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Empathy Amid the “Fake Tales of San Francisco”*

This time last week, @manosdaskalou and I were in San Francisco at the American Society of Criminology’s conference. This four-day meeting takes place once a year and encompasses a huge range of talkers and subjects, demonstrating the diversity of the discipline. Each day there are multiple sessions scheduled, making it incredibly difficult to choose which ones you want to attend.

Fortunately, this year both of our two papers were presented on the first day of the conference, which took some of the pressure off. We were then able to concentrate on other presenters’ work. Throughout discussions around teaching in prison, gun violence and many other matters of criminological importance, there was a sense of camaraderie, a shared passion to understand and in turn, change the world for the better. All of these discussions took place in a grand hotel, with cafes, bars and restaurants, to enable the conversation to continue long after the scheduled sessions had finished.

Outside of the hotel, there is plenty to see. San Francisco is an interesting city, famous for its Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars which run up and down extraordinarily steep roads and of course, criminologically speaking, Alcatraz prison. In addition, it is renowned for its expensive designer shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. But as @haleysread has noted before, this is a city where you do not have to look far to find real deprivation.

I was last in San Francisco in 2014. At that point cannabis had been declassified from a misdemeanour to an infraction, making the use of the drug similar to a traffic offence. In 2016, cannabis was completely decriminalised for recreational use. For many criminologists, such decriminalisation is a positive step, marking a change from viewing drug use as a criminal justice problem, to one of public health. Certainly, it’s a position that I would generally subscribe to, not least as part of a process necessary to prison abolition. However, what do we really know about the effects of cannabis? I am sure my colleague @michellejolleynorthamptonacuk could offer some insight into the latest research around cannabis use.

When a substance is illegal, it is exceedingly challenging to research either its harms or its benefits. What we know, in the main, is based upon problematic drug use, those individuals who come to the attention of either the CJS or the NHS. Those with the means to sustain a drug habit need not buy their supplies openly on the street, where the risk of being caught is far higher. Thus our research population are selected by bad luck, either they are caught or they suffer ill-effects either with their physical or mental health.

The smell of cannabis in San Francisco is a constant, but there is also another aroma, which wasn’t present five years ago. That smell is urine. Furthermore, it has been well documented, that not only are the streets and highways of San Francisco becoming public urinals, there are also many reports that public defecation is an increasing issue for the city. Now I don’t want to be so bold as to say that the decriminalisation of cannabis is the cause of this public effluence, however, San Francisco does raise some questions.

  1. Does cannabis cause or exacerbate mental health problems?
  2. Does cannabis lead to a loss of inhibition, so much so that the social conventions around urination and defecation are abandoned?
  3. Does cannabis lead to an increase in homelessness?
  4. Does cannabis increase the likelihood of social problems?
  5. Does the decriminalisation of cannabis, lead to less tolerance of social problems?

I don’t have any of the answers, but it is extremely difficult to ignore these problems. The juxtaposition of expensive shops such as Rolex and Tiffany just round the corner from large groups of confused, homeless people, make it impossible to avoid seeing the social problems confronted by this city. Of course, poor mental health and homelessness are not unique to San Francisco or even the USA, we have similar issues in our own town, regardless of the legal status of cannabis. Certainly the issue of access to bathroom facilities is pressing; should access to public toilets be a right or a privilege? This, also appears to be a public health, rather than CJS problem, although those observing or policing such behaviour, may argue differently.

Ultimately, as @haleysread found, San Francisco remains a City of Contrast, where the very rich and the very poor rub shoulders. Unless, society begins to think a little more about people and a little less about business, it seems inevitable that individuals will continue to live, eat, urinate and defection and ultimately, die upon the streets. It is not enough to discuss empathy in a conference, no matter how important that might be, if we don’t also empathise with people whose lives are in tatters.

*Turner, Alex, (2006), Fake Tales of San Francisco, [CD]. Recorded by Arctic Monkeys in Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, The Chapel: Domino Records

Surviving in a changing environment: the use of illicit drugs

Blog 'Cocaine Use'

Recent months have seen a rebirth in drug related news stories, often linked to the death of young people or babies or the dealing of drugs by youth and gangs. This led me to consider the place of drugs in British Society, not in terms of their distribution, production, cost, but the reasons why illicit drug use continues to be prominent in UK society. There is plenty of research on this topic and considerable political commentary on the problem, however is drug use really a problem or are we simply more aware of illicit drug use and more open to discussing it? There are certainly arguments for both sides but neither address the reason why drugs are in our society and this led me to consider the speculative argument that cocaine use is increasing, or at least shifting to a newer market.

Cocaine, historically the drug of choice for celebrities and the wealthy is now spreading across society to a wider social demographic by why? The main argument produced by the ACMD is that there is a two-tier market based on purity, the more pure and thus more expensive continues to be used by celebrities and the wealthy but a less pure, cheaper version is now available for those less affluent. I don’t doubt the validity of this argument but I think there is more to this than simply price and purity. Historically, drugs that are now illegal were widely available and staple part of people’s daily lives helping to mask the harshness of life or facilitate their functionality within working and social environments. Has much changed? The political drive to make us do more for less is certainly evident in modern society as is the harsh effects of poverty and deprivation, both of which can lead to drug use, albeit these once legal substances are now illegal.

In addition, developments in technology and globalisation have significantly increased the pace of life for most people; we work longer hours to survive or because it is demanded of us, we juggle more commitments than ever before, we are expected to absorb and process huge amounts of information instantaneously all of which has sped up our lives to the point of sensory overload but are our bodies and minds really designed to cope with this long-term? When I was at university I studied during the day and worked nights so the maximum amount of sleep I would get in any 24 hour period was about 4 hours and this was broken sleep, usually between 4pm and 8pm. At that time the drug of choice was pro plus and without it, I would not have been able to sustain this lifestyle for three years. I’d like to say this was just a small period in my life that such actions were needed to follow my dream but the reality is that as the work-life balance blurs and demands on our time increase, time to sleep erodes and our bodies are not designed to operate well on minimal sleep. This naturally leads to the inclusion of stimulants in our daily lives to help us to function, whether that be caffeine or cocaine is a personal choice but potentially a necessary evil if we wish to survive.

That is not say that I condone the use of illicit drugs but that does not mean that I can’t see the potential benefits of such substances. There are numerous documentaries highlighting the use of uppers to stay awake and downers to sleep amongst the celebrity population whose lifestyles can be chaotic. The question is, has this chaos now spread to wider society as the cost of living increases and the political momentum for us to ‘do more’ continues to grow? If it has, then illicit drugs will remain a staple part of societies coping mechanism, whether that be too dull the harshness of daily life or enable us to survive in a changing environment.

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me”

Sticks and stones

The academic year is almost over and it offers the time and space to think.  It’s easy to become focused on what needs to be done – for staff; teaching and marking assessments, for students; studying and writing assessments – which leaves little time to stop and contemplate the bigger questions. But without contemplation, academic life becomes less vibrant and runs the risk of becoming procedural and task oriented, rather than the pursuit of knowledge. Reading becomes a chore instead of a pleasure, mindlessly trying to make sense of words, without actually taking time out to think what does this actually mean. We’re all guilty of trying to fill every minute with activity; some meaningful, some meaningless that we forget to stop, relax and let our minds wander. Similarly, writing becomes a barrier because we focus on doing rather than thinking. With this in mind what follows is not a reasoned academic argument but rather a stream of thought

As some of you will remember, a while ago Manos and I had a discussion around words in Criminology (Facebook Live: 24.10.16). In particular, whether words can, or should, be banned and if there is a way of reclaiming, or rehabilitating language. Differing views have emerged, with some strongly on the side of leaving words deemed offensive to die out, whilst others have argued for reclamation of the very same terms. Others still have argued for the reclamation of language, but only by those who the language was targeted toward.

All this talk made me think about the way we use language in crime and justice and the impact this has on the individuals involved. This can be seen in everyday life with the depiction of criminals and victims, the innocents and the guilty, recidivists and those deemed rehabilitated, but we rarely consider the long-lasting effects of these words on individuals.

The recent commemoration (27.07.17) of the fiftieth anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 brought some of these thoughts to the forefront of my mind.  This legislation partially decriminalised sex between men (aged 21 or over) but only in private, meaning that homosexual relationship were confined and any public expression of affection was still liable to criminal prosecution. This anniversary, coming six months after the passing of “Turing’s Law” (officially, the Policing and Crime Act 2017) made me think about the way in which we recompense these men; historically identified as criminals but contemporaneously viewed in a very different light.

I view the gist of “Turing’s Law” as generally positive, offering the opportunity for both the living and dead, to clear their names and expunge their criminal records. After all it allows society to recognise the wrongs done in the name of the law to a not unsubstantial group of citizens. For me, where this legal righting of wrongs falls down, is in the wording. To offer someone a pardon suggests they are forgiven for their “sins” rather than acknowledging that the law (and society) got it wrong. It does not recognise the harm suffered by these men over the course of their lifetimes; a conviction for sexual offending cannot be shrugged off or easily explained away and leaves an indelible mark. Furthermore, whilst the dead are to be pardoned posthumously, the onus is on the men still living, to seek out their own disregard and pardon.

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