Drugs in Britain: Supply, Consumption and Control

Simpson, M., Shildrick, T. & MacDonald, R. (eds.)
Palgrave Publishing, Basingstoke
1403936951 (pb)

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Cover of book Drugs in Britain is an edited collection of chapters of four topic-focused chapters addressing the 'Distribution and consumption of illicit drugs' and five focussing on 'Policing, control and care'. The editors precede these chapters with an 'Introduction' setting the scene and outlining the individual chapters to the reader. Their eleventh and final chapter pulls the threads from the preceding chapters together. However, this Discussion and Conclusions chapter begins with some of the editors own qualitative research in the drug misuse field.

In many countries, drug misuse ranks high on the agenda of politicians and the media alike. There is a widely recognised need among social and health policy makers in Britain for more and better information on drugs markets and users and their social and economic effects on the wider society. The available information does not always cover the four countries of the UK, as Newcombe highlights (Chapter 2) in terms of drug misuse studies Scotland and Northern Ireland 'are often excluded by relevant surveys, and so 'national' typically means mainland Britain, or England and Wales only, or even just England' (p. 13).

Newcombe (p. 32) also identified four overlapping groups of drug users: (1) opioids users and injecting drug users; (2) stimulant and hallucinogen users; (3) cannabis users; and (4) solvents users. Social researchers in the drug misuse field have to consider two potential problems here when attempting to establish the size of the drug market, namely that of poly-drug use (i.e. drug users use more than one drug) and the risk of double counting.

The size and/or volume of 'black' markets or 'informal' markets are, by their nature, hard to establish. There exists limited information on the size of the illicit drug market and the economic and social costs of illicit drug use in society. This will limit the effectiveness of the policy-making process as the opportunities costs of alternative social policies are less well established. For example, 'in some cases (i.e. cannabis) the drugs laws are unpopular partly because the police lacks resources to respond to a host of other more pressing social problems' (Crowther-Dowey 2007: 108).

McInnes and Barrett in Chapter 8 address issues around 'Drug Education'. The authors point out those education strategies based on a harm-minimisation approach and those aimed at abstinence don't sit together easily. Especially, since their conclusion is that: 'A dispassionate reading of the research and evaluation literature suggests that ― across all methods of drugs education from the mid 1970s onwards ― programmes have had no more than marginal effects on children and young people's attitudes and behaviour, in relation to drug use' (p.137). This chapter also has a Glossary of commonly used acronyms in drugs education. This is a useful list, but is a missed opportunity for the editors who could have used it as their starting point for a more general Glossary that would cover the whole book.

All chapters, apart from the 'Introduction', have a set of (1) 'Further Reading' and (2) 'Study Questions' at the end to help students with their learning. These sometimes are fairly detailed and specific, for example: 'In what ways was the increase in heroin use in the 1960s different from that in the 1980s?', and sometimes refreshingly simple: 'Is heroin a useful medicine or a dangerous drug?' (p.75).

The book is in the first instance a textbook for a Sociology or Social Policy undergraduate or postgraduate module on 'Drugs and Society'. It is good introductory reading for researchers new to the field, and perhaps also of use to policy makers in the drug, social justice and health fields. The various chapters cover a range of different issues, whilst several refer to underlying issues such as, for example, 'normalisation'; 'legislation'; 'harm reduction/minimisation' or 'poverty'.

One minor criticism concerns the Index, which seems short and incomplete. The Index lists only one country, namely 'Afghanistan'. It does not list any of the four countries on the United Kingdom separately, nor does it list the Netherlands, Pakistan, Colombia, etc., all countries covered in at least one of the chapters of this edited work.

Edwin van Teijlingen
University of Aberdeen