FURTHER research into the impact of Class A drug use on crowd disorder in Scottish football has been called for after an academic study showed it has become a far greater safety concern than excessive drinking for many police officers and supporters.

The consumption of alcohol inside football grounds has been banned in this country since the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 was passed by MPs at Westminster in the wake of the riot which broke out at the Scottish Cup final between Celtic and Rangers at Hampden that year. 

Frank McElhone, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, had first called for the ban in a report he produced into growing unrest on the terraces in 1977 and the on-pitch battle between Old Firm fans resulted in his recommendations becoming enshrined in law.

The Herald: Director of SHAAP, Elinor Jayne, wants a blanket ban on alcohol advertising in sport.However, research which was led by health and behaviour experts at the University of Stirling has suggested that cocaine use may have superseded excessive drinking as a cause of violence and antisocial conduct in the modern game. 

Alcohol Consumption Among UK Football Supporters: Investigating The Contested Field Of The Football Carnivalesque – a paper which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and supported by Loughborough University and the University of Edinburgh – was published in the journal Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy last year.

Fans, supporters’ organisations, police officers, government advisors and safety groups in England and Scotland were all interviewed about the relationship between match-goers and alcohol during the extensive three year study.

Dr Richard Purves, a senior research fellow with the Institute for Social Marketing and Health at the University of Stirling, was the lead investigator and he was struck by how much of a worry drug use was to many of the individuals he and his colleagues spoke to.  

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“The use of drugs was something that we didn’t really expect to come out of the research because we were focusing on alcohol,” said Dr Purves. “But when we were talking about alcohol and disorder people expressed concerns that drug taking was linked with disorder.

“An issue that came up in focus groups and in stakeholder interviews was some people expressed concerns about the use of drugs by fans and the impact this might have on disorder at football matches.The Herald:

“There were several accounts from fans, safety officers and the police in the paper who believed the use of drugs is becoming more of an issue than the use of alcohol. It was certainly something that was an interesting finding. It is definitely something that is of concern to people.

“If you look back to the Euro 2020 final at Wembley (ticketless England fans fought with police and stewards in an attempt to gain entry to the stadium before the match), a lot of the disorder there was attributed to drug use.

“The use of controlled drugs, particularly cocaine use, has been linked by politicians and the media to this reported upsurge in violence, disorder, antisocial behaviour, particularly in England. But they have seen a slight increase in Scotland as well. Class A drug possession was added to the Football Spectators Act in 2022.

“We got lots of reports and it is something to think about. We do know there has been a rise in cocaine use and some Class A drug use in wider society. So it is obvious that is going to spill over into football. Football doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

“The behaviours which happen outside of football in wider society often filter through to football, but because football is under a microscope that issue becomes inflated somewhat. But it was certainly reported by several fans, by police officers, by supporters’ associations, by safety officers as well.”

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He continued: “There were some fans who believed that drug use was rife. If fans have drunk too much it is very obvious they have drunk too much. They are removed from the match and asked to sober up.

“It is easier to smuggle a small bag of cocaine into a match than bottles or cans. So they believed they were taking it inside the stadium, which is something which is very different to alcohol use. People do take alcohol into stadiums, there was evidence of that.

“But they believed they were taking drugs in the toilets, in the cubicles, at half-time. So it is something that is continued, is sustained throughout the course of the match. There are concerns that might lead to increased disorder, pumped-up adrenaline kind of behaviour.

“There were accounts from some supporters about trying to get in to toilet cubicles at half-time and believing that people were in there taking drugs. They hear the sniffing or the tapping of the credit card. That is probably the most evidence we had on that topic. But we did have some accounts from people who had seen drugs being taken on supporters’ buses.

“We have also found that the use of alcohol tends to facilitate the use of drugs. They go hand in hand. There were occasions when people were drinking and would take drugs as well. Supporters’ buses and within the stadiums were two areas where fans felt people were taking drugs.”

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Dr Purves and his associates found that there were more acute fears about the use of drugs by supporters at matches than alcohol among many of the people they canvassed for an opinion.  

The Herald: “I can understand the concern that parents have about this and that is why it is important to understand the scale of it,” he said. “We can easily say, ‘We think x number of supporters are taking drugs at matches’. But we just don’t know how many are.

“We have seen the rise in ultra culture in Scottish football in years and these are the groups, or younger groups of males, who it is often said are doing this kind of behaviour at the moment. But, again, we just don’t know.

“But there were some accounts of behaviour which fans believed were due to the use of drugs. Again, I would stress that this isn’t based on evidence. We did have accounts of supporters, particularly away supporters, rushing at the fences, rushing at the away supporters. They believed that kind of behaviour wasn’t due to alcohol.

“We would need to examine that further. People have that view of people taking cocaine because it is a stimulant rather than a depressant. They feel it has a different impact on people’s behaviour. But they simply believed that to be the case.

“I completely understand the concern of football supporters and that is why we included what they said in the paper. The interesting thing was that those supporters felt that alcohol was a completely acceptable part of the game, having a pint beforehand or having a drink at the stadium. It is widely accepted as a normal part of football.

“But drug taking is really seen as invasive behaviour. It is very much a case of ‘those people are doing this and that is wrong they shouldn’t be’. It is more concerning behaviour because it is not widely accepted. There is really interest contrast there – some drugs (alcohol) are accepted at matches and some are not.”

Dr Purves is currently looking for funding to finance further research into the impact that drug use has on crowd behaviour at football matches. He believes it is vital to enable clubs and police officers to effectively tackle what many people are convinced is a growing problem.

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“We weren’t particularly focusing on drug use in this project, we would expose that further if we were to do further work on that,” he said. “We don’t have evidence of arrests from drug offences, of people being caught with it or being seen to be taking it.

“It is really important to state that we don’t yet fully understand this issue. While we have reported that there were concerns by some fans and stakeholders about this, there is a lack of evidence about what drugs are being taken, when, where, what affect drug use has on fans’ behaviours and what harms arise from this.

The Herald: “I would stress there is no systematic evidence supporting claims that drug use is on the rise or that it is linked to rises in disorder. There really needs to be more research in this area if we are going to make conclusions and look at trends. There is just not that evidence there currently.

“But the police and safety officers we spoke to were calling for this evidence as well. They would like to know what is happening because it is potentially something that is harder for them to restrict and know how to respond to as well. There needs to be an evidence-based approach.”

Dr Purves added: “The first football banning order for taking drugs was given in November of 2022. It was a man in his forties who was at a League One match between Charlton Athletic and Burton Albion in Staffordshire and he was doing it on his own.

“He received a three year banning order. Fans who commit an offence can be banned for up to 10 years and get a criminal conviction under current legislation. It is not what I would call a proportionate response.

“But people involved in the game right now don’t know how to deal with this. They don’t know the scale of the problem, they don’t know the affect it is having on supporters. Further research is really important in this topic area so they will best know how to deal with it.

“It was the same with alcohol because there wasn’t a great deal of evidence on alcohol use that was linked with supporters. It was linked with violence in the 1980s and that is the reason we have the legislation in place in Scotland. But there is so little evidence on current supporters’ behaviours. There needs to be evidence there to base your policies or your responses on.”

The Herald: