Will 'Trainspotting' breed junkies?

Protests will greet a much-hyped film, but it could prove a valuable contribution to the drugs debate
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The Independent Online
First the hype, now the hysteria. Trainspotting, the new film about Scotland's growing band of heroin addicts, has already become the most talked-about movie of the year - even before it goes on general release this week. Empire magazine has hailed the screen adaptation of Irvine Welsh's cult novel as "a violent, engaging, energetic masterpiece" and thousands of youngsters have already bought tickets.

Trainspotting, made by the Glasgow-based trio behind last year's top- selling British feature, Shallow Grave, was conceived before the latest spate of Ecstasy, heroin and temazepam-related deaths. After Leah Betts, Hanger 13 and the heroin wars played out on the streets of Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, any film depicting drug abuse was bound to attract attention. But the hysteria surrounding Trainspotting is unprecedented. Some commentators, who did not condemn the novel or the play, say the film glamorises drugs and should be banned

The row started where all good moral crusades begin - in the Daily Mail. Last week a lengthy feature condemned the film's "irresponsible, lofty refusal to judge or condemn" drug abuse and director Danny Boyle's decision to lampoon the Government's well-worn anti-drugs slogans "Just Say No" and "Choose Life". The Mail seized upon scenes which show addicts enjoying heroin - "Take the best orgasm you've ever had, multiply it by 1,000, and you're still nowhere near," says Renton, the film's anti-hero, as he "cooks up" his latest hit in an Edinburgh squat.

With other critics condemning the film's exhilarating comedy and hip Tarantino-style soundtrack, cinema-goers could be forgiven for expecting Trainspotting to be Carry on up the Hypodermic, with addicts visiting the local 7-11 Drugs-R-Us for their pounds 20 score bags. True, the film shows junkies enjoying drugs. Renton himself prefers a "sincere and truthful junk habit" to junk food, a big television and a mortgage. But the film also explains why they have rejected normal life in favour of regular, risky injections of dirty brown powder - "the life-giving elixir".

For some it is the hopelessness of not being able to find work, for others it is family break-up, bereavement or social failure. No one is drawn into a life of addiction by pushers preying on innocent youngsters. The teenagers themselves choose to take drugs. They seek out the local dealer whom they call Mother Superior "on account of the length of his habit".

Will this portrayal of Scotland's underclass convert audiences across Britain into smackheads? Will well balanced youngsters leave cinemas in search of a Mother Superior of their own? I think not. Trainspotting is neither irresponsible nor ill-timed. Rather, it is a valuable contribution to the drugs debate; the first attempt to set the epidemic in its social context, instead of viewing it as a criminal justice or public health issue.

By common consent, drug abuse is one of the greatest problems facing Britain. It is at its worst in Scotland, where the decline of industries of mass employment has created conditions of deprivation in which dealers flourish. Although Edinburgh became the heroin and Aids capital of Britain in the Eighties, the centre has now shifted to Glasgow which has more injecting addicts per head of population than any other European city. Last year more than 100 people died from overdoses, the highest figure in the UK.

Talking to addicts on Clydeside is like reading Welsh's novel or seeing the film. I know one 18-year-old called Alan who takes and sells heroin in the Gorbals. You can see him every morning by the police station where the local cop sweeps the syringes off the pavement. He has not seen Trainspotting, but buy him cigarettes and ask him why he takes drugs and he almost becomes one of the characters.

While Renton talks about heroin as the "life-giving" antidote to poverty and depression, Alan says: "Look around you. There's nothing here. When life is as bad as this, heroin gives life; it becomes life." He, too, ridicules the glib "Just Say No" message: "If I say no, I am saying no to the one thing that I enjoy." Alan knows all about the dangers of drugs; three years ago his brother died from an overdose of heroin and temazepam. But he is living proof of the film's brutal honesty, its message and its value.

Youngsters all over Britain do not take drugs because they are necessarily naive, weak-willed or stupid; they know heroin screws you up. They take drugs because they want to; because the pleasure they get is more seductive and attainable than the modern-day "junk food, big televisions and mortgages" which hold as much appeal as donning an anorak and writing down the numbers of locomotives.

It is not only Alan who agrees. Ask a policeman. Detective Superintendent Kevin Orr, who heads Strathclyde's drugs squad, describes Trainspotting as "the most accurate depiction of the life of heroin addicts I have ever come across". He knows it is a realistic picture of the "slaughter by needle" he has to contend with every day.

Too accurate, though, for some. Those commentators and critics who will lambast the film when they visit the cinema later this week have lost the plot. They are ignoring the simple fact that Britain is losing its battle with drugs, not because society has failed to condemn abuse, but because thousands of youngsters choose to ignore the advice.

Since the "Just Say No" slogan was launched, abuse and death have grown sharply. Trainspotting confirms that youngsters become addicts because, in many parts of Britain, drug-taking is the most fulfilling "occupation" on offer. Heroin, a pharmaceutical painkiller, dulls emotional suffering, too.

As Renton says: "The streets are awash with drugs you can have for unhappiness and pain and we took them all." Tackling that unhappiness and pain, rather than banning films, would be the first victory in the drugs war.