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Class, drugs and double standards

The Observer, 6 February 2005

Does Sir Ian Blair really think storming lawyers’ dinner parties is efficient use of police time?

Last week Sir Ian Blair vowed to get tough on middle-class drug users. ‘I think there are a group of people in the capital who believe that they are in some way taking harm-free cocaine,’ said the new commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. ‘People think it is OK but I do not think it is OK. We will have to do something about it by making a few examples of people.’

His words were supposed to be a declaration of strength. Instead, they sounded like an admission of impotence. Blair is right: there are some who think recreational cocaine use is harmless. The problem for him is there are tens of thousands of them. The most recent figures from the British Crime Survey showed 624,000 people in England and Wales admitted taking cocaine within the past year and 275,000 said they had taken it in the last month.

As a consequence, Blair sounds hopelessly out of touch when he worries that cocaine is ‘becoming’ socially acceptable. It already is. And not just among the famous and well heeled. Cocaine use is widespread and democratic. At £40 a gram, it is Britain’s second most popular drug after cannabis, enjoyed by twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, the metropolitan and provincial, the professional and the working class.

Its pervasiveness isn’t a reason to legalise it, but it does make the case for a discussion about its use that doesn’t rely on threats or shock tactics. In fairness, perhaps Blair intended to broaden debate when he said the price of metropolitan cocaine use ‘is misery on the streets of London’s estates and blood on the roads to Colombia and Afghanistan’. By drawing an explicit link to crime and violence, he was trying to tweak the conscience of middle-class users. Follow his argument to its conclusion and a weekend’s wrap of cocaine is revealed as a causal factor in perpetuating poverty, inequality and the violence of the international narcosyndicates.

It was a statement designed to generate headlines, one also intended to embarrass a class proud to show off its ethics at the Sainsbury’s checkout while ignoring the moral cost of private pleasures.

Had he stuck to skewering bourgeois double standards, Sir Ian would have found himself on defensible ground. Instead, he raised the baroque spectre of officers breaking down the door on to dinner parties where guests ‘drink less wine and snort more cocaine’. Quite how that represents an efficient use of his force’s time is a mystery that presumably will only be solved when the first doctors and lawyers are dragged kicking from their Islington drug dens.

What he should have gone on to point out is that the middle classes like to imagine their crimes are victimless. From speeding to fiddling taxes to double parking outside Jemima and Oliver’s school, they assume that because they can’t see the results of their actions there are no moral consequences involved in them.

Cocaine falls into the same category. To a degree unmatched by any other intoxicant including alcohol, it’s perceived as glamorous and sophisticated. In part, this is down to its image as a drug of the elite, a reputation that persists even with its spread beyond up-market London bars and parties.

But it’s also a consequence of the fact that most middle-class casual users do not buy their drugs from council estates or street corners. They meet dealers in pubs or arrange delivery to their house. They don’t associate squalor or exploitation with the drug because it forms no part of their experience.

That is why, for many, the biggest disincentive to recreational use is likely to be health rather than legality. Cocaine purchase still remains illicit but the prospect of actually getting penalised for its use appears wholly remote. The middle classes will not respond to Blair’s comments because they see nothing criminal in their behaviour, especially when the tabloids and police seem to inhabit a parallel world in which recreational drug use leads automatically to addiction, pushers loitering outside school gates and a shadowy ‘Mr Big’ pulling strings in the background.

As long as cocaine use remains within a circle of friends and acquaintances, it seems neither sinister nor unethical to most in the middle class. Indeed, the prevailing mood among them on drug use can be gauged by reactions to the saga of Pete Doherty. Last week, the former Libertines front man was charged with robbery and blackmail after an alleged incident at the Rookery hotel in central London. His appearance at Highbury Corner magistrates court on Friday was just the latest in a long string of events – from being kicked out of the Libertines, to his well-documented drug addiction and recent relationship with Kate Moss – that have turned him into an almost daily fixture in the media. Yet where the tabloids, in reflecting the presumed values of their readers, have been scathing, other papers has been less caustic.

The NME named him its 2004 man of the year and broadsheets devoted sympathetic profiles to him, liberally scattered with words like ‘charismatic’, ‘vulnerable’ and ‘genius’. Doherty was even the subject of an extended interview with Kirsty Wark on Newsnight last December, in which he talked about his drug addiction, wiping away the tears as the camera closed in on his doe-eyed face. There’s no doubt that, for many, he is the embodiment of a Romantic ideal: young, gifted, beautiful and, as he told Wark, equipped with a self-destruct button.

As the well-educated son of strict Catholic parents, he’s able to articulate the lure and the peril of drug use with a poignancy that has won him more admiration than censure, not to mention the affections of one of the most beautiful women in the world. His addiction is seen as a tragedy rather than a self-inflicted condition.

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