Over summer this paper has published scores of articles on the use of the illegal drug ‘Black Mamba’ in Derby city centre. The Telegraph has described the drug users as “zombies” that are “plaguing” our streets. But let’s peer behind the headlines for a moment.
Official statistics on drug use show something interesting: overall drug use appears to have fallen yet the number of users appearing in hospital A&E and mental health departments has risen. This evidence would certainly tarry with the instances of drug use widely reported and observed on our streets where horrific displays of ‘Mamba’ users catch our attention where perhaps the quiet cannabis user might not.
The explanation for this divergent trend will have various causes, but let’s start with three.
First, drug use is reported to have increased among both prisons populations and the homeless. These two groups of people have one thing in common: both are rapidly growing. That means that drug use has increased among an expanding population of vulnerable and often careless (of themselves and others) group of people. Little wonder that we’ve seen the symptoms of this spill out onto our streets.
Second, government legislation on drug use has been a catastrophic failure. Government ministers are out of touch; few if any of them live in the towns most badly affected such as Manchester, Nottingham and Derby. The Tories austerity agenda puts leaves us with few solutions. We can’t as a nation simply arrest our way out of social problems. That’s one reason our prisons are overflowing. We need social solutions to social problems and as always these solutions come with a price tag, and yet this government is intent only on cuts.
Which leads me to the third explanation for what we’ve seen on our streets, and perhaps the most interesting. In a TED talk by Johann Hari, the writer and journalist unpicks the common way that most people think of addition. Citing an American professor of psychology, Bruce Alexander, Hari’s talk shows that addition is much more to do with the users’ overall mental health and environmental wellbeing than simply being biologically “hooked” to a substance.
Professor Alexander’s work explains that the original studies which gave us this simple idea of biological addition were conducted with rats. The caged animals were given two bottles of water, one of which contained heroine or cocaine. In time, as we would expect, the rats started using the drugged water and eventually overdosed and died.
What Alexander realised, however, was that if you gave the rats a fun, healthy and fulfilling environment to live in while also offering the drugged water the rats would barely, if ever, use it. Welfare and mental health clearly matter when it comes to addition.
So back in the real world of humans, I believe Alexanda and Hari’s insight provides us with an explanation for the increase in drug use in Derby as being connected to the city’s and indeed the country’s wider pitfalls. Indeed, complaints of Black Mamba use in Derby are regularly accompanied by negative observations as to what our city has become.
Now, born in bred in Derby as I am I won’t be the first to bemoan my home turf. But it’s because I care about this city that I want people to challenge its negative aspects. Beyond only increased policing, I want people to dream of a world we would be happy to live in.
To do this, we need a break with the low expectations that have smothered this country for decades. I believe to change things means to empower people to dream of a world that they would feel happy and secure to live in. One in which the destructive use of drugs will be less desirable than a glass of water.
This article originally appeared in the Derby Telegraph