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Articles - Minorities
Written by Cynthia Matthews   


Learning from Black Drug Users

by Cynthia Matthews

It's the age-old debate - we are fast approaching the Millennium, talking about the importance of 'freedom of choice', 'developments', 'progression' and yet drugs workers still haven't got it right when it comes to meeting the needs of black drug users.

It appears that many of the drug services provided by organisations touting slogans like 'we welcome crack users' and 'particularly people from ethnic minorities', remain in the dark when it comes to meeting the needs of black drug users and in particular those using crack. I don't believe that with the vast amount of available research or equal opportunity policies gathering dust on many shelves, that I need reinvent the wheel or cover old ground discussing many issues pertaining to the impact of crack cocaine on black communities.

The social, psychological and economic devastation it has caused, that continues to tear to shreds the social fabric that invisibly bonds together a group of people, whom in the absence of adequate levels of service provision are left with no other option but to dig deep within themselves and draw upon an inner strength - an experience known only to those who have been oppressed, generation upon generation, because of the colour of their skin.

There'd be no need for me to buy a lottery ticket every Saturday night, if I'd been paid for the number of times I've met, been approached by or often spoken to another black individual who had voiced complete dissatisfaction with a service they'd approached for help with their drug problem. Nor would I need to buy a lottery ticket for the amount of times the words 'racist', 'judgmental', or 'inaccessible' have been used to describe what's been met on their arrival.

Many black drug users complain that they believe it is not only their drug taking behaviour which is being challenged by white drugs workers. On admission, or when entering a service, they are more often than not met by a white, middle class, careerist, who is quite simply unable to recognise the diversity of black culture - or of black people as individuals who differ in many ways, just like any other race. Where these occasions arise after 'assessments', 'counselling sessions' or 'meetings', race becomes an issue. From the user's viewpoint it's the frustrating old dilemma of being confronted yet again, by yet another racist. As stereotypical responses flow with ease from their mouths, it becomes difficult for the individual not to send their eyes rolling to the back of their head in exasperation, thinking "not another one"! Faced with the enormity of the task ahead, it becomes clear that if anything is to be gleaned from this, it's the user's responsibility to try and educate the worker to a level of cultural awareness sufficient enough for the worker to begin to assess their client's true needs. Unfortunately, being forced to confront the worker's ignorance only serves to reinforce the racist stereotypes about black drug users.

This scenario is not hypothetical. It's familiar occurrence only serves to further alienate and marginalise the individual from the service, and society in general. This is important to realise when set against the fact that as experience has shown, black crack users only present themselves to services in desperation, in crisis - when all else has failed.

So we are talking about 'freedom of choice', 'development' and 'progression' - all important factors that are all too often ignored when considering the inclusion of a black agenda - that needs to be incorporated into all drugs services, if they are to be of any real use. There remains far too many black crack users floating around in sub-cultural pockets of activity, with little or no faith, or understanding of how the system works. As a consequence many black families struggle like cottage industries, trying against all odds to cope with the fallout. Clearly more initiatives of quality and substance need to be developed in order that variety will give rise to choice.

Initiatives need to be targeted at the heart of the community. A clear example of excellence was the launch of Newham Drugs Advice Project's (NDAP) black specific service RAW, which is delivered from an ethno-centric perspective. RAW's launch, which included 'edutainment', advice and support, recognised the struggles of black users and their families and acknowledged the impact of drug use on the black community - and delivered from an ethno-centric perspective with which black people could easily identify. NDAP's unique approach to launching RAW and raising awareness of its existence in the black community, was not only inspiring, it empowered in every possible way. NDAP recognise that crack users move from group to group, area to area, and that as a consequence crack sub-culture is fluid. Hence the objective of targeting direct to the heart of the community achieved its aim.

Learning from this example, it is of paramount importance to recognise and act on the obvious need for more initiatives of RAW's kind. Initiatives that offer black users accessibility, that are flexible and versatile in approach, if we are to talk about there being 'freedom of choice' for black clients when it comes to using services. Just as the Millennium is considered an important milestone in acknowledging change, I for one would like to see radical change in the ability of purchasers and providers of services to improve their ability to think. Think of meeting the needs of all users in the agenda for the next Millennium.

It's time to recognise that in the absence or want of a pharmaceutical alternative, there is no quick fix for crack users. There is no magic wand that can be waved to make users disappear as soon as things become too difficult. Work has to be done - real work. To date we have seen the funding and implementation of more than enough pseudo-initiatives, resulting in more than enough disenfranchised black workers and users who lack the overall organisational support required to get the job done or achieve realistic aims in terms of overcoming their drugs problems. Progress has passed its sell by date, services must take on board the full scope and intentions of black users' needs when touting black or ethnic minority slogans. It is time to ensure that all black clients receive counselling from a black, well-trained and where possible, qualified drugs worker, if they are to have any faith in the ability of the service.

On entering the service it is imperative that black users are not alienated by the workers' lack of cultural understanding or unfamiliarity with the service environment. (Sticking up a few Bob Marley posters will not suffice!) It's time to develop effective means of communication with black users. On a practical level all workers must be properly trained in the likely phases, lengths and modes of withdrawal from crack cocaine and the healing processes, and it must be supported with relevant literature and workshops.

It's time to ensure representation of black drug users at every level when considering development and progression. Those that have achieved abstinence should be invited to partake in the consultation process on future policy. As the saying goes "He who feels it, knows it". Experience shows the list of needs goes on, but the next time you see a black user, "Can you give one good reason why he or she should use your service?"


Cynthia Matthews is a freelance writer. For more information about RAW contact Abdul Rahman on 0171 474 2222.


(c) Cynthia Matthews with Peter McDermott


Our valuable member Cynthia Matthews has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.