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Points Interview: Harry Shapiro

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Harry Shapiro, the author of Fierce Chemistry: a History of UK Drug Wars (Amberley, 2021). Shapiro has had a long career in drugs information and advocacy, with key roles at the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence and DrugScope. He is also an experienced music journalist. Shapiro’s previous books include Waiting for the Man: the Story of Drugs and Popular Music, and Shooting Stars: Drugs, Hollywood and the Movies.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Most people understand the phrase “drug war” or “war against drugs” to mean police vs street drug dealers or big-time traffickers – referencing The Wire or Narcos. I deliberately used the plural drug wars in the book title to indicate that what has been happening in the UK since 1920 is more than just goodies vs baddies. The very fact that in the UK, uniquely in the world, doctors have been allowed to prescribe drugs to users in support of an addiction opened up whole new fronts in trench warfare between different wings of the medical profession, different ideologies about drug treatment among both those seeking treatment and those delivering it, between proponents of different treatment modalities and different political viewpoints. Where the book does cover law enforcement activities, it touches more on the inter-agency rivalries than front line narratives about enforcement operations.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I would hope they would find all of it interesting! But I think three areas.

First, the traditional power of the British medical profession and ‘the right to prescribe’ (at least until the early 1990s) allowed for a very different approach to primarily heroin dependency than, for example, has ever existed in the USA.

Secondly, how ahead of the game the UK was in terms of drug harm reduction, the supply of sterile injecting equipment and the principle of maintenance prescribing. This has been a feature of what became known as ‘The British System’ which was much eroded during the 1970s until the advent of HIV/AIDS when treatment policy had to change.

Thirdly (and I don’t know if anybody else has written on this) but when I started the narrative in 1916 and the first laws in the UK against non-medical drug use, I had a thought that the ‘war story’ didn’t really start here. And the more I thought about it, the more I was determined to make the point that before there was a war against drugs, there was a global war for drugs – a global trading system founded on fighting over tea, coffee (and the sugar to make both palatable), tobacco, opium and rum with huge profits made off the backs of slavery. There was an obvious irony here which I just couldn’t ignore.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

I would highlight the following:

  1. The 1960s in the UK was a dramatic period of liberalising legislation. Laws against censorship and gambling were relaxed; there was the beginnings of legislation outlawing racial discrimination, laws against homosexuality were repealed, divorce and abortion laws reformed alongside an equal pay act. The death penalty was abolished. The only area of public policy which saw ever tighter restrictions was drugs. Because drug use was largely an activity of the young, it became a bell weather for everything that many politicians, media commentators and voters thought was wrong with The Swinging Sixties and the perceived threat to the future of the nation.

  2. The changes in drug treatment policy never seemed to be for the benefit of the people in need, more to serve a different political purpose. So the NHS drug clinics established in 1968 started out by prescribing in the same way that the vilified GPs had been primarily to stop the growth of an illicit market. Once it was obvious this was failing, a handful of influential psychiatrists fell back to short-term reducing doses of oral methadone until the advent of HIV.

Then, although the UK was ahead of the game on harm reduction, the way it was sold at the highest political level was – “we have to do this to stop them giving it to us”.

Under Tony Blair, unprecedented amounts of money were poured into a treatment system not fit for purpose but primarily to break the link between drugs and crime.

In my view, the money for treatment dried up after the Conservatives came to power in 2010 because the worst predictions of a soaring crime wave post-the financial crash didn’t happen. There was also an element at the heart of government that wanted to focus only on (much cheaper) abstention policies – and of course there were no votes in helping drug users in a time of austerity. (Still aren’t).

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I did mange to talk off the record to a few people who hadn’t been interviewed before, but I think there is much work to be done on oral histories of UK drug policy- politicians, public employees from of all occupations, people who have experienced the treatment system and those campaigning for law reform.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

Well as this is a British book, there should really be a British voice doing the honours. It would be a close-run thing between Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard E Grant. But if it was felt that an American voice would be best for the US market, then my vote goes to Richard Schiff who played Toby Ziegler in The West Wing, my favourite programme of all time. I was Director of Communications for DrugScope so I related strongly to Toby, both his position and the character. I even bought a brown suit like his.


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