People take drugs. 'Normal' people with jobs and friends and kids take drugs. In London you can get a gram of cocaine delivered quicker than a pizza. If I wanted weed I could take £20 to my local bus stop and I’d be home with a baggy in 15 minutes. I’m not going to pretend it’s not happening.
I’m not going to talk about drug use in hushed tones or try to condemn it every other sentence. There is a taboo surrounding drugs and alcohol that stops us from talking about their use, their consequences (good and bad) and their prevalence, and when we do discuss them the conversation centres on the extreme cases – the heroin addict – or descends into judgement. But drugs are a major part of how some people socialise, and they play an important role at mass cultural moments like festivals, gigs and weekenders.
Perhaps you’re reading this with a raised eyebrow. But wait, and consider that when judgement wraps itself around a topic it blocks honest conversation. And that means it’s pushed to a place where it can’t be discussed or examined. It also means people lie to others and to themselves.
Thirty-five percent of UK adults say they have taken recreational drugs at least once and 4% of 15–34-year-olds say they’ve taken cocaine in the last year, but surveying is no way to truly understand the extent of drug use. While self-reported numbers can look low, the sewers tell another story: London’s waste water has the second highest cocaine traces found in Europe, above Barcelona and only behind Antwerp, a port city with direct shipping links to South America. There is other evidence of drug use all around us too. London’s streets are littered with nitrous oxide 'laughing gas' canisters, and it doesn’t take long to catch a whiff of cannabis when walking to the Tube.
"Why don’t we just own up to what is actually happening instead of pretending it is not?" asks Dr Adi Jaffe, a world-renowned addiction specialist. "Only then can we address how we’re living our life, and if we don’t like it we can talk about doing things to change it. But if we pretend it’s not happening then we’re left feeling hopeless, because there is a part of our life that is affecting us, yet we haven’t even admitted to ourselves that it exists."
The 'unmentionables' are affecting our bank balance too. Not acknowledging the full extent of our drinking and drug-taking makes it impossible to budget for everything else. If you turn a blind eye to the truth of your drinking and partying, then a weekend just becomes a gaping black hole in your bank balance. You know how it goes: you start the week saying you can’t afford a train ticket up to Newcastle to see your family, but by Friday night you’re withdrawing £80 from a corner-shop cashpoint that charges you £2.50 for the pleasure. I’ve never met anyone who says, "Yeah, I put aside about £200 a month for drugs", but I know plenty of people who spend that amount. If anyone does talk about the amount of money they spend on drugs it tends to be in the past tense: "Some weeks I was spending a hundred quid." The emphasis is always on 'was' – only in reflection will someone tally it up. The same seems to go for booze or fags.
Abstinence apps add up what you have saved on alcohol, cigarettes or drugs since stopping. A friend who has just shared her 12-month sobriety badge on social media told me she’s saved £8,320 this last year. "I‘ve probably saved more, but my app’s calculation goes on my guess that I used to spend £160 a week on alcohol, [when] I went out most nights and went large every weekend." One Year No Beer (OYNB), a project that encourages people to change their relationship with alcohol, cites 'more money in the bank' as a reason to take the OYNB challenge. And the NHS has a 'Quit Now' calculator that tells you how much you’ll save weekly, monthly and yearly if you give up smoking. Money is evidently a motivator to quitting drink and cigarettes, but people can drink and smoke for years and never really assess what it’s costing them.
On his podcast, Dr Jaffe freely admits he was once a meth addict and that he has previously been incarcerated. Unlike most public figures that have spent time in jail and have been involved with 'the bad drugs' (heroin, crack, meth), Dr Jaffe hasn’t renounced alcohol, and neither evangelises being clean nor labels himself an addict. He uses the word 'normal' to describe his drinking now. As someone with a doctorate who thinks about addiction and drug use a lot, and with some personal experience under his belt, I was interested in his thoughts on recreational drug use and whether he thought people acknowledge what it costs them. "If every Friday you go out and drink and take cocaine and stay up until 3 or 4am and spend the rest of the weekend rolling around and getting your act back together to work and function on Monday, if you have built a life where nothing is happening on a Saturday that you miss and it all works out for you, then that is okay; there is nothing inherently wrong or problematic with that behaviour. But a lot of people will argue, 'But what if you didn’t do that? What if you didn’t drink on a Friday? Your weekend could be full of activities! You could do so much more!' I feel that there is a judgement to that way of thinking; they’re saying, 'This is what your life should look like. Your job is to get up and to go to the park and to play soccer.'"
That’s the thing – we’re hardly encouraging people to be sensible and accountable about their partying if drinking and drug-taking is always branded as rebellious and irresponsible.
Responsibility could mean being honest with ourselves and acknowledging the cost of partying, both in time and in money. How much is spent on Ubers, off-licence visits, cocaine, pints in the pub, entrance fees, inexplicable purchases of vape pens at 2am, bags of ice, petrol station pastries. Alcohol and drugs lower our inhibitions, our anxiety and stress, and along with the happy, mellow feelings, they increase our impulsivity. Hence the random cash withdrawals and rounds of drinks bought for strangers.
When we’re sober, money is often used as a reason to not do things, "I’m skint so can’t afford gym membership, or to go to the theatre / on that family day trip / to therapy." Yet literally hours after uttering those sentences you’re ordering the first Uber of the night, about to voyage across town to who knows where and into god knows what state and come out the other end £80 down if not more. "I hate looking at my account the morning after drinking," Tom, a London estate agent, tells me. "It’s embarrassing how much I can end up spending on shots I didn’t want. And once I’m a couple of drinks in, there’s nothing stopping me from buying all the drinks. I turn into this super-generous guy, when actually I’m quite tight normally."
I asked Dr Jaffe why people find money for alcohol and drugs when they seemingly can’t find the money for other things they probably count as important. He tells me: "At their core, substances provide us an immediate payoff. There is immediate gratification, in that they help you cope with the realities of life. They require little work, and are a shortcut to feeling good. They are also relatively consistent, and will provide a similar result every time. If you have six drinks and half a gram, or a spliff, you know the ballpark of where that is going to leave you at the end of it versus going to visit family or going to therapy – those are time-intensive, effortful versions of coping."
So that’s what we’re paying for, the guarantee of fun and its immediacy. Despite how inevitable drug use can be, it’s not always something people plan for. Unless you’re sorting pills for a festival, the whole 30 minutes until delivery that operates in most urban areas means people don’t need to think about cocaine until they want it. I spoke to a north London cocaine dealer, S, to ask how his clients bought their drugs. He tells me that while he does have clients who bulk buy, most constantly underestimate their use – "They’ll buy one gram of coke at 8pm and call up again at midnight for another, and they do this every time they buy."
S tells me about the demographic of his clients: "Every kind: builders, bankers, but mostly film-makers, photographers and producers. And mostly men." Why more men, I ask. "A woman can say, 'Hey, can I have a bump?' yet a man is meant to have sorted himself out." S tells me, "Perhaps it’s because buying drugs is seen as slightly dangerous and not something a woman should be doing, but really I just think a girl asking for coke on a night out or taking drags on someone else’s spliff or taking a cigarette is more socially acceptable than a guy doing the same thing."
S knows how much each of his customers spends in a month; he’s bothered to do the maths that his customers are never going to do: "For most of them they’d be much better off buying half an ounce of weed for £100 rather than buying a £20 baggy every other day. The way I see it, they’re paying for someone else to hold their drugs. And cocaine users, they should just buy a Henry [I had to ask what that is – 3½ grams], rather than buying gram by gram; they’d save money that way."
This kind of financial maths sounds dangerous for anyone with a chink in their willpower. Buying more drugs than you immediately need will probably just mean you take more drugs than you planned. It’s not like taking advantage of a two-for-one deal on dishwasher tablets. You’re not going to get drunk, lose your inhibitions and put the dishwasher on all night, but I’ve seen what happens when people 'stock up' on cocaine – they snort more and spend more than they wanted.
As Dr Jaffe says, "If the use of drugs and the money you spend on them is preventing you from doing other things, because that money should be used for rent or food or taking your boyfriend out for a movie night, [or] if using means you are unable to participate in other things in your life that you want to do, not just things that other people want you to do, I would call that a consequence, and you should start understanding your priorities."
There is so much truth in the word 'priorities'. I reckon if you sat down most recreational drug users to look at the numbers – especially those who take cocaine (touted as the drug of choice for young professionals because it is conducive to a life where you work five days a week … until it isn’t, and costs between £40 and £150 a gram – S sells his for £80) – I would think most would be shocked with the amount they spend.
Although I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been able to pay their rent because of their Friday night habit, I know many who could live in nicer flats and go on much better holidays – they could fly to Lisbon and back for the price of a night standing in a basement kitchen. "But they’re buying friends, they’re buying love," S tells me. "They want to be surrounded by people all weekend; to them that’s worth the cash." As Dr Jaffe said, drugs guarantee intimacy. Even if it is a false intimacy that only exists in that moment, it’s still hard to put a price on connection and bonding, which is why we allow the costs of a night to escalate: in a way they’re priceless.
We’ll always find money for the things we really want, but – and this is the real problem – we don’t want to admit even to ourselves to wanting some of the things we do: alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. But these are expensive items that mess up our finances if we don’t acknowledge them, because we can’t budget for anything without budgeting for them.
If people were more honest about the role drugs and alcohol play in our lives, it would take away from some of the escapism they enable. If we admitted why we do drugs and alcohol – to ourselves and our friends – and if we budgeted for them, then we would have to acknowledge the consequences of spending so much money on them. We’d probably realise that sometimes they are entirely worth it, and sometimes they are very much not. I really wish in those few years I was going large most weekends that I’d occasionally put the time and money I spent on partying into making myself happy in other ways. I wish I’d booked a massage. I wish I’d saved. I wish I’d suggested to my friends that we stay in on Friday and on the Saturday get the train to Whitstable and have lunch on the beach instead. The sad thing is, all the things I said 'cost too much' cost less than a night out in east London.
How to not impulse spend on nights out
With alcohol lowering our inhibitions it can be difficult to stick to our own rules when we are drunk. So if you really want to stop spending money you don’t have, make it physically hard for yourself – take cash out with you rather than your card.
Delete Uber, but keep Google Maps (the Night Tube is your friend). If you’re worried about having a safe way to get home, get a minicab company’s number. Sign out of Deliveroo, so you’re not tempted to invite everyone back to yours for pizza.
If you do become the generous one when you are drunk, try to save those generous urges for when you are sober – that way you can really feel the benefit and perhaps it means you won’t feel the need to overcompensate after a few drinks.
You shouldn’t need to buy your friends’ affection. If you are always the first to the bar or the enabler of a night out then try the opposite and see how it feels. Let your friend offer to buy the first round.
You don’t always have to be the person who organises the drugs.
People will not pay you back for drugs the next day. Get the cash on the night.
You don’t aways have to spend money to have more fun. Do you really need another drink to stay dancing? If you’re going back to someone’s house, a couple of cans of beer might do the trick rather than a pack of cigarettes, bottle of vodka, bag of ice and a mixer.
If you smoke, drink or take drugs then you can’t ignore what they cost. There is no point tracking all your other spending while ignoring these expensive items.