Britain tops European league for cocaine use - and rivals US

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The Independent Online

Cocaine abuse has never been more widespread in this country, and there is little to suggest things are going to improve in the short term.

Britain is now top of the European league table for cocaine use and is fast approaching levels seen in America, according to the main EU drug agency. Alarmingly, this trend includes the use of the class-A drug among children of secondary school-age, which has doubled in a year.

The drug is also becoming increasingly popular in its most damaging and addictive form, as "crack", or cooked, cocaine.

There have been a series of studies in the past year that make depressing reading. They suggest that millions of pounds spent on government and police campaigns have had little or no effect on the supply of cocaine.

The police, customs and intelligence agencies are increasingly looking to get at dealers by attacking the drug at source - and thereby preventing it reaching the UK - as well as going after the traffickers' cash profits. But government figures suggest a new generation of teenagers is already being exposed to the drug.

An estimated 65,000 children aged 11 to 15 in schools in England said they had taken cocaine, according to an official study published last month. Cocaine use has risen from 1 per cent in the age group in 2004 to 2 per cent last year, the study found. A total of 320,000 said they had been offered cocaine, of which 35,000 were aged 11.

The cocaine surge has been attributed to its easy availability and street price, which has remained stable for the past few years. It costs from about £50 and £60 a gram, with the total value of the market estimated at £3bn a year. To reach younger users, dealers now sell cocaine in half-gram packages for £25.

Most of the cocaine is smuggled in from South America, often by British traffickers, Colombian gangs, and West Indian and west African groups.

The Government is pinning a lot of hope on the newly created Serious Organised Crime Agency - dubbed "Britain's FBI" - to tackle class-A drugs, but many experts in the field believe they are fighting a losing battle.