Anyone who grew up in the 80s will remember this:
I had the dubious privilege of meeting many of the cast of the iconic series Grange Hill in the telly years and they told tales of hi-jinks involving special cigarettes in the First Lady’s bathroom.
Do we believe these tall stories? Who knows? But the idea of Zammo and Roland getting high in the White House bathroom is SUCH a delicious one.
I was reminded of this story whilst reading Tom Feiling’s amazing book ‘The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took over the World’. It’s one of my recent random book purchases (my ex gave me a Waterstone’s voucher for Christmas) and for once I have had time to read – as seen by my last post about Jonathan Coe’s latest book.
The book is as addictive as any narcotic, starting off by explaining how coca – a South American plant – made its journey to America and became a standard additive to dozens of products at the turn of the 20th Century, Coca Cola being the most well known. At that point, the real enemy was alcohol and no one really gave a stuff about patent medicines being laced with what we now consider an illegal drug.
I’m about 100 pages into the book – it’s very dense and well researched, so I can’t tear through it with quite the speed I devour works of fiction. But it has to be one of the most fascinating things I have read for ages; Feiling’s analysis of the War on Drugs (similar to our War on Terror) is quite fantastic.
Basically, like many things, the War on Drugs is a war on the poor. During the 70s and 80s, de-industrialisation brought poverty to America’s inner city – the beginnings of globalisation meant that it was cheaper to make cars or steel or TVs or clothing in Mexico or South East Asia than it was in Detroit or Pittsburgh or Baltimore. A similar process happened in the UK during the Thatcher years; corporate profit was seen as more important than the destruction of communities and any attempts to resist were crushed – the Miners’ Strike being the most notable example. This process is analysed cleverly by Owen Jones in his book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class.
Back to the War on Drugs. In the US, the disintegration of the inner city went hand in hand with rising consumption of drugs (as it did in the UK). This gave rise to the narrative that people were poor not because the industries that employed them had vanished, but because they were ‘bad’ people making bad ‘choices’. This coincided with a sudden influx of cheap cocaine; Feiling relates this to Reagan’s support of the Contras in Central America, who were involved in smuggling cocaine into the US. Add in Colonel Oliver North and you have a heady and mind bending brew that resulted in an explosion of cocaine consumption amongst the urban poor of America, made worse by the craze for crack cocaine in the late 80s and 90s.
Crack was the rocket fuel for the War on Drugs; once it was cooked with baking soda, cocaine became both cheaper and more addictive. Whole neighbourhoods became no go areas and the drive to criminalise users of the drug became stronger. Feiling writes about the huge growth of prisons in the US, where whole towns are dominated by enormous jails. To keep these full, you need lots of criminals and who easier to criminalise than young African American males who sell drugs on the street corners of run down cities, a narrative familiar to anyone who has watched the excellent TV series The Wire.
I guess I am particularly intrigued by the thesis of the book – basically the criminalisation of poor ethnic minority drug users – as drugs are a big problem with the age group I work with. The drug of choice is not cocaine or crack but super strength cannabis – genetically grown to get you completely off your head.
Before I worked with this age group I saw recreational drug use as largely harmless. Drugs are not really part of my world these days, but during my youth, getting off your head was a way of life for my peers. Marijuana was common, as were ecstasy, cocaine and to a lesser extent amphetamines and LSD; not for nothing were the young people of the 90s dubbed ‘The Chemical Generation’.
Now I look at the young people I work with and I am not so sure. Smoking the weed sold on the streets of London seems to turn some young people into gibbering wrecks. I think the product is stronger, but also the levels (and frequency) of consumption are higher. I think a lot of young people smoke all day – largely I think to relieve anxiety – and this makes it almost impossible for them to learn or do any kind of productive work. I find it very frustrating trying to talk to them about it; smoking weed is an important identity marker for many young people and anyone who challenges it is just a silly old git.
Which brings us back to ‘Just Say No’.
In an ideal world no one would take drugs. No one would get drunk, swear or steal and everyone would love each other. It ain’t gonna happen. There is a human need for intoxication and in our society it is OK to drink but not OK to smoke weed or snort cocaine. In other societies, such as the Middle East, alcohol is the bad guy – for most British people, it is considered ‘weird’ not to like a drink.
I think we need to accept that drugs exist and control them; this is starting to be the case in some parts of Europe and the US. Think of the money that could be raised for the NHS or schools or hospitals if marijuana was controlled and commercially produced. There would be no need for drug dealers and any legalisation would be accompanied by education on what are safe levels of consumption. Parents, doctors and teachers would be able to tell young people the facts rather than pretend that drugs don’t exist and then be shocked when problem usage takes place. I am not suggesting a total free for all – that would be disastrous – but a world where drug use is controlled carefully and the effects of different drugs on the body are openly explained.
Without a market in illegal drugs, the crime rate would drop and the temptation for young men to become drug dealers would be less. Police time could be used more productively and there would be less drug related crime. But without the fear of ‘crime’ there would be less need for tough laws and prison and without fear we are harder to control.
Apologies if I sound like a crazy person here – it wouldn’t be the first time. Have a read of Tom Feiling’s book and you may start to see where I am coming from.