Boom or Bust? 

††Boom or Bust? 

Posted by FoM on April 20, 2002 at 21:45:17 PT
By Mark Kohn†
Source: Observer UK†

Britain has never felt so comfortable with its drugs even as they continue to disturb, to dismay and to shock. This becomes clearer with every line drawn in the legal sand, every tragedy publicly shared, every celebrity exposed, every time a gun is fired and drugs are blamed. Many Britons probably continue to regard illegal drugs as sinister and fundamentally wrong. In these basic respects, attitudes may not have changed much in the 15 to 20 years since drugs began to be treated as a national problem. 
But the atmosphere today is different. Despite the headlines, the air of panic has been dispelled. Many Britons may not like drugs; some detest them. But we all accept that we have to live with them. At first, the more people saw or heard about drugs, the more alarmed they became. Now, each new report or incident in the street underlines the truth that drugs are here to stay. People are getting used to drugs, and slowly getting the measure of them. When parents read of a young person dying because of drug abuse they cannot help but sympathise with the bereaved parents, and many will wonder what risks their own children may be running. But precisely because drugs are so prevalent, parents have become used to the anxiety. Half, according to The Observer poll , do not think their own children would try drugs. When people hear of 'turf wars' between dealers, they may be appalled, but they will probably not feel personally threatened unless they live so close to the disputed turf that they can hear the shooting. Drugs are even a laughing matter these days. Broadsheet newspaper columnists can regale their readers with anecdotes about activities that, if presented as evidence in court, might earn them substantial prison sentences. MTV can present its UK viewers with a cannabis night, in the confidence that it will arouse little more controversy than a Kylie weekend. All it lacks are ads for hash and Dutch skunk. Earlier in the evening, it is now considered acceptable to make jokes about being 'addicted' to 'Charlie' in front of Blind Date's family audience. Jokes and knowing references are a sign that attitudes to legal and illegal drugs are beginning to converge. If you make jokes about drinking, nobody will blame you for the alcoholics in the park or the victims of drunk drivers. But back in the harsh climate of the 'war on drugs', careless remarks amounted to collusion with the enemy. It is possible that this layer of complacency may co-exist indefinitely with support for prohibition. Inconsistency is the rule, after all, from the legality of some drugs but not others, to the assumption made by many drug users that although the law should stay in place, they are entitled to remain above it. Or this complacency may after all represent a softening of opinion that will eventually translate into support for changes in the way that our society handles drugs. One straw in the wind is a question asked in a previous poll: 'Do you agree or disagree that using cannabis is no worse than smoking or drinking?' Four years ago, only a third agreed. In The Observer poll, we now find cannabis ranked bottom of our 'health risk' table, way below alcohol and tobacco. Something significant is going on here, and if we can make sense of it, we may understand ourselves better as a society. Why, after 80-odd years of prohibition and periodic panics, and with levels of drug use apparently as high as they have ever been, should anxieties have abated rather than intensified? Surveys of drug use, such as The Observer poll and the British Crime Survey (BCS), offer some pointers. The Observer poll and the 2000 BCS figures agree that about three in 10 of us have taken a drug illegally at least once in our lives. Half of those aged under 25 have used an illegal drug at least once; nearly a third of that age group have done so in the past year, and nearly a fifth in the past month. These results put Britain at the top of the European tables for illegal drug use. They do not reflect a consistent national attitude towards intoxicating substances, as British alcohol consumption is close to the European average; though they may perhaps reflect different attitudes to intoxication itself. For the population as a whole, levels of drug use continue to rise, though in a relatively measured fashion. (Cocaine, whose use is increasing sharply, is a notable exception.) And this may be the basis for the recent relaxation of attitudes towards drugs. Although people are not aware of the statistics, they have an idea of what is going on around them, and in general they are pretty confident that things are not getting dramatically worse, though consumption continues to increase. That is one of the main differences between the present moment and much of the past couple of decades. The first wave of mass drug use, in the 1960s and 1970s, was psychedelic in its pretensions and exclusive socially. In the 1980s drugs began to look like a menace to society as a whole. Then came raves, in the late Eighties. Hallucinatory states and drug experience became part of growing up for a large minority of British youth. In some respects, though, perspectives on drugs have narrowed. One of the striking aspects of the drug panic of the early Eighties was its commitment to social inclusion. The drug that defined the problem was heroin. It stood not only as the end-point to which drug taking led, but also as a symbol of the processes that were pulling society apart. Heroin was seen as a terrible side-effect of Thatcherite economic reforms, preying on the regions that were vulnerable after the destruction of their industries. At the same time, heroin was understood to be a great leveller. Stories about addicts on council estates were complemented by accounts of addiction among people who grew up on country estates. As the cracks grew in the consensus that the affluent had some responsibility for the poor, heroin stories reasserted that rich and poor were in it together. Today, the comfortable classes have shed much of the guilt they once felt about those who don't enjoy the affluence of the majority. And heroin hardly figures in public discussion any more. It stands out, though. Whereas illegal drug use in general is a crime of affluence, being most common among the better-off, heroin is an exception. It is much more prevalent among the poor than the rich or those in the middle, and so, instead of being used to symbolise the plight of the poor, it is ignored. The recent publicity surrounding the tragic death of Rachel Whitear, the young woman whose parents released images of her body as it was found after her death from a heroin overdose, was an exception that proved the rule: the fact that Whitear came from a middle-class background may explain some of the shock those images evoked. But in general, Britain's heroin addicts are ignored. A similar indifference may have neutralised another source of fear. Urban shootings are often attributed to rivalry between drug dealers. As well as overstating the role of drugs in disputes between men, this suggests that the violence is an internal matter, rather than a threat to the wider world. The communities in which the gunmen live are not seen to be the concern of others. There is a racial element to this - although it's worth noting that, according to the BCS, black Britons and other ethnic minorities take fewer drugs than whites - but even if race was not an issue, a class barrier would still exist. Another kind of indifference has certainly changed the way that drugs are regarded. The tone of the times is blasť. It is unfashionable to admit shock or distaste at any aspect of recreational culture, and that includes drugs. Add to this the ageing of once-threatening rock stars into figures of fun, and of the rave generation into middle management young professionals, and the domestication of drugs is well under way. Already it looks like a foregone conclusion. Drugs are the one glaring anomaly in a culture and an economy based on the pursuit of pleasure and sensation. Over a quarter of a century, for example, women have been encouraged by magazines and novels to pursue sexual pleasure in the course of personal development and for its own sake. Over a similar period - Star Wars and Cosmopolitan magazine hail from the same era - viewers have sat stunned before a succession of increasingly spectacular film productions. While in music, the number of speakers multiplies and the bass goes ever lower. What drugs do is what this culture is all about. The desire for a drug-induced high is mirrored by the pursuit of pleasure and entertainment that is so much a part of our culture. To a large extent, drugs have inspired culture, and parts of it would not exist without them. But while just about everybody would affirm the joys of sex and spectacle, despite wide differences of opinion about their proper place and content, drug taking is the one source of sensual pleasure that is still widely felt to be wrong in itself. It is the one standing pillar of a moral edifice that has long since crumbled, in which sensual pleasure had always to be pursued in the service of a higher cause, such as married love. Nowadays it is difficult to express moral concerns about the pursuit of pleasure, so these are translated into concerns about the risks that drug users run. Right and wrong have been replaced by health and safety issues. Drug policy has followed a similar path. With the moral pressure eased, the authorities have been able to follow the voluntary sector's advice and promote 'harm reduction' policies. Instead of zero tolerance, the Home Office suggests chill-out rooms; instead of declaring a war on drugs, it sets performance targets for reductions in drug use. The problem is estimated to cost between £10.6bn and £18.8bn a year in England and Wales, almost all of it down to a hard core of at least 281,125 'problem drug users'. These days the name of the game is management.Fortunately for the Government, the British have a weakness for fudge.In the case of cannabis, many people seem to have resolved the contradictions by deciding that it is now legal. If middle-class parents who have stopped hiding their Rizlas from their children could make that mistake, who can blame teenagers for having only a hazy idea of what illegality means? Along with the muddle, though, there is an unprecedented openness towards dialogue about drugs. The current tone was recently epitomised in an episode of The Archers, with a heady scene in which teenager Fallon Rogers was able through ecstasy to tell her mother how much she loved her. Her mother, Jolene, responded with model concern, measured to warn, but not alienate, her daughter. Britain now feels relatively comfortable about drugs in part because the country has begun to look more stable than in recent years. Drugs were part of the upheavals of the early Eighties, and of the onrushing consumer economy that developed later in the decade. Drugs seemed to be symptoms of processes that were uncertain and possibly out of control. In the present equilibrium, conditions have never been better for a thoughtful national conversation about drugs, despite the hectic impression created by explosive headlines and chattering columnists. But it may only be a pause for reflection. When the ground beneath our feet begins to rumble, and seems to tilt once again, drugs may get their demons back.Note: Attitudes towards drugs have relaxed in the past decade, but is this liberation or defeatism? Marek Kohn's Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground is published by GrantaDrugs Uncovered: Observer Special:,11908,686419,00.htmlSource: Observer, The (UK)Author: Mark KohnPublished: Sunday April 21, 2002Copyright: 2002 The ObserverContact: letters Report: Drugs Uncovered: Observer Special

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