Michael Le Vell – double standards over the ‘use’ and ‘abuse’ of drugs

ISCD volunteer Richard Clifton takes a look at drugs in the news.

In recent years, it seems that Coronation Street is never very far away from a drug scandal, and now Michael Le Vell has become the latest in a long line of actors to be suspended from the soap after admitting to snorting cocaine. Craig Charles, Simon Gregson and Jimmi Harkishin have all been written out of the show in the past after being caught with drugs (all the actors have subsequently returned). 

Newspaper headlines talked of Le Vell’s cocaine ‘abuse’ and his suspension was a direct result of hisadmission to the Sunday Mirror on 1st March. However, the actor has claimed to have only used cocaine on two occasions. At the time he was still on trial and under considerable pressure and media scrutiny. These circumstances are not meant to condone his drug use, but the term ‘abuse’ seems to leap to judgement, and the word ‘addiction’ used in the Independent seems simply incorrect. The ISCD always refers to drug ‘use’, rather than ‘abuse’ or ‘misuse’ on principle, because the latter terms are subjective labels, not objective assessments that can be put to any scientific test, like ‘harm’. 

An interesting contrast is apparent in the portrayal of Le Vell’s use of another drug. The actor has also admitted to being an alcoholic for the past thirty years. Le Vell would, he said while on trial, drink up to twelve pints a night and has sought out Alcoholics Anonymous in the past. Using any metric, this level of excessive drinking for prolonged periods of time is likely to have a greater potential to damage and disrupt the lives of Le Vell and the people around him than infrequent cocaine use. Yet upon his acquittal from charges of sex offenses, newspapers pictured him ‘celebrating’ with a pint with neither the judgement or pity that accompany stories of celebs using or addicted to other drugs.

Statements from both Le Vell and his family indicate that he will stop taking cocaine but: “He still likes spending time in the pub with his friends but he’s not doing that as much,” in spite of his alcoholism. The double-standard is striking. The obvious distinction between the substances is their legality, but Le Vell was suspended for medical rather than criminal reasons (it is possessing not taking cocaine that is an offence in any case) and in terms of risks to health cocaine and alcohol are not worlds apart.

The ISCD’s 2010 study in the Lancet, comparing the relative harms of 20 different drugs, ranked alcohol as the most harmful drug tested (scored 72) whereas cocaine was ranked fifth with a score of 27. Alcohol’s higher score is mainly due to the large impact that it has on people other than the user (lost productivity, drink driving, violence) but alcohol and cocaine remain similarly harmful overall even if we just consider metrics that impact the user. Cocaine was found to have a greater addictive potential than alcohol (2.39 vs. 1.93), but alcohol edges ahead on some other factors including bodily damage.

Society would benefit from a more consistent, proportionate, informed attitude to the relative dangers of different drugs.