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The Non-medical Use of Legal and Illicit Drugs in Everyday Life

Norman Dennis

It was not until the 1950s that cannabis in any quantities came to Britain, largely to be used by Asiatic, African, and West Indian immigrants. Its use by the indigenous English was restricted to very small circles of, for example, jazz musicians. It was not until 1964 that for the first time there were more arrests of whites on cannabis charges than members of other groups. In 1964 the figures were whites, 284; other groups, 260, a total of 544. Cannabis rapidly became part of white youth culture. By 1967 the figures for white arrests had climbed from 284 to 1,737. This was more than twice the rate of increase of arrests 1964-1967 of people from other groups. From well under 600 arrests in 1964 the figure rose so much that by 1975, from the larger number of those arrested, 9,000 were found guilty on cannabis charges. That figure doubled from 9,000 in 1975 to 18,000 in 1985. The figure had doubled again by 1989, to 34,000. It then more than doubled from 34,000 in 1989, to 88,000 in 1999 – from 600 to 88,000 in one generation.

The figures for other legal and illegal psychotropic drugs show the same steep upward trend. Many influential commentators say that, even if the use of such drugs is a problem, the problem is age-old and universal, and is no worse than it has ever been. The figures are wrong, they say. What the correct figures would show would be little change in the overall use of legal and illegal drugs. Is their complacency on the figures justified? How sound is the case that they put forward: that the statistical rise is just the result of ‘moral panic’? Getting people to believe that there is no new problem is a certain way of ensuring that the problem will not be tackled. Many or most of those who deny that drug use has significantly increased are the same people who claim also that drug use is not a problem. There are several other ideas that can be used to corrode a culture, or to ensure that people do not act to prevent their culture being corroded, like the idea that ‘everybody is doing it’. The figures show that this contention is equally false. The trends have increased dramatically, but drug use is still very much a minority phenomenon.

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