The sudden and untimely death of the singer Whitney Houston evoked a strange mix of emotions. Although never a devotee of her music I was captivated by her best selling song, 'I will always love you'.
Her song accompanied a funeral service I attended for a former client who had succumbed to a lethal crack cocaine binge while celebrating New Year. I had an uneasy understanding of the impact of crack on the lives of many of those offending, or involved in low level dealing. Dealing crack in open market transactions, as was the case with John (not real name), meant that many contradictory emotions were aroused, when as his probation officer I watched as the strains of this song entered my memory leaving the funeral service.
The question remained: how best to have responded to his nearly 30 year relationship with drug use. One aspect often overlooked by state agencies (John was caught more than once by undercover police officers in sting operations) was that the social reality of such drug use was often fraught with the use of violence enforcing what was often perceived as breaches of contract between dealers
Indeed John was seldom the author of such violence but on at least one occasion was severely assaulted by 'unknown others' in pursuit he explained, of parts of the lucrative local crack market. This 'codes of the street' are well documented in ethnographic accounts that pepper the criminological canon. He kept his probation appointments, although not always at times that coincided with any formal timetable! But the special craft of relationship building and sensibility to the complex and at times scary social world that unfolded when John reported to the office, meant that some hard won insights were gained in just how he remained so entrenched in his drug using lifestyle and pattern of offending.
I struggled to understand the peculiar graduations that premised increased sentence length based on small increases in the quantities of crack cocaine seized. In John's case, the amounts always appeared modestly low: maybe this was the reason so many low-end dealers found themselves on probation, or more likely on licence, having served time in prison. John talked, layered with a mirthful patois, of his keen desire to reach some endgame with crack, which seemed fated not to happen. His death was so poignant because he was veering steadily towards a drug-free future, but celebrated in a fateful blast of crack consumption the dawning of a new stage of his life. His demise was framed by the sudden lethality of over-consumption in the early hours of New Year.
I thought at the time and throughout my probation career about who on my caseload might persist or desist as adult offenders, mostly compounded by some form of substance misuse. The imprisoning framework that so often surrounds the lives of those most vulnerable to early death or abusive and precarious lifestyles left me with a confused medley of feelings. Feelings about attitudes, approaches and societal ambivalence towards drug use, formal sentencing responses to such usage, the cultural embeddedness of drug taking and more particularly the sheer futility of any 'war on drugs' -metaphorical or otherwise.
For as John used to say to me, ' things done change'.