FOCUS: THE NEW DECADENCE: Drugs: Coke can kill, but it makes you feel cool

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If you clear the plates, pass the port and unwrap the charlie, watch out: the new head of the Metropolitan Police has sworn to target middle-class cocaine users, whose numbers are increasing. Will that work, when we know the dangers but still find hard drugs seductive?

Sir Ian Blair may be smarter than his remarks about weekend cocaine users who find it "socially acceptable" to have "wrap of charlie" suggest. Few people can seriously think the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan police will be sending his officers to raid dinner parties at detached houses in posh areas. But going into chic clubs across London, Manchester and other cities and banging up a few - or maybe many - celebrities with their noses jammed against a lavatory seat might just make the increasing number of recreational users pause for thought. I fear it will only be a short pause. Then they will adjust where they take their drug of choice, and move on, a good arm's length away from the dead hand of the law. Why is cocaine so popular among the middle classes? It has long been called the champagne of drugs. Law-makers recognise its allure: users feel sharp, edgy, sexy and clever and - because it has until lately been pricey - rich. Its image could not be further away from that of, say, marijuana. Those who admit to having taken it are usually pop stars, or celebs like Angus Deayton and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson (right) who are both now clean.

Even the ritual surrounding the way it can be taken in a social group makes it attractive to some. Unlike shooting up on heroin (sordid) or pill-popping (dull, nothing happens for ages), or rolling joints (too studentish), cocaine can be brought out as a surprise that provides a "naughty, but nice" response. The mirrored surface on which it is chopped into lines; the rolling of banknotes; the short sharp sniff and then, almost immediately, the rush; there is a cool feel to it all. And those involved feel good; right here, right now.

Cocaine is addictive, but many experts say the effects are more psychological than physiological; it also takes a long time to get seriously hooked. In that sense, its capacity to be a weekend drug is part of the attraction. It is "more-ish" and people do ruin their lives with it but, aside from crack cocaine, the sniffable variety does not appear to give rise to the levels of addiction associated with heroin or even highly potent forms of marijuana. Cocaine can kill: it has a capricious effect on the body's system which is why it is no longer used medically, but deaths are rare.

Cocaine comes from the coca plant of South America; the Incas used the plant to help them feel good, because chewing the leaves gives a mild buzz, like caffeine. It helped Inca messangeres run quite incredible distances, and is still used as an antitode to altitude sickness in the Andes. Aggresively marketed as a legal drug in America in the 1890s, it was still seen as relatively harmless there until the start of the Eighties. A Hollywood drug then, it is still associated with the idea of success. In the last 50 years its influence has extended, at one time or another, right to the top of British society.

The problem is that drugs policy in the UK is moving towards tragedy. Our Government has downgraded cannabis, a drug that is about 14 times as powerful as it was 30 years ago; one that can seriously damage your physical and mental health. But cannabis has mass appeal among the young and even politicians own up to having used it. Sir Ian, you might do better by quietly joining the campaign to re-classify marijuana. If you are going to continue banging on about middle-class cocaine use, I would seriously consider arresting yourself for wasting police time.

Tim Madge is the author of `White Mischief: a cultural history of cocaine' (Mainstream)


`I'm shy, I need something to make me gregarious'

Simon, 45, West London

I've had the same dealer for six or seven years. I've probably paid him about pounds 60,000.

Many of the opportunities I've found at work in publishing have been as a result of parties and indulging. I'm a shy person, so I take something to make me talkative and gregarious.

I realise I have a habit, but I don't perceive it as a problem. You retain a sense of objectivity; you don't lose your faculties.

Because it's a social drug you end up staying up all night talking. It's not drunk blathering or stoner blather, it kind of crystallises stuff. Everything has a clarity - at its best. At its worst you wake up clutching your head with a nose full of snot and your intestines feeling like they're filled with bleach, pounds 50 lighter and you realise you spent hours talking shite.

Cocaine has an acceptable chemical purity. One is aware of contributing to a very grubby business, but the real victims won't be helped by targeting recreational drug users. Alcohol is a more insidious problem.