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.