British home secretary, Sajid Javid, linked middle-class cocaine use with the recent increase in violent crime, especially among young people. During his speech at the Conservative party conference, Javid announced that the Home Office will conduct a full review of drug buyers and sellers, including professionals such as City workers.
The review is welcome, but it exposes one of many problems with making bold statements such as Javid’s: that we currently know surprisingly little about the social class of people who use drugs. And although there are links between drugs and crime, there is little evidence to support a link between middle-class drug use and the rise in violent crime, such as that involving knives.
While victims and perpetrators of knife crime may well have been using or dealing drugs, some reports suggest that outbreaks of violence are often triggered by social media disputes and postcode rivalries. Root causes such as poverty and punitive approaches by police, schools and social services undoubtedly play an even bigger role, together with the fact that since 2010, the budget for youth services has been cut by more than a half.
Against this context, it feels like Javid is scapegoating by putting the blame for the recent rise in knife crime on middle-class cocaine users. Treating drug use as a criminal matter – rather than a health issue – together with the escalating “war on drugs” between police and criminal gangs increases the likelihood of drugs being linked to violence.
What little experts have discovered about how people from different social classes use drugs is often related to people from lower socioeconomic groups who develop problems. The less well-off populate the UK’s drug treatment centres, and this is where drug researchers often go to gather information.
More affluent drug users will access private drug treatment, or if they get caught with drugs by the police they will likely have access to legal advice, which minimises sanctions. What’s more, the majority of cocaine users will only use the drug once or twice in a year, so are unlikely to find themselves seeking treatment.
A cursory glance at the data used by the Home Office does appear to show that those earning more than £50,000 a year are more likely to use cocaine than those on lower salaries. But while a greater proportion of higher earners report using cocaine, a larger number of people on lower incomes actually use cocaine, since fewer people are in the top income bracket.
This is hardly surprising, since cocaine is cheaper than ever before, and therefore more affordable. What’s more, these data are not very effective at capturing information on people with no fixed address, such as students, homeless people or prisoners, which might further distort the picture.
Empathy and evidence
The home secretary should know that getting tough on people who use drugs is ineffective, and potentially even counterproductive. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) – the group that the Home Office call on for special advice in relation to drugs – made clear in a recent report that there is little evidence to show that penalising people who use drugs is an effective way of reducing the social and health problems associated with drugs. The ACMD report also points out that disrupting drug supply might even increase the potential for violence, by igniting conflict between displaced and established dealers.
Attempts to prick the social conscience of middle-class people who use drugs are quick to make headlines. But they merely distract attention from the underlying causes of problem drug use and crime. Most people who develop problems with drugs can’t afford ethics in their struggle to survive, never mind thrive. And drugs are often used by people seeking to soothe their ills, whether it’s a lack of prospects or mental health problems.
The broader problem is that many young people lack hope and are drawn into the drug trade as a means of making money or acquiring status. The current drug policy fails people from all walks of life – not just one class.
The one thing drugs and violent crime do have in common is that they aren’t issues which can be solved by governments getting tougher. Instead, they require collective empathy and evidence based policies – but that approach is unlikely to catch voters’ attention.