The British Health Authority

“Heroin screws you up”. This was the slogan used by the British Health Authority during the 1980’s, designed to deter the increase of heroin use among certain groups of young people. Heroin is an opiate, derived from the poppy plant, produced from morphine. It is either injected after dilution with water or smoked, known as “chasing the dragon”. Often defined as the most dangerous narcotic by the media, heroin is classified as a Class A drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act, and doctors are legally required to notify the Home Office of any opioid clients.

The illegal market of heroin use originated in the late1960’s, when a group of young users in London started distributing excess amounts of the drug obtained from general practitioners, who were prescribing it to opium addicts. The official statistics of heroin addicts was approximately 3,000, and the problem was largely confined to London. These figures changed little throughout the 1970’s; however, 1979-81 saw the beginning of a phenomenal pattern of heroin use. By the mid-1980’s the official number of heroin addicts in Britain had increased to a spectacular 12,000.

Unlike the older generation of bohemians, these new younger users were from a predominantly working class background, in their late teens and early twenties. Why then, did heroin appeal to certain groups of young people in the 1980’s in Britain? In examining why this drug epidemic emerged, it is fundamental to examine the role of enforcement policy in determining drug consumption, and the sudden availability of high-quality heroin in cheap and plentiful supply during this period.

One must also consider factors such as the correlation between unemployment, poverty and drug use, and the recreational aspect of heroin as providing an alternative to mainstream culture. Law enforcement policy plays a significant role in the shaping of drug markets, which in turn form from drug-taking communities, providing a symbiotic relationship.

In 1968 Britain reformed its liberal policy of medicalization of heroin users under the clinic system in which Drug Dependancy Units were established; doctors, who had previously possessed the power to prescribe opiates in order to maintain addicts, were now prevented from supplying their clients with heroin and cocaine; in extreme cases of addiction, the doctor was allowed to “maintain the patient with enough heroin to be free of withdrawal pains, but not enough so that he will have any surplus to sell or give to others.

” Doctors were now encouraged to prescribe methadone as an alternative. The Misuse of Drugs (Notifications of and Supply to Addicts) Regulations 1973 further restricted the medical distribution of narcotics: “Only those doctors licensed by the Secretary of State could prescribe heroin or cocaine to an addict other than for the treatment of organic disease or injury. ” The clinic system was far more restrictive to the individual than the previous maintainance of the addict had been; as drugs became difficult to legally obtain, users looked to the illicit market for heroin.

The sudden availability of high-quality, cheap heroin from Southwest Asian countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan has been argued to be a main contributer to the heroin epidemic of the 1980’s. This new form of heroin was smokable, and users were now engaged in “chasing the dragon” rather than the taboo activity of injecting the drug. This form of intoxication was perceived as being far more socially attractive to users, who saw their activity as being a social activity rather than “shooting up.

As one user described of “chasing the dragon”: “There was a glamorous, opium-den feeling to it. ” Some people who first tried the new “skag” believed that smoking heroin was non-addictive since they had only previously known about the earlier injecting subcultures of London “junkies” from the 1960’s and early 1970’s. The sudden availability of the drug in many new communities resulted in localised “mini-epidemics” among friendship networks.

Contradicting the well-publicised myth of the pusher offering free samples to schoolchildren at the school gates, the majority of new users were offered the drug by someone well known: “I was at a party with some friends, good friends that I’d known for ages. And there was some heroin going round. I’d heard about it, but I’d never actually seen it before. And, they were smoking it on foil… you know, chasing it. This friend who’d brought it with her said did I want to try? There was no pressure on me, or anything like that. They were obviously enjoying it, so I thought ‘Why not? ‘ That was the first time. ” (Julie, 29 years, West Yorkshire)

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