Football's cocaine problem: 'Strong evidence' to link increase in disorder at games to drug use says top police officer

Exclusive: The Class A substance is the 'massive elephant in the room' according to one source

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Wednesday 13 March 2019 08:20 GMT
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Fan runs onto the field to attack Jack Grealish during match

The rise in disorder at football games is connected to the increased prevalence of cocaine use inside stadiums, the UK’s national lead on football policing has told The Independent.

Police have seen a dramatic 45% rise in disorder at football stadiums over the past two seasons, with overall incidents, cases of serious disorder and assaults on stewards all on the rise.

Breach of segregation lines offences were up 14% last season, and this weekend there were high-profile incidents of fans running onto the pitch to confront players at Hibernian, Arsenal and Birmingham City. Yesterday Birmingham fan Paul Mitchell was jailed for 14 weeks after pleading guilty to encroachment and assault following his attack on Jack Grealish. There is no suggestion Mitchell had taken drugs, and he insisted in court that he was “not drunk” at the time.

Deputy Chief Constable Mark Roberts, the National Police Chiefs’ Council football policing lead, sees this new spate of pitch incursions as part of a “deteriorating situation in terms of disorder”, and fears that British football fans are “going back rapidly in terms of disorder”. Overall disorder incidents jumped 36% in the 2016-17 season and increased again last year. In the Championship there was a 13% increase in disorder and 24% increase in serious disorder last season.

DCC Roberts believes that this rise in disorder is connected to the steady rise of cocaine consumption in the UK. According to the Home Office, 2.6% of people aged 16-59 took cocaine in 2017-18, up from 2.4% in 2013-14. The drug is becoming cheaper, purer and more accessible than ever before.

“There is strong evidence to say that there is an issue,” said DCC Roberts. One senior football official told The Independent that it is the “massive elephant in the room” in terms of explaining why fan behaviour is getting worse, with police sources believing that it is “rife” at grounds across the country. Even if low arrest rates mean that its prevalence is not yet provable in data yet.

“It is one of those things that you can only identify if you arrest someone, test them and then prove possession,” DCC Roberts said. “But we know that at one recent game, a force conducted a specific operation and arrested 15 people for possession at one game. That shows that it is happening. And last year the UK Football Policing Unit (UKFPU) conducted checks on grounds, swabbing the areas in toilets. We got a high return of positive tests for cocaine.”

“There is a really strong correlation today between cocaine use and football-related violence,” said Inspector Andy Bridgewater who runs the West Midlands’ Police football unit. Last Friday WMP ran what they described as a “positive, proactive and overt” operation at Coventry City’s game with Burton Albion, outside the hospitality boxes at the Ricoh Arena. Their drug detection dogs found five indications of cocaine possession and three arrests were made.

'There is a really strong correlation today between cocaine use and football-related violence'

While arrests for cocaine possession are increasing, the numbers are still very low compared to the widespread usage. “Last year there was a 10% increase in arrests for drug possession, but that depends on people being arrested in general terms,” said DCC Roberts. “While the reduction in use of cannabis was reduced, arrests for cocaine doubled from 32 to 68. That is a snapshot, but there is enough there to suggest there is clearly a prevalent use of cocaine, and that does affect behaviour at football games. And when people take it, they react in a way that becomes more problematic for police. As we see in the night-time economy.”

The problem is that there is little enthusiasm for the type of searches that would be required to stop fans from taking drugs into stadiums. Especially as police numbers at football matches are already being cut, not least since the Supreme Court ruled last year that police forces, rather than football clubs, were responsible for paying for policing immediately outside grounds on matchdays.

“Invasive searches are a non-starter, but greater use of drug detection dogs is a positive option,” said DCC Roberts. “So is recognition of a sensible level of policing. If clubs regard police deployments as a cost-cutting opportunity then they will reap the consequences in that regard. There has been a significant reduction in policing. 50% of games are police-free [11.3%] or spotter-only [39.3%]. There has been an increased level of disorder at those games. With police having fewer resources than we are used to having, we have to be really judicious in where we provide police officers. It makes it even harder to police football while looking after our core responsibility which is local people and communities.”

A bag of cocaine is pictured (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Ultimately this is a social problem which is happening to football, rather than a problem of football’s own making. Changes in purity and availability are making the drug more popular and more dangerous than it has been in the past. Cocaine-related deaths in England and Wales increased last year for the sixth year running, going from 112 in 2011 up to 432 in 2017.

James Treadwell is a professor of criminology at Staffordshire University who has written about cocaine use among football fans. He told The Independent that football is impacted by the growing popularity of the drug. “The use of cocaine around football supporters’ culture mirrors the growing normalisation of cocaine use in society,” he said. “The old idea of football as a working class sport doesn’t really hold that much anymore. It requires a certain amount of affluence to go to football nowadays, and you are going to have in a fairly well-off bracket to attend every game as a home fan.”

“We have seen the normalisation of recreational cocaine use in society generally,” Treadwell said. “Football has always had that culture, laddish, male, hedonistic celebration and excess, and so it is no surprise that as cocaine use becomes increasingly normalised in society, it becomes normalised around football. And it isn’t surprising that it shows up associated with disorder.”

“The problems associated with football and disorderly conduct, we do tend to think towards alcohol and not other substances. What we are seeing is a combination of both, high volumes of alcohol consumed alongside cocaine. Which gives people the ability to consume more alcohol than they normally would. Combined together, it is a problem.”

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