Photography: James Pierce
As I write this on 31st August, it is International Overdose Awareness Day. We’ve organised an informal reading of Drug Wars, a book about Britain and the illegal drug trade written by an ex-undercover drug cop, Neil Woods and writer JS Rafaeli. It’s just me and a local drugs worker from Barnsley, on a grey, quiet day in DN1.
We’ve made a banner and stuck it on the wall outside Doncopolitan HQ, a humble attempt at marking the breathtaking fact that 4,351 people have died this year in the UK due to a drug-related death.
For many years, I’ve been looking for answers on why people take drugs, why they are illegal and why drug use has such a problematic effect on our communities. I grew up in the Dearne Valley, full of post-industrial areas that were heavily affected by the influx of heroin in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I’ve grown up to see first-hand how a drug overdose can affect the families and friends you care about.
Yet, despite all the negatives we all know about the illegal drug trade, all the stats show that we’re taking more drugs than ever and tougher policing and sentencing has done little to change this increase.
Throw into the mix inadequately funded drug treatment services, with a government focused on recovery rather than harm reduction and we start to unpick some of this mess.
Harm reduction, if you’ve never heard this term before, is evidence-based treatment for people that use drugs. It is not always popular with the wider public. In its most simplistic form, it’s about giving people clean needles and drug consumption rooms to do drugs safely, reducing harm to the user and the wider public.
It’s coming to light that the government’s current focus on recovery instead of harm reduction is literally killing people. The recent figures are so shocking that even big hitters like the Royal College of Psychiatrists are up in arms stating:
“National decision-makers need to wake up to the fact that swinging cuts to services, disconnecting NHS mental health services from addiction services and shifting the focus away from harm reduction to abstinence-based recovery is destroying lives and fuelling the increase in drug-related deaths.”
When researching this piece, I came across a woman my age (34) in Scotland who had lost her brother, sister, mother and father to heroin overdoses. I can’t imagine her grief and shame knowing how uncompassionate the wider public can be about people mixed up in heavy drug use and long term addiction.
To fully understand how all this came about we need to look back to the late 1980s when cheap heroin flooded the north of England and Scotland off the back of the Soviet-Afghan War. The heroin that landed in South Yorkshire probably came in from the docks of Liverpool or Hull. The profits helped to fuel a war in the Middle East, completely estranged from communities here in England.
At the time, joblessness and de-industrialisation rocked northern communities. Drug users went from relatively low numbers to astronomical figures within a few years. A new market opened up based on supply and demand (people selling a new thing called smack to their friends). Often, people didn’t know the consequences of what they were taking and where this new subculture would lead. We all see that reality on our streets across the UK. We are now living in the aftermath of that time.
For me, International Overdose Awareness Day is about acknowledging this deep, dark history and that there are real people behind that harrowingly large statistic. They are our friends, neighbours and family members. We can dehumanise the people that use drugs, or we can try and understand how we got to this strange place in our country’s history.
If you want to know more about the issues covered in this article read Drug Wars, follow Leap UK, Anyone’s Child, and Transform UK on the usual social media channels.