The Big Question: Is Britain's cocaine problem out of control, and what can we do about it?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

A report released by the Home Affairs Select Committee suggests that cocaine is now seen as socially acceptable in Britain and that while much is being done to tackle the supply side of the cocaine industry not enough is being done to address the spiralling demand. The report by MPs came a day after a separate NHS report identified a worrying increase in hospital admissions relating to cocaine use among teenagers.

How widely used is cocaine in the UK?

In Europe only Spain has a bigger cocaine problem than Britain. Between 2001 and 2008 2.3 per cent of people in the UK aged between 15 and 64 admitted using the drug within the last year. This is nearly double the European average of 1.2 per cent. The latest British Crime Survey figures show that nearly one million people in Britain have used the drug within the last 12 months, half a million of them being between the ages of 16 and 24. And while it is hard to know exactly how many people are cocaine addicts, since they can only be counted if they come to the attention of the appropriate bodies, the number of people in treatment for cocaine addiction in the UK rose from 10,770 in 2006/07 to 12,592 in 2007/08.

How did it get so popular?

There is little consensus. One point the Home Affairs Select Committee report raises is the way in which the drug has been seemingly glamourised by celebrities who take cocaine and appear to "get away with it". Such a portrayal has led people to believe the drug is safe and non-addictive. Both of these myths could have increased cocaine's popularity which in turn led to a drop in the price – the report says that a line of cocaine now costs between £2 and £8.

Some people will argue that it is popular because it is cheap, while others will say it is cheap because it is so popular.

So who takes cocaine?

Like most drugs in Britain cocaine first emerged on the club scene, but soon became the preserve of the middle-classes due to its costliness. The former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair highlighted its prevalence when he said that it was being taken at dinner parties. But as the recent figures show, it is now extremely popular among young people too. The most recent figures from the British Crime Survey shows that the number of users between the ages of 16 and 24 rose fivefold between 1996 and 2009 to 438,000.

But perhaps surprisingly the highest levels of cocaine use today are among the unemployed. While the lowest are among students. Matthew Atha, Director of the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit (IMDU): "We find that it is through all levels of society, it is not just a rich man's drug. When the celebrities are taking it they get snapped by the paps and they get outed by the press but Joe Bloggs down the council estate never comes to the attention of the media, so it has this image of being a glamourous, celebrity-associated drug which is probably a false image."

Isn't cocaine dangerous?

Yes. Cocaine use is said to be linked to heart disease and can cause long-term erosion of cognitive brain function. And, as it becomes more popular, it has become more deadly too. The number of cocaine-related sudden deaths was 235, a huge increase on the 54 deaths that the drug was said to have caused in 2004. Non-fatal hospital admissions relating to cocaine-poisoning have also increased from 262 in 2000/01 to 833 in 2006/07.

While it may be a simple case of more people taking cocaine meaning that more people will be hospitalised by it, a more worrying conclusion could also be drawn. As the drug has become cheaper on the street it has, conversely, become more expensive at wholesale level, with the authorities attempting to stem the tide of the amount of cocaine arriving in Britain. The average cost of a kilo of cocaine has climbed from £22,000 in 1999 to £45,000 in 2009.

What's that got to do with the health threat it poses?

Although dealers are paying more, customers will expect their prices to stay constant and so, to keep prices down, dealers reduce the drugs purity. They do this by cutting it with chemicals thus making the most of their pure supply.

The latest purity figures, compiled by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) show that the average purity of seized cocaine had dropped from 33 per cent in 2007/08 to 26 per cent in 2008/09 and that a third of the seizures consist of as little as nine per cent. Drug experts say that cutting a drug with chemicals, while not medically more dangerous, encourages people to take more of the drug which, health-wise, can only be a bad thing.

Are there tough penalties for supplying/possession?

Yes, but they don't appear to be being adhered to. The maximum sentence for supplying cocaine is life imprisonment, but the average sentence given by the courts in 2008 was 47 months. Similarly, while the maximum sentence for possessing the drug is seven years, of the 5,700 people sentenced for possessing it last year nearly 3,000 were given a fine while only 251 were given a custodial sentence.

Have the authorities had any success in tackling the cocaine trade?

The report says that efforts by law enforcement agencies to curb cocaine trafficking are "woefully inadequate" and points out that Soca has seized just 12 per cent of the supply – meaning that up to 30 tonnes are still reaching Britain every year.

Also the increase in the wholesale price has been claimed as a victory by the authorities. Last year Soca said that they had intelligence around importers and producers, based mainly in South America, and that increase in price was "indicative of the pressure the importers are under". And while drug charities are concerned by the drop in cocaine purity, Soca regarded that as a victory too. A source said: "Our view after consulting medical experts is that cocaine cut with these chemicals is not as harmful as cocaine that is of a high purity level."

How can cocaine's prevalence be curtailed?

The report makes a number of suggestions, one of the most interesting being that the UK Government should pledge more money to tackling the root of the problem in Colombia – where the majority of the world's cocaine is manufactured.

It says: "Given the unenviable position of the UK as one of the largest consumers of cocaine worldwide, the UK has a compelling duty to support Colombia in tackling cocaine production. In this context the £1million a year spent by the UK on anti-cocaine operations in Colombia does not seem very substantial."

There is also a suggestion that tougher sentences be imposed by judges, who already have harsh penalties at their disposal. And it suggests that Ion Track machines – used to scan the hands of revellers at bars and pubs in Kent for traces of cocaine – be rolled out to every force in the UK.

Is Britain addicted to cocaine?


* Britain holds the unenviable record of having the second-most cocaine users in Europe

* Use is so prevalent that the drug's street price has come right down and now costs just a few pounds a line

* Hospital admissions and deaths from the drug have increased sharply in the past few years


* Great strides have been made stopping the cocaine flown into Britain as the rising wholesale price shows

* The actual numbers of people taking the drug – fewer than one million – are not particularly high

* We have much bigger substance abuse problems to worry about, such as alcohol and smoking