On Drug Use & Consumerism

During Mental Health Awareness Week, Conter published pieces that expressed the importance of seeing issues in context and identifying wider causes of individual symptoms. However, this also extends to physical health and addiction. Aaron Sheridan argues we need to look at hard drug use as a symptom of consumerist culture...

Approaching drug use and misuse as a health concern is beginning to take root in Scottish politics. The proposals for opening a safe injection site in the centre of Glasgow have seen wide support from both the Scottish Parliament and sitting Scottish MPs at Westminster. The project would provide drug users who intravenously consume their product with a safe place to inject, complete with supervision from medical professionals and guaranteed immunity from prosecution. The cross-party and cross-parliament support for the proposals comes during a spike in the rates of HIV infection in Glasgow, attributed to the city's intravenous drug using population.

Despite the political support for the motion, the idea has its critics. Neil McKeganey, Director of the Centre for Substance Use Research wrote in November: “We need to be very wary of developing initiatives that run the real risk of normalising illegal drug use and driving a possible further increase in the number of people using illegal drugs.” McKeganey instead promotes abstinence-based recovery programmes, with users taken off of their drug of choice and monitored for a period of time before being released back into society.

But in truth, for either of these solutions to hold any merit, there already has to be a significant amount of people using hard drugs. Safe injection rooms and abstinence programmes are designed to manage the effects of problem drug use, not tackle the causes of it. While they may be beneficial for current addicts, they do nothing to address the reality of future addicts, nor do they aim to confront the social issues that drive people toward the trap of addiction to hard drugs. In fact, when the motion for safe injection sites was debated at Holyrood, a Labour amendment calling for a recognition of the social and economic factors that drive rises in the use of drugs was voted down.

Simply dealing with drug use as either a criminal or health issue is not enough. To create a truly effective, rather than reactive, drug policy, we have to recognise and explore the wider context of trends in drug use and abuse, especially with regards to the harder drugs like heroin. 

Who takes drugs, why they take drugs and how they take drugs is socially determined – a reflection on, rather than an impediment to, social policy. Treating drug users simply as deviants, criminals, an unfortunate subculture or even bearers of misfortune, confined to the periphery of the underworld, misses the point. Drug use occurs within a given society, and so drug users are subject to that society's social mores, its value systems and its economic priorities. To show how these interactions can manifest, we only need to look at the last 30 years of British and Scottish history.

In the 1980s, our society transformed rapidly from one still revolved around industry to a neo-liberal one driven by consumerism – with that, changes in patterns of addiction began to appear. In 1987, a report to the UK Board of Health Education noted how changing trends in drug use had coincided with the rise of Thatcherism:

“... there is a general agreement across the North of England that there was a substantial shift in the heroin problem between 1979 and 1981 when the drug became more easily available and at a much reduced price at street level because of the influx of 'brown heroin' which had it's source in Iran and a short time later in Pakistan. This shift in emphasis was also noted at the same time in London where it corresponded with the emergence of a previously unknown type of heroin users – young men from working class housing estates” (see Young People and Heroin by G. Pearson, M. Gilman, S. McIver. P6).

Unemployment had doubled between 1979 and 1982 to a rate of 12.9% nationwide. The change in drug use demographics was not only an issue for the English; by 1987, according to a report by the Glasgow University Criminology Unit over 80% of Scottish drug clinic patients were under 30 years old (see Scotlands Drug Misuse Agencies published by the Scottish Office). A new class of addict had emerged, drawn from the young, post-industrial working class.


Roy Robertson, a professor of addiction medicine at the University of Edinburgh, cites the spike in heroin use as a replacement for employment in his 1987 book Heroin, AIDS and Society. “The idea”, Robertson writes, “that the status of the heroin user equates with that of someone in conventional employment is often ignored” and that “the choice of heroin use as an occupational substitute may not be as illogical or bizarre as it might seem to those with prospects of a conventional career.”

Suffering from attacks on the institutions that sought to represent them, and with their traditional modes of employment in heavy industry left to die by the government's emphasis on monetarist economic policy, many young Scottish men and women were now left without an integral part of their identity. However, poverty and unemployment alone is not enough to explain the rise in heroin consumers in Scotland and the wider UK. There were also significant factors pulling vulnerable people towards illicit drug consumption.

Tam Stewart, a former heroin addict from Merseyside, wrote of her experience with the drug in her book The Heroin Users. She details the search for an anchor to which people could attach themselves in an era of social and economic turmoil: “Quite what we bought I am not sure. Rebellion, danger, excitement, a wild reputation, some strange distinction as a bad lot – the 'Billy the Kid syndrome' – but we wanted something and we got it.” Further, she described “smack” as “innercity homoeopathy, the ultimate self-medication, the finest antidote to stress, violence and ambition.”

The pull factors for Stewart seem to suggest a sort of brand associated with heroin, something beyond the physical effects of the drug that drew people in. Heroin was functioning as a consumer good, albeit a transgressive and illicit one. In 1998, Zygmunt Baumann published Work, Consumerism and the New Poor in which he argues that modern, post-industrial countries engage their citizens primarily as consumers. This fundamental shift, he argues, demands that people accept ideas, experiences and products fleetingly and that they constantly seek out new ones. In the same year, in an article for the Hedgehog Review, Baumann describes the ideal consumer as one who desires satisfaction, who “gathers sensations” and who “lives from attraction to attraction, from temptation to temptation”.

Could we not apply these same principles to those who are dependent on hard drugs?

The value that we, as a late capitalist society, place on consumption of television shows, clothes, food or holidays can also apply to illicit substances. They build relationships between users, help them to forge identities and provide them with some for of regularity and daily goals in a way which is highly comparable to ways in which non-users create consumer identities, join subcultures or take part in hobbies. The only difference is, users are engaging in an illegal and unhealthy pattern of consumption.

So long as there are a group primed for the consumption of hard drugs – the poor, the long term unemployed or semi-employed, or the socially isolated – there will be hard drug consumption. The efforts made to approach drug use as a medical and health issue, rather than a criminal one, are a welcome change in a country in which the poor are increasingly criminalised, but they fail to answer the wider question: if dangerous drugs are being consumed, what's driving the consumption?

An at least partial answer is the culture of consumption itself. A culture of half-made friendships, fluid employment and identities formed through purchases. A culture in which the poor lack the means to engage with legitimately, and so turn to illicit paths to fulfil their obligations as consumers.