The Rise of Drug Culture in UK South Asians

With more British South Asian’s dabbling in a drug culture than ever before, DESIblitz takes a look at the effect it is having on society.

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“I felt like I did a huge sin or something."

British South Asians are arguably becoming more ingrained into western society. But does that mean we are more likely to dabble in the same recreational drug culture compared to our parents?

A wave of immigration in the 50s means the newer generation is more likely to have parents born and raised in England, making us second-generation British South Asians.

Without parents growing up in British culture and being the first generation to go to British universities, they had the tricky challenge of combining two clashing cultures together.

Recreational drugs, on average, are first tried between the ages of 15-17, but the university student population has, on average, more drug users than the general population.

Moving away from home for university holds new possibilities, including complete independence of your own actions. Many people use this time and their new-found autonomy to try recreational drugs.

But did this contribute to the rise in drug culture amongst British South Asians?

Reasons why more British South Asians are contributing to Drug Culture

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Gaining the ability to consume media 24/7 may be a motivator for new behaviour.

This power is relatively new as a digital boom only truly occurred in 2007 with the release of the first iPhone. People are now connected more than ever, to each other and to the world.

With this new power, priorities shifted and we were often subjected to tabloids pushing stories on more celebrities like Rahul Mahajan, spiralling into drug and alcohol-fuelled tornadoes.

The media and some parents demonised people who were caught in the whirlwind. But inadvertently, whilst attempting to describe how this lifestyle is bad, it became constantly exposed to us.

Drugs no longer became deals done in shaded corners but something more frequent and every day, seemingly everyone took drugs.

This exposure to this lifestyle became a mark of culture and with people wanting to fit in, dabbling in a similar lifestyle seems like an easy starting point.

British South Asians face an undeniable clash of cultures and by seeing this lifestyle popular in western societies perhaps ignited a spark to wield two cultures together.

But for many South Asians, it’s still a taboo topic.

Recreational drugs are still associated with reckless behaviour, often villainised for its potential effects shown on mediums like films.

Warnings blare from South Asian parents like “using drugs will leave you homeless” or “what will xxx think if they knew you took drugs?”

Some South Asian homes harbour the idea that shame – also known as sharaam – links to ‘the honour of the family.’

Often when someone acts in a ‘shameful’ manner, such as taking drugs, they are berated by their family members. The community could shun the family and their ‘honour’ could become ‘tainted.’

Many South Asians feel a heavy underlying pressure from their parents or community to be permanently perfect and pure in terms of their life progression and habits.

With any controversial topic, people may find it easier to avoid openly considering their curiosity, wants or desires to evade backlash from their family.

To avoid the unspoken consequences of shame, many people feel discussing drugs with their family is not an option. If they consume drugs, it’s often done without their parents’ knowledge.

But even with all the secrecy and unspoken conversations forbidding drugs, there is a rise in drug culture for British South Asians.

The Steady Rise

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In 2006, the BBC released an article discussing how drug culture has risen exponentially over the last five years (2001 – 2006).

A shocking result revealed crack cocaine usage doubled between the years of 2003 – 2006, with an increase of British South Asians under the age of 25 taking Class A drugs.

Their source, a paper by Government Advisor Professor Patel, suggests British South Asians moving into inner cities and using drugs could be a contributing factor for a rise in British South Asian drug culture. He says:

“There’s no question about it that the Pakistani communities dominate the heroin market in the north of England.

“In London, in Tower Hamlets, it is the Bangladeshis who dominate the market. Then you have the Turkish gangs as well.”

The rise in drug culture may be generational as he also says:

“If we look back to the Eighties people said: ‘Asians don’t use drugs’.”

The report also mentioned poor awareness of the local drug services offered at the time.

Of course, it’s important to note this article is almost 15 years old and any comments regarding drug markets are not necessarily still relevant.

A year later, the BBC published another article looking at the skyrocketing number of South Asians who are using drugs.

According to this article, “Second and Third generation British Asians are using Class A drugs more than ever before.”

The exposé carries on to speak to ex-users. They interviewed Naz who was a teenager when he first started taking hard substances, over the years it badly affected his liver.

But he emphasises, “ethnicity had nothing to do with it.”

“I don’t think it’s about race – it’s about society as a whole,” he said to the BBC.

“I took drugs because I enjoyed it. Wanted the experience. Drugs are easy to come by and cheap.

“Last week I went out with my brothers and sisters. They took drugs and I couldn’t. I went home early. I suppose life is more boring but I guess it’ll turn out for the best.”

By not considering ethnicity, Naz invites the thought, perhaps ethnicity is not always a barrier between desire and action.

The report also mentioned, in 2007, nearly a third of people surveyed used an illegal substance, with just over 16% of those substances being Class A drugs.

Over the subsequent years, how have things changed?

A 2009 research paper by Jane Fountain revealed drug usage is gaining traction in younger populations regardless of gender.

The 2010 World Drug Report details an overall decline in cannabis usage through 2004- 2009, with a slight rise in 2009. However, other drugs like cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamine and opiates saw a steady increase.

This report reveals over the UK recreational drugs usage has increased, regardless of ethnicity.

But if South Asians were reported to have an increased use 3 years prior, it presents the same information – more South Asians are partaking in drug culture.

Another overall rise was shown in 2014. An article by the Guardian reports 31% of the population had admitted to using an illegal substance, a 3% rise from a statistic shown in 2008 by The Observer.

The survey also states 47% of those who admitted to using illegal substances were aged between 35-44, but half of those who deemed themselves as ‘active users’ were aged between 16-36.

‘Active’ use ranges from once a month to multiple times a day. The mean age of taking drugs was 19-26.

Research by Williams, Ralph and Grey (2017) looked deeper into the use of cannabis among Bangladeshi and Pakistani youths in Britain.

This area of research is still largely overlooked and produces much-needed data for understanding drug culture for British South Asians.

Overall, they unsurprisingly found extensive use of skunk cannabis in British Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.

Through interviews, they also uncovered a sense of growing normality for smoking cannabis amongst peers.

The report also retorts how the use of recreational drugs like skunk cannabis is going under social normalisation in their communities.

More results regarding illegal substances show normalisation of cannabis for younger generations.

However, when it comes to harder substances like cocaine and heroin, it was popular amongst older generations.

Late 2019 saw an overall national increase in people taking Class A drugs according to the latest drug misuse statistics from the National Crime Survey.

A notable spike stems from people in their early twenties and suggests a wider use regardless of ethnicity.

Constantly shown is a rising trend in drug culture for South Asians in the UK.

However, as global trends fluctuate, it seems more British South Asians are using illegal substances – even if it’s just cannabis.

Despite this, it is proving harder to paint a well-informed picture. Majority of surveys have white participants, the latest Global Drugs Survey noted 87% of its participants as white.

Where we can see a trend through, a white demographic may not be reflective of all demographics. This is because there are mixed findings.

Without a study looking into ethnicity and drug use, it becomes hard to see if drug culture is rising in the UK specifically for British South Asians.

However, what’s seen is an upward trend in using drugs in the last few years, to which we can assume applies to British South Asians too.

The National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS) shows in the latest report on substance misuse. 87% of people seeking treatment for opiate addiction were white.

For non-opiate addiction, it was 80% for white ethnicities. People of Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi ethnicities made up 1% each for both non-opiate and opiate treatments.

This study reveals people who are seeking help for their drug habits and is not a reflective representation of South Asians who actively use drugs.

Drug culture still hides beneath a cloak of taboo, and although accepted by peers and some communities, many South Asians may not feel comfortable discussing their drug usage openly.

This could possibly explain the lack of representation in research surveys.

What has been shown, however, is the shocking detail in which BAME offenders are more likely to be arrested for drug offences than any other ethnicity.

People from Asian and ‘other’ ethnicity groups are 1.5 times more likely to be arrested and jailed compared to white ethnicities.

From previous research, we know there is a rising drug culture for British South Asians, but now the question is, where are they?

Addiction Treatment Centres

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The 2009 report conducted by Fountain also revealed how certain ethnic groups, like British South Asians, need specialised and targeted information.

It is important to gauge how drugs could impact themselves, their families and how to trust drug treatment centres when needed.

Dr Saidait Khan wrote an article for DESIblitz on South Asian drug addiction. As a follow up to his article, he says:

“The substance misuse issue with South Asian community will get worse and not better because the dynamic of culture, family, peer, religious and community pressures still exist.”

Through misusing substances, people often seek help through Addiction Treatment centres. These centres help people to control their addiction and start a life where a dependency on addictive habits are diminished.

DESIblitz contacted the UK’s largest addiction treatment centre, UKAT and interviewed them on family structure and the rising drug culture for British South Asians.

When asked if more British South Asians are seen in their addiction treatment centres than before, they said:

“Yes, certainly we are seeing a gradual rise in the last four years of more British South Asians checking into rehab.”

With an increase of British South Asians in rehab, did they think there was a rise in drug culture?

“Unfortunately, we would say that there is a rise in drug culture amongst the UK general population including the South Asian communities.”

But were British South Asians being admitted for drug usage? The answer is no:

“The most common primary admission type we get for South Asian clients is for Alcohol, based on overall admissions across our eight rehab facilities.”

Families are an organic support system, but they are also a source of pride for some people.

DESIblitz wanted to look deeper into how families may play a part in seeking treatment and perhaps contribute to an overall rise in drug culture for British South Asians. So we asked:

Would you say the family structure is hugely important for South Asian patients?

“Yes. That importance can be really positive when families agree to acknowledge the problem and support recovery; other times family can play a negative role.

“In some cases, it is still the norm not to acknowledge mental health including addictions, within the family circle.

“A British South Asian suffering with addiction can be a taboo for some.”

Do many South Asian patients get admitted by family or friends, or is a large number of self-admitted?

“Anecdotally, we have treated South Asian’s who have asked for the help themselves, who have taken it on themselves to seek treatment and support, but then we have also admitted clients whose family have ‘pushed’ them into treatment.

“This is not uncommon.”

How do South Asian families feel about addiction treatment like yours?

“We do a lot of close work with families when someone is in treatment because the support network is vital to the success of the individual’s recovery after rehab.

“We have seen families of South Asian clients reluctant to participate in our family group sessions.

“Once we delve into this with the client, we have been told that receiving treatment for an addiction could be seen as a sign of weakness.

“We treat clients of any race, any background, any addiction type, from anywhere, and so all we can do is to support them as best we can and to encourage family involvement throughout the entire process.

“It is sad for us as Therapists to see a lack of willingness to help family members.”

The UK has recently seen two lockdowns and the true after-effects are still yet to be seen.

However, through staying home and social distancing, DESIblitz wanted to see if the pandemic affected the rising drug culture. So we asked:

Have you found a higher admittance after the pandemic?

“Across the entire UKAT rehab portfolio, we have actually had fewer admissions collectively than we did this time last year.

“But once the first lockdown measures eased, we were inundated with calls for help, and unfortunately we think the same will happen again over Christmas and into the New Year.”

Although no one can say for sure what the new year will bring, it would be interesting to see the effects the pandemic had on the rising drug culture in the UK, especially for British South Asians.

Yet, there is still a shadow of taboo casting over this topic, preventing an accurate picture of drug habits in British South Asian communities.

What do British South Asians say?

From statistics to addiction treatment centres, an external picture has been developed on the rising drug culture for British South Asians.

However, DESIblitz wanted to speak to a few British South Asians and get their views on drugs.

Anisha* is a mid-20s university student who has taken weed, ketamine, MDMA, cocaine and acid. Here is what she’s got to say:

“The media is always in your face about drugs and I was interested in the hippie culture, to begin with anyway. Celebrities are demonised but it was something I always heard about through the media.

“It was just the fact that obviously being from an Asian family, I feel like it was very much not spoken of.

“It’s obviously a bad thing like I wouldn’t promote doing drugs to anyone. But then it wasn’t really talked about was just this is bad, don’t do it.

“I wasn’t really exposed to it at school or at uni which I’m thankful for. I think it could really destroy someone.

“But I think I would have done much better at uni had I not been involved in this scene but I don’t regret anything. Because I had a good time.

“Asian families can do so much to stop you, your personal powers of freedom and your personal sort of characteristics always going to trump that.

“I think I only started sort of feeling awkward about it recently when I’m sort of getting to the end of my degree and I feel like I’m quite getting along in my age.

“My parents will see me as this beautiful child as of knowledge and potential. Whereas internally, I was feeling very sluggish. I was feeling like I wasn’t reaching my full potential.

“So I feel like it’s only then when it started affecting me.

“I think the South Asian thing really drills into you because it’s something that seems so casual at uni, it’s just a big thing at home. So, it’s just gauging that and understanding that it’s a different environment.

“To be honest, it’s important to discover things at university and then just settle down a bit after.

“Because all parents have less exposure to this stuff as well. I think because they don’t have the sort of experience to back the wisdom or they’re providing they’re just kind of like, don’t do that.

“It just takes away from it a little bit and then you’re still inclined to try and find out why not?

“Their thought of management methods for these things is just don’t expose yourself to them at all.”

“Whereas our management method for them would be to talk them through logically and sort of understanding why you feel certain ways.

“That’s probably the difference in our generation. It’s just a difference of management, these things, these issues.”

Jasmine* is doing her second degree and has tried weed in the past. She revealed:

“In my house, we were always brought up like ‘if you want to do anything, go for it, just make sure we know and you feel safe.’

“So I did, the first time I had weed, I was chilling at home with my parents getting high.

“They’ve been very accepting of trying these things, even tried it themselves. I do feel though, I can’t really chat about it to grandparents, cousins etc, because there’s this feeling of being judged.

“I think that’s just an internal feeling every Asian household has to keep things in the house.

“My experience has been very positive with drugs. I think that’s partly because my parents wanted their children to live the open life they wish they could’ve.

“When it comes to ‘hard’ drugs, I’ve never wanted to try them.

“Part of that is because in my degree, I’ve seen a lot of drug-related health conditions/complications and I would never want to be in that predicament.

“But I think another half of me really relates drugs to being bad because of South Asian culture.

“Not my parents, but definitely my grandparents, their friends and family friends have always addressed “doing drugs” as a sign of failure like you’ll never get anywhere in life when you start taking drugs.

“There’s this idea of having a job, being educated, becoming stable and at the same time being a good person who holds the “reputation of the family” wherever you go.

“No matter how hard my parents have tried to instil an ‘it’s chill, you know what’s right and what’s wrong’ vibe with me and my sister there is something about our culture that makes me feel guilty if I stepped out of line.

“I don’t know where that comes from. I think all our past generations always want their children to have what they didn’t but that comes with so much pressure!

“I think under that pressure, comes strict guidelines of what your child does and doesn’t do so you look good to the Aunty ji down the road.

“And no matter how hard I try, it’s just there in my subconscious.”

Ray* a recent university graduate from India who studied in England and smokes weed regularly explained:

“I always wanted to try (weed) since the day I saw a documentary on Marijuana. I don’t remember the name of the documentary though.

“My first and only drug I’ve tried is weed. But I don’t really remember when I started.

“(In relation to travelling home to India) I took it home too. I realised it’s cheaper here.

“It was discussed at home but it was more about alcohol than anything else. But oh yes, I was super guilty the first few times.

“I felt like I did a huge sin or something. The guilt once gave me a bad trip.”

All three case studies mention something important, an understanding of how drugs are taboo in South Asian cultures.

Although taking drugs was a choice they made, there was always that reflection back to the South Asian culture and how it adds an extra layer of consideration before acting.

But by taking active steps to strip the taboo nature of discussing drugs in South Asian households it may help reveal a deeper underlying factor contributing to the rising drug culture British South Asians face.

The last few years have seen a rise in drug culture among British South Asians. It’s an undeniable trend, something which should be further researched and openly discussed in the wider community.

People who have tried or are taking drugs should not be demonised.

It is something South Asians should be able to discuss informatively in the safety of their own homes with people who care about their curiosities and well-being.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please contact the following:

Hiyah is a film addict who writes in between the breaks. She sees the world through paper planes and got her motto through a friend. It’s “What's meant for you, won’t pass you.”

Names have been changed for confidentiality.