Use of cocaine soars in European countries

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The Independent Online

Cocaine use is soaring in Europe, where at least 4.5 million people used the white powder last year compared to 3.5 million the year before. Twelve million European adults have used the drug at least once, and Spain, Italy and the UK are Europe's hot spots for use of the drug.

The alarming new figures are contained in a report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon. One in 10 young males in Denmark, Spain and the UK are reported to have taken the drug at least once. In the UK, 13 per cent of 16- to 29-year-olds who visit pubs or wine bars have used cocaine, while the highest incidence of all is found at what the report calls "electronic dance events", where up to 60 per cent of participants in France, the UK and the city of Milan in Italy are reported to have used cocaine at least once.

Cocaine has become the second most-popular drug in the EU after cannabis, according to the report. It is also often used in tandem with cannabis, the report says. "Cocaine use does not exist in isolation but rather if people are using one drug they have a higher probability of using the other." But its use varies hugely from countries such as Lithuania, where it is relatively unknown, to the UK, Italy and Spain which are beginning to rival the US and Canada in terms of high usage.

At raves not only is use widespread but dosages are high, too: in a UK clubbers' magazine quoted in the report, 90 per cent of people who responded said they took at least half a gram of cocaine, while nearly half took one gram or more. Alcohol and cocaine are often used together, the report says, with alcohol accentuating the cocaine "high" while tempering the effects of coming down from it.

The image of cocaine as the drug of choice for successful, middle class, socially integrated young adults is reinforced by the report. By contrast crack cocaine, which is not spreading to the same extent, is largely confined to socially marginalised parts of the community such as prostitutes.

Longer-term health risks of cocaine, according to the report, are cardiovascular, neurological and psychological problems which are often not immediately attributed to the drug.

Riccardo Gatti, an expert on cocaine use in Milan, where the drug is prevalent, told Corriere della Sera newspaper that the image and the reality of the drug were very different. "Cocaine is the drug of VIPs, of winners," he said. "[People think] it increases pleasure and sexual performance, makes one unbeatable at work and in relationships with others – while the opposite is true."

The actual effects, says Dr Gatti, include "emotional instability, the incapacity to control impulses, tendencies to paranoia, a sense of being persecuted. Sleep is disturbed, or there is none, or too much".

"People take pharmacy drugs to resolve the problem, convinced that cocaine is not involved. They pass from unrestrained laughter to tears, from sympathy to antipathy, from aggression to passivity, within minutes. In love and friendship, suspicion insinuates itself ... and in sex, compulsion, unsatisfied desire, phantom erections. The urban legend is that cocaine makes you a stud, but it's not true."

For those who decide to kick the drug, however, there are problems. "No effective medication exists to help cocaine users maintain abstinence or reduce use," says the report, "which may account for the high relapse rates in cocaine treatment."

Cocaine usein numbers

* One in 20 of the population of UK, Spain and Italy has used cocaine at least once./p>

* 105 tonnes of cocaine was seized in 2005, of an estimated annual production of around 1000 tonnes.

* In Spain and the UK, largest increases in cocaine use occurred in the 15-to-34 age group.

* England and Wales show the third highest "once-in-a-lifetime" use after the US and Canada.

* Italy had between 2.9 and 4.1 "problem" users per 1,000 adults in 2005.

* The UK has twice the average rate of "at-least-one-time" use of cocaine by schoolchildren, at 4 per cent.