The issue of heroin abuse in contemporary Britain is one of enormous concern, epitomised by the Anti-Drug Co-ordinator Keith Hellawell, who in 1998 claimed “
we are in the midst of a heroin epidemic.” (‘Drug czar warns of heroin epidemic,’ 1998). This
belief was widely accepted by law enforcement agencies and other societal groups, and embraced heartedly be the mass media. However has this ‘epidemic’ created a moral panic within our society, that is do we as a collective group perceive heroin to be a major
hreat to the moral well being of society?
The fundamental aim of this dissertation is not simply to establish the existence of the heroin epidemic per se, but also to discover whether the heroin problem has lead to the creation of a moral panic. This will be achieved through the application of Becker’s ‘Moral Crisis Production’ model, with a multi-method approach adopted to present the required evidence. The methodological approaches chosen include in-depth interviews with both government agencies and the drug ‘deviants,’ participant observation, closed questionnaires and content analysis of the local town paper.
What must be brought to light at this stage is the meaning of morality, which is the defining of any object in the world as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ (or any other similar dualism) which in this case is the drug heroin. Similarly the term ‘epidemic’ must also be determined in the context of heroin. The dictionary definition of epidemic is ‘ a disease, normally absent or infrequent in a population but liable to outbreaks of greatly increased frequency and severity, temporarily widespread.’ (Brown etal. Ed. 1990).
Heroin, or diacetylmorphine, is a derivative of the opium poppy. It was first manufactured as an ‘alternative to morphine in 1874 but it was banned in 1924 because of its addictiveness’ (Texas Commission on Drug Abuse, 2000). The drug itself has profound effects on the brain by activating the pleasure centres, interfering with the brains ability to feel pain and depressing the central nervous system. It is often injected intravenously (Health: Medical notes, 1998), but a rising section of younger people are starting to smoke, or ‘toot it’ to avoid the dangers of using needles. These factors have contributed to the current status of heroin being a class A drug, with ‘stiff penalties for both possession and supply.’ (Pompidou Group, 1994)
Interest in this area surfaced upon the discovery those many of my friends, and even some people close to me were turning to heroin use at around the same time that Keith Hellawell was announcing that the country was in the grips of a heroin epidemic. My interest in the subject area does however reach further than its personal connotations-Sociological and criminological research in this area is very limited and findings can prove to be somewhat controversial. Heroin abuse is a taboo subject inmany sections of society, one feels that it is time to redress that balance and explore some of the issues that surround the drug.
It has been estimated that there are around 60,000 heroin addicts in this country (BBC News online 1998) and the number is rapidly increasing, Yet there are only around 200 heroin related deaths per year (Ahearne 2001) which roughly equates to around 0.3% of known addicts. The most widely used drug in the world for self medication is aspirin, and in this country alone around 8000 people are admitted to hospital each year, vomiting blood due to aspirin consumption and it is estimated that around 200 people die (Teff, 1975). We also live in a society that allows alcohol and tobacco advertisements alongside ‘Heroin screws you up’ posters. Tobacco is vigorously promoted, but it kills more than 100,000 people a year (Parker etal 1988), in fact its ‘addiction is even stronger than heroin addiction.’ (X-Files, 2001).
These figures usefully illustrate the puzzling attitudes of society towards drug use, heroin is illegal and dangerous, yet aspirin, which kills as many people if not more, is widely available and socially accepted. However, if we are in the grips of a heroin epidemic based on deaths and addiction rates, then why have we not had an epidemic, and consequently a moral panic surrounding aspirin or tobacco addiction? The answer lies in the legality of one drug and the illegality of another, the moral codes we abide by and the collective conscience we share. Such figures also show the wilful ignorance of the effects of even the most commonplace drug, whether it is aspirin, tobacco or even alcohol. The negative effects associated with these drugs are either ‘flatly disbelieved, tactically acknowledged or rationalised in various ways.’(Parker etal 1988).
Alternatively the dangers of illegal drugs such as heroin seem to be greatly exaggerated by a public to whom they are largely unfamiliar, twith misunderstandings of the drug abound at all levels of society. Yet we must not lose sight of the fact that heroin is, and has been medically proven to be a highly addictive drug. Like other drug addictions heroin becomes the most important aspect of an individuals life, and expensive habits can cause addicts to turn to crime to support their habits. This link between crime and heroin could be seen to be ideal for the production of a moral crisis.
However the contradictory nature of societies perceptions towards drug use is not the focal point of this dissertation. Instead this study looks at the possible existence of a moral crisis that may surround a current heroin epidemic, both at a local and consequently national level. The study itself was concerned with a small market town in the Midlands, Grantham, where the heroin epidemic has said to exist since around 1998 (AA: Pp. 45. 4.0). However, signs of its emergence were acknowledged as far back as 1994. . . .
“Cocaine and heroin were not in town now, but [we] expect to see them within two years”
(Grantham Journal, March 14 1994)
Despite such forecasts the limited facilities available to drug users at that time were diminishing, with ‘Outreach,’ a drug support unit, going out of business in 1997.
Consequently, it can be deduced that preventative measures to try to contain the arrival of a heroin problem were neglected-instead of creating new treatment facilities or prevention strategies nothing was done. The following chapters will identify the extent of the heroin problem as it exists, in its true form, through qualitative and quantitative data. Similar techniques were applied in the succeeding chapters, which endeavoured to apply a theoretical model to the epidemic, and the assessment of the
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