The YouGov Big Survey on Drugs was recently released attempting to examine attitudes towards and use of recreational and prescription drugs. The study was canvassed in September 2021, on a sample of 2,717 adults aged 16 and above.
YouGov defined ‘soft drugs’ as substances such as cannabis or speed and ‘hard drugs’ as substances such as cocaine and heroin, which is the terminology that will be used throughout this piece.
This piece looks at five varied and notable takeaways from the poll that can teach us about the current state of British politics and actions needed to address drug policy in the UK.
1. Scottish differences are damning but not surprising
The drug deaths crisis in Scotland has been extensively covered in recent years and means that these poll results, demonstrating Scotland as anomalous to the rest of the UK, is not surprising. The results demonstrate increased drug usage in Scotland and a lack of public confidence in the response to this crisis, relative to the rest of the UK. For example, Scotland has a much higher percentage of people who know someone who has had a serious problem with prescription drugs compared to the rest of the UK. Yet, Scotland still averaged the same as the rest of the UK as to whether or not participants knew someone who had taken recreational drugs. However, people in Scotland were above the other British nations when it came to knowing people who have had a serious problem with drugs. Scottish people also have less confidence in the government’s response to drug abuse compared to the rest of the UK.
Acting as outliers to the rest of the UK, these statistics show that Scotland needs a fresh perspective to combat drug issues. This could mean, for example, the introduction of more harm reduction treatment. The introduction of drug consumption rooms in Switzerland did wonders for the nation in combating their opioid crisis and the introduction of similar measures in Scotland would hopefully lower its numbers to at least the mean of the UK.
2. Perceptions of Social Injustice from those most stigmatised are prevalent
Those who consume ‘hard drugs’ are some of those most stigmatised in society today. This group ranked joint highest, when compared to other groups defined by drug taking, when questioned on whether they believed they should’ve had prescription drugs but were not given them. Of course, there are several reasons for this which may not be accurately depicted in the poll. There is likely to be a misunderstanding from ‘hard drug’ users. It could also be that healthcare officials are more reluctant to prescribe over the counter because of the condition of someone who is consuming ‘hard drugs.’
Either way, for those on hard drugs, feelings of disenfranchisement will understandably only grow. Stigmatisation of those on hard drugs has been relentless in the media in recent years – a lack of support from services that are in place to help them, will only lead to drug users being pushed further to the fringes of our society.
3. There are clear ideological differences between the left and the right and on drug issues
Social conservatives believe that there is ownership of personal decisions and that the state should not be heavily involved in this as we have the means to direct it as we wish. On the other hand, liberals would argue that society should support those within it as it is only as strong as its weakest link.
These broad beliefs are seen in the poll results on whether or not drug addiction is down to personal choice or environmental circumstances. 48% of Conservative voters in 2019 believe drug addiction is mostly down to a personal choice, compared to only 17% of Labour voters in 2019. In contrast, only 11% of Conservative voters in 2019 believe that drug addiction is mostly down to circumstances beyond personal control, compared to 30% of Labour voters in 2019. These are some of the most significant differences in percentages throughout the full poll results.
However, 47% of those who voted for Labour in the 2019 General Election and 38% of those who voted Conservative believe that the two previously mentioned factors have an equal responsibility for drug addiction. These particular numbers perhaps show that a sizeable number of supporters of either party take a less ideologically driven approach to the issue. Thus, there may be more common ground than we might expect.
4. England is not particularly divided on drug issues
Despite discussion on the North-South political divide, England does not appear to be divided on drug issues according to this poll. Recent conversations about the erosion of the red wall in the 2019 General Election and levelling up, even more recently, have led many to question the political differences in England. From this poll there do not appear to be great differences in opinions on drug issues. For example, the North roughly aligns with the rest of England on how strict and lenient current drug laws are and also on punishments for those caught in possession of drugs. England also broadly agrees that personal choice and circumstances beyond one’s personal control are equally responsible for drug addiction, London being the only outlier here. There also appears to be a national consensus on how big an issue drug abuse is nationally and locally. The only outlier on the perceived size of the drug issue locally appears to be the North. This is understandable looking at these figures within the context of particularly high drug deaths in the North-East.
5. Leave voters reflect the views of Conservative voters on drug issues
After the divisive 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union, there has been much debate as to how entrenched British politics is as a result of it . During the 2016 referendum campaign, it became clear that those who had voted Conservative in the past would, on average, be more likely to vote Leave. This is backed up by a YouGov poll where it showed that 61% of Conservative voters voted Leave and 65% of Labour voters voted Remain. Likewise, the poll that is the basis of this article shows that strong similarities exist between Conservative and Leave voters six years on. It should first be noted that these poll results come from a separate survey from YouGov that involved 1684 adults in the UK between the 26th and the 28th November 2021.
When it comes to opinions on drug leniency 55% of Conservative voters believe that drug laws are too lenient. This is reflected in Leave voters as 55% of them also believe that drug laws are too lenient.
There are also similarities in how Labour and Remain voters view drug issues; 30% of voters from both these groups believe that drug laws are too lenient.
Opinions are mirrored between Conservative and Leave voters when it comes to whether the police and the courts or the NHS should be more involved when dealing with drug addicts. Entrenched political views are now typical of the American political landscape and that has potentially influenced the likeness between Conservative and Leave, and Remain and Labour six years on. The UK is heavily influenced by events and political discourse abroad, especially with the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, and this can perhaps explain the longevity of such voting similarities.
This entrenchment is, though, a phenomenon we should strive to avoid as a nation, as it can lead to the breakdown of reasonable political conversation. One can hope though that more interactions in person as the pandemic ends can create a more tolerable society, not dictated by the extreme views that people can easily absorb from social media.
This poll has shown an area of cohesiveness that may not have been previously assumed on drug policy. These attitudes are encouraging for politicians in England as it means that they can more easily tailor any future drug policy to the aligned views of the population. This could, though, stall progressive drug policy change as more people in England believe that drug policy is too lenient rather than too strict.
It has also been interesting to note the differences between Conservative voters of 2019 and Labour voters of 2019 when it comes to how they believe drug addicts come to be. In recent years, battle lines have been drawn on the left and right that have not necessarily stemmed from the parties’ ideological base. Debates on the culture war have led many to believe that this is how many on the left and right define themselves. However, this poll demonstrates that differences between the right and the left still, to some extent, stem from the foundations of the ideological differences between the two.
The Scottish poll statistics also show us that a new approach is needed to tackle the drug deaths crisis. More harm reduction programmes would go a long way in this respect and should be critically examined with more vigour by the British government. For several of the poll statistics concerning drug use, other British nations were reasonably close to Scottish numbers. This should serve as a guard against complacency for nations such as Wales whose heroin numbers, according to this poll, were outliers alongside Scotland’s.
Overall, this poll serves as a reminder that attitudes are changing but that they still have a long way to go for truly progressive drug policy change to be considered by those in Westminster.
This piece was written by Tom Crouch, Volteface Contributor. Tweets @TomCrouch6