Addiction is sooooo passé, darling

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

Two substantial pieces of research have recently considered people’s perceptions about drug use and how this might influence their choices. Unlike the usual, predictable drugs research, these consider two pretty interesting variables – pleasure and social class.

The first, carried out in Australia, used some fairly complex formulas to grade respondents’ socio-economic status (I’d imagine things like ‘How many kangaroos do you own?’, ‘How big is your beer fridge?’, ‘What do you throw on your barbie?’), and then correlated this with their opinions about which substances they associated with drug problems. The results were compiled into this rather lovely diagram (apologies to email subscribers if this doesn’t come through as intended, it’s worth having a look on my actual blog by clicking on the link at the bottom):


As you can (hopefully) see, heroin, considered more of a problem by those further up the social ladder, has become less of a perceived problem over the last few years. Conversely, and unsurprisingly given the massive ‘P’ problem in Australia, methamphetamine has become more of a concern over the years, regardless of social class – although wierdly is still less of a worry than heroin. Concern around cannabis use seems bizarrely high, but has remained fairly stable over the whole research period, and those in higher social classes feel cannabis is significantly less problematic than those further down the scale. And alcohol and tobacco, the substances most associated with addiction and serious health problems, seem to be seen as largely unproblematic by the people questioned. But then they are Australian.

I’d love to see this piece of research replicated in Britain. I think the boundaries of socio-economic status would be more blurred here, with our very old and complex social structures, but I think we could all help the process by thinking of some potential questions: Staffie, rescue mongrel, or labrador? Aldi, Tesco, or Waitrose? Jeremy Kyle, Jeremy Clarkson or Jeremy Vine?

The second piece of research is grandly titled The Global Drugs Survey – although it’s UK data was collected from readers of Mixmag and The Guardian, so The White Middle Class Survey might have been more accurate. However, the concept was novel – using an (unvalidated) scale called the Net Pleasure Index, it looked at positive and negative experiences of each substance and how they impacted on an individual’s ability to function.

Mephedrone and ‘unknown white powders’ caused the most concern in terms of after-effects, with psychadelics and ecstacy coming out the most pleasurable overall. Those who had been caught in possession of small amounts of illicit substances had a good chance of not facing criminal charges. The role of Silk Road in shifting drug purchase trends was acknowledged.

Old Nuttbag got involved, of course, to point out that alcohol and tobacco were perceived as the most problematic by respondents. Banging the pro-drugs drum with his headline ‘The real driver behind most drug use is pleasure, not dependence’, he seemed to be missing the point that sample was biased, being a cohort of reportedly happy, healthy, educated and employed Mixmag and Guardian readers. Obviously most of them are still able to work and function, otherwise they wouldn’t be buying publications about spending all your money having fun, either wearing designer garns and sunglasses in a warehouse at midnight, or carbon-neutral eco-camping in France. And clearly, therefore, their experiences of drug use are bound to be more positive than if they had asked the same questions at a Jobcentre or a needle exchange – where the focus might have been less “hey life’s great, I’m financially stable, confident, and fulfilled in my working week, so drugs are about weekend pleasure” and more “I am dragging myself through yet another degrading fucking groundhog day and cannot wait to smash something into to me to block out the banality and misery of my own existence”.

Or had the research population been Sun readers, I would imagine the results would have been skewed somewhat differently. But then the questions might have been a bit too hard for them to understand. And it’s difficult to find time to do surveys when you’ve got to sign on, get the transit ready for the scrap run, sign bail and make it in time for Wetherspoon’s happy hour (every hour’s a happy hour at Wetherspoon’s).

So there we go – my conclusion is that both pieces of research told us more about socio-economic status than they did anything else, and that in fact problematic drug using behaviours may well be symptomatic of poverty, poor education and lack of aspiration. And if you’re white and middle-class, you will probably get off a possession charge without so much as a caution. Ground-breaking stuff.

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