Cocaine is not the cause of violence at football games, but alcohol could be

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Police Minister Kit Malthouse has announced new measures which he hopes will tackle violence at football matches. Most notably, anyone caught “selling or having used cocaine” could be banned from matches for five years and have their passport confiscated.

It is not the first time that a government minister has identified ‘middle class cocaine users’ as the root of a problem. Two years ago, Home Secretary Priti Patel and then-metropolitan police chief also held middle-class cocaine users responsible for stabbing and other forms of violence .

Although this seems true, the evidence suggests otherwise. Violence is associated with drug trafficking, but it tends to be limited to the supply and distribution of heroin and crack cocaine. Powder cocaine is supplied and distributed through separate channels and is not associated with the same type of violence.

Government ministers and senior police officials know this, or at least should, so there is no point in making such claims – it can divert scarce police resources. Last year Priti Patel promised there would be ‘high profile’ arrests of cocaine users, but none materialized, demonstrating that this was rhetoric rather than reality.

Nevertheless, that didn’t stop Kit Malthouse from taking over and blaming middle-class cocaine users again for the violence at football games. Again, he provided no evidence.

As a recent EU report pointed out, cocaine has become more popular as the quality of the drug has improved while becoming more affordable. As a stimulant drug, cocaine can increase energy and a false sense of courage, both of which can contribute to aggression and violence.

But there is no evidence that cocaine turns previously passive individuals into aggressive ones. Drugs can reinforce existing feelings and behaviors, so this may be the role they play in football-related violence.

Violence and football have gone hand in hand for decades, but it hasn’t been fueled by illicit gunpowder but by a regulated drug – alcohol.

We know that alcohol is responsible for a range of violent acts because it lowers inhibitions and can make some people more restless than usual. Cocaine can counter the sedative effects of alcohol and is therefore often used in tandem as people can drink more over a longer period of time.

It is interesting that government ministers choose to focus on cocaine use rather than alcohol, despite the latter being the drug most likely to facilitate aggression.

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Going from the evidence, or lack thereof, that cocaine has in football violence, there are obvious practical problems for Kit Malthouse’s ideas. First, how would drug testing be done at football stadiums? With tens of thousands of people attending premiership matches, the required number of tests and recruiting people to administer them would be costly and time-consuming.

Then there is the matter of law. Although it is illegal to supply a Class A drug such as cocaine, it is not illegal to use it. If the government is serious about prosecuting football fans for cocaine use, it would require a significant change in the law.

Once we get past the headlines of ministers’ announcements about cocaine use, you begin to see how hollow and misleading their claims are. The worst thing is that by stigmatizing people, it can do collateral damage. There are many people who will need treatment for cocaine and alcohol addiction, having high profile ads that shame them is the least effective way to encourage them to seek help.

Far from reducing violence and trouble at football matches, government ministers are actively and deliberately fanning the flames and not caring about those caught in the middle. This is a work of pure fiction and not fact, unfortunately the consequences will be real and harmful.

Ian Hamilton is a senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York

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