New police chief has middle-class cocaine users in his sights

It is seen as the height of fashion (or normality) among dinner party guests from Islington to Notting Hill, and from Clapham to Docklands.

It is seen as the height of fashion (or normality) among dinner party guests from Islington to Notting Hill, and from Clapham to Docklands.

Once the coffee and handmade chocolates have been cleared away, it's time for the cocaine.

Many people may be surprised at this scenario, but the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police insisted yesterday that cocaine abuse among the middle classes was increasingly commonplace - and that he intends to do something about it.

Sir Ian Blair, speaking on his first day as Britain's senior police officer, said: "People are having dinner parties where they drink less wine and snort more cocaine."

He criticised people who he said wrongly believed it was "socially acceptable" to enjoy a "wrap of charlie" at the weekend. And he had a warning for such users - his officers may have tended to concentrate on inner-city estate and drug dens in run-down areas, but, in future, more affluent cocaine users could be arrested.

He said that those who take cocaine on a weekend night out in bars and clubs would not escape the law. "The tests on cocaine on the toilet seats of various clubs will tell you an awful lot of cocaine is going on in the centre of London that people think is exempt from policing," he said.

"People think it is OK but I do not think it is OK to use cocaine. We will have to do something about it by making a few examples of people so that they understand. I am concerned that it is becoming socially acceptable."

One drugs agency questioned yesterday whether raiding dinner parties and upmarket clubs was the right way of tackling the country's growing drugs menace.

Gary Sutton, head of drug services at Release, the national drugs advice agency, said: "I don't see how people who are sitting in their front rooms having a line of coke after a dinner party pose a great social harm. The people most at risk are probably homeless injectors of class A drugs.

"I wonder whether this is more about a senior police officer feeling uncomfortable about something which has become normal for many people."

One cocaine user and frequenter of London dinner parties and clubs, who works in the media, agreed. "The places I go, especially the posh clubs, are awash with it. I was at one dinner party the other day and a bowl of it was out on the table."

A number of public figures, including the television presenters Angus Deayton and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, have been the subject of stories linking them with cocaine use, with the latter proclaiming to the Daily Mail: "I was taking vast quantities of cocaine, I wasn't a pretty sight." Deayton lost his BBC job after News of the World allegations about his drug use.

James Hewitt, the former lover of Princess Diana, also fell foul of the law after he was found with cocaine at a bar in London in July last year. Sir Ian said yesterday that though Mr Hewitt was cautioned he would have been in favour of a much tougher sentence.

He continued: "Drugs, particularly opiates and cocaine, are a curse for us. There is a sense that people think that in certain fashionable clubs, restaurants and dinner parties it is OK to do drugs. All I will say is that people may find out that it is not. I think there are a group of people in the capital who believe that they are in some way taking harm-free cocaine."

Figures released by the Office of National Statistics estimate that about 475,000 people take powder cocaine in the UK in addition to the 200,000 crack cocaine users. Home Office research shows that one person in 20, aged 16 to 24, has used cocaine or crack.

Evidence of the widespread use and ready availability of cocaine is provided by figures from the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit (IDMU) which show that the price of the drug has been dropping. On average it costs about £46 a gram, down from about £57 a gram ten years ago.

Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, appeared to back Sir Ian's pledge to crack down on middle-class drug users. He said the law on drugs applied to everyone "whatever their social class".

Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy warned that the possible consequences of even occasional cocaine use could be serious. "My line with most drugs is there's no free high - you pay afterwards for the elevation of mood," he said.

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