19 November 2010

running around in my brain


We are now top of the European rankings for cocaine use – which includes the minority pastime of crack-smoking which is creeping up in parts of London, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, but largely denotes the standard ritual whereby the drug is powdered and shoved up people's noses. It is now the second most commonly used illegal substance after cannabis with more than 3 million young adults using it every year. But Europeans' increasing fondness for cocaine is matched by a rise in related deaths: the number in the UK doubling from 161 in 2003 to 325 in 2008.

EMCDDA Report. November 2010
 Following analysis by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which reports that 6.2% of Britons between the ages of 15 to 34 said they had used cocaine in the last year, the US no longer has the planet's worst cocaine problem. We do. Britain's inexorable appetite for the Class A substance, perhaps inevitably, finally outstripped America's. This compares with 4.5% of Americans – the second biggest users – in the same age group. Almost 15% of all young Britons have tried the drug at least once. According to another report from Straight Statistics, each year, nearly a million Britons either give it a go or indulge a regular habit. A survey on the online dance music magazine Mixmag found that 22% of British clubbers reported having taken it. Also The European drugs agency say there are more than a million problem drug users aged over 40 across the EU, including 122,000 in Britain, who dent the widely held perception that drug use is a youth phenomenon. These older drug users are prematurely experiencing the health problems faced by people 20 years older and increasing all the attendant costs this implication has.

Drug Use Around The World

Explanation for UK use can be sought, in part, from the structure of its youth culture; its emphasis on hedonism and experimentation coalescing to create a voracious appetite among young Britons for substance use, certainly when compared to other European states. Cocaine use in the UK has become normalised, as a consensus on what substances are morally unacceptable becomes less defined. Twenty years ago most people understood cocaine as a distant, almost mythical substance. "God's way of telling you you're earning too much money," as Robin Williams once said. It was restricted “to metropolitan high-rollers or those in the higher reaches of the entertainment industry” (1)

This change in demographic drug use is due to the rapidly changing image of cocaine in the UK. In 2010 cocaine can no longer be construed as the ‘yuppie’ drug. It cannot even be considered a club drug. Mystique once surrounded cocaine, with many perceiving it a drug for "winners", but all that has gone. Now cocaine use permeates all classes, from top to bottom. Price is a factor; it's cheaper than ever. Experts talk of "child-friendly" prices, "beginners' offers" and "group discounts". (2)

For people lower down the social scale, the recreational pharmacopeia revolved around more affordable sources of enjoyment: cannabis, amphetamine sulphate; and, for those who had immersed themselves in Britain's seemingly unstoppable club culture, ecstasy – an illicit substance whose creation of a kind of delirious sociability arguably did Britain a great deal of good (discuss!).

In 1990, the average price of a gram of cocaine was about £90; five years later, it was closer to £60. Circa 2003, its price per gram came down to about £40. Latest prices indicate an average price is somewhere between £2 and £4 a line. With a £4 pint not uncommon and a glass of house white retailing at around £3.50, the temptation to young people is evident. The falling cost, though, has coincided with a plummeting purity – often below 10% – but as the market proves, people, particularly teenagers, are happy to pay for an inferior, cheaper product.

Experts warn that increasingly sophisticated techniques are being used to conceal and smuggle cocaine into Europe from South America. They cite one technique that involves incorporating cocaine into carrier materials such as beeswax, fertiliser or clothing; extraction laboratories then release the drug.

Mainly though, South American gangs are buying old jets (Ads on websites such as Planemart.com offer Douglas DC-8s – four-engined jets –for as little as $275,000 (£170,000) for example) and flying the cocaine across the Atlantic to meet European demand. (3) The UN Office on Drugs and Crime began warning about transatlantic drug planes after 2 November, 2009, when a burned-out Boeing 727 was found in the desert in Mali. Drug smugglers had flown in from Venezuela, unloaded the aircraft and then torched it, investigators said. There is a conspiracy to "spread vast quantities of cocaine throughout the world by way of cargo aeroplanes” says the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. So now at least we know where it comes from and how the huge surge in demand is met. President Hugo Chávez's decision to sever ties with most US law enforcement agencies in 2005 has made it a lot easier to bring cocaine to staging sites on the Venezuelan coast, said Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based thinktank.

Higher up the age range, this week's figures point up the blurring of our alcohol and drug cultures, and an underrated aspect of the British fondness for boozy excess. As any cocaine user will tell you, one of its main effects is the increased capacity for drink, which must substantially add to the takings of those great alco-sheds that now dominate our towns. If you read the shock-horror reports of those Friday nights-out that take in incredible volumes of booze and end in A&E, bear in mind that cocaine will often have something to do with it.

"Too many Europeans still regard cocaine use as a relatively harmless accompaniment to a successful lifestyle," said Wolfgang Götz, director of EMCDDA. "But we are progressively seeing that, as cocaine consumption grows, so too does its impact on public health. Not only can use of this drug escalate quickly, but it can also result in fatalities, even when intake is occasional and doses are low."

The annual report also highlights the increased use of two "cutting agents" to dilute, and thus increase the market value of cocaine. The EU drug experts are particularly worried about the health effects of levamisole, which is usually used to treat worms in cattle, and phenacetin, a painkiller that could cause kidney disease.

The most important point though is this. Cocaine is not a drug to plug you into the collective consciousness; instead it leaves you marooned on your own tedious island, little caring about what anyone else has to contribute. Unlike ecstasy, cannabis, or acid, it is not contemplative or mind-expanding. It tends to kill humour and camaraderie and render the collective mood brittle and anxious. All too often it fosters arrogance, anger, and even violence.

The inevitable conclusion is this: that if the idea of the caring, sharing 90s turned out to be a brief mirage, and we end the current decade more atomised and volatile than ever, the popularity of cocaine speaks volumes, embodying the spirit of our times while also feeding it.