Deborah Orr: Celebrity drug-takers need help, not jail

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The Independent Online

The United Nations has long been in thrall to the power of celebrity. It appointed its first Goodwill Ambassador, the Hollywood actor Danny Kaye, back in 1954, and it has continued with its policy of harnessing fame in the service of consciousness-raising ever since. Now the organisation, or at least its International Narcotics Control Board, has turned its focus on those celebrities whose gift for attracting attention is not so benign. It suggests that Britain's cocaine culture is fuelled by the poor example of famous users, who ought to be treated less leniently by the criminal justice system as a lesson to the rest of us.

The pub chain JD Wetherspoon has the same idea. In an attack on the Government's targeting of underage drinkers, its spokesman claims that binge-drinking is encouraged by celebrity boozers, and that cracking down on every underage drinker in the country would not change that. Wetherspoon's does not have quite the simple solution that the UN offers, of rounding up offenders and throwing them in jail, because drinking to excess is not entirely against the law just yet – although being drunk and incapable is.

But the company is no doubt most impressed by the no-nonsense approach of the England rugby union coach, Brian Ashton, who dropped Danny Cipriani from his debut international today, after he was snapped coming out of a nightclub at 12.30am on Thursday. Ashton is unmoved by credible claims that the 20-year-old was just delivering match tickets to some friends, and had not been drinking. It seems a pretty harsh punishment to me, and is not guaranteed to have a positive effect on Cipriani, for all that he is taking it with grace.

Raiding the home of Amy Winehouse, arresting her, putting her on trial, and sending her to prison seems even harsher. What the man at the UN doesn't seem to understand is that, if anything, celebrity drug use is already scrutinised a great deal more effectively than that of ordinary people. Far from being let off more lightly, celebrity drug users are generally called to account more graphically than the typical user ever is.

The media relentlessly pursues the smallest whiff of celebrity drug use, invariably so that it can be presented as a sorry tale of chaotic behaviour that damages lives. Generally, that interpretation is right, because any celebrity so carelessly open about their personal habits can be guaranteed to be out of control.

Few people view Winehouse's drug problems as glamorous or heroic. Mostly people understand that they have got her in a right old mess when she should be having the time of her life. She has already substantially hobbled her US career because of a Norwegian drug conviction, and her husband is already in prison. If the police started to target Winehouse now, there would be a good deal of public revulsion.

Surveys suggest that the public has an understanding of the issues involved in drug use that bears little resemblance to the war-on-drugs rhetoric than the Narcotics Control Board subscribes to. Mostly people understand that drug addicts, like alcoholics, need help rather than punishment, and that celebrities are not much different from anybody else. True, many people view the use of illegal drugs as a prima facie sign of moral degeneracy. But there are plenty of others who see it merely as a consequence of human frailty, and one that can be overcome.

Is it uncharitable, anyway, to point out that the UN does not appear to practise what it preaches? Perhaps. The UN is a massive and complex organisation, after all, with many fingers in its many pies. Yet one or two of its own British ambassadors have had colourful histories of cocaine use themselves. Magenta DeVine's addiction to the drug ruined her career as a television presenter, although her well-publicised struggles did not hamper her appointment as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Population Fund. Likewise Robbie Williams makes no secret of his own former cocaine use, but still was deemed an absolute gift to Unicef UK in its efforts to publicise the horrors of child trafficking. Even former drug users can move on and do useful things. But shoving them in prison along the way makes that harder rather than easier.

Rape cases: it's time to take women seriously

Between them, Steve Wright, Mark Dixie, Levi Bellfield and Pierre Wiiliams have been convicted in the past fortnight of the murders of 10 women and one teenage boy, and the attempted murder of one young woman.

All of them had displayed sexual violence towards women in the past, and the first three between them are now suspected of having already killed the same number of women in the years prior to their arrests. One of them, Mark Dixie, was even deported from Australia because of his sexual violence. It is now suspected that he killed three women while he lived there.

No wonder, then, that the Metropolitan Police's assistant commissioner, John Yates, senses that there is "a window at the moment when people appear to be suddenly 'getting it'". He has chosen this time to point out that the low rape conviction rate in Britain, of 5.7 per cent of reported cases, is partly the fault of the police, who fail to take allegations seriously enough, and are not trained in doing so.

He points out that while highly trained teams, with very specific expertise, investigate murder, rape is considered to be something that any policeman ought to be able to turn his hand to in the course of his duties. The first thing the police must understand, Yates says, is that officers "must absolutely accept the victim's version of events unless there are very substantial reasons to do otherwise".

If they did so, they would certainly increase the rate of conviction, not just through proper evidence-gathering in the particular cases they are investigating, but also because they would be ensuring that complainants at least could be satisfied that their alleged attackers' details had been placed on the sexual and violent offenders' register. As we have seen in these two weeks, sexual crimes are rarely one-offs.

This is a good time, too, to note that the Home Affairs Select Committee recently heard proposals for the setting up of a domestic violence register. All of these men, it turned out, had inflicted substantial "domestic violence" on partners before. In two cases, complaints had been withdrawn by forgiving partners. Taking girls and women seriously, perhaps sometimes even more seriously than they sometimes take themselves, when they make allegations of sexual violence, and sharing the resulting comprehensive data among police forces, surely must now be the way forward.

Previous allegations of crimes ought to be presented in open court, as they already sometimes are, so that patterns of evidence can be established. Simply understanding sexual violence for what it is – a misogynistic and dreadful crime that flags up that more is likely to come – is much more important than calling for a DNA database covering every person in Britain. Few men are rapists, but the ones who are get away with it remarkably easily.

* Many commentators have remarked that the disappearance of Shannon Matthews has not made the same impact as the disappearance of Madeleine McCann because of "class". There is truth in that, but not all of it is as uncomplicated as some observers suggest.

There was an undercurrent in the McCann case of antipathy towards the couple, who could dine out each evening in a nice resort but scrimped on babysitting, and a sinister hope that these seemingly upright citizens might have had a hand in their daughter's fate, and that their "class" might be shielding them from exposure.

There is, at least, no such smear of Schadenfreude in the Matthews case. It is understood that nine-year-old girls going home from school in insalubrious areas are rarely, but plausibly, abducted.

There may have been no great rush to sanctify Karen Matthews, whose anguish over the loss of her daughter is not questioned. But there has been little attempt to accuse her either. People feel sorrow, but not as much surprise. The less comfortable an existence you have, the more likely it is that you will undergo awful life experiences. That isn't class prejudice, but a sad fact of life in a remarkably unequal society.

* This week I passed a personal-development landmark, because after trying once a decade for 30 years, I finally stayed awake all the way through a Harold Pinter play. I'm so proud. Maybe in another 10 years I'll mature enough to be able to appreciate that Pinter is not, after all, the Nobel Laureate of farce, and that The Homecoming is just not a play about how simply anything can happen when a mad lady comes to visit. Or as Pinter himself might say ...