Police Secretary Kit Malthouse has announced new measures he hopes will stem violence at football matches. Notably, anyone found to have “sold or used cocaine” could be banned from games for five years and have their passport confiscated.
Not for the first time a government minister has identified “middle-class cocaine users” as the root of a problem. Two years ago, Home Secretary Priti Patel and the then Metropolitan Police chief also blamed stabbings and other forms of violence on middle-class cocaine users.
While this sounds true, the evidence suggests otherwise. There is drug-related violence, but it is usually limited to the supply and distribution of heroin and crack cocaine. Powdered cocaine is supplied and distributed through a variety of channels and is not associated with the same type of violence.
Government ministers and senior police officials know this, or at least should know it, so making such claims is unhelpful – it can mislead scarce police resources. Last year, Priti Patel promised there would be “high-profile” arrests of cocaine users, but none came, showing that this was more rhetoric than reality.
Still, it hasn’t stopped Kit Malthouse from taking up the baton and once again blaming middle-class cocaine users for violence at soccer games. Again, he presented no evidence.
According to a recent EU report, cocaine has become more popular as the quality of the drug has improved while also becoming more affordable. As a stimulant, cocaine can increase energy and false 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 amplify existing feelings and behaviors, which could play the role they play in football-related violence.
Violence and football have been closely linked for decades, but this has not been fueled by an illegal powder but by a regulated drug – alcohol.
We know that alcohol is responsible for a number of acts of violence because it reduces inhibitions and can make some people more anxious than usual. Cocaine can counteract the sedative effects of alcohol, so it’s often used together as it allows people to drink more for a longer period of time.
It is interesting that government ministers are choosing to focus on cocaine use rather than alcohol, despite the latter being the more likely drug to facilitate aggression.
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Aside from the evidence, or lack thereof, that cocaine has in football violence, there are some obvious practical problems for Kit Malthouse’s ideas. First, how would drug testing be conducted in football stadiums? With tens of thousands attending Premiership matches, the number of tests required and the recruitment of people to conduct them would be costly and cumbersome.
Then there is the issue of the law, while it is against the law to supply a Class A drug like cocaine, it is not illegal to use it. If the government is serious about prosecuting football fans for using cocaine, it would require a significant change in the law.
Once we move beyond ministers’ headline-grabbing pronouncements on cocaine use, you begin to see how hollow and misleading their claims are. Even worse, it can cause collateral damage by stigmatizing people. There are many people who need treatment for cocaine and alcohol addiction, and high-profile announcements that shame them are the least effective way to encourage them to seek help.
Far from reducing violence and problems at football matches, government ministers are actively and knowingly fanning the flames, neglecting those caught in the middle. This is purely fiction, not fact, unfortunately the consequences will be real and damaging.