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Drugs

There's a Reason the UK Takes More Coke, K and MDMA Than Anywhere Else

Our nation's enduring obsession with the rave years might go some way to explaining today's Global Drug Survey results.

by Hydall Codeen
16 May 2019, 8:32am

Photo: VICE

The results of the Global Drug Survey 2019 were released this morning, and once again they've shown that the UK is full of caners. Throughout their lives, people from the UK take more cocaine, ecstasy, ketamine and NOS than anyone else in the world. Below, Hydall Codeen looks at why that might be.

It's 2019, and rave dads have taken over the world.

The myth everyone likes to push about British drug-taking today is that it has always taken place in some ecstatic farmer's field, strobe-strewn nightclub for-the-ages or one of the other elysian spaces so beloved of a culture industry that continues to rely heavily on the reflected decadence of drugs and illicit Britishness.

Thirty years ago this summer, something was underway in the UK that would come to be known retrospectively as The Second Summer of Love. By now, the cues are rote: free parties, secret phone numbers, repetitive beats. Silly yellow faces, baggy tie-dye, tabloid panic and dance floors full of hugging hooligans. The mealy mouthed mantra of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, and above all else: ecstasy.

As the tides of time have carried those who were young in 1989 into positions that allow them to author their own version of pop-cultural history, so our understanding of British drug-taking has been irrevocably altered with it, a pursuit nudged away from nihilism and granted the weight of significance and meaning.

rave drugs uk
Photo: Roger Parkes / Alamy Stock Photo

Rave nostalgia is big business. It has become totally enshrined in the story of this country that anyone under the age of 40 wants to tell themselves, highly visible still in the way we dress and the way we go out, the things we hope to do with our time when we’re young. It is vaunted as the last real youth revolution, and every major British city is awash with teenagers and young adults decked out in rave-aping sportswear. Each year, there seems to be another rash of articles proclaiming the rebirth of illegal rave, and we’ve all seen the films, TV tributes and visual retrospectives, hoisted aloft on white gallery walls, that work in service of this post-rave consensus, the limiting idea that Britain – acid Britain, Balearic Britain, cool Blighty – has always held its drugs back for the hip and the free and the au courant, the kinds of young people who still look fit enough ten-dabs deep to find themselves mobbed by members of the opposite sex, who learn a few lessons, fall in love and move on. The kind who eventually grow up and get it out of their system.

Does Britain still need to tell itself this story? Rave happened three decades ago. Three decades before that, British youth culture was dominated by the last dregs of the teds, leather boys and rockers. The ravers of 1989 didn’t endlessly fetishise Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran – barely anyone who was young and alive at that time did. So why, 30 years on from the initial rave explosion, are we still so in thrall to it and the attendant idea that drugs are something British people must do in huge crowds of beautiful strangers, lives changing in time with the kick drum in the arms of all their wonderful friends?

This insistence upon meaning and elegance does a grave disservice to the sheer variety and endurance of Britain’s contemporary caner army. There are no east London exhibitions or Baltic Triangle book launches dedicated to geared-up, barman-bothering 50-year-old divorcees, to functioning smack addicts in Berkshire suburbia, to dragon-loving shy lads who spend their days working at CeX and their nights blissed out in their bedrooms on cocktails of self-prescribed opioids. Thirty years on from rave, it’s true that British people are still in love with ecstasy: the results of this year's Global Drugs Survey estimate that, at some point in their lives, a higher percentage of people on these shores have used MDMA than anywhere else in the world. But if the drug of choice is the same as it was back then, the arenas for hedonism have shifted.

It’s interesting to ponder how this generation will tell the story of its own decadence in the decades to come. Like everything else in this country, drug-taking feels as though it’s becoming ever-more atomised, less attached to tectonic generational shifts and cultural narratives. It also feels as though it’s never been more obviously prevalent at every level and in every niche of British society, from day-drinking Square Mile lawyers topping up wine bar rounds with cheeky cubicle lines, to the more hi-vis and rampantly damaging kind of drug-taking that we see growing around us every day as Tory austerity pushes more and more people on to the streets.

cocaine sniffing
Photo: Emily Bowler

At a zeitgeist level, British drug-taking has for the last decade or so been found more often in dim-lit, can-strewn living rooms than it has in co-opted farmer's fields, the inherent irony of the sesh not lost on its partisans as post-rave electronic music blares tinnily from laptop speakers and everyone sits round, silently zonked, on the distancing effects of whatever ersatz version of cocaine they’ve managed to acquire that weekend. Is this the utopia that rave promised us? In 2019, British drug-taking has more in common with Limmy’s series of "Party Chat" skits than it does Castlemorton.

The question of why British people love getting fucked out of their faces more than anyone, anywhere else in the world, is a tricky one to answer. What can probably be said for sure is that not everyone who's ever washed up on your sofa or in your bed after another sustained weekend-long attack on the nation’s drug stocks has done so while seeking some profound shift in consciousness. That YouTube "Watch Later" playlist or SoundCloud set you keep cuing up might well be good, but it’s not changing anyone’s life like "Good Life" did at Shoom.

Thirty years on from the first humid flushes of Britain’s ingenue ecstasy boom, rave dads may well control the narrative. But the reality has long slipped into something infinitely more fragmented, as each weekend a million new tiles are added to the ongoing mosaic of the story of our youth we will tell ourselves in the years to come – a story that may well come to boast real cultural meaning and significance, but for now is compelling enough for its time-honoured small mercies of oblivion, excess and escape.

@hydallcodeen