‘Hyperbole and hysteria are counterproductive – we need common sense to tackle drugs in Coalisland’

COMMENT A couple of years ago I nipped into the bathroom of the hotel where I was attending a two-day training course.

Not normally a memorable experience, but unfortunately this particular hotel had eschewed the traditional Muzak™ and instead was piping in BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan show <insert your own obvious joke about there already being too much “faeces” in the toilet here>.

The topic that day was mephedrone and my heart sank because I suddenly knew my job, which can be tough enough at times, was just about to get harder.

Now some may think that the media are simply doing their best to inform the general populace of the issues of the day, and have their best interests at heart.

However, mass hysteria and media hyperbole do a better job of shifting units if they seem to confirm people’s worst nightmares.

We are a funny bunch. We only seem happy when our most hellish imaginings are validated by some other source, yet when others ask us to step back and look rationally at the situation, they are labelled as out of touch or ignored.

In the great tradition of all tabloid-style journalism, Nolan et al love to ramp the fear up, and following his two shows on the subject of “legal highs”, myself and other workers in the field are still trying to clear up the confusion.

Many people now think in soundbites or headlines, and no issue is allowed to be portrayed as complex. It is a binary opposition – either yes or no, good or bad.

No longer are articulate and well thought-out statements welcomed. You need to sum up your point in a few pithy lines, or otherwise you are “avoiding the issues”.

We still do not accept that many questions cannot be satisfactorily answered with a simple yes or no (a fact politicians caught on the backfoot are quite happy about).

The world of substance use is one of these. It is a complex series of interlinked and interdependent issues, that simply boiled down to mass hysteria results in counterproductive activities.

“The world of substance use is a complex series of interlinked and interdependent issues, that simply boiled down to mass hysteria results in counterproductive activities.”

Limited air time or column inches mean the proper debates are not being had, and instead sweeping generalisations are made about those who use some substances, clumping them together as some heterogeneous group rather than many individuals with different attitudes, points of view and experiences.

One of the most common questions I get asked in my job is “why do people take drugs?” Again people trying to elicit a simple answer when even that small question is packed full of intricacies that need to be unpacked – I could do a whole six week programme based around that seemingly simple enquiry.

So, in real terms what did Nolan’s show achieve? Quite a bit, though most of it counter to its intention.

For a start, due to constant referrals to mephedrone as “plant food” (which was simply a label put on it to bypass the Misuse of Drugs Act) a number of young people went into some garden centres to purchase plant food themselves to try it out.

We started getting phone calls from parents who reported that their offspring were having problems due to their use of mephedrone, when in actual fact it was the young person’s other substances of choice (generally alcohol and in one case, cocaine) that were causing the problems.

In other words, all that was happening to people was being blamed on mephedrone or some other cathione, and this was masking the fact that the issues were either more complex or related to other factors.

It is of course very inspiring to see a community coming together to tackle these issues, but doing so in a state of panic or irrationally will only be counterproductive.

For a start, constant reference is being made to drug gangs. This creates all sorts of images in people’s minds, many inspired by films and TV.

The simple fact is very few dealers fall into that stereotypical image – if they did, the police would have an easier time apprehending them.

A Joseph Rowntree Foundation study found that 96% of people got their drugs from someone they knew, so the idea of the “pusher” is one that belongs largely in the imaginations of scriptwriters of cliché-ridden offerings.

“The idea of the ‘drugs pusher’ is one that belongs largely in the imaginations of cliché-ridden scriptwriters.”

This exposes the hard fact many refuse to countenance: Most recreational users obtain and use drugs simply because they want to – not because they are forced down their throats or sold as something else.

It is also important to face up to the fact that both the internet and the influx of synthetic stimulants have changed the way things work.

Before 2010, 92% of mephedrone purchases were made online. When it was made a Class B substance then this altered a bit, but consumption was not affected – it stayed at the same level.

So if people are really eager to tackle the “drug gangs” behind the substances, they need ot book themselves flights to China and Thailand, since that is where the stuff is coming from.

Community initiatives are to be encouraged since they are the most effective ways to tackle drugs issues, but they must be based on solid evidence and not media-lead panic stories. Journalists are expected to have a wide range of knowledge, but that does not mean they are experts in all they write about.

“Community initiatives are to be encouraged since they are the most effective ways to tackle drugs issues, but they must be based on solid evidence and not media-lead panic stories.”

Many young people are aware of the hypocrisy of running anti-drugs stories next to massive adverts for alcohol. If what they are reading or hearing does not equate with their lived experiences then that message will be discounted.

For example, while we do know that drugs (including alcohol) can kill and ruin lives, if they have been taking them and haven’t seen this happening to anyone in their social group, then they will often write it off as someone simply trying to spoil their fun.

I was heading to Coalisland recently and suddenly discovered that the Stewartstown Road is now littered with speed ramps.

What has that got to do with drugs I hear you cry? Well those ramps are a signifier that many in the town didn’t seem to think that breaking the 30mph speed limit was an issue, despite the fact that more young people die in car related incidents than drug use.

“If it’s ok for a parent to drive too fast through a built up area, ignoring the risk to other people, why are they suddenly all concerned about drugs,” young people will ask themselves.

It may seem like comparing apples and oranges, but at the foot of it, the assumption of the driver is, “I am a good driver- I’ll never knock anyone down”, while the substance user has the same train of thought.

The six words that can undermine all prevention work – “It will never happen to me”.

So what is the solution? Not to talk about these issues at all? Lock our kids in their rooms until they are 25?

No – we need common sense and rationality. For a start the average age of someone dying from a drug-related issue in Northern Ireland is actually 40, so this is not just an issue for young people.

Hyperbole and hysteria are counterproductive, so we need to remember that just because someone behind a microphone says something does not mean that it is correct. We remember how this part of the world was represented in the media during the Troubles- we need to ensure we adopt the same cynical, questioning approach to stories now in relation to other topics.

Community-lead action is key, though it needs to be done properly, and not by shouting about crystal meth and starting a whole panic about a substance that thankfully has not emerged in great quantities.

Mephedrone, methoxetamine, MDPV, ketamine, BZP and all the rest may be dangerous, but do not come with the community destroying potential of crystal meth (methamphetamine), so let’s start by getting our terminology correct.

Support normative, evidence-based, peer-reviewed methods rather than the “hell in a handcart” screaming from the rooftops that is ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.


2 Comments on “‘Hyperbole and hysteria are counterproductive – we need common sense to tackle drugs in Coalisland’”

  1. Guest says:

    Brilliant article. Hats off. 

    Get the speed bumps out of Coalisland!!

  2. Coalisland Resident says:

    I agree with all your points and so does all the rational thinking people of Coalisland. The “Coalisland says No” group are a small group and their strategies are lead and supported by a small minority. They have no right to claim or even use the name Coalisland as they do not represent Coalisland as a whole, nor the majority.  Support them tackling drug, alcohol and violent crime – absolutely. Support them telling lies, scaremongering and destroying the good name of this town – definitely not!

    ” Support normative, evidence-based, peer reviewed methods” – i totally agree, however since this group is fronted by a Catholic priest, it is flawed since rational thinking and evidence based methods is beyond their comprehension. Combatting the problem by praying to a mythological figure and singing religious hymns in the town centre may give comfort to some within the group but it does absolutely nothing to combat any problem.  

    They think they will eradicate the drug market in Coalisland! Are they aware that the sale of cigarettes is on average is 5 times greater a problem than the sale of drugs?  Shops selling cheap cigarettes has more detrimental affects than the sale of drugs, thats not just my opinion, thats a medical fact! In fact, more people have been admitted to hospital from the consumption of peanuts than they have for drug use in this area!

    I myself, am not a drug user, but the lies and scaremongering from this ill educated group annoys me as all they have achieved to date is destroyed the good name of the town and brought about more violence, not directly obviously, but indirectly as we have seen in the past 2 days.

    Little knowledge can be so dangerous. This group have proved this point.


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