Cocaine use increases fourfold in past decade

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Cocaine use has quadrupled in the past decade and use of the drug is popular away from the top echelons of society, figures from the Home Office indicate.

More than three-quarters of a million people in England and Wales admitted using the Class A drug last year, making it the second most popular illegal drug after cannabis.

Overall, 2.4 per cent of the population had used the drug in the past year, compared with 0.6 per cent in 1996, the 2003-04 British Crime Survey says.

Some 4.9 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds said they had used cocaine in the past year. But the drug's use is growing fastest among 25- to 34-year-olds: 4.5 per cent of this age group said they had taken cocaine in the previous year, up from 1.9 per cent in 2003-4.

The survey, based on interviews with 24,422 people, showed that cocaine users were more likely to be semi-skilled or skilled manual workers than professionals. However, cocaine users were more likely to have degrees or A-levels than no qualifications. More than a million people used Class A drugs, with half a million of them doing so regularly. Nearly a quarter of 16- to 24-year-olds admitted to using Class A drugs more than once a month.

For the second year running, ecstasy use remained constant, with 2 per cent of those surveyed taking it at least once a year.

Heroin and crack cocaine were the least popular Class A drugs, used by just 0.1 per cent and 0.2 per cent in the two age groups surveyed.

Earlier this month, the National Criminal Intelligence Service warned that heroin dealers were switching to the more profitable cocaine trade. The Metropolitan police recently said that cocaine seizures in London had quadrupled in the past year. Heroin seizures fell by 50 per cent in the same period.

Meanwhile, average cocaine prices have fallen from £70 to £40 per gram over the past decade.

London police confiscated 360kg of cocaine in 2003-2004, compared with 96kg in the previous year. The shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, said: "Hard drug use has gone up by almost a third since Labour came to power ­ there are now more than a million hard-drug users in Britain. The Government haven't lost the war on drugs ­ in fact they haven't even begun to fight it."

But according to the drugs information group Drugscope the increase in cocaine use has slowed down since the late 1990s.

Drugscope's Marcus Roberts said: "Anyone following the media or listening to some MPs recently would have thought that drug use is going through the roof, but as these latest figures from the British Crime Survey prove, the facts reveal a very different story.

"Of course the increase in Class A drug use is worrying and we can't afford to be complacent about the continued popularity of cocaine, but it's time to focus on what is really happening with drugs in this country."

The survey estimated that some 11 million people aged between 16 and 59 have used one or more illegal drug in their lifetime.

Earlier this year, the new head of Scotland Yard promised to crack down on occasional users who take cocaine in nightclubs and dinner parties.

Sir Ian Blair, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said that an increasing number of weekend users see no harm in the occasional "wrap of charlie".

"I'm not interested in what harm it is doing to them personally. But the price of that cocaine is misery on the streets of London's estates and blood on the roads to Colombia and Afghanistan," he said.

He added: "People think it is okay to use cocaine but I do not think it is OK. We will have to do something about it by making a few examples of people so that they understand."