Reflecting on BBC’s Drugsland — Crack Alley.

Drugsland cover image from BBC website.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my colleagues of sent me a link to a documentary about drug use in Bristol that’s currently showing on the BBC. Drugsland is a four-part series, which according to the BBC website aims to travel “deep into the worlds of drug users and dealers, revealing in shocking and personal detail the impact of drugs in Bristol”. The first episode, Crack Alley focused on Hepburn Road, just off Stokes Croft, and featured footage that was shot by drone from our rooftop.

From our offices up on the fifth floor of Hamilton House, you can see across St Paul’s, Montpelier, Kingsdown and Cabot Circus. In fact, while I’m making my tea I can see straight into Hepburn Road, which is about 30 seconds away, to the back of the building that was raided by police in search of a local dealer at the end of Crack Alley.

It’s not a massive revelation to anyone living or working in Bristol that there are significant problems related to drug use in the city. Bristol regularly ranks among the worst-affected core cities in England for levels of problematic crack and heroin use, and recent months have seen a spike in drug-related deaths.

This is something that has an impact on the people who work in the building or live nearby. We’ve had issues with dealing near the front of our building before, not to mention vulnerable people frequently turning up at reception in various states of distress and disarray. And while the transformation of the area continues, with Stokes Croft regularly finding a spot on tedious lists of the ‘UK’s hippest neighbourhoods’, an underbelly of serious deprivation and destitution still exists alongside the boutique stores and latest foodie hangouts.

To their credit, the two undercover officers who feature in Crack Alley, who spend much of the programme in a surveillance mission watching hooded figures shuffle down Hepburn Road, do acknowledge the humanity of the users and dealers they’re confronted with. (And Avon and Somerset police have been one of a few police forces around the country to trial alternatives to arrests for drug possession).

But stylistically, the episode relied on familiar tropes found in so many other programmes depicting social problems in the inner city: slow-mo shots of revellers getting wasted; looming shots of tower blocks; graffiti-covered streets, much of which felt sensationalistic. What it didn’t offer was much in the way of analysis. Why is it that Bristol still continues to have such high rates of problem drug use? What are the social conditions that create such a high demand for drugs offering a cheap high or temporary relief from pain?

Asking those questions might have led to related ones such as whether rates of drug use in Bristol might be linked in any way to the widespread poverty and high levels of street homelessness found in parts of the city; or whether the fact that funding for drug and alcohol services has been cut by around 10% in recent years might have had an impact on persistently high levels of drug-related deaths.

Maybe it’s beyond the scope of the documentary to probe the wider context of drug use in a country ravaged by austerity. But I’m hoping that the rest of the series offers a bit less in the way of voyeurism and bit more of an investigation into solutions, maybe even paradigm shifts in the way substance use is viewed and treated in the UK, and the way it affects cities like Bristol.

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