What drugs are on the rise in Britain?
First hand accounts from many people in Britain including an NHS worker from Luton talking about drugs rise in the UK.
After its peak in the 1990s house, rave and techno scenes, ecstasy is returning to popularity because of “creative and aggressive marketing” and the fact it now has higher purity.
That is according to a report from the European monitoring centre for drugs and drug addiction (EMCDDA).
So, what other drugs are on the rise in Britain? We asked drug counsellors to tell us about the people they commonly deal with and any spikes in the use of certain substances they have noticed in recent years. Here they share their views anonymously.
‘More worrying than MDMA is the use of synthetic cannabinoids’
What is more worrying than the rise in MDMA is the increase in synthetic cannabinoids. I work with young adults aged 18 to 24. The most common substance I come across is cannabis, but increasingly users of “spice” coming into the service. Many of those who use it want to stop but find the withdrawal symptoms too intense. It actually sounds like people withdrawing from heroin: they complain about waking up covered in sweat, as well as having stomach cramps, nausea, shaking, not being able to sleep, and violent rages (resulting in them smashing things up).
I am not really convinced that the new law banning legal highs will help with this problem. It might reduce the number of users, making it more difficult to access, but the people who use it now will continue to and driving it underground could make it more risky (and see it cut with lots of other stuff). The main reason spice is more prevalent is that it’s cheaper and has a much more potent effect than weed. Those who smoke it say afterwards they get no effect from smoking skunk.
I deal more with recreational drug users rather than heroin users or dependent drinkers – and do a lot of prevention work going out in communities in Leeds. I see young people mainly from socially deprived areas, and in this age group cannabis use is also common. A high caseload of those who use cannabis have mental health issues, sometimes diagnosed and at other times not. A lot of the time people use cannabis as a coping mechanism to deal with difficult emotions, low mood and anxiety.
If someone comes in with cannabis problems, I help them manage the triggers and cravings. I try to work out what it is that makes them want to smoke. Often a big reason people smoke is that they don’t have much to do with their time and need a distraction.
We can do low-level cognitive behavioural therapy work but also refer to other services. We have a specialist team for dual diagnosis, mental health and substance use. I think people wouldn’t turn to cannabis if there was better mental health support out there.
A low number of clients use MDMA as their primary drug. Often people use it alongside other drugs, such as cocaine, ketamine or cannabis. It seems to be less of a problem in terms of dependence. And problematic use of the psychedelics is pretty rare.
It’s clear that the war on drugs has failed. Criminalising those who use drugs is helping no one, drug use is an issue of public health. The government’s approach to drugs brings to mind the famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein about insanity (“doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”). Prohibition has not worked, and more prohibition is not the answer.
A legalised and regulated market would give us more options for how we control drugs, it would help to remove the stigma around them and enable an honest discussion. There will always be those who misuse drugs and those who succumb to addiction but at least we would have removed some of the barriers to them getting help. Education is also key – drug education in this country is very poor.
‘What concerns me is the availability of cheap cocaine’
For 30 years I worked for the NHS in Luton in a service that dealt with a range of drug problems, but I left this job at the beginning of the new year. Now, I am a pub landlord and I have seen such a lot in both jobs. It is painful to watch what is happening with treatment services. Heroin use has gone down but cutting services for long-term users has already resulted in a rise in overdoses.
I helped set up young persons and prescribing services in my area. I have a good picture of what’s going on with drugs in Britain and feel that drug use used to be a subculture thing but now it’s gone completely mainstream. It really is everywhere.
Drugs became more mainstream over long period of time, cocaine goes back 34 years when it suddenly became more available. With weed there is so much available these days and lots of people growing it. The smellier the skunk, the more people want it.
Personally I am not concerned about the increased availability of cleaner MDMA. There are thousands of people who were regularly using pills who have settled down and stopped using it over time. What concerns me is the availability of cheap cocaine which is often being consumed with liberal amounts of alcohol by people of all ages.
People also smoke spice a lot more now and that’s not going to stop, the whole thing’s a mess and government refuses to listen to experts it employs. Rather than criminalising people we should be sending out a positive message about health, explaining the damage of drugs on people’s bodies. I suppose, everything goes in cycles. In 1989 I was in the right place at the right time and set up services that people needed because throughout the 1980s no treatment was available.
Then in the 2000s we had a fantastic service and there were no barriers to treatment. We could see people and treat them but now everything is back to the recovery agenda. A lot of people now pay loads to go to private rehabilitation centres. I don’t understand that, there is no evidence it works and it’s incredibly expensive. What we need to get back is good community-based services. We need to identify the issues and encourage people to take responsibility for themselves.
The current legislation is the main problem. In the 25 years I worked in the field I never met anyone who was put off using illegal substances because it was illegal. I feel that not only does prohibition mean that drugs are produced and supplied by criminals, with all the well documented associated problems, but that it doesn’t encourage people to take responsibility for the drugs they take.
‘Drug use has changed a lot over the years. Thankfully heroin use is now much less common’
I work in Bradford in drug and alcohol treatment services. I regularly come across heroin, crack cocaine, and alcohol users because that is what I am employed to treat. Actually, tobacco addiction is also very common. Also diazepam, and prescription drugs.
Ecstasy isn’t as dangerous as people are making out. It can kill, but so can motorbikes, football, horse riding, beefsteaks, etc. Worry about alcohol and tobacco in proportion to their lethality, and spend less time worrying about ecstasy. Ecstasy is on the rise because it is cheap, accessible, usually pleasurable, and many of the comparable alternatives are now illegal. Also, things rarely stay the same all the time. It went down in use, now it is going up again. Maybe a new factory has been established and the product is being aggressively marketed.
Drug use has changed a lot over the years. Thankfully heroin is now much less common. The potential for a new injection-related HIV outbreak definitely still exists, however. Competent well-educated young people are increasingly sophisticated in their choices around recreational drug use.
At the same time services have definitely got worse. Funding is being severely cut, as in other areas of health and social care. The increases in social inequality will result in silos of severe drug problems among the most socially deprived. Services for these groups are getting worse.
Legislation should be based on firm evidence of what types of laws save lives, and prevent serious harms to individuals, families, and communities. This evidence is hard to weigh up, as it would require scrutiny of legislation, and outcomes, in other countries which are different from the uk. However, this is an enterprise worth doing, because it is an important issue. Right now I am with David Nutt, a British psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist specialising in the research of drugs. Of the three most harmful drugs (tobacco, alcohol and heroin) two are legal.
‘Young people today see taking drugs like going for a coffee’
One of the worst cases of addiction I have seen was a client who, when they first came to see me, had doubled in weight. They were ruining their body with excessive eating, cocaine and alcohol and the impact was shocking. Four years later, they’ve now lost weight and are on the right path to recovery, although they lapsed three times on the journey there. Despite this, they are doing wonderfully well. He has had a combination of counselling and mentoring to support him in his new lifestyle, including teaching him coping strategies.
This man is in his 50s but I’ve seen kids heading the same way. The kids I work with find stress is coming from parental expectations, school, college or university expectations plus social networks and peer pressure. When they can’t cope, instead of talking through their issues, they seek other ways of burying their anxiety. Drugs, alcohol, food or cigarettes are the usual paths, although sex is becoming more common.
I first went into addiction work almost 12 years ago, initially working on food and alcohol addiction, but as time went on I worked with drug use too. I love my work, but I am concerned about the relaxed way a lot of young people view drugs today; they see taking drugs like going for a coffee. It doesn’t mean anything to them. I work weekly with young people who have admitted that their drug taking is just a social thing. They say “It’s nothing”, and “I’m not addicted”.
In certain schools I have heard of students mixing a cocktail of drugs together, and I am talking about kids as young as 14.
MDMA isn’t the harmless drug people think it is because as you use more of it your tolerance goes up so you need to keep taking more and more. Then, all of a sudden, you don’t know how to cut back. Plus, in the past, a lot of drugs in this area have been cut with brick dust and scouring powder, dependent on whatever people are using. Even now it’s often cut with bath salts. I don’t think people realise the impact these drugs have inside their bodies.
In my view the solution isn’t to legalise drugs. Instead, we need to have better education and tell kids about drugs earlier. If necessary we need to show them what drugs can do and let them meet addicts.
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