Paul Flowers and the stigmatisation of drug users


Last week, the former chairman of the Co-operative Bank, Paul Flowers, re-emerged in the media spotlight to speak out about the “hellish” few months he has experienced since his resignation and subsequent scandal. Flowers has been personally blamed for major economic failures at the Co-op Bank during his chairmanship, however, the media – particularly the tabloids – seem more concerned about his drug habits. Seemingly, if it is suggested that a prominent individual has used an illegal drug, it is instantly newsworthy, and it indicates that the alleged user is inherently immoral. Flowers’ mishandling of the Co-op Bank relates to his professional abilities, and is of course an important topic for discussion; quite separately, his personal ethics are being publicly brought into question due to his alleged drug use. This is nothing new (just ask Kate Moss or Nigella Lawson) and as long as terms like ‘drug user’ and ‘addict’ remain synonymous with ‘bad person’, it will continue.

If Flowers is found guilty of drug crimes, he will be among the 2.7million people in England and Wales who – according to a Home Office survey – used an illegal drug in 2012. He is no rarity – this statistic means that around 1 in 12 of us is legally considered to be a criminal, worthy of being locked in a cage at the taxpayers’ expense. Fortunately for most of these drug users, their personal choices or addictions probably won’t be gleefully plastered across the front page of the Daily Mail. Unfortunately for them, drug users and addicts continue to be the most common target of prosecution, while those who sell the substances make a fortune.

In the war on drugs, it is the powerful cartels and dominant dealers that prosper, while addicts and users suffer the most. Interestingly, this disparity can be easily seen among British bank bosses, as Paul Flowers’ coverage can be contrasted to that of Stephen Green, the former chairman of HSBC. Green has been personally blamed for allowing the operation of accounts with drug cartels during his chairmanship, despite having been warned that these activities were occurring. Following his ostensibly accidental role in allowing drug cartels to trade and invest billions of pounds, he was appointed as Minister of State for Trade and Investment by the coalition government, and became a life peer in the House of Lords. Essentially, Flowers bought a few hundred pounds of drugs, and is being publicly harangued and humiliated; Green allowed his bank to handle billions of pounds of cartel money, and was rewarded with a role in running the country.

The clear dichotomy between the treatments of these two individuals is indicative of a deeply ingrained stigmatisation of drug users – which is of no help to people who are struggling with addiction. It also demonstrates that – in the eyes of our government – wealth and status are perfectly acceptable excuses for incredibly destructive and illegal business dealings. The establishment is, evidently, keener to expose and punish people with personal and human problems, such as addiction, than high-ranking individuals whose malicious or ignorant choices cause real widespread suffering.

“I am in company with every other human being”, Flowers said, “for having my frailties and some fragility exposed”. By pushing the notion that drug users are inherently bad people, the government and media perpetuate public support for the laws that are routinely ignored by the powerful. The war on drugs is inherently oppressive, but we take this a step further by allowing the rhetoric to permeate society and influence the way that we treat one another.

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