Do Celeb Drug Takers Get Off Too lightly?
The United Nations drugs watchdog says the UK and other countries respond too leniently to the drug-taking antics of celebrities, and that this sends out the wrong message to young people. "Celebrities are often involved in illicit drug trafficking or in illicit drug use and this is glamorised," said Philip Emafo, president of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which released the report. "If, indeed, they have committed offences they should be dealt with." The UK is also cited in the UN report as one of the countries with the highest cocaine use in the European Union, along with Italy and Spain. Allegations of drug-taking against celebrities such as Amy Winehouse, Pete Doherty or Kate Moss have abounded. Even where they have apparently been caught in the act, the stars seem to suffer little consequence. Last month, Grammy award-winning singer Winehouse was questioned - but not arrested - by police in connection with a video which appeared to show her smoking crack cocaine. Last October, she was arrested in Norway for possession of cannabis. She received a fine, against which she is planning to appeal. In 2005, top model Kate Moss faced allegations she had been taking cocaine, but the Crown Prosecution Service announced the following year that she would not be charged over the claims. And although a furore ensued following the allegations, with leading fashion houses announcing they were dropping her as the face of their campaigns or planning not to use her in the future, Ms Moss was reported last year to be in the top 100 women list with wealth put at £45m. Her former boyfriend, Pete Doherty, has been prosecuted for drug-taking, but was given light sentences - short-term prison or suspended sentences - or ordered to go into rehab. Criminal law solicitor Julian Young says even when charges are successfully brought, courts in the UK will always try to go for the rehabilitation option rather than a custodial sentence. Custody is seen as a last resort, and even then, such sentences are fairly short-term with up to six months per offence, and less if the offender pleads guilty. And it would be unpractical to jail everyone who was convicted of a drug offence, he adds. Fines, which in magistrates' court are a maximum of £5,000 for a drug offence, do not have an impact on celebrities who are multimillionaires, he adds. There is also the option of community service, but it is not as targeted or as imaginative as community service has been in the US. Across the Atlantic, celebrities can be placed on probation for years, or community service can be more specific than in the UK, making the sentence more effective. There for example, it is not unknown for the courts to order stars to organise a music concert and donate the proceeds to drug rehabilitation charities to make amend for their offences. If that were to be done in the UK, "it would link celebrity with misconduct and consequences", Mr Young says. For repeat offenders however here, the chances of getting community sentences are "remarkably slim". Another issue is that the UK has a more open media and press than some other countries. Privacy laws in France, for instance, mean it is much harder to delve into people's personal lives. Ultimately, says Mr Young, "the UN is being somewhat simplistic in their view of how offenders should be dealt with in this country. They're not looking at real people trying to deal with real problems". Martin Barnes, the Chief Executive of DrugScope, an independent UK drugs charity, adds that celebrity drug-use can in any event be a double-edged sword. "Young people are quite alert these days to messages in the media and sometimes the images are quite contradictory. Yes, they're celebrities, they're famous, but images of them looking tired, spotty, chaotic lifestyles, that can also have quite a powerful impact as well. "In the UN's report today, the UN is highlighting the need for more high-level activity around tackling drugs supply across international borders, but the fact that we're going from big issues about where these drugs are produced and transported, right through to celebrity drug use, highlights the fact that we're talking about a fundamentally quite complex issue."
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