If you’re male, skint, unemployed and living precariously your drug use is more visible. Consequently most of what we know and see in the media in relation to drugs – imagine images of homeless “junkies” with needles strewn about the place – is based on this group.
Of course, there are some exceptions. We seem to reserve particularly harsh judgement and media exposure to young women, pregnant women and mothers that use drugs, but again these tend to be women who have the least in the way of status and resources.
It’s never been easier to get hold of illegal drugs. Illicit drug suppliers have proved adept at changing with the times. They have embraced the potential of social media as a way of advertising and distributing goods. As the internet is said to have democratised information it has also ensured that obtaining drugs in the most remote parts of the country is possible. You no longer have to rely on your social contacts to score.
Furthermore, successive governments have essentially left these criminal groups – however they operate – untouched. The state has effectively sub-contracted to them the supply and distribution of drugs, despite the fact they clearly operate to a different set of standards and ethics to legitimate businesses that are regulated and accountable. This leaves the most vulnerable and naïve – including curious teenagers of any class – using products that are of variable quality and potency. For some this will prove to be fatal as they overdose or are hospitalised. Our system is broken.
These are the fundamental issues our politicians should be grappling with – but yet again Sajid Javid has decided to focus on “middle class cocaine users”. Along with several other senior public figures in recent months, in a speech two weeks ago he tried to pin the current surge in knife crime on the drug habits of the wealthy, accusing them of hypocrisy in applying ethical standards to some parts of their lives but abandoning these principles when sharing a line of coke with their friends.
The evidence for the link between increasing violence on our city’s streets and casual drug use? Javid didn’t offer any. Drugs and violence are of course linked – but only much further up the supply and distribution network, and mostly in other countries like Columbia or Afghanistan, not Croydon or Birmingham. Violence wherever it is should concern us, but Javid’s framing of the issue profoundly misrepresents the issue. The truth yet again falls by the wayside – simply more mythology and propaganda used to buttress the failing war on drugs.
Yet while wrong about drugs and violence, Javid is right in that class does determine how we frame drug use – but not quite how he thinks.
Even when evidence is finally used to inform policy on drugs as seen in the recent move to allow access to cannabis products for medicinal reason, many working class people haven’t been able to access them. Private clinics are some of the only places with the resources to secure these prescriptions – the prices beyond the means of those with little money.
Wealth not only allows you to access medicinal cannabis but also makes it easier for any illicit drug use to remain private, crucially making it easier to function. You can buy the drugs you need without having to commit crime to pay for them and then even carry on working – indeed drugs may enhance your ability to work. Overall the impact of drug use on your life is minimal compared to those without wealth and privilege.
So, yes it is right to highlight the use of drugs by middle class people, but not as Javid did to further ignite the war on drugs and increase police stop and search powers. Instead we should be thinking about how we frame drug users – not just as the poor and desperate – but as a range of people across Britain’s class system, some who have the resources to take drugs in a way which means they don’t appear in our public spaces. If we finally come to terms with how pervasive drug-taking is perhaps we can move past the scaremongering and have a vaguely sensible, evidence-based drugs policy. After the home secretary’s ill-informed speech, one can only hope at this point.
Ian Hamilton is senior lecturer in mental health at the University of York
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