Cocaine comes out of the ghetto

January 17, 1997

A VERY GREEDY DRUG: COCAINE IN CONTEXT By Jason Ditton and Richard Hammersley Harwood Academic Publishers, 160pp, Pounds 11.00 ISBN - 3 7186 5904 2

Insubstantial media scares about new illicit drugs have an ignoble history going back a century in Britain and the United States, with the xenophobic onslaughts on the users of marijuana, opium, cocaine and other substances. The US media extravaganza with crack cocaine was imported by British media which predicted that a flood of crack and all the ills associated with it was already beating on our shores. While the media deluged us with portentous stories the drug itself seems, at least to date, to have trickled rather than flooded into our culture.

This is the starting point for Jason Ditton, Richard Hammersley and other members of the Scottish Cocaine Research Group who seek to balance the media reports with a more impartial and rational look at the use and users of cocaine in Scotland.

Their methodological approach taken is based on refuting the simplistic notion that the use of cocaine (and, by extension, the use of other illicit substances) by those who have been apprehended by the police and/or sought out medical assistance for their dependence is typical. In fact, as the authors show, these kinds of users are anything but typical. Thus, Ditton and Hammersley illuminate the hitherto highly distorted picture of the sociology of cocaine use by bringing the experiences of its invisible consumers to light. Using findings based on information provided by 133 interviewees they show that most of the cocaine in Scotland is taken by polydrug users for whom it is simply one recreational choice among many. The media myth of near-instant addiction is not substantiated. The drug is still less widely used than LSD, ecstasy and amphetamines. The stock media images of the cocaine yuppy and the crack ghetto child have little to do with mainstream use. The study members were not "particularly young, particularly delinquent, particularly poor or deprived, nor particularly wealthy".

The aura of addiction and severe dependence surrounding cocaine is taken issue with and the authors suggest that its status as a Class A drug should be reconsidered. The important message of this book is that social studies of illicit substance cannot afford to ignore the fact that the silent majority of users are integrated into mainstream society and cannot be pigeonholed as medical patients or criminals.

Richard Rudgley is the author of The Alchemy of Culture: Intoxicants in Society.

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