Ian Hamilton: Are middle class drug users really to blame for the rise in violent crime?

Politicians can’t resist the getting “tough on drugs” message, even if it lacks evidence, says Ian Hamilton

The home secretary, Sajid Javid, has announced that he will target middle class drug users in an attempt to reduce escalating violent crime. He is not the first to make this link; the metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, and mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, have both pointed the finger of blame at middle class cocaine use as a factor in the rise of inner city knife crime in London. Yet the only evidence we have for a link between middle class drug use and violent crime is much further up the supply chain.

There is violence involved in the production and protection of the lucrative cocaine market in countries like South America. But the evidence for a link between higher earners who use cocaine and an increase in knife crime in the UK is tenuous at best. As has been pointed out by other commentators, much of the spate of knife crime reported in London this year was triggered by mainly young men settling disputes that often start via social media or by postcode rivalries.

Without any sense of irony, Javid went on to say, “We need a much better understanding of who drug users are, what they take, how often they take it, and so much more.” This exposes one of the many problems with making bold statements about class and drug use: nobody really knows much about the social class of people who use drugs.

What we do know is that politicians can’t resist the getting “tough on drugs” message, even though evidence suggests any ratcheting up of sanctions for people who use drugs is ineffective and may even be counterproductive. The home secretary should know this, since his department made clear in a recent report that there is little evidence to support the idea that penalising people who use drugs is an effective way of reducing the problems associated with drugs.

As the price of cocaine has fallen and purity has increased, more people are using the drug. Consequently, deaths have risen dramatically—up from 11 in 1993 to 432 last year. So we do have a problem, but we need to use evidence rather than rhetoric to reduce the harms caused by these trends.

It seems to me that the home secretary and other high profile figures are using the narrative of middle class drug users being responsible for the rise in knife crime as a way of deflecting attention from much tougher questions. Namely, can the government do anything to reduce the harms caused by drugs? Austerity has been used as a justification for cuts to vital public services, such as drug treatment centres and youth intervention schemes. These cuts have consequences, both for young people without other forms of support and those who develop problems with drugs, such as dependence. It’s fair to say that neither of these groups have been well served by the state.

Drugs are effective at soothing a range of health and social problems, but they are not a long term solution. So it is convenient for the government to detract attention from the part they have played in reducing access to help for these groups and to lay the blame on the middle class. But it is the government’s approach to drug policy that is more at fault. Despite decades of declaring a “war on drugs,” we can’t even keep drugs out of prisons—arguably the most secure of environments.

We have a moral and ethical imperative to act on the harms caused by drugs, but appealing to the middle classes won’t be the solution. Rather, it is the government’s conscience that should be pricked in its outdated and unevidenced approach to protecting the people it serves. Drug policy must be based on evidence, not political rhetoric.

Ian Hamilton is an academic at the University of York with an interest in addiction and mental health. He previously worked as a mental health nurse with people who had combined mental health and substance use problems. Twitter @ian_hamilton_

Competing interests: I am affiliated with Alcohol Research UK.