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Irvine Welsh: ‘We’re as much in denial about drug abuse as ever’

As the film adaptation of Trainspotting turns 25, the writer reflects on what’s changed – and what hasn’t – since it was released in 1996

Trainspotting was released on 23 February 1996. As well as cementing the status of stars Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Kelly McDonald and more, the film stirred up debate around drug use like never before.

Based on Irvine Welsh’s controversial book published three years earlier, the author tells The Big Issue that he’s not surprised people are still talking about the film a quarter of a century later.

“There is no culture now, and the pertinent things from the past, when we had a living culture, are ossified and regenerated,” he says.

Irvine is back in Leith during lockdown, the northern port area of Edinburgh where he was born, where he had a heroin habit for around 18 months in the 1980s, where Trainspotting, drawing on his own experiences, takes place.

The chaos and desperation are evident on the streets again, he says.

“When I walk around Leith now, I see a lot of people at breaking point: spouses walking the streets shouting at each other or their kids. For a family to be locked up in a small flat with no garden, privacy, work, facilities, must be a living hell for some people.

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“So much care is now online. If you don’t have a computer, with the libraries being closed, you’re pretty much fucked.”

In Trainspotting, the stark reality of drug addiction are laid bare. So what has changed in Scotland since the film was released 25 years ago?Turns out, a lot. But not in a good way.

In 1996, there were 244 drug-related deaths in Scotland. In 2019, the last year figures are available, there were 1,264.

Three people losing their lives each day. Three families losing a loved one.

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Although drug use is a big issue across the rest of the UK, Scotland has the highest rates in all of Europe, 15 times the EU average, three times more than second-placed Sweden. Almost 60,000 people have a drug problem – roughly one in every 80 adults.

Covid has made an already awful situation worse. A survey shows that over the last year 53 per cent of users have increased the quantity of drugs they take, 59 per cent have increased the frequency they take them.

Meanwhile, the laws in the UK are outdated. As well as 2021 being the 25th anniversary of Trainspotting, it’s the 50th anniversary of the Drugs Misuse Act of 1971.

In this week’s Big Issue we look how the problem took root and what has to be done to fix things.

Trainspotting showed that when it comes to choice, addiction is about lack of choice, where a set of circumstances – poverty, lack of opportunity, nature and nurture – combine so that there seems no other option, nothing else to live for.

And instead of users choosing not to make the right choices, the25 years has shown that it is policymakers and the government choosing not to save lives. The need to find a quick fix is more urgent than ever.

So we look at the successes other countries have had, and initiatives such as Peter Krykant’s Overdone Prevention Service.

We also speak to Paul Stewart, one of the tour guides of Invisible Cities, a social enterprise that trains people with experience of homelessness to be guides. Stewart hosts a Trainspotting-themed tour in Leith, and is planning special virtual live walks to mark the film’s anniversary.

Governments, media and the elites they serve no longer pay any lip service in caring about drug deaths

The Big Issue has been covering this very big issue for decades now. The month after Trainspotting in fact, Welsh wrote an article about the debate the film had stirred.

He posed this point: “What social good Trainspotting will do is open to question.”

So 25 years on, does he have an answer to that question now?

“I don’t think it’s the function of a book, film, play or piece of music to do social good,” Welsh says.” I think that’s down to us as individuals. The best art can do is move people by flagging up issues that relate to their lives and the world they live in.”

Since 1996 one change he has noticed is that there is no longer the hysteria that used to surround all debate about drugs.

“No. It’s much more about apathy. Governments, media and the elites they serve no longer pay any lip service in caring about drug deaths, alcohol abuse, etc. It only becomes a valid instrument of social control when it can generate hysteria.

“We have to engage with the fact that we are coming to the end of capitalism, and thus paid work, and drugs are what we have to replace work,” he continues, with typical brio. “They are the aesthetic against our technologically driven growing physical and spiritual redundancy as human beings. And as long as that technology is largely deployed in the service of private gain, not a lot will change.

“I think we’re as much in denial about drug abuse as ever, with notable exceptions of good practice you see in some societies.”

Read more from Irvine Welsh and the Trainspotting anniversary in the latest edition of The Big Issue out now.

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