I ended up at a house party last month and I regret it. It was irresponsible and, for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t have accepted the invitation had I been sober. Social distancing was not observed, to say the least. There were people sitting in strangers’ laps, drinking the dregs of other people’s bottles and sharing rolled-up notes.
I wondered how many of the guests had begun the night with good intentions, as I had. It’s easy to do: you head out for a quiet drink in a bar with outdoor seating, and before you know it it’s 6am and you’re wandering beneath a grey sky with someone you’ve never met before, whose company you find a little abrasive, looking for a cash machine or a shop still selling alcohol.
Faced with the prospect of a bleak winter, people are understandably determined to squeeze some fun from what’s left of a ruined summer, but these efforts can have a desperate quality. Eagerly awaited reunions with friends and family have come as an anticlimax. It’s easy to forget, after months of isolation, how to be comfortable with other people and to become a little bit weird. One way to mitigate this sense of unease is drinking or taking drugs, which is what many have found themselves doing to a greater degree than normal.
For most people, this isn’t anything to worry about. Not everyone is susceptible to addiction. It’s a disease linked to many factors, including childhood trauma, rather than being the natural end state of too many nights out. But we have already seen a rise in the consumption of alcohol, cannabis and certain prescription drugs over lockdown across Europe, and problematic usage may well increase, with experts having warned of a post-lockdown ‘binge’”.
Aside from whatever collective trauma the pandemic inflicts, recessions have deep social consequences. According to one study, the 2008 economic crisis led to a Europe-wide increase in problematic substance use within specific subgroups. Job losses, stress and long-term unemployment are major risk factors for addiction. A decade of austerity in the UK hasn’t helped: in recent years, drug-related deaths have increased to record levels.
It’s frustrating that, despite mounting evidence of harm, the UK’s attitude to drug policy has barely shifted. The failure to advance this conversation is one of the more frustrating failures of the Corbyn movement, even if there was some progress in the 2019 Labour manifesto. There remains considerable stigma around drug use, which largely falls into two strands. There’s snobbish (and often racist) moralising, where people who use drugs are looked down upon as “junkies”, feckless and irresponsible people to whom we owe no sympathy. There’s also a “punching up” version, which posits recreational drug use as a metropolitan decadence for hedge-fund managers, students at Bristol University and Michael Gove.
As we’ve seen recently in the Conservative London mayoral candidate’s campaign, politicians like to disguisea regressive approach with a cloak of anti-elitist politics, blaming London’s gang violence on coked-up City boys in Armani suits (despite the fact that the link between knife crime and the drugs trade has been vastly overstated). This lack of sympathy and understanding about both recreational drug use and addiction (two distinct categories that nevertheless overlap) means there’s very little political will for reform. Despite all this, when progressive policies are implemented, such as a treatment centre in Glasgow that provides addicts with free heroin in a safe and controlled environment, they can prove surprisingly popular.
The collective psychological and socioeconomic effects of the pandemic, lockdown and the recession make it all the more important to reject the idea that the answer lies in a law-and-order approach. Operating under a guise of universality, drug laws act as a smokescreen for targeting oppressed groups. According to a joint report by drug charity Release and the London School of Economics: “Black people were stopped and searched for drugs at almost nine times the rate of whites, while Asian people and those in the ‘mixed’ group were stop-searched for drugs at almost three times the rate of whites.”
If you’re white and middle-class, on the other hand, drug possession is in many cases de facto legal.
But the problem here is the law itself and how it’s applied, rather than any one demographic fuelling demand. Walk into any pub in any town in the UK on a Friday night and you’ll find people shuffling guiltily out of the toilets rubbing their noses – very few of them will be wearing Armani. Lambasting privileged people who use drugs plays into the same discourse that justifies criminalisation.
Ultimately it’s the more vulnerable people who suffer. The solutions proposed are always carceral. There is a difference between recreational use and addiction, but it’s probably best to avoid scolding people about either. Apart from anything, shaming people is rarely an effective way of changing their behaviour.
Last year it was reported that more than half of drug and alcohol services had been cut, despite addiction-related admissions soaring. This needs to be reversed. At a cultural level, we need to be able to have more honest conversations about drug use. Perhaps people would be more inclined to seek help if the subject weren’t so taboo. More important than either services or stigma, however, is tackling the deeper problems that can drive people to addiction: homelessness, bad housing, unemployment, unfulfilling work and, in a broader sense, our society being organised in such a way that many people are stressed and isolated.
It’s hard to defend taking drugs without sounding like a teenage libertarian, or the kind of person who thinks we’d achieve world peace if Donald Trump and Xi Jinping dropped acid together, but it can be a relatively harmless and fun thing to do (obviously, people have an ethical obligation to exercise caution during a pandemic). Far from being contradictory, recognising this is key to understanding addiction. The more we vilify drugs, the harder it is to advocate for the kinds of policies that actually help addicts, along with the people who find themselves involved in the drug trade.
It’s important we address the structural issues behind addiction and oppose criminalisation, instead of pursuing a prudish, finger-wagging politics that helps no one.
• James Greig is a journalist based in London