Drug use: musings of an east London british-bengali in Tower Hamlets

[1] White, R., 2001. Heroin use, ethnicity and the environment: the case of the London Bangladeshi community., Addiction, 96, p.1815-1824



[2] Shams, M.A, Bhugra, D & Johnson, M. R. D., 2008.Perceptions of drug use within a UK Bengali community., Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 50(2), P.106-111


[3] http://www.nickryan.net/articles/abyss.html accessed on 10/07/2012 at 15:30

Nick ryans article on Tower Hamlets area with regards to the drug landscape amongst the Bangladeshi community (Muslim community in addition that can be omitted). Interesting view-points from different members of the drug landscape


[4] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUOMTExlTbQ

Short documentary on drugs addiction in british bangladeshi community. Scripted, edited, voiced and produced By Saleh Ahmad. Most of the video is largely in English with the interview of the user starting at 40 seconds.



London child poverty statistical report



In nature when two differing components interact with one another, the response is determined by the size in difference between the properties of the two. For example, an explosion is brought about because the difference in energy is too extreme. Apparently, I live in the “heroin capital of the UK”, with some parts of the country also demonstrating high incidence of Bangladeshi heroin addicts [2, 3]. Speaking as a resident of the London borough of Tower Hamlets my entire life; alarm bells are ringing. Yet growing up, that explosive realisation of drug misuse in Tower Hamlets has only been felt in recent years. Drug use is a very large issue not just in London but across the world. This musing could be considered a viewpoint largely as an east London resident but also with insight from the Bengali community. Drugs are defined as:


“An exogenous (outside the body) substance that produces a physiological response when administered to the body”


Under this generalised definition anything that is administered (usually oral) to the body accounts as a drug. Drugs of abuse can be either illicit (e.g. heroin, cocaine) or legal (e.g. tobacco, alcohol) but all share the common features in that they produce a state of ‘peace’; either mentally or physical; and on each administration, a greater dose will be required to meet the same response. With this larger dose requirement also comes its withdrawal symptoms- the bodies attempt at restoring ‘normal’ function. The larger the dose taken, the more severe the withdrawal symptoms.


An article by Rupert White in 2001 [1] took a study of the Bengali dynamics of individuals admitted to treatment centres within three London boroughs. Whilst not definitive, it does display some comparisons to white heroin users. Largely that all, if not most individuals took up smoking cannabis before moving to harder drugs. They also took drugs at much younger ages than their white counterparts and were still in contact with their family and religiously active during their treatment. It also coincided with another study [2] that most users were male, with females being a much smaller group. A damning fact is that 34% of heroin users in a Newham centre were Bengali despite Bengalis being 16% of Newham’s population. These facts may be unsurprising for myself, my experiences growing up in Tower Hamlets certainly uphold these findings. Drug abuse is certainly becoming a more explosive problem- largely because it was so ignored amongst the Bengali community.




After the Second World War, the UK started to actively recruit from the commonwealth in an attempt to restore economic function lost during the fighting. The first immigrants were the afro-carribeans followed by the Indians and Pakistanis. Bangladeshis were the final individuals to migrate to the UK around the 1970s. My parents had migrated to the UK in a hope to establish better prospects for our family. This naturally meant moving towards where work was available which led to our settling in Tower Hamlets where they got involved; like many other Bengalis; in the processing, restaurant and textile industries. As such the demographic in Tower Hamlets has Bengalis over 30% in 2000 [2] with the next largest being Somalis. Disparity in wealth in Tower Hamlets is disturbing. Tower Hamlets has the highest child poverty in the UK at 53% [5] all while Canary wharf, brick lane and the recent Olympic games are located in the region.

Bangladesh is located in the Indian sub-continent and is actually the delta of the Ganges river. Most of the country is poor with over half living in rural environments. Coupled with the high population and small land space, Bengalis migrated not just for space but to send money back ‘home’ and return at later date. Whilst growing up and, being a second generation british Bengali, I am acutely aware of my roots in Sylhet (north-east Bangladesh) my extended family and the community there. Uncles (honorary term used for elders in Bengali- sasa) could find much about families due to these links and the village nature also meant that everyone knew everyone. Family ties and their collective reputations determined social standing. With the community now shifting towards a third-generation of british-bengalis there is a distillation of this link but community value is still a strong part of the cultural dynamic.


Whilst growing up, I did have a relatively sheltered life. I certainly wasn’t the only one, my parents social circle meant there were many others like myself. I remember there being stressed relations with other races due to the actions of the, then called, national front. The police would consistently be summoned in order to deal with verbal and physical abuse as well as destruction to property. The older boys had formed gangs in order to protect themselves and their families, and would frequently get in trouble with the police. With such strong community values (my mum is an uber socialite) I was taught to quickly distance myself from such actions and people. This sheltered environment was further extended by the community; the issues of elders were very much distanced from the youth. In that sense there has existed a paradigm between youth and adult issues; elders are respected and the eldest male upholds the social status of their family name. Religion also played a huge part in my life, most Bengalis are Muslims and Islam plays a large part in our social etiquette and culture.


Bengalis often incorporate many Islamic values into their culture. It is why among other races also following Islam, there is a transferrable value between us. Maintaining family ties, being charitable, showing respect to elders and the prohibition of intoxicants are also shared. The greatest prohibitions I had while growing up was alcohol and gambling. Ironically, tobacco is largely consumed by Bengalis. They are either chewed in paan (banana leaves) or smoked. Those few that did smoke would also take cannabis (ganja); cannabis being produced and trafficked in Bangladesh for most of the 19th century. Even so, in relation to other ethnic groups- Asians have low drug users [1].


Secondary education introduced me to the murkier realities of the world. I went to Stepney Green boy’s school and at the time was a very rough place to grow up in. I often joke with friends that school was a ‘legalised prison’. You had to go there and the formation of ‘posses’ and its hierarchies were in place. Trying to get by often meant conforming to others or being the trendsetters and bullying benefits from those beneath you. People came in varying colours and I was introduced with others whose social dynamic was different to mine. This also meant meeting boys that would actively sell or take drugs; smoking was seemingly glorified as a way to rebel. Sadly with poor foresight, many of these boys did not get a good secondary education and any prospect in the real world was tough. Some would turn to drug dealing as a viable means of supporting themselves. You only have to wait on street corners and chances are you would come across a deal going down.


The large families and limited space of housing meant that youths would socialise more outside the house. As a second-generation Bengali, you are often brandished with family deeds making it harder to individualise oneself. Additionally for the family structure- shame has a large impact on social standing. So what problems there are, are often dealt with behind closed doors. What information or gossip is known is often talked in hushed tones and very selectively; an attempt at being respectful or avoiding problems with a family in the future. To be brandished with undesirable characteristics is damning and definitely drove many families in their response- some dealt with problems in denial, others in complete outrage while others alternated between the two extremes. The middle path- at least in my limited exposure was seldom seen. Drug abuse users are seeing more intervention outside the home. Those second generation Bengalis who may have been involved in drugs are getting involved in community work to help the youth.


As for those who take the drugs, many are destitute and bear those similar hallmarks of drug abuse; dishevelled, agitated and desperate. We would call them ‘smackheads’, if you wanted stolen goods at dirt cheap prices, chances are they would have something. A documentary by Saleh Ahmed [4] of a female drug user highlights those similar problems. She lived a sheltered life and in school was where drugs were introduced to her. Things quickly spiralled out of control as she sought greater highs and the social dynamic of shame led to the problem getting worse. Treatment programmes such as those run by NAFAS are increasingly more popular; there are drug programmes run by NAFAS on the muslim community radio during Ramadan. Community exposure to drug abuse and means of treatment is becoming more prominent.


I have lost contact with those who would take drugs actively and have since become an individual looking into drug abuse from the outside. I see glimpses of its presence within the city; drug deals going down, individuals taking drugs in corners of the city or those presenting clear signs of being ‘high’. Others may share their experiences with mine and how drug abuse is present within the east end of London. I myself am not involved in the ‘clubbing’ culture so in respect to drugs such as ecstacy or lsd which are reported to be ‘club drugs’- I can’t tell from experience how it is.





For an alternate and frankly wonderful telling of the landscape of the east end and individuals involved in drugs, Nick Ryans article is available at http://www.nickryan.net/articles/abyss.html. While the article may not focus upon Bengalis entirely it does highlight the Tower Hamlets-centric issue drug abuse has in our community.