An un-comprehensive reflection on ‘drugs,’ no clever ideas. Be great to hear your comments, feel free to add to the conversation.
‘It’s all caused by the drugs,’ with a sigh and slight shrug of the shoulders.
‘The drugs’ is a common mantra today. The root source of every social evil, from litter on the streets, to the antisocial behaviour of young people. It all seems to be caused by ‘the drugs.’ I’ve frequently found myself blaming some social ill or other on ‘the drugs’. But what are ‘the drugs’, this Phenomena which has been given a ubiquitous, evil, all powerful, almost otherworldly attribute. Are ‘the drugs’ really this powerful and are they responsible for every ill in contemporary society?
Actually, ‘drugs’ are not a new phenomena, in the 19th century it was possible to buy cocaine, morphine, opiates, and arsenic from high street chemist shops, no questions asked. In the countryside, travelling hawkers made these substances available. Unsurprisingly, use of cocaine grew amoungst the working classes during the industrial revolution, a period of rampant social change and unease, but use of cocaine was widespread in then 19th century anyway, and right across the social divide. It was only in 1868 that restrictions were put in place to control the sale of dangerous substances, and it was around this time that contemporary literature makes mention of the East End Opium dens in London. In the 19th century drug use was thought of in terms of habit rather than addiction. Indeed in the original novels, the crime hero Sherlock Homes would ‘shoot up’ in his spare time to stimulate his senses.
it was in the early 20th century that many of these substances were outlawed, but it is only in recent decades that the use of mind changing prescription drugs has become much more restricted. In the early 1980’s when my mother was left widowed with a toddler, she was prescribed as much valuim as she wanted. Now it’s modern day equivalent, diazepam wouldn’t be prescribed in any shape or form in similar circumstances. I’ve seen addicts of this particular drug suffer, it’s hideous to watch, we think we’ve got a handle on addiction now, but very few people ever truly recover from drug addiction without relapsing. Addiction is a very complex thing, and what works for one person might not work for another.
I could reflect on the contemporary global drugs trade, and how it funds crime and corruption, or how drug use has been a part of the life of every prison I’ve ever worked in, where people who have never considered using drugs, become addicted during their ‘rehabilitation’ process. Instead I want to think about drug use in my context, that’s to say the inner city’s of the UK, and what impact and influence drugs have in places like Handsworth. The caveat is that the urban myth about drugs being everywhere is partially true.
Early on in prison ministry, I once had a conversation with a women who had been in and out of rehab for years. Upon one of her many releases from prison she went to a place in rural Devon, near to a small town outside Exeter that I am well acquainted with. I asked whether the distance from bad influences and the seeming lack of available drugs in this very quiet backwater had helped her?
She explained that it is possible to find drugs anywhere. It took her twenty minutes to score even in this town that only just manages to maintain a sad excuse of a mini supermarket let alone anything else. It’s all a case of looking out for certain kinds of people, pubs that have that look about them…
There is no question that drug use is a major issue issue here. The number of needles I collect from the church grounds makes that abundantly clear. I was reflecting only last weekend how busy my street is with drug dealers buying and selling. It’s a quiet backwater alongside one of the major thoroughfares into Birmingham city centre so it’s hardly surprising. Consignments are dropped off here for street dealers to sell on. Money exchanges hands, drugs are sold on the street corners, and meetings take place in the back of terribly expensive cars. I’m on speaking terms with some of the street dealers. They never ply their trade in the church grounds, and on occasions have alerted me to suspicious activity around the church. On a personal level, one of the dangers with all of this is that it starts to become the norm. That said, a few months ago a very smart asian man, dressed immaculately, complete with a prayer hat, and groomed beard was buying a quantity of illicit substances opposite the church gate. This did catch me by surprise. The other strange thing is when trade seems to be most brisk. Sunday mornings are very busy from 9am onwards for some reason.
It is clear that drugs mean big money. A seizure of heroin made in South Birmingham in 2013 was valued at more than 300 million pounds. Cash changes hands below the radar, organised crime is fuelled as a result, and then we see guns and knifes on our streets. Telling young men that crime doesn’t pay is a nonsense. When you see your older brother driving sixty thousand pounds worth of car, the arguments put forward in school assemblies about the dangers of drugs and crime are just annoying background noise.
Challenging the sale of drugs on our streets can be a dangerous business. I had the privilege of working with the brilliant Father Paul Hackwood for a time, when he was Vicar of St.Margarets Thornbury in Bradford. He now heads up the Church Urban Fund. I remember Paul challenging dealers selling drugs outside our local school, which nearly caused a violent backlash. On a few occasions we spotted a grandmother selling drugs from the back of a pushchair with a child in it. In Bradford at that time, People identified as having reported drug dealers had there windows smashed. Well do I remember a parishioner being shown a handgun through a car window for the same reason. Big money at stake.
Nothing much has changed in the inner cities. From industrial boom, which brought about squalor and discord for the working classes who used illicit substances to make life more bearable, to the post industrial hinterland which still exhibits poverty, hopelessness and desperation. It’s all here, and drugs are still a means of temporary escape from it.
But what of our national cry, ‘it’s the drugs.’ What is the validity of our claim that they are responsible for every one of our social ills?
I think it’s certainly possible that ‘the drugs’ contribute, but perhaps many of the problems we face in the UK today have a background a little closer to home than any of us might care to admit. A cursory glance through social discourse from the earliest times will reveal that social ills and discord in society has always existed, although it is certainly true there have been periods of relative harmony. In today’s world however, we have reached the pinnacle of a disconnect. Interdependence is in danger of being lost. An example is that we pay taxes (in part) to help fund the existence of those who are not able to support themselves for whatever reason. Yet why should my money support people I don’t know, don’t care about? Vilifying them makes me feel better, more superior, especially in the belief that I am right to look after myself and my family whilst the needs of others should come second, or do I mean they are immaterial?
It was fascinating that after the field day the press had with Channel Fours Benefits Street, with MP’s jumping on the bandwagon to fuel the fire, a more analytical process came into play. Doubt was cast upon the journalistic integrity of the editing of the footage broadcast, and after one live television debate many more followed. We began to learn more about the characters on Benefits Street, and why they were on benefits and in the particular situation they were in. A lot more debate followed, and then the many stories about ordinary families who had lost there jobs and homes during the recession, ending up destitute, sleeping in cars and on garage floors, stuck on benefits. A little bit close to home?
Yes, we have lost a lot of our inter connectedness, our common humanity. The expectation that we share/help others, and can expect that same in return?
Anybody could become addicted given the right circumstances. Drug use is fuelled by social isolation and desperation. We can all of us play a part in connecting with those around us, building community and bringing some humanity back into our world, through our churches and the other networks we are a part of.
In the inner city, drugs fuel a lack of connectedness between people of very different cultures, who tend to exist only within there own communities, because drugs attract crime and deprivation, making already fragile communities unsafe and fragmented. The inner city is home to vulnerable and isolated people. It’s no surprise that statistics reveal that in areas like this, hospital admissions as a result of substance misuse are at some of the highest rates in the UK.