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Review: Terribly alive

The Times Educational Supplement, July 31 1987

Brian Deer on a new study which explodes the popular misconceptions about heroin

The New Heroin Users. By Geoffrey Pearson. Blackwell £17.50. 0 631 15396 9 £6.95. 15621 6.

Whatever happened to the heroin crisis? Has the media run out of fresh angles on addiction, leaving us all bored with the subject and leading us on to Aids and child abuse as new topics for moral concern? Or did all those Government television commercials warning us that the drug "screws you up" have the intended effect and persuade the country's youth to "just say No", as another common message advised?

For sure, journalists are fed up with the subject. After the panic got underway in 1984 we had long spells when any reporter who had nothing to write about would knock out a story on heroin. First it was how all the nation's teenagers were "chasing the dragon". Then young mothers were giving birth to addicted babies. And eventually the "junkie grannies" were discovered, squandering their pensions to finance their habits.

All this has been replaced by other fixations, but it certainly isn't because the Government's "public information" commercials caused heroin to go away. Considerable recent evidence suggests that the advertising had no beneficial effects at all and may indeed have made things worse by stimulating curiosity and adding to the drug's "glamour". They did give us the impression that something was being done, but they don't appear to have persuaded the kids.

The alarm over heroin may have done a lot for the careers of journalists and politicians, anxious to appear "socially concerned", but what diminished their contribution was that many of the assumptions from which they started were often little short of fantasies. Heroin use has never been as widespread as they claimed, is not nearly as addictive as nicotine and, in the opinion of some experienced doctors, can actually make you look younger.

Had we grasped these things, rather than some of the more wilful deceptions that are peddled around, we might have been some way down the road to understanding why heroin is a problem and how we might deal with it. Drug users and their friends know when they are being lied to and can easily compare their own experiences with what they see on television and are told by their parents.

Geoffrey Pearson, professor of social work at Middlesex Polytechnic, is one of several recent investigators who have gone back to the most appropriate starting point and examined the genuine experiences of real people caught up with heroin. The New Heroin Users is a welcome effort, if a little late to have much impact on those opinion-formers who should have absorbed such material two or three years ago.

Pearson's method is essentially an extended version of what market researchers call the "qualitative survey", where instead of counting numbers you get individuals and groups to discuss an issue. He has travelled widely, collecting a series of long anecdotal histories which, when broken up and constructed into themes, have produced some reasonable generalisations upon which he comments.

In the face of this approach, the myths start tumbling. Yes indeed, heroin affects all social classes, debs do fix in Oxford colleges and Boy George was a junkie. But there is nothing new in this. What is different, and what justifies a belief that Britain does have a heroin crisis, is that the new users are heavily concentrated in those areas already blighted by unemployment, poor housing and poverty.

Likewise, there are "evil pushers" who deliberately draw young people into addiction for the sake of profit. But anyone who has mixed widely with heroin users, as Pearson clearly has, knows that drug dealings become inseparably woven together with friendship patterns and that much of the difficulty of giving up drugs is that it means giving up the friends who use them.

For some people, heroin is quickly addictive. But not in the way that cigarettes are. I have many friends who have tried heroin and didn't like it much. Others use it about twice a year, with not the slightest difficulty. Users are all different and addiction usually creeps up after a period of problem-free use - first as a social habit, then as psychological dependence, and finally as a physical addiction.

For those who have masterminded Britain's reaction to the heroin crisis, these are dangerous ideas. The connection between poverty and other social problems, such as drug addiction and ill-health, is strongly disputed in some quarters. The official line declares that heroin use is a crime and therefore those who indulge are criminals who should be punished, rather than victims who ought to be helped. Take heroin once, we are told, and you're on the slippery slope to sickness or death.

"Dramatic pronouncements about death seem hardly relevant to what the experience of the new heroin users most typically amounts to," Pearson writes. "Rather it is an experience of being terribly alive, caught up in a drab and stressful treadmill, waking up each day to the gnawing preoccupation with where the next £5 'bag' of heroin will come from."

If more people get to understand what life on heroin is like, Pearson will have done us all a favour. But it's a pity that his interviews are confined to the pages of a book, rather than offered to the mass audience of television. Not only because more people would quickly benefit, but because there are inherent difficulties in using question-and-answer techniques in printed interviews.

Take this account of a discussion between a Yorkshire mother and daughter about how a parent can spot a drug problem:

Cheryl - "We used to be reet obvious. Like I'd get up in a morning turkeying and I'd be reet quiet wouldn't I? Reet bad-tempered like..."

Mother - "And if I said owt, she'd scream and shout."

Cheryl - "I'd go out... then come running in, like, skipping and this (gestures)... and she'd know. She'd say, "Thar's a lot happier this morning."

Interesting those these words might be, when I read them, I want to see and hear Cheryl and her mother, and look around the neighbourhood where they live. It's not Pearson's fault, of course, that he lacks the resources of a television producer, but he only rescues the important things he has to say in the book through his own commentary which introduces the unseen, unheard talking heads.

Pearson has learnt a few lessons from other media, however, and dramatically reminds us that there are some working-class neighbourhoods where, unaffected by government information campaigns, the heroin crisis "is so bad that the headline writers of Fleet Street simply would not have the literary command to describe how bad it is".

I think he underestimates some journalists' ability. A couple of years back I had the good fortune to work my way around the same Liverpool council estate as a BBC correspondent who subsequently reported that half the teenagers on Merseyside were taking heroin. It was a ridiculous invention, but was so potent a story that it became very widely believed.

For his investigations, Pearson has not sought out unproveable statistics about the horror of heroin, and he doubts whether that is what is needed most. "It is better approached as something which seeps into people's lives, friendships and families," he believes. "And rather than talking over the heads of the people who this problem affects, as we often do in policy debates, it seems better to allow the new heroin users to speak for themselves."

Topic: heroin and drug misuse


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