Has the UK’s attitude to drugs changed?

In the wake of the Grillo trial, Nigella Lawson’s cocaine and cannabis habit has brought illicit drug use to the fore of public discussion. Despite being accused of taking cocaine every day for years by her former housekeepers, the Metropolitan Police indicated that they had no imminent plans to investigate her drug use in a statement released shortly before Christmas.

The breakdown of the famous TV chef’s marriage has been picked apart by the press at every turn, leading to calls for sympathetic treatment of her situation – and even David Cameron happily identified as a member of “Team Nigella” before the recent court case came to a close. Whilst Cameron explains that he is won over by her character, the Prime Minister’s treatment of the situation indicates a more tolerant attitude to drug use than may have been expected.

If Nigella’s return to British screens is successful, she will be far from the first celebrity to be accepted back into the public eye in the wake of a drugs scandal. Russell Brand had been clean from addiction for about 10 years before creating a BBC documentary on drugs after a successful climb to fame. Whilst the two characters differ in that Brand only started to reach notable fame after coming clean, Brand details his struggles with addiction in no uncertain terms in his autobiography My Booky Wook and was never one to shy away from his past during on-screen appearances. Lawson admits to having taken cocaine on only seven occasions, a claim which has been disputed by the Grillo sisters – but even the discovery of a serious drug habit doesn’t need to be career-ending.

The revelation of Kate Moss’ cocaine habit did little to stop the advancement of her career: less than three years after titles of “Cocaine Kate” graced headlines everywhere Moss made it into Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and her earnings had doubled. Addiction no longer needs to be the kiss of death to a high-profile career; recently Matthew Perry appeared on Newsnight to debate with Peter Hitchens on drugs, and openly used his own experience as an addict as evidence for his views.

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If our media is to be seen as a reflection of our views, the prominence of current and former users among A-list celebrities would suggest that the British public’s approach to drugs is more tolerant than it has been in the past. The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines drug addiction as “a complex illness”, showing that a sympathetic approach to drug abuse is not just the belief of an opinionated minority. The idea that addiction is a disease which needs to be treated rather than a crime which should be punished has become more and more popular, receiving support from say, Brand and Perry, whose views the BBC has been prepared to air.

However, it is not just our media which reflects a shift in attitude to drugs – our laws and convictions indicate it as well. Whilst possession of drugs is technically a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment, possession of cannabis may be punished by a reprimand or warning, with no criminal record. Users of intravenous drugs are able to partake in needle exchange programmes and whilst this is not unique to the UK, it has resulted in extremely low infection rates amongst users and demonstrates an attitude which does not choose to punish people for their addiction, but rather seeks to make it safer. The number of inmates in UK prisons for drug-related offences has remained constant since 2001 after a sharp increase in the nineties; however those who are in jail receive longer sentences, indicating an increase in more serious crimes such as supplying as opposed to mere possession.

In modern Britain, drug possession may well result in only a warning or a fine, depending on the circumstances, and drug scandals may even serve as a means to earning more publicity rather than spelling the end of an ambitious career. In 2012, a Home Office spokesperson told the BBC that drug usage at the time was at its lowest since records began- so maybe drugs are not causing enough noise or trouble to be worthy of scorn anymore. Furthermore, the presence of drugs across our society is slowly being understood as an inevitability; something which Mr. Cameron, perhaps to the benefit of Nigella, allegedly experienced himself during his time at Eton.