chapter  2
19 Pages

Measuring the ‘problem’: drug use in contemporary Britain

In the Preface it was stated that to fully understand the nature of the ‘drug problem’ in contemporary Britain, it was necessary to draw from a number of academic disciplines. Chapter 1 used history as its base to provide a broad overview of the manner in which the use of substances has changed over the millennia, especially in terms of societies’ and states’ responses to drug use. This chapter employs social science research methods as its foundation, questioning as it does the capacity to generate accurate figures on the extent of illicit drug use in Britain. The ability to provide detailed and exact measurement of illicit drug use is

important, not least because the apparent increase in the use and misuse of drugs over the past two and a half decades has generated a great deal of public and state concern. Accordingly, successive governments have had to respond to clarion calls by the media, by opposition politicians, by community leaders, by contemporary moral entrepreneurs, and by the Church for ‘something to be done’, leading to a whole raft of initiatives and policy documents. However, in order to ‘do something’ in an effective manner, there is a need to be clear as to the extent of the problem – in short, in order to produce and implement effective policy, it needs to be known exactly, or as exactly as possible, how many; who; what; where; when; how; and, if possible, why people take drugs. Although this may appear axiomatic, the practice of supplying such information is fraught with difficulties. As the Institute for Study of Drug Dependency (ISDD 1995: 7) noted: ‘Estimating just how many people use illicit drugs in Britain is like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle with many of the pieces missing’. This chapter will not, and cannot, for reasons that will become clearer as

the work progresses, complete that jigsaw. Instead, it takes as its core the problems we have in measuring drug misuse. It begins with a review of the methodological weaknesses of each approach to measuring drug misuse and highlights the difficulties of measuring a hidden population, such as drug users. It then compares and contrasts two types of measurement: official statistics compiled by treatment providers and law enforcement agencies, with self-report studies compiled by government agencies and academics. It then moves to discuss a method that is gaining popularity in research areas where

measurement is difficult – the ‘capture-recapture’ approach. This chapter, by employing the available data, draws a rough sketch of drug use in contemporary Britain, noting the division between ‘heavy-end’ drug users, who are most likely to come to the attention of the state system, and recreational users who do not, yet it is this group that appears to represent the majority of drug users in Britain. It ends by briefly discussing developments in measuring drug use since the first edition of the work was published in 2003. Before moving on to those points, it is perhaps germane to close this sec-

tion with a brief explanation as to why accurate measurement is important. To start, the Home Office recognises that ‘an understanding of the extent of drug use and its impact on … society is key to the development of appropriate polices … ’ (Singleton et al. 2006: 1), yet the same authors note that ‘traditional approaches to estimating the extent [of illicit drug use are] inappropriate’ (Singleton et al. 2006: 1). At present, the lack of a definitive figure, based on solid research, allows

any number of assertions about the prevalence of drug misuse in Britain. For example, David Davis MP speaking in the House of Commons in May 2008 noted that ‘the UK has the worst level of overall drug use in the European Union’ (Hansard 2008)’. The media often take up this message: for example Tim Hollis writing in The Times suggests that ‘the fact that we have Europe’s highest proportion of problem drug users within the adult population and you have a very depressing picture indeed’ (Hollis 2008). Yet although those figures can be quoted, their accuracy cannot be definitively proven. Several authors (Sutton and Maynard 1993; Hay 1998) question the veracity

of such statements and raise issues about the data on which they are based. Indeed, Sutton and Maynard (1993: 455) argue that statements like those above are ‘unquantified assertions based on opinion rather than measurement’. Such imprecision should, in theory, make it difficult for policy-makers to: (a) allocate funds, (b) target policy and (c) measure outcomes. However, that is patently not the case as central government spends ever-increasing sums of money tackling the ‘drug problem’; a problem whose true nature and extent is largely hidden, making its actual prevalence unknown. Sutton and Maynard’s work is more than a decade old now and part of the role of this chapter is to assess how far we have come in measuring illicit drug use since they made the claim that:

… policy design and execution in this area is conducted in an almost data free environment where, because of ignorance, it is impossible to set sensible policy targets, let alone measure the success of spending hundreds of millions of pounds across the Whitehall Departments. One wonders, for example, how targets for drug use, such as those for alcohol and tobacco in the Health of the Nation can be set and monitored.