Category Archives: War On Drugs

The heroin ghost towns still haunted by Thatcher

by Michelle La Guilla

Note: This post is part of our series on the continuing legacy of Thatcher.


The early 1980s saw the nascent Tory government, led by Margaret Thatcher, introduce the “Right to Buy” council house scheme.  Championed as the democratization of property ownership, empowering the deserving poor to achieve security and social mobility, it was nonetheless widely seen as counterproductive, a cynical back-door boost to government coffers and an incitement to debt.  The consequences of the shortage of social housing left behind can be clearly seen today in the furore over the Bedroom Tax, whereby those deemed to be underoccupying have literally nowhere to go.

Thatcher had also set out her stall regarding the miners early on in her premiership.  In 1984 the government announced its intention to close 20 “uneconomical” pits.  This was the catalyst for the miners’ strike of 1984-85.  Thatcher declared the miners “the enemy within” and with the rabidly Thatcherite tabloid press on side the government went all out to crush the miners, denying them benefits and employing the police as a political army.  Police brutality was endemic but rarely reported while violence by the miners was exaggerated in attempts to demonise and discredit them.  The government wanted to destroy the political power of the unions once and for all as they were seen as anachronistic and a threat to the party’s free market ideals.

So it came to be that in the early 1980s there was a backdrop of civil unrest, mass unemployment and job insecurity, deprivation and in the former mining communities, a sense of rejection, anxiety and a complete loss of community identity.  Into this vacuum, increasingly, flooded heroin, with reports that heroin use in ex mining communities exceeded the national average by 27%.

The epidemic was gathering pace all over Britain, concentrated in areas of high unemployment and deprivation.  Parker et al concentrated their investigations in the Wirral, where hopelessly poor areas sit cheek-by-jowl with middle class, “respectable” neighbourhoods.  This was also an area, following the Toxteth riots of 1981, slated for ‘managed decline’ under Thatcher; ‘let it burn’, she was urged.  Parker et al clearly link heroin use and social deprivation: “. . . they shared with ‘new’ users throughout the country the characteristics of unemployment and relative poverty. Therefore, assuming that the supply of heroin remains strong, it is reasonable to predict that future levels of heroin use will continue to mirror any increases in unemployment or poverty.” (Parker et al, 1988, p.25.)


Pearson et al (citing 1981 Census Small Area Statistics,1987, p.62) compared “target areas” where heroin use was at its highest density against four indicators of deprivation – unemployment, unemployment amongst under-25s, one-parent families and having no access to a car.  So for example, in the “target area” in Merseyside’s Docktown ward, unemployment was at 53% and 60% for the under-25s (as compared to 34% and 40% for the ward overall), one-parent families accounted for 38% and 92% had no access to a car (compared to 24% and 78%.)  Their statistics for four other wards in the North of England similarly reflect this sharp increase in deprivation markers in areas where heroin use is at its highest, supporting the hypothesis that heroin addiction and deprivation are often close bedfellows.

It is important to note that in the 1980s there was no cohesive drugs strategy, and first responses to the problem tended to go down the criminal justice route, in contrast to the British System in place until 1968 whereby doctors could prescribe heroin to known addicts, with the ethos of the system summed up thus:  “Doctors should be allowed to prescribe narcotics to wean patients off such drugs, to relieve pain after a prolonged cure had failed and in cases where small doses enabled otherwise helpless patients to perform ‘useful tasks’ and lead relatively normal lives.” (Rolleston, cited in Durlacher, 2000, p.65.)

The end of the British System had the effect of criminalising heroin use, creating a huge black market in the drug and pushing up acquisitive crime as users struggled to raise cash to feed their habits.  This was certainly true in the Wirral, where the crime rate soared in parallel with the heroin explosion there; at twice the rate of other areas in the region since 1979.

Wirral between 1984 -86 is a useful microcosm of wider responses to the epidemic, with policing and sentencing being employed unusually heavily.  The borough saw an unprecedented clampdown, a major police exercise in arresting users and dealers.  The cycle that we still see today, of addiction born of high youth unemployment and hopelessness, and young people criminalised and labelled by the very system that has impoverished them, was signalled by dawn raids and doors kicked in by police boots.

However, this route proved both costly and ineffective – the campaign in Wirral did produce a localised drought, but new trading sites simply emerged elsewhere and addicts found no bar to their habits in prison.  As Parker et al point out: “What it has done is criminalise and imprison a large population of predominantly young men and women and, by the police’s own admission driven the whole drugs scene underground.” (Parker et al, 1988, p.110.)

Meanwhile, the response of many G.P.s to the flood of new cases was to refuse to treat them, understandable given that most had been given no special training.  Of those who did, the options were methadone maintenance or benzodiazepines to relieve withdrawals.  Methadone, then as now, deeply divided opinion and addicts were ambivalent:  “The availability of methadone had undoubtedly enabled a small circle of heroin users in this town to stabilise their lives to some extent, and some had eventually become abstinent.  But for others this was rather a listless sort of accomplishment, and there was little evident motivation to become opiate free other than a fitful lip service to reducing their methadone dosage.”  (Pearson et al, 1987, p.25.)

Methadone was part of harm reduction, seen by many as a more realistic approach than prohibitionism and draconian policing.  It involved three categories: safer methods of drug use, alternative methods of altering mental states, and recognition of and response to drug related problems.  It included needle exchange schemes and education about the dangers of sharing needles resulted in a substantial decrease in the spread of blood-borne viruses amongst users.

It is interesting to examine implications today.  Many mining towns have never recovered – Worksop, a once thriving community, is now the subject of an inquiry into official failures regarding the town, which counts 1 in 3 unemployed and is home to widespread heroin addiction (Worksop Guardian, 2010).  Deprivation and the legacy of right-to-buy linger on marginalised, ghettoised council estates where many are now second or third generation addicts, with no experience of anything different and no opportunities: “The Thatcher government took our working class life away from us but they didn’t replace it with anything . . . unless we solve this, we’re going to finish up with ghettos controlled by an underclass unable to imagine a better life.” (Observer, 2003).  In these ‘geographies of deprivation’ (Parker, 2010) the coal board was often previously the sole employer; now there is nothing left.  Additionally, in smaller urban and rural areas, there is often no specialist provision, no support for families of addicts; generic health services with little or no specialist knowledge of addiction bear the brunt.  In the case of Worksop, an enquiry by MP John Mann concluded that treatment services were a ‘shambles’.  (BBC, 2000).

Addiction, of course, keeps the poor and forgotten docile.  Those who might rise up are instead chasing the next fix before they are hit by withdrawals.  It is politically convenient in other ways too: it means that those failed by the brave new world of free markets (a world which, ironically, keeps so many enslaved, whether in workfare schemes or zero hours contracts,  sweatshops or working poverty due to sub living wages; or to the needle or the bottle) can be conveniently labelled and demonised: divide and rule at its best.  As Wacquant (2009) says: “The law and order merry go round is to criminality what pornography is to amorous relations: a mirror deforming reality to the point of the grotesque that artificially extracts delinquent behaviours from the fabric of social relations in which they take root and make sense, deliberately ignores their causes and meanings, and reduces their treatment to a series of conspicuous position takings.”

We have a cycle of boom and bust, mass unemployment, a years old recession that shows no sign of going anywhere.  We have a Thatcherite politician – George Osborne – making savage cuts and holding fast to utterly discredited and failing austerity policies, at the cost of thousands of human lives; and another, Iain Duncan Smith, whose mania to find the sick or disabled ‘fit for work’ has no answer to the problem of where that work is going to come from.  Addicts on sickness benefit make his job easier, of course; always a convenient scapegoat, the Daily Mail can scream about how reform (meaning cuts) is overdue when thieving scroungers are rolling in taxpayers’ money and spending it on heroin.  (It’s too much to hope that the rabidly right wing British media would take a nuanced or empathic view and ask where that addiction came from, how it grew, how people become so hopeless and desperate that they end up losing limbs from injecting).  Social exclusion and heroin addiction are on the march again, and it seems likely that those cemeteries in ex mining towns, full of the headstones of teenagers and young adults which bear witness to pain and waste, the senseless loss of young lives and potential, will be joined by many thousands and millions of others.

Further reading: http://

Punishing the Poor: the Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (2009) by Loic Wacquant.

Living with Heroin (1988) by Howard Parker, Keith Bakx and Russell Newcombe.

Young People and Heroin: An Examination of Heroin Use in the North of England (1987) by Geoffrey Pearson, Mark Gilman and Shirley McIver.

Mentor UK Coastal and Ex Mining Areas Project: A Review of the Literature (2005) by Doctor Simon Parker.



By Anaïs Charles

The war on drugs. First coined by Nixon in 1971, the term alludes to the crackdown on drug abuse and the international trade of narcotics. However, in simple terms, you could call it a war on humanity.

Why so dramatic? Back in 1990, American drugs counsellor and political activist Jack Schierenbeck called for us to take a serious look at how we’ve framed the discussion around drugs, pig-headedly and incompetently beating around the bush with such futile debates as ‘to legalise or not to legalise?’. It has been evident to those closely involved with the reality of addiction that such questions obfuscate what is a complicated reality, but this has mysteriously eluded our enlightened representatives. According to the Guardian, the UK has the highest usage of several Class A drugs despite spending more on drug policy than any other country in Europe. We criminalise, imprison, and demonise drug users who – for the most part – constitute the poorer percentiles of society: 75% of addicts left school by the age of 16 and 85% of addicts are unemployed. All of this begs the question: what is it about our culture, our political, economic, judicial and social institutions that creates such a ripe environment for the proliferation of addiction and drug abuse?

While drug use seems to disregard class altogether, with lower, middle and higher classes all using, drug addiction devastates groups discriminately. Poverty, deprivation, the lack of facilities and the socialisation of addiction as an acceptable norm within poorer groups weave a complex contextual web that traps addicts in a vicious cycle. Many in recovery struggle to break free from this environment. The attitudes and ways of life that support substance abuse – from dealers to drug gangs to users – are pervasive. The routine of using coping mechanisms conceived to handle one’s daily struggle with the pain, angst or even boredom that accompany limited prospects is a way of life. And it doesn’t stop there. Researchers in 2003 claimed that over half of all property crimes were drug-related (including 85% of shoplifting, 70-80% of burglaries and 54% of robberies). What’s more, the conviction of petty crime has risen substantially: the UK now imprisons 151 out of every 100,000 inhabitants. That’s 73% more than in 1992 and 20% more than in 2001. Drug offenders are neatly absorbed by the UK’s private finance initiative (PFI), which launched its first for-profit prison in 1997. At present there are 14 private prisons across the UK racking up profits from the incarceration of civilians. Prison corporations need to be guaranteed a certain number of inmates – so what of judicial policy? If these numbers are anything to go by, it would certainly seem that policy has been influenced by private interests receiving healthy returns from the criminalisation of drug-riddled groups. The United States has blazed a trail when it comes to corporate prisons, yet critics remark that the war on drugs has been a handy diversion from looking at other, perhaps deeper, social problems. To quote Schierenbeck, “people don’t use drugs accidentally”.

Flashback to the 1860s. According to Schierenbeck, the first addicts in America were civil war veterans. The hypodermic needle had been invented in 1857; suddenly the physical and psychological agony carried through from the war could be relieved with a shot of morphine. Drugs were then more generally distributed to the public: cocaine was a key ingredient in coca-cola from 1886 to 1905, and opium was found in syrups for teething infants. Alcohol has been available for centuries. In reality, drugs are symptomatic of a society addicted to immediate solutions in commodity form. Today, relief is but a pill away. Almost 50 million antidepressants were prescribed in the UK alone in 2011. In a world that seems to offer no long term solutions to our problems, it is no wonder we are seduced by immediate relief. But pandering to the conservative argument that drug use represents a breakdown of moral fibre and personal responsibility is a gross simplification of a nebulously complex phenomenon.

Instead we need to look deeper. It is of primary importance that we bring the discussion back to the level of the individual. In an interview conducted in 1990, Schierenbeck describes his experience as a counselor in downtown New York: “90% of the clients I see are minority women […] who by the time they are 22 to 23 years old have 3 or 4 kids and were themselves children of broken homes. In all likelihood they were physically, often sexually abused, certainly emotionally neglected and abandoned. […] When you find yourself in your mid twenties with kids living in a welfare hotel you feel pretty trapped. These are not people with a lot of opportunities in front of them.” Although coming from such difficult situations may predispose an individual to using psychoactive drugs, drug use is not a function of poverty. People from all socio-economic backgrounds use mind-altering substances to escape from stress, boredom or pain. Drug use and alcohol is also prevalent in high-stress, highly competitive and highly paid jobs in the City. Understanding individuals is understanding that the problem is not drugs – drugs are only one of many symptoms. We are a people just as addicted to workaholism, ‘retail therapy’, nicotine, gambling… as we are to drugs. The real problem is what lies beneath addiction in its many forms.

When the nature of addiction filters into mainstream understanding, the obsession with the curtailment of drugs will appear absurd. Why drugs? Why not alcohol or binge-eating? Apart from being a devastating and catastrophic failure, the USA’s war on drugs is as geopolitically strategic as it is rhetorical, allowing the US to entrench power in its Latin American backyard. Here in the UK, the drug debate is paralysed by a bourgeois politics obsessed with appearing tough on crime and incapable of speaking the truth for fear of damaging political interests. If you truly look deeper you’d have to put all sorts of things in question, such as the government’s legalisation of alcohol, tobacco or gambling and the multi-billion pound industries they represent. A focus on the war on drugs allows the real issues lurking beneath addiction to remain (deliberately) obscured. As Schierenbeck so insightfully put it, we live in a society where “addicts are us”: by singling out drugs as the villain we forget just how much we, as smokers, coffee drinkers, or workaholics have in common with drug addicts. Make an enemy out of something and the rest of us are absolved. But the fact of the matter is this: addictions fulfill the legitimate and unmet needs of those people that our own society frustrates. The war on drugs is a distraction and we ignore this at our peril.

Further reading and viewing: