Ian Wright and the Double Standards of UK Drug Laws

Arsenal legend Ian Wright has admitted to smoking cannabis before matches at the beginning of his career, and in doing so has exposed the arbitrary double standards of our drug laws, and the destruction they can cause.

Writing in his column for The Sun newspaper, Wright admitted to almost throwing his career away at the age of 21, when drug testers came to his side’s dressing room after a match. Knowing that he had smoked cannabis, and would likely be kicked out of the club if caught, Wright was in a panic.

“It’s the first time I’d ever seen them and I panicked inside – I’ve been smoking cannabis, less than 24 hours earlier, and if that test comes back positive that’s it. It is literally all over for me.

I’m practically paralysed while trying to act unconcerned. The guy says: “Drug test, number nine.” Mark Bright.”

Wright’s name wasn’t called, and he decided to give up smoking cannabis there and then. From that point on his career went from strength to strength: he moved to Arsenal, becoming – for a time – their record goalscorer. He played for his country, and scored 9 goals in 33 appearances, and since his playing career has ended he has forged a path as a highly popular pundit.

Giving up cannabis seems to have been an excellent decision, and it was. But the laws that made it so are filled with double standards, and have helped to wreak havoc on the lives and careers of other footballers, including colleagues of Ian Wright.

In his column, Wright explained that he had always preferred cannabis to alcohol, and liked to unwind at the end of the week with a spliff rather than a pint. What he doesn’t mention is that unlike him, most of his colleagues – particularly at that point in time – did not share his preference. A large number of them not only enjoyed a drink, but were doing serious damage to themselves and their careers through drinking to excess.

In the 1997/98 season, Arsenal won the league and cup double with Wright in the side. Alongside him was club captain and fellow Arsenal legend Tony Adams, who despite a stellar career would become more well known outside of football just a year later with the release of his memoir. The book was called Addicted, and was part typical sporting fodder – how it feels to win the league/play with the best in the world, etc – and part confessional, laying bare his battle with alcoholism.

His troubles were already known about before the book, but its publication exposed the extent of the culture of binge drinking that was a huge part of English football in the 80s and 90s. Thanks to alcoholism, Tony Adams found himself locked up in 1990, after crashing his car whilst more than four times the legal drink-drive limit. He admitted to having played a match during the 1993/94 season whilst drunk, and to letting off fire extinguishers and firing a flare gun into a disabled toilet at a Pizza Hut with teammate Ray Parlour.

Despite all of this and more, Adams’ career was seemingly unaffected. He captained his side to two league and cup doubles during a 20-year spell at Arsenal, and made more appearances than anyone else bar one. He is rightly considered a legend at the club, and even has his own statue outside the ground. His nickname is Mr Arsenal for crying out loud.

Now imagine if, rather than cannabis, it was alcohol that was illegal. Adams would never have had a career anything like the one he did. He likely wouldn’t have had the same level of the support that saw him overcome his problems and become Mr Arsenal.

The laws surrounding drug use in this country are as arbitrary as they are harmful. Ian Wright wrote earlier this week that when he was smoking cannabis as a young man the thought never crossed his mind that he was doing anything wrong, and the reason for that is that he wasn’t. The relatively safe recreational choice that he was making was only deemed ‘wrong’ because the law said so, and if he’d been caught his career would have been over not because of the drug itself but because of a policy that makes it socially acceptable to drink yourself to the edge of oblivion, but beyond the pale to enjoy a smoke at the end of the week to unwind.

The history of English football is littered with examples of the devastating effects of alcoholism. Paul Merson, another of Ian Wright’s teammates, comes to mind. As, of course, do Paul Gascoigne, and the late George Best. All of them have suffered because the law makes drinking ok, and anything else illegal. But all of their careers flourished – to differing degrees – despite substance abuse. Had Ian Wright’s name been called, in that dressing room on that fateful day in ’84, his career would have been over before it even began, and a boy who would go on to become a footballing hero to many, would have likely been swallowed up by the criminal justice system.

Deej Sullivan
Deej Sullivan is a writer and activist from the UK. He regularly writes on drug policy and politics for NORML UK, the UKCSCs, London Real, Politics.co.uk and his own blog, www.thedomesticextremist.co.uk



  1. Peter Reynolds says:

    Great piece. I think George Best would object to it being called ‘English’ football though, as would many other players from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

    1. MedicalMarijuanaMedicalMarijuana says:

      Thanks Peter. I think the article was inferring that the players mentioned all played in the English domestic league.

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