Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Taking illegal drugs is normal for millions of people in the UK

There was a fascinating article by Melanie Reid in The Times on Monday. It covered the release of a report by Dr Fiona Measham and Dr Karenza Moore, criminologists from Lancaster University which set out to "explore the hidden world of pharmaceutical intoxication in Britain’s bars and night clubs". Here are a few snippets along with my thoughts:

They discovered evidence that almost all Britain’s thousands of clubbers routinely take drugs, in particular cocaine (tried by 83 per cent of people), cannabis (93 per cent) and ecstasy (85 per cent). Eight in ten had taken a drug within the previous month, and nearly two in three of those questioned had taken, or were going to take, drugs on the night they were surveyed.

So in the world of clubbing in which hundreds of thousands of UK citizens indulge every year, taking illegal drugs is normal.

The extent and complexity of drug use that the academics uncovered surprised them. “Everyone knows that it goes on,” says Measham, a senior lecturer in criminology, whose 2001 study Dancing on Drugs was until now the seminal study of recreational drug use. “How else would the clubbers stay awake until 5am, when the club closes? But it’s unspoken.

Not only is it normal, but everyone knows it is and in fact it is obvious if you think about it. Staying up dancing until 5am to repetitive beats is not something that is easy (or even desirable) to do for many without some sort of chemical assistance.

...Here too is highlighted another contradiction: between the growing commercialisation of the night-time economy and the increasing government policy of what Measham calls “the criminalisation of intoxication” without education, advice or treatment services attached. The people who suffer, under the present situation of tacit tolerance of drugs, are the users. “Even if the club owners wanted harm reduction literature in their club, it would acknowledge that there was drug taking on the premises. And they are concerned about being arrested or shut down.”

Last year the owner of the Dance Academy in Plymouth, Manoucehr Bahmanzadeh, and its manager, Tom Costelloe, were found guilty of allowing the venue to be used for the supply of Ecstasy and jailed for nine years and five years respectively. This despite neither man having actually sold drugs on the premises.

So all the talk by governments of pursuing harm reduction and education of the risks alongside criminalisation is highlighted for what it really is. The two policies are incompatible with each other. If you keep drugs criminalised then by definition you are providing a strong disincentive for people wishing to use drugs to seek help and advice and those in a position to be potentially able to provide help, advice and possibly medical assistance will of course be very wary of doing anything that may result in their prosecution and imprisonment.

Clubbers of all ages queue quietly outside the Manchester venue — many, Measham’s evidence would suggest, already “front-loaded” with drugs. Notably, only people who have taken alcohol are behaving obnoxiously. The security on entry is strict but not too strict: Measham and Moore found that in practice only large quantities of drugs — ie, too much for personal use — will be removed from clubbers.

Surprise, surprise! As I have been saying for years, groups of people taking drugs like cannabis or ecstacy are far less of a nuisance to the rest of society than those who are taking alcohol. This snippet also highlights how much of an ass the law is. The security know full well of the extent of drug taking and mainly turn a blind eye to it. Disobedience of a law on such a scale must surely bring the repute of said law into serious question.

What is important, Measham and Moore say, is to draw the distinction between this kind of recreational drug use, and the problem drug use that dominates the political agenda and absorbs its resources. The two groups do not overlap; the dealers are different; and so are the drugs. Clubbers almost never take heroin or crack cocaine, the academics’ surveys show, and they remain in society. The UK’s problem drug users, with a daily dependency on such drugs, may be hugely outnumbered by the recreational drug takers — 150,000 as opposed to four million — but they remain the focus of government policy.

Highlighting that the main focus of drugs policy is on the very small minority of drug users who develop problems, rather than the millions who can manage just fine, holding down careers, families and being good citizens contributing to society in many other ways. Those millions of people are criminalised by the current system and are exposed to potentially dangerous "cut" variants of their drugs of choice as well as lack of access to help and information, all so that the government can appear "tough on drugs".

I am not convinced how "tough" any regime can be considered when the law is largely ignored and considered ridiculous by such large swathes of the government's own population.

As soon as politicians get near power some sort of blinkers in this area of policy descend and they refuse to countenance the blatantly obvious, that the "war on drugs" has manifestly failed. Perhaps this report will help contribute to the existing wealth of evidence against current policy and will help stiffen the spines of those politicians who privately accept this fact but publicly still pretend that the "war" is winnable.

Millions of the government's own citizens are telling them their position is untenable.


Ewan Hoyle said...

Fine work Mark. I might throw my own take on this into the blogosphere later.

Anonymous said...

Two words : Northern Soul.

At it since 66, and still doing it. If you haven't seen people of pensionable age breakdancing at 4am, you haven't lived.

Keep the faith.