Britain snorts more of the drug than almost anywhere in Europe, more young people are taking it and deaths are rising. Why?
The moment Dan (not his real name) realised he had a problem with cocaine, he had been off work for a week, sick with flu. His phone buzzed. It was his cocaine dealer, calling to check he was OK. When Dan, one of his favoured customers, hadn’t been in touch to buy the cocaine he usually took several times a week, the dealer knew something was wrong.
“I don’t like thinking about that,” Dan says, shaking his head as we sit in a London pub. Now 36, Dan estimates he has spent £25,000 on cocaine. Lines in the pub on a Friday night after work. Lines on a Wednesday evening at a friend’s house while earnestly discussing 90s hip-hop. Lines at house parties, weddings, birthday parties and for no reason at all, other than that cocaine – the white powder that makes no one a better version of themselves, but that many of us continue to do anyway – is everywhere and freely available.
Britain is a cocaine-loving country, and its love for the drug is growing. The country snorts more cocaine than almost anywhere in Europe. “Cocaine use is going up,” says João Matias of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. In the UK in 2017-2018, 2.6% of people aged 16-59 took powdered cocaine (as opposed to crack cocaine, the more potent variant of the drug, which was taken by 0.1% of the population in the same period), up from 2.4% in 2013-2014, according to Home Office figures.
More young people are taking cocaine than ever before: 6% of 16- to 24-year-olds have tried it, despite the fact that, overall, fewer young people take drugs in general. It is also likely that Home Office figures, which often exclude students, prisoners and homeless people, underestimate cocaine use because those groups typically have above-average illegal drug use.
Most of this cocaine ends up in our sewage system, and researchers have been finding increasing levels in Britain’s water supply since 2012, Matias says. Levels are highest at weekends, indicating recreational use.
Cocaine used to be the sole preserve of affluent City workers and dissolute rock stars. They continue to favour the drug: data from the crime survey of England and Walesshowed that powdered cocaine use increased from 2.2% in 2014/15 to 3.4% in 2017/18 in households earning £50,000 a year or more. (Use among those earning less than £10,000 a year fell during this period, although researchers believe the use of crack cocaine may be on the rise in poorer communities.) But powdered cocaine now appeals to those in more modest income brackets, too. “Coke is pretty classless now,” says Ian Hamilton, a senior lecturer in mental health at the University of York. “It’s not for financiers in the City of London any more. It’s more affordable, so that’s opened up the market to people who wouldn’t have tried it before.” And dealers are savvy marketers. Dan pulls out his phone to show me a “bargain bucket offer” he has received: five grams of cocaine for £210.
Users come from all backgrounds. In Hyndburn – the once-prosperous centre of England’s textile industry, which is now in decline – 17 young people died of cocaine overdoses in a nine-month period in 2017. In Newcastle, according to a Vice report, cocaine has become “an important factor in the city’s legitimate economy”, with bars offering privacy curtains for patrons who wish to snort lines off their phones.
According to the National Crime Agency, recent years have seen the Albanian mafia take control of the UK’s lucrative cocaine market with a brutally effective business model. By negotiating directly with the cartels in drug-producing Latin America, cutting out traditional international importers, the Albanian mafia have been able to deliver a purer, more affordable product to market: cocaine hasn’t been this cheap since 1990.
Ironically, anti-drug laws have also improved the quality of cocaine. The 2015 Serious Crime Act criminalised the import of cutting agents such as benzocaine. When it is harder to cut the product, purity increases. This, along with the fact that cocaine production has increased in Latin America, has created a perfect powder storm. Cocaine purity, which has been increasing since 2010, is at its highest level in a decade. What happens when a product becomes cheaper, more plentiful and better quality? More people try it.
As purity and availability increase, so, too, does the misery wreaked by cocaine. Hospital admissions for mental health disorders linked to cocaine have almost trebled in the past decade. Cocaine-related deaths have increased for the sixth year running, up to 432 deaths in England and Wales in 2017, compared with 112 in 2011. (It’s worth noting that these figures refer to powdered and crack cocaine, as official statistics do not differentiate between the two when establishing cause of death. Many of these deaths will involve users who have longstanding addictions to crack cocaine, as well as other co-dependencies.) Users leap from balconies, or fall from mountain paths while under the effects of the drug. Or their bodies give out on them: many deaths take place when users mix cocaine with alcohol, producing the toxic chemical cocaethylene.
“There are a number of risks when it comes to mixing any drugs together,” says the consultant addiction psychiatrist Dr Prun Bijral of the drug treatment service Change Grow Live. As “alcohol is a depressant and cocaine is a stimulant,” combining the two in large quantities can overstimulate the heart and nervous system, leading to, in extreme circumstances, heart attacks. Mixing the two also “impairs your ability to measure and make a judgment on risks”, Bijral adds, meaning that you are far more likely to get yourself into a dangerous situation while drinking and taking cocaine. And it is not just your heart you should be worried about: cocaine abuse can cause the soft inner cartilage of your nose to erode, and it has been linked to brain abnormalities in regular users.
Lucy White, a student at the University of the West of England, knew the dangers of messing with drugs: she saw 19-year-old Drake Morgan-Baines collapse and die in front of her, of MDMA (ecstasy) poisoning, while she was working in Motion nightclub in Bristol. “She was really disturbed by it,” her sister, Stacey Jordan, tells me. But just seven months later, White herself died of a lethal cocktail of cocaine and prescription drugs. “It was the drugs that killed her, but it was also the people she was with, and the peer pressure,” Jordan says. “I don’t think she realised how dangerous it was.”
Cocaine use creates subtler forms of misery, too. “I’m the most confident person for those few hours when I’m on it,” Dan says, “but afterwards I’m having horrendous, almost suicidal, thoughts.” Paranoia lasts for days after a bender. “It’s crushing. The depression outweighs the good times so much,” he says. “It’s the feeling of being a disappointment to my parents. What the fuck am I doing?”
I’ve been at weddings and people are doing it in the toilet. I’m looking on in pure horror
Dan thinks Britons love cocaine because we work so hard (on average, we work the longest hours in Europe). “You can do coke tonight and go to work tomorrow and no one will know,” he says. “I may be a bit less productive, but only I know that.” Even though mixing alcohol and cocaine can prove deadly, many continue to do it. “Coke and alcohol go really well together,” Hamilton says. “You can drink for longer, and it makes you more confident.”
“After two drinks, I wouldn’t be able to relax unless I knew the coke was sorted,” Dan says. “That was my mentality.”
At a time of welfare cuts and ever-longer NHS mental health waiting lists, cocaine also seems to offer a quick fix for those struggling with stress or anxiety. “If you are a young person who is a bit anxious, lacking in confidence or not sure of your place in the grand scheme of things, coke sorts all that out for you,” Hamilton says. “If you can offer me a line now that makes me feel better, or the alternative is that I’m going to have to wait at least four weeks to see a counsellor, it’s an absolute no-brainer.” He pauses. “I’m not recommending it. But austerity has created a real bottleneck in people getting the support they need, and drugs are far more instant. They have no opening and closing hours.”
Recently, I was in the sort of pub you bring your parents to: an upmarket affair with chalkboard menus. I went to the bathroom and there, dusted across the toilet-roll holder like icing sugar on a Victoria sponge, was a fine but unmistakable layer of cocaine. For someone like Dan, who is trying to avoid taking the drug, “you have to be very careful. It’s everywhere.” Recently, he was eating dinner in a Greek restaurant when a nearby stranger offered him cocaine. Did he accept? He drops his voice. “I did, yeah.”
Cocaine’s resurgence is also linked to our changing night-time economy. The number of nightclubs in the UK halved between 2005 and 2015, and more than 25% of pubs have closed since 2001. As these places shutter, British people increasingly socialise behind closed doors. Unlike the club drug ecstasy, cocaine is best taken at home. Dan and his friends would often avoid bars to head back to someone’s flat, turn on some music and get a bag of cocaine in. “Bars are full of dickheads, so I’d say: ‘Let’s get out of here – I’m done.’ Only I wouldn’t be done: I’d stupidly stay up until 7am, having the same conversation.”
To many people, a line of cocaine with a glass of wine on Saturday night is an ordinary sort of thing – and they certainly don’t think of the devastation wreaked by drug cartels in cocaine-producing parts of the world. “It’s not seen as a hard drug,” says Hamilton. “It’s snorted, not injected, so you don’t have to cross that line.”
“The Chelsea flower show, the opera, churches, a Momentum fundraiser, Peppa Pig World …” The former Sun journalist Matt Quinton lists the places he and his colleagues found cocaine traces while working undercover for the newspaper. “Peppa Pig World was unexpected,” he says. The most shocking place Quinton found cocaine? A toilet that was only accessible to NHS staff. Because these exposés were popular with readers, and cheap to put together, Quinton or his colleagues would be sent out by editors to swab pretty much anywhere. As well as becoming extremely proficient at wiping down lavatories, Quinton learned one thing. “Coke is absolutely everywhere, especially if alcohol is being served,” he says. In the 18-month period Quinton only failed to find cocaine once: in the bathroom at a children’s festival. “That was because they had these toilets that were entirely plastic and clearly being blast-washed on a regular basis.” And, he adds, “they didn’t serve alcohol”.
Even Jordan’s friends don’t see a bit of coke as much of anything, really, despite the fact she lost her sister to the drug. It angers her. “You can’t get away from it if all your friends do it,” she says. “I’ve been at weddings and people are doing it in the toilet. I’m looking on in pure horror.” After witnessing someone snorting cocaine off their hand at a nightclub bar, she avoids going clubbing. “I start lecturing strangers because I get too angry.” She understands why people do it. “I don’t think people understand the butterfly effect that it has – unless something happens to you.”
Recent months have seen attempts to challenge the laissez-faire attitudes. Last July, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, linked escalating violence on the city’s streets to middle-class cocaine use. Days later, the Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, denounced hypocritical middle-class userswho profess to be politically aware. In October, the home secretary, Sajid Javid, told the Daily Mail that a government review would specifically look at the damage occasioned by middle-class drug users. Where did this sudden cross-party consensus on the evils of middle-class drug originate? One man: Simon Kempton.
If I have a drink, I know someone will have coke on them, and it’s so hard to say no.
In May last year, Kempton – who is the Police Federation’s lead on drugs – was chairing a panel discussion at its annual conference when a journalist asked for his views on prohibition. “I let my guard down a bit and said something honest, which is never a good thing,” Kempton smiles. He singled out middle-class drug users for fuelling street violence. A media storm ensued, but after Dick, Khan and Javid echoed his stance, Kempton felt vindicated. He hopes to transform middle-class users’ attitude to the drug. “If you think back to when I was a nipper, drink-driving was accepted ethically,” he says. “It took 20 or 30 years of better education to understand that drink-driving isn’t ethical. There’s similar work to be done.”
But does middle-class cocaine use really cause knife crime? “To my mind, the focus on middle-class cocaine users is a smokescreen for the failure to deal with the underlying causes of youth crime and violence,” says Prof Alex Stevens, an expert in criminal justice at the University of Kent, and the president of the International Society of the Study of Drug Policy. Since 2011, the coalition and Conservative governments have consistently attempted to link gangs and youth violence to drugs. But while street-level violence may be seen in the dealing of crack cocaine across so called county lines, powdered cocaine has a different supply chain. “Middle-class users don’t get their coke from young kids who are riding motorbikes out of council estates,” Stevens says. “There is violence in that supply chain too, but most of it happens in Latin America.”
If the evidence is shaky, why are politicians so keen to connect these dots? “It’s a strategy to keep in people’s minds the link between drugs and black youths,” says Stafford Scott, an anti-racism campaigner based in Tottenham, north London. It also allows them to shirk responsibility for dealing with the real causes of knife crime: “poverty, isolation and marginalisation”. Has Scott ever seen any evidence of cocaine dealing in the communities he works with? “You don’t see powdered cocaine in the ’hood,” he says.
Whether or not you agree that cocaine causes knife crime on our streets, one thing is for certain: cocaine causes damage. Maybe the damage takes place in a faraway country you prefer not to think about…
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