Fifty years ago, Britain introduced its current anti-drug law, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Predated by the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920, the MDA has received a fair amount of criticism – not least for the fact its classifications aren’t actually based on how harmful or addictive each drug is, according to former government drug czar Professor David Nutt.
Unsurprisingly, in the century since the UK started legislating against drug use, a lot has happened – as leading drug expert Harry Shapiro charts in his newly published drug history bible, Fierce Chemistry: A History of UK Drug Wars. The book tracks the beginnings of the UK drug scene, from cliques of well-off Soho party people in the 1920s to the expansive narco landscape of today. It’s a story of addiction, politics, drug culture, the growth of a huge, illegal industry and the battle to keep it at bay.
Armed with a unique treasure trove of drug literature, Shapiro reveals how our drug war history is a strange brew of the arcane, the bizarre and the shocking. Having delved into the book, here’s my pick of the oddest bits.
‘THE VICE TRUST’ WAS THE NAME OF A SHADY ORGANISATION ALLEGED TO HAVE RUN LONDON’S DRUG TRADE IN 1918
Back in December of 1918, the Daily Express claimed that drug supply in the capital was in the hands of a criminal organisation called “The Vice Trust”, which had interests in prostitution, gambling and nightclubs. Its major drug dealers were women who sold primarily to other women on London’s club scene.
Shapiro says, at the time, there was no evidence of violent gangs being involved in drugs supply, with the most infamous opium and cocaine dealer being a rich West End playboy named “Brilliant” Billy Chang.
Brenda Dean Paul in 1952. Photo: Keystone Press / Alamy Stock Photo
BRENDA DEAN PAUL WAS THE FIRST HIGH SOCIETY DRUG CASUALTY
Although the apparent cocaine overdoses of stage star Billie Carleton and dancer Freda Kempton shone a light on the London drug scene, it was a socialite actress, Brenda Dean Paul, who – in Shapiro's words – was “arguably Britain’s first publicly exposed high-society drug user”.
A member of the Bright Young Things, a group of young celebrity aristocrats who spent their time driving fast cars and partying, she became addicted to morphine after a car crash. After many arrests and a spell in prison, she became a poster girl for the horrors of addiction. She was dogged by drugs, and the tabloid press, until she overdosed aged 52.
A BLACK SEAMAN WAS THE FIRST EVER PERSON TO BE ARRESTED FOR WEED POSSESSION IN THE UK
Abraham Jones, 40, was arrested alongside Elizabeth Cocklin, 29, on the 7th of March 1929 at a Chinese restaurant in Limehouse, east London, charged with unauthorised cannabis possession, an offence that had been introduced under Dangerous Drugs Act legislation in 1925.
The arresting officers testified that they had been keeping the pair under observation and had seen Jones pass Cocklin a paper packet that she’d had concealed inside one of her shoes. Jones was sentenced to three months of imprisonment with hard labour, while Cocklin was given the choice of a 40 shilling (£2) fine or a month’s imprisonment.
Lady Diana Cooper with Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor. Photo: Keystone Press / Alamy Stock Photo
DAVID CAMERON’S GREAT AUNT WAS A KEEN MORPHINE INJECTOR
Leading London socialite (and David Cameron’s great aunt) Lady Diana Cooper was a “confirmed and unapologetic” injector of morphine. In 1915, she wrote enthusiastically about her drug experiences, which she described as “orgies”, in the company of Katharine Asquith, wife of the then Prime Minister’s son.
In 1926, the Royal Academy hung her portrait as a replacement for Breakdown, a painting depicting a naked white girl dancing to the sounds of a Black saxophonist, after the Colonial Office objected on the grounds that “it would make ruling our natives difficult”.
JAZZ CLUBS WERE THE OG DRUG DENS
Club Eleven, a New Orleans-style basement jazz club, was the original Soho drug den. Run by jazz legend Ronnie Scott in the 1950s, Club Eleven had a racially mixed clientele and was full of young people, musicians and “vipers” (the slang name for cannabis smokers, supposedly derived from the hissing sound heard when a joint was lit).
It was a London dealing hub for weed, heroin and coke, and the target of the first ever modern police drug raid, in 1950.
“The clientele was crazy, really gone. From the Bohemian lunatic fringe, to small-time crooks and Americans on furlough. From musicians dropping by for the fun of the ride to teenage girls following the pack,” wrote Raymond Thorp in his autobiography Viper: The Confessions of a Drug Addict.
JAMES BOND TOOK LSD
Sean Connery was given acid by counterculture psychiatrist and LSD advocate R.D. Laing at the doctor’s practice in Wimpole Street, central London, shortly after the release of Goldfinger in 1964.
Laing, who was open about his methods, was an early believer in LSD’s therapeutic value. He took the drug alongside patients, although Connery later told the writer Edna O’Brien that the trip – an attempt to deal with stress – was a bad one, because he experienced a “freight of terrors”.
JUST 544 PEOPLE IN BRITAIN WERE CONVICTED OF A CANNABIS OFFENCE IN 1964
It was the first year that the number of white people convicted of a cannabis offence (284) topped the number of non-white people convicted (260).
By 1974, the total number had risen to nearly 10,000. In 2011, 36,700 people were convicted of cannabis offences, but by 2020 the number had fallen to 17,800.
REVOLUTION IN IRAN HELPED FUEL THE HEROIN EPIDEMIC
1979 was a major tipping point in the history of heroin use in the UK. In April of that year, Iran voted to ditch the Shah and declare the country an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Khomeini.
When the ruling establishment fled to countries such as the UK, they brought with them one of their most valuable assets, vast stocks of brown heroin from the opium plantations they had owned. In addition, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December created the unstable conditions – and the need – for the region to ramp-up heroin exports to the West.
LIVERPOOL WAS THE FIRST CITY TO BE SWAMPED BY HEROIN
With one of the worst unemployment rates in the country, and a fresh supply of smokeable brown heroin arriving in Britain from Asia, in the late 1970s Liverpool became known as “Smack City”.
The typical Merseyside heroin user was very different to the bohemian, anti-establishment user of 1960s London. They were in their teens, had no qualifications, lived at home with their parents and robbed to support their heroin habit. Reported domestic burglaries on the Wirral went from 2,824 in 1979 to 10,238 in 1986.
Asked why he took heroin, one user replied: “Why not? There’s nothing to do anyway except spend all day watching the telly.”
Photo: Janine Wiedel Photolibrary / Alamy Stock Photo
BRITAIN HAD A LETHAL TEEN GLUE SNIFFING EPIDEMIC
Originally linked to punk rock, glue sniffing – which also encompassed sniffing gas lighter fuel, Tippex and hairspray – hit teenagers in the 1970s and 1980s. At the height of the craze, there were two fatalities a week.
At the inquest into the death of an 11-year-old Sunderland boy, the local paper denounced glue as “the demon vapour”, and then helpfully explained in detail how young people sniff glue. In 1985, it became an offence for shopkeepers to sell glue to teenagers.
Overall, according to Shapiro, “solvent sniffing has caused more deaths among teenagers than all the other drugs put together”.