Police warn of cocaine epidemic: Officers struggle to penetrate an 'invisible' middle class drug scene. Jojo Moyes reports

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POLICE and drugs experts have warned of a 'hidden epidemic' of cocaine use among middle-class people in south-east England. Use of cocaine is believed to be increasing faster than that of any other drug but the problem has been hidden. Low rates of related crime and prosecutions and a low addiction rate make the extent of its use hard to assess.

A spokesman for the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the police unit that monitors organised crime, said: 'There has certainly been a big increase in seizures. If we take that as an indication, powder cocaine (as opposed to 'crack' cocaine, a derivative) has shown the biggest increase recently of all drugs.'

He said this was because Britain and the rest of Europe were being targeted by South American drug cartels, cocaine use having reached saturation point in the United States. Easier availability and improved quality were making cocaine an attractive 'recreational' drug.

This was reiterated by a Metropolitan Police spokesman. 'We have been coming across a lot more cocaine in the last year. It's extremely rife. Recently we've been working more around the King's Road and Chelsea areas - you go to any club in and around that area and you'll see it.'

He said the coke 'scene' was the most difficult to spot: 'We visited one gentleman recently who had a lot of property and was dealing purely to yuppies. These people are not your 'low-grade' prostitutes and villains, they're all from normal families. You wouldn't spot them for druggies.

'Your average dealer on the powder scene has a three-bedroom Victorian house, lives with his wife and deals from home. It's not like a 'crack house' with all the low-lifes coming round. Powder dealers tend to have a quite reasonable job. They're not going to turn to villainy to pay for powder, whereas crack is responsible for crime. Coke doesn't seem to have the physical problems that crack and heroin do. It doesn't seem to drag people down unless they really get into it.

'A typical dealing ring would be a big extended social circle - all friends of friends of friends. It's difficult for us to break into. It really is an invisible scene.'

The increase in cocaine use is shown by figures from the Metropolitan Police. In 1981, 21.1kg of cocaine was seized by police in Britain. In 1990 the total was 611kg. Police believe the rise resulted partly from increased use and partly from increased effectiveness of their operations.

But some officers said privately that the amount available 'on the street' had increased dramatically in the last six months.

Catherine Phillips, an adviser for Release, the drugs counselling organisation, said its helpline was receiving more calls from middle-class cocaine users. 'People have focused very much on the stereotype junkie, but these are ordinary people with ordinary jobs,' she said. Few users needed rehabilitation, and this made the extent of use hard to assess. Those who tried to come off the drug tended to go to private clinics.

She added: 'It's a drug where it's very easy to spend more money than you can earn if you're not a high earner. People can build up quite considerable debts.'

The journalist: Fergus, 25

Illegality increases appeal

I WAS 16 when I first tried it. Now I take it about once a week. It's hard to say exactly because sometimes I deal a bit to pay for my own supply, but I probably spend pounds 60 a week (one gramme). On average I make about pounds 200 a week at work.

Sometimes I have a sniff before I go out but usually I do it in company. I only really take it in social situations. I never mix drugs with work. If I couldn't afford it, I wouldn't take it.

I do it because I like the feeling it gives me. I'm more alert, more awake, I can stay up longer. I enjoy the fact that it's illegal in a very small way - it increases its appeal.

I've been slung out of pubs and clubs before because someone's caught me doing it in the toilets. But I don't really worry about the Old Bill - as long as you're careful, I don't think you'll get caught.

Everyone in my social circle does it. The amount they do is limited by depending on the money they earn. I used to take Ecstasy all the time but it didn't give me the same effect as this and I got bored.

I don't worry about the effect it has on my health - I worry more about the drinking.

The estate agent: Neil, 27

'Subtle high' for pounds 100 a week

REALLY, I'll take as much as I can afford. I earn about pounds 10,000 basic and then I work on commission, so what I take really depends on the number of houses I sell.

I probably spend about pounds 100 a week on coke, but my overheads are very low so I get by. Most of my friends do it. The amount they do seems to be determined by what they're earning at the time. No one I know is what I'd call an addict as such, but we do it regularly, yes. If I feel I can't go out without it, then I know it's time to cool off for a while.

My girlfriend is fanatically anti- drugs so I try not to do it in front of her because she goes mad. I'm not really worried about the police. I shut the curtains if we're doing it in the living room - that's about as careful as I get. I tend to do it if we're going to a party or something - it really wakes me up. The high I get off it is pretty subtle really - I think you have to take it a few times to really appreciate the high at all.

I went through a stage when I did it really heavily. I lost loads of weight and got a bit edgy. Someone took a photograph of me at the time and showed it to me and it made me stop.

The nursery teacher: Jane, 26

Drug gives a 'nice feeling'

I WAS 19 when I first tried it, on holiday with a friend of a friend in the States. I only use it very casually - if there's some going at a party or at someone's house I'll take it but generally I don't earn enough to take it regularly. I can't afford it and I don't want to.

I just take it in social situations when everybody else is doing it and I'm having a laugh. It gives me a subtle high, so from being a bit tired and withdrawn . . . you don't even notice the difference at first but then you feel more active - it gives you a nice feeling.

Most of my friends do recreational drugs. I smoke, I take a bit of speed, a bit of acid. I'll also do magic mushrooms once in a while. I used to do Es (ecstasy) five years ago but I stopped because they're bad for you. I'm quite a healthy person - I go to the gym twice a week and I swim. I don't drink. I believe anything not done to excess is okay.

I never take any drugs before working - I'm completely straight when I teach.

My parents don't know I do drugs. I told my little sister not to do Es because they're so full of rubbish.