A nation addicted: Cocaine - Britain's deadly habit

A major new report shows that 1.75 million young adults use a drug that most think is harmless. But 171 people have died from its use last year, an increase of 300 per cent in five years. Jonathan Owen and Sophie Goodchild report
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The Independent Online

'I was snorting cocaine like a pig," says Tim Burgess. "Everyone was worried and thought I had a month to live." Coke was easy to get hold of. After all Burgess was the lead singer of the Charlatans, at the time one of Britain's biggest bands. He was so in thrall to "charlie" that he was snorting huge amounts of the drug "morning, noon and late into the night".

What had started as recreational use when he was 22 years old became a 17-year-habit that escalated into a serious addiction. The singer, now 39, was so paranoid and withdrawn that he was barely able to function.

Burgess, who has lived in Los Angeles for the past few years, has been clean for seven months since coming to London for treatment in April. He is the latest of a slew of celebrities baring their souls about bitter struggles with cocaine, but aspects of his story will resonate with thousands of Britons.

Figures to be released this Thursday by the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drugs Addiction (EMCDDA), which reports on drug use, will show that the UK is in the top three for the number of cocaine users in Europe. The figures are based on evidence from 29 countries including Spain and France.

And findings submitted to the EMCDDA by UK government officials and drug experts paint a frightening picture of soaring cocaine abuse in the UK. They warn that although use of most class A drugs increases by relatively small amounts, the number of people taking cocaine has soared.

The last decade has seen use of the drug almost triple among UK adults. Over the same period, ecstasy use, for example, has fallen and although cannabis use is much more widespread in society, its use hasn't increased by anything like as much as cocaine.

Crack cocaine seizures have increased by 74 per cent since 2000 and the number of people arrested or cautioned for cocaine offences rose to 8,165 in 2003. Between April 2002 and December 2003 customs seized more than 26,000kg of cocaine.

The UK report, obtained by this newspaper, shows that use of cocaine has risen more than any other drug.

In a statement to The Independent on Sunday yesterday, Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, warned of a "staggering" rise in the number of Britons using the drug. He said there was "a steadily growing number of Britons... are being seduced by the 'white lady'. Either Europe snaps out of its state of denial," he warns, "or it should brace itself for the consequences".

Despite a constant stream of such dire warnings, coke has maintained its image as a drug associated with a celebrity lifestyle and does not have the stigma that surrounds other class A drugs such as heroin. The drug's image has been given a boost by Kate Moss's apparent transformation from shamed coke snorter to style icon in the space of less than 12 months.

She was temporarily ditched from several high-profile modelling contracts after a national newspaper published pictures apparently showing her using the class A drug in a west London recording studio last year. But her earnings this year were her highest ever, with a whole range of new contracts and endorsements.

A potent combination of image and lower prices has helped fuel cocaine's soaring popularity not just at home but also abroad. In the case of the Ibiza set, more than three-quarters say they have taken the drug, compared with only half last year. In contrast, there has only been a small percentage rise in the number of users of ecstasy, which once dominated the club scene.

The cost of cocaine has nearly halved over the past decade, which has given rise to an alarming trend in bingeing on the drug because people are getting more cocaine for their money. Professor Mark Bellis, Director for the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University, argues, "Cocaine used to be regarded as a high-class drug but it is far more available and affordable now."

Cocaine is fast replacing ecstasy as the drug of choice on the club scene for the first time, with record numbers of young people snorting the powder for as little as £30 a gram.

Nearly one in 10 people in their twenties who go to clubs admits to taking two grams in a session - the equivalent of 40 lines.

These figures are based on a survey of more than 2,000 regular club-goers across the country, ranging from students to civil servants, carried out by the magazine Mixmag, seen as the clubbers' Bible.

Clubs, keen to avoid getting labelled as magnets for drug users, have introduced special amnesty bins in a bid to encourage people to hand over their drugs, without fear of police action, before a night out.

Health ministers and educationalists continually sound alarms about teenagers becoming hooked on the drug. Cocaine has been in schools for many years but is becoming so common that a number of schools are seriously considering bringing in drug testing of pupils.

In one case, four teenage girls were expelled from a school in West Sussex after snorting the drug in the toilets before lessons. Police gave two pupils a warning after being alerted by staff at Holy Trinity School in Gossops Green, Crawley.

Rebecca Smith (not her real name), a former pupil at Fortismere School in London, is now 20 and has already seen how cocaine use has increased since she left school, "Coke was everywhere... and since I've left people say that it's got even worse. There are always trends with drugs and at the moment cocaine is seen at the coolest."

Even more worryingly, the drug has graduated from weekend recreational to a daily staple for increasing numbers. The IoS revealed in September an increase of 3,000 per cent in the number of workers caught with cocaine in their system over the past decade.

This is particularly significant because drugs like cocaine are swiftly flushed out of the system and can be hard to detect, indicating that users are high during the working week, not just at weekends.

Anti-addiction charities now fear that in the hunt for a harder high, users will progress to crack cocaine. Harry Shapiro from the charity Drugscope said, "It would appear that cocaine is increasingly the class A drug of choice but there is a danger that some of these cocaine users will become crack users."

London is now the cocaine capital of the world, according to a UN report published earlier this year which revealed that one in 50 people have used cocaine in Britain - a higher figure than anywhere else in the world, including countries such as the United States. Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, earlier this year announced a clampdown on middle-class cocaine users.

In response to the explosion in cocaine use, Scotland Yard has taken the unprecedented step of using undercover officers to pose as drug suppliers in a bid to target recreational users.

Increasingly, cocaine is taking a toll on users' health. Latest figures from the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths show that the proportion of cocaine-related drug deaths has risen year on year since they began collecting records of drug deaths in 1999.

The drug now accounts for more than 13 per cent of deaths, with 171 cocaine-related deaths in 2005.

This week, the Association of Chief Police Officers will be holding its annual conference on drugs at which Britain's cocaine crisis will be discussed.

Experts are also worried about a new trend among addicts of injecting cocaine, a technique used by heroin users, to increase the hit from the drug.

There has been a huge rise in deaths and the Government needs to do more to educate people about the dangers, including recreational users, according to Professor John Henry, a leading expert on drugs at St Mary's Hospital in London.

"People need to know that not only can you die from first use but that you are also going to end up with arteries like a 60 year old and with brain damage," he said. "There should be primary prevention like there is in preventing cancer."

Combined alcohol and cocaine use is becoming a major concern to health services and drug and alcohol treatment agencies. Addaction, a drug and alcohol treatment charity, believes the cocaethylene issue will emerge as a major health problem, namely liver failure, in the future if "recreational" coke users who go out binge drinking are not fully aware of the trouble they are storing up for their bodies. Although there have been awareness campaigns about drink spiking and personal safety, the charity warns that young recreational drug and alcohol users need to be made aware of the dangers of combining different drugs, such as cocaine and alcohol.

Tim Burgess needs no such warnings. His body is paying the price for years of cocaine abuse. He is on medication for problems with his kidneys and a swollen liver and reflects, "My white powder dreams turned into a nightmare. I was just toying with myself, dancing with the devil ... dancing with death ... I just lost control."

1. Paul Bettany

"It was slowly destroying me. I had this need to punish myself. I stopped doing drugs when I realised I couldn't function without them."

2. Rod Stewart

"I don't know why anyone would want to take coke now. It was different in my day, because it was all so much purer."

3. Mike Skinner (The Streets)

"I know I could buy two grand's worth of cocaine and do it all tonight. And then get four more grand's worth and there would be absolutely nothing to stop me."

4. Naomi Campbell

"What is very scary about cocaine is that you start to feel too confident and indispensable, although none of us is indispensable."

5. Tracy Shaw

"I did coke because Darren did it - and that was it really. I would never go back and it isn't a nice experience."

6. Jay Kay

"It's amazing how your friends aren't such friends when you're not coming in and buying their supply."

7. Patsy Kensit

"I'm not proud of it. Sometimes I hang my head in shame. Drugs, they ravage you."

8. Richard Bacon

"It was a drug that I found to be a huge anti-climax. After 25 minutes I needed to stave off the depression. It went on for 12 hours."

9. Darren Day

"Cocaine will take everything away from you. I still wake up in a cold sweat at night, thinking of the money that I've blown on it."

10. Justin Hawkins

"I regularly used to stay up for four days at a time on coke and alcohol binges. I became secretive, volatile and verbally abusive, a really unpleasant person to be around."

11. Frank Bruno

"Taking [coke] was the worst thing I could have done in my mental condition. It was like a black hole with no ending."

12. Sophie Anderton

"I was using alcohol to get numb, then cocaine to numb the alcohol, and then Valium to numb the cocaine."

13. Shaun Ryder

"I was fucked, I was falling back into that trap - doing cocaine, drinking too much. The first year on tour it was fun. After two I was shaky and by the third I knew it had to stop."

14. Liam Gallagher

"The devil can be in cocaine ... The devil is everywhere but it depends how strong you are. In 1996 I was doing as much cocaine as anyone you've heard of, but I'm not addicted."

15. Robbie Williams

"I'd have about five grams of cocaine and as much booze as I could get down my gullet. I don't have to do that any more. I'll just go back to the hotel, have a cup of tea and play cards."

16. Kate Moss

Although "Cocaine Kate" has been careful not to talk about cocaine herself, Pete Doherty has said about her: "With the amount of coke Kate was taking, it's amazing she got through rehab."

17. Tara Palmer-Tompkinson

"For me what started off as a little naughtiness turned into a full-blown habit. I became completely powerless under its spell."

18. Daniella Westbrook

"Whenever you sort of wake up from this haze that you are in, and the first thing you do is reach ... for a line - that's when you know you've hit a really bad point"

19. Pete Doherty

"I sparked up like a Christmas tree. Sticking a line of cocaine up your nose is normal in the music industry ... it's rife. Drugs and music are one and the same to me."

20. Elton John

"Coke is the worst. It's more rampant now than ever. Cocaine is more a danger to me than drink. So I don't put myself in situations where it might be."

Jonathan Owen