This book has been about 15 years in the making. Back in 2005, I was Director of Communications for a drug charity called DrugScope. The world of illegal drug use and drug addiction is an extremely emotional and polarised environment in which to work. There are ideological clashes at every turn between doctors, between doctors and clients, between politicians, between different arms of law enforcement, law reform vs anti-law reform activists. Plus of course, the ongoing war between drug traffickers and the police and customs. This state of affairs gave rise to the title of the book indicating that the story isn’t just about the highly publicised drug war between the goodies and the baddies. That’s the war much loved by popular culture – The Sopranos, Narcos, Breaking Bad and The Wire to name just a few of the more recent examples. The other battles are hidden from public gaze.

A busy gin palace bar with customers buying drinks. (Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection, Fierce Chemistry, Amberley Publishing)

1968 was at the height of the first wave of moral panic in the UK about drugs – hippies, psychedelia, Timothy Leary, cannabis, LSD, the famous Rolling Stones bust – the whole nine yards.  A former colonial civil servant, Frank Logan wanted to write an article about this cultural phenomenon, but all he could find was hysterical media reporting and dense scientific articles about what happens if you fill a rat with cannabis. (Answer: it falls over). There was no balanced and objective information to be found, so he decided to set up an organisation to scour the world literature to bring together a decent library of information. This was the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence which I joined in 1979 and became DrugScope in 2000.

There is an assumption that all drug charities are either anti-drugs or exist to campaign for legalisation. The war against drugs is an unhelpful term; you cannot wage war against plants, pills, or powders. But it came in useful as a demarcation of where ISDD/DrugScope positioned itself namely in the demilitarised zone of the war. What did that mean? It meant that the drug information we published and the media comments we gave would be topical, non-judgemental and in a time well before the term was coined – evidence-based. It also meant we dealt even-handedly with those who came to the library. I recall one day seated at either end of the table where library users sat – the Legalise Cannabis Campaign and officers from the Met Police Drug Squad. Neither knew who the other was – and they both got the information they were looking for.

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A fleet of opium clippers with other boats and rafts on the Ganges. (Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection, Fierce Chemistry, Amberley Publishing)

There have been several books looking at particular aspects of the UK drug scene, but Fierce Chemistry is the first to take a popular historical overview of the whole period from the very first drug laws passed in 1916. The ban on cocaine, heroin and morphine acquired for non-medical reasons (yes, doctors could prescribe all these drugs back then) came about due to our first press outrage about drugs. There were some over-cooked rumours that prostitutes were selling cocaine to soldiers enjoying some R&R in the West End. This set a pattern which persisted down the years that drug control was as much about who was using the drugs as the drugs themselves. Indeed, most of the fuss about cannabis was generated by stories of white girls hanging out with black GIs and Windrush immigrants.

A 1968 feature from the underground newspaper International Times reporting on Steve Abrams’ drug research project SOMA and its campaign to have the cannabis laws reformed. (Fierce Chemistry, Amberley Publishing)

Up until the late 1970s, injecting heroin use was largely confined to older users in and around central London. In my talks, I often pose the question – What is the connection between Margaret Thatcher and Ayatollah Khomeni? They both came to power in 1979 and both helped fuel the heroin epidemic which swept through the UK. How so? Thatcherite economic policy accelerated the demolition of UK heavy and manufacturing industries causing mass unemployment and poverty across the UK’s industrial regions. Heroin came in to fill a vacuum of despair and loss of hope and provided a lucrative underground economy to fill the hole left by job loss. But it wasn’t like the heroin of the past which you could only inject. This was Iranian heroin which could be smoked and so dispensed with the taboo of injecting. It came into the UK in huge quantities because the arrival of Khomeni drove out Iranians who converted their assets into an easily transportable commodity - common in the Middle East, but unknown in the UK. Without the needle taboo, thousands of young people took up heroin with devastating consequences for individuals, families, and communities.

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A supervised drug consumption facility in Denmark. UK drug charities have been campaigning for similar facilities to help reduce opioid overdoses. (Courtesy of Steve Rolles, Fierce Chemistry, Amberley Publishing)

Because of years working in the DMZ of the drug war, I have been accused of sitting on the fence when it comes to the thorny question of legalisation. Well, I have to say, I quite like the view from up here. In the welter of social media and op-ed press comment, there is an assumption that drug legalisation is inevitable in the UK. I’m not convinced. It is true that Canada and Uruguay have legalised cannabis as have some US states while some European countries are taking a more relaxed approach to drug possession for personal use. But for the UK to go down that route, even regarding cannabis let alone anything else, I reckon such a move needs to pass a three-pronged stress test. First the clinical and scientific evidence. We know how much the data has driven our approach to COVID but we also know how much disagreement there can be between experts. Second, there has to be political will on the part of government coupled with the knowledge there is support within its own party. And thirdly it needs to navigate the court of public opinion which generally means our particularly raucous and unforgiving press. Being ‘soft on drugs’ runs a close third to breaking social distancing rules and fiddling your parliamentary expenses in terms of political damage. So, I’m not holding my breath or even inhaling.

So why did the book take so long? Simply because drugs were the day job and I couldn’t really face doing drugs morning, noon and night – although some might find the prospect appealing. And since DrugScope collapsed in 2015, I am my own boss running DrugWise, a small online drug information service. I can say and write what I like.

Harry Shapiro's new book Fierce Chemistry: A History of UK Drug Wars is available for purchase now.