monitor abusers and keep the stuff out of the hands of children. It wouldn’t be a soft option. Rehabilitation might have to be mandatory for people who have become criminally insane through crack cocaine.
Of course, no one wants to see the state taking over the drugs trade, but what is the alternative? We now find eleven year old children turning up to school high on heroin. We have prostitutes risking their lives – and their clients’ – through unprotected sex. Those naked bodies in the woods represent the reality of our present drug laws, and they must change. Prohibition, like prostitution, is long past its sell by date.