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Cheltenham and the nationwide festival of drug abuse


THE police and crime commissioner for Gloucestershire has said that escalating drug use and antisocial behaviour at the Cheltenham Festival will have to be tackled by police, the Racing Post reports. 

Chris Nelson said: ‘Cheltenham has a bit of a problem; [the use of] recreational drugs such as cannabis and cocaine is sadly on the increase and I think too many people think there are no adverse consequences. It leads to all sorts of other crime.

‘There’s no shortage of activities we can do in order to fight drugs; definitely from my point of view I’ll give that more attention. When you get drugs as well as alcohol you get lack of control. I’m keen to make sure changes are implemented.’

Well, good luck with that. The police appear not to be greatly interested in apprehending people who break the law. (They don’t mind employing them though: there are now quite a lot of convicted criminals in the police. How many is unclear because some forces refuse to disclose numbers.) Additionally, some chief constables have been vocal about their desire to see cannabis decriminalised, and London was the cocaine capital of Europe and probably still is but for the fact that our capital refuses to take part in a Europe-wide survey. I wonder why.

In 2019 David Thompson, chief constable of West Midlands, the country’s second largest force, announced he was against the arrest and charging of cannabis users. Why? It harms the poor dears’ life chances. The Times reported that Thompson told the Commons home affairs committee that his force had taken ‘some policy decisions about what we do about cannabis’. He told MPs: ‘My answer is, let’s not give everyone a cannabis warning – it’s disastrous for their life chances.’ For being such a help to drug criminals, Thompson received a knighthood in 2021.

A few months ago John Campbell, chief constable of Thames Valley, suggested decriminalising cannabis ‘to free up police for other work’. That’s a bit like a fire chief suggesting that fires under a certain size be left to burn so other blazes might be fought. 

Campbell and Thompson are clearly not alone in this view. Let the figures speak: Home Office data from 2019 show a big drop in recorded offences for possession of cannabis across the country between 2008 and 2018. In Greater Manchester they fell by 75 per cent. Four years on and the smell of skunk, the super-strength cannabis that is ‘industry standard’ for users, is everywhere in cities. Even in 2019 the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London concluded that 30 per cent of all psychosis was caused by the drug (in Amsterdam, Mecca of drug evangelists, it is 50 per cent). 

Where cocaine is concerned, between 2017 and 2018 convictions for dealing rose from 2,912 to 4,569 – but convictions for possessing it for personal use levelled off. Drug offences punished in court have fallen from 62,745 in 2011 to 36,229 in 2021, a drop of 42 per cent. 

The authorities seek to convict the supplier but not the user. A child could see the questionable logic of that. Disincentives applied to the customer would make trading conditions harder for the merchants. At present the market is so lucrative that any dealer arrested and convicted will instantly be replaced by another. Socially liberal politicians and policemen then claim that ‘the war on drugs has failed’. But if it is a war, it is fought by police with one hand tied behind their backs. It is therefore no wonder that they are losing it, and it is not just drug crime that grows when this war fails. As Mr Nelson said, it leads to other crime. For example, it cannot be a coincidence that in Scotland, which has enormous drug problems and the highest drug-death rate in Europe, sex crimes are at 50-year high and non-sexual crimes of violence are also up. As a journalist I regularly deal with cases of appalling violence in which cannabis plays a part.

Despite all this, opinion-formers in medicine, politics and the law still cling to the liberal trope that drug use is a matter for doctors, not law courts. Though he warns against cannabis use in the strongest terms, Dr Adrian James of the Royal College of Psychiatrists has insisted: ‘A good drugs strategy should focus on preventing harm, not diverting people to the criminal justice system.’

You prevent harm by stopping the use and normalisation of dangerous drugs. Arresting and prosecuting users and suppliers is a good way of doing this. If middle-class professionals snorting cocaine at the Cheltenham Festival or anywhere else seriously thought they could face arrest, disgrace, loss of job and status, many would conclude that this extra risk, on top of all the other risks of cocaine use,  was not worth it. A trend of that nature would mean society was on course back to being stable and civilised, instead of going in the other direction, which it is now. The same conclusions apply to cannabis use. The fact is that recreational drug abuse has been allowed to become commonplace in the middle classes. Even Dame Cressida Dick, the disastrous former head of the Metropolitan Police, said as much though she did not declare war on such users. 

It is clear that the result of all this liberality about drugs is a rise in use: otherwise the Cheltenham Festival and the town itself would not be worrying about drug use and antisocial behaviour fully seven months before the next event.

Cheltenham is not the only racecourse to experience the violence which often results from heavy drinking mixed with drugs. In 2018 alone there were mass brawls at Ascot, Goodwood (involving up to 50 people), Newmarket and Aintree. As a regular racegoer I can attest that even at smaller tracks anti-social behaviour and drug use is commonplace. A visit I made to supposedly Glorious Goodwood some years ago was my last. At times the sport of kings has the flavour of a bad Saturday at Millwall.

Racecourses are starting to feel the pinch as punters stay away. Average attendances are the lowest for 20 years, according to data compiled by the Racing Post. Doubtless Covid-19 paranoia has played a part, but on many racing forums complaints about violence and drug abuse are legion. Of course, wiseacres will say that racing has always had a violent, criminal edge. So it has, but it was just that: marginal. Today’s problems mirror the wider fraying of civilised society and the retreat of the police from their core functions.

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Robert James
Robert James
Robert James is a national newspaper journalist.

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