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Why Britain love drugs

​Behind the recent news about Britain using so much cocaine that it's ended up in the drinking water, there is a central truth. Britain is a nation of caners, particularly when it comes to party drugs.

  • Mixmag
  • 27 May 2014

Behind the recent news about Britain using so much cocaine that it's ended up in the drinking water, there is a central truth. Britain is a nation of caners, particularly when it comes to party drugs.

As this year's results from the Global Drug Survey show, British clubbers are twice as likely to have taken MDMA and cocaine than the average global clubber. They are three times more likely to take poppers, five times more likely to have used ketamine and nitrous oxide and 12 times more likely to have used mephedrone.

And it's not just clubbers, everyone's at it. Britain sits alongside some South American countries, Spain and the United States as one of the biggest per-head cocaine consumers on the planet. As the CIA's briefing on the UK's drug profile puts it: "Britain is a major consumer of south-west Asian heroin, Latin American cocaine, and synthetic drugs."

So why are we a country so obsessed with getting out of it? Well, Britain is a perfect storm of intoxication, a cocktail of cultural and geographical factors that make us one of the world's most voracious drug gobblers.

First of all there is this northern European thing. Booze has always provided sanctuary for people living in cold, wet, gloomy climates such as Ireland, Scandinavia, Russia and Britain. As a result the region has a proud and historical culture of getting trashed.

Through history, from medieval alehouses and Victorian gin palaces to the Bigg Market on a Friday night, visitors to Britain have written about their shock and disgust at our drunken behavior. And it's this sacrosanct rite to getting hammered that paved the way to higher than average use of illegal drugs.

But there are other dynamics involved here. Religion has ceased to be a dominant part of British society. Instead, we worship the weekend. Much of the infrastructure of our towns and cities – pubs, bars, clubs, mini cab firms and late night take-aways - is built around having fun at the weekend. In fact many local economies rely on it. In Manchester, the old mills and factories that birthed the Industrial Revolution have been taken over by club venues.

In Britain we have the money and we have the opportunity to take drugs. And we have the time and space to do it. We start careers and families later than most of the global population, and are less likely to live with our parents as we get older so in effect our period of youth is extended.

On top of all this comes Britain's world famous music and fashion scene. Few countries in the world can boast such a kaleidoscope of youth cultures. Each of these cultures and sub cultures has provided teenagers with an alternative view of the world, their own venues, music and often drugs. North Korea this isn't.

In the 1960s and 1970s, prescription amphetamines and speed fuelled the mod and northern soul scenes. Punks took glue and speed and joined the hippies in their love of LSD. Then in the late 1980s and 1990s came the ecstasy revolution, where drug taking truly moved from sub culture to the mainstream.

It was also an era when the perception of drugs radically changed. Drug use began to become defined in a very different way. When the daughters of police, politicians and journalists started to take ecstasy, drug users began to be seen in an entirely new light by those in authority; they were not drug fiends, they were just teenagers having fun.

Then came britpop, britart and the rise of affordable cocaine for the masses, a drug that during the economic boom of the 2000s rapidly spread from A-listers to the local boozer. Now Britain leads the way in drug use trends, the UK-based mephedrone epidemic in 2009 and 2010 breaking open the doors to the now global online trade in new psychoactive substances.

Crucially, our penchant for getting intoxicated has been well supplied. Britain is slap bang in the middle of a global drug trading hub. As opposed to, for example, Australia and New Zealand, whose isolation away from key supply routes mean that drugs such as cocaine and MDMA are ridiculously expensive and low quality – hence the culture there of DIY drugs such as homegrown weed and bathtub crystal meth.

Through the sea and air ports of Europe, huge amounts of illegal drugs arrive from around the world: cocaine from South America, heroin from Afghanistan via Turkey and ecstasy from the Netherlands. And as these substances arrive all over Europe, much of it ends up in the UK.

As an island, our borders are porous. But high levels of anti-drug enforcement in Britain compared to many other global nations mean the risks of trafficking drugs into the country are high. Ironically, the higher the risk, the bigger the profit margin for criminals who charge a premium for this, a form of danger money, and so from port to high street, there is lots of money to be made by selling drugs in the UK.

Now, to most of the hundreds of thousands of Brits who use them, taking drugs does not herald a rite of passage, an act of wild abandon, a surrender to peer pressure or a sign of broken innocence, it's another form of consumption, no less self-indulgent or meaningful than going to a restaurant, going to the cinema or shopping for clothes.

Although still a world beater in the drug use league, young people in Britain seem to be less keen on getting out of it than previous generations. Maybe they have more sensible things to do, like trying to achieve world peace, or cyberbullying. Nevertheless, we can be certain that the British will be lowering the tone across the globe for many years to come.

[Photo: Romas Foord for The Observer]

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