These detailed new insights reveal that despite media hype around illicit substances, alcohol is the bigger problem
You probably know one or two of Britain’s “hidden” drug users, and may even be one yourself. They are often young, highly educated, working, sociable and sporty. They feel healthy, happy in their relationships, and confident about the future. They take cannabis, cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy) and, lest we forget, a fair amount of tobacco and alcohol.
They are, by and large, the drug users you rarely hear or read about, at least not in the social affairs pages. You won’t find them in a crack den or breaking into your home to fund their habit. Their use of illegal drugs is a lifestyle choice: it doesn’t define or consume them like some heroin and crack addicts. They don’t register as an alert on the public health radar, or as a headline on the law and order agenda.
It is easy to imagine many of them as smart, respectable, economically productive, holding down jobs in – or preparing to enter – the professions, business, banking, public service, the law, even politics. It’s easy to think of these “happy” drug takers as unproblematic: as rational, self-regulating, middle-class “consumers”, who are relatively discreet and (on the whole) discriminating in their drug use, and who tend to tidy up after themselves.
This view, the Guardian/Mixmag survey reveals, is implicitly shared by the police. The status, and perhaps age and skin colour, of our “hidden” drug users means they are not a target – unlike, say black, inner-city youth. They do get stopped and searched, sometimes busted for possession. But the survey suggests the law is pragmatically uninterested, on the whole, in criminalising their misdemeanours.
It also confirms truths that often get lost in the hysterical media discourse around drugs and public health: that taking drugs is, for many ordinary people, as normal and pleasurable a part of their lives as drinking or smoking.
They balance their desire for drug experiences with the demands of work, study and relationships. They see drug use as a choice, with desirable consequences, as well as risks.
This year’s survey, conducted by Global Drug Survey, is the biggest of current UK drug use ever carried out, completed by 7,700 UK drug users and 15,500 worldwide, including 3,300 in the US. Its crowd-sourced snapshot of the real-life experiences of a large group of users, male and female, gay and straight, clubbers and non-clubbers, is unique in the scale and detail of its insight into current drug trends, attitudes, practices, risks and harms.
There are detailed, fresh and important insights into drug use and consequences: the unexpectedly high prevalence among drug users of legally prescribed medication – Ritalin, sleeping pills and so on – acquired through the “grey market” of friends and dealers; the reckless use of “mystery white powders” by young hedonists; the consumer backlash against much-hyped drugs such as mephedrone and synthetic cannabis; warning signs of physical harms connected to use of ketamine, for example.
Of course, pleasurable drug use can easily slide into pain: for all that respondents feel happy and in control, most know of at least one friend whose drug use they fear is spinning out of control with all the toxic consequences for their health, relationships and careers. When this happens, it seems conventional help – whether GPs or government-funded drug advice websites – is rarely regarded as trustworthy or helpful.
It’s worth noting that while respondents say they block out messages saying “don’t take drugs”, they would lap up practical, personalised information about dangers and safety tips that enable them to regulate and benchmark their drug intake – the kind of information that Global Drug Survey’s Drugs Meter app seeks to provide.
The question for policymakers is how to use this kind of detailed user intelligence data to design and implement appropriate public health responses, based on the evidence of what drugs people take, how and why they consume them, and what consequences they report.
The first policy stop might be that most potent of legal substances, alcohol. Over half of the survey respondents reported drinking at levels that the World Health Organisation would class as harmful (though some of this group believed they were only drinking “average” amounts). Asked which drug they would most like to cut down on, 36% of respondents said alcohol (a figure only exceeded by the 64% who wanted to cut down on tobacco).
When it comes to drugs, we are fascinated and horrified by the fashionable, illicit and notorious. But the deeply mundane finding of our survey is that the most prevalent, damaging and antisocial drug of all – and the one most users want help to kick – is still the one in your fridge and supermarket trolley: booze.