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The UK’s problem with cocaine

Cocaine use appears to be on the rise in some major UK cities, according to analysis of wastewater conducted by the National Crime Agency (NCA). 

Graeme Biggar, the agency’s director-general, told The Times that use of the Class-A drug has risen by as much as a quarter in just one year in some cities, after water analysis conducted in London, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham.

The agency said that its routine testing of wastewater gives a better indication of the quantity and types of drugs being used in the country, rather than relying on public surveys or drawing on estimates from the number of seized drugs.

Is cocaine use really growing in the UK?

It is unclear to what extent the use of cocaine is increasing in the UK. At the very least, appetite for the drug has remained steady, with the country still Europe’s biggest cocaine market. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in 2022 compared to 2020 there was no change in the number of people using powder cocaine aged 16 to 59 years (2%) and 16 to 24 years (4%).

Globally, it appears that the pandemic impacted the use of the drug. Lockdown disrupted global trade due to limited international travel, and demand also decreased – Class-A drugs are mostly taken in social situations. According to the ONS, 40% of respondents reported using ecstasy and cocaine less often than before the coronavirus pandemic. At least 80% reported the reason for doing so was that they have fewer occasions where they would use these drugs.

But according to a UN report from this year, any slump generated by the pandemic has had little impact on longer-term trends, and the global supply of cocaine is now back at record levels.

Who is using the drug?

The drug has “never been more accessible” and there is less of a stereotype associated with it, according to one charity, Rehabs UK. Whereas other drugs might be viewed as frowned upon, cocaine is “often viewed by a surprising number of people as ‘not even a drug’”, according to the charity. 

The drug is increasingly being used by a wide section of society, agreed Vice News, and is seen as a “lifestyle choice”, unlike other drugs such as heroin.

According to the ONS, cocaine is still mostly used by those in the highest-income groups, with 3.2% of households earning £52,000 or more per year having used a Class A drug in the last year, compared with 2.4% of households earning less than £10,400 per year.

“To many people, a line of cocaine with a glass of wine on Saturday night is an ordinary sort of thing,” said Sirin Kale in The Guardian, citing one former Sun journalist who found traces of the drug at events as diverse as “the Chelsea Flower Show, the opera, churches, a Momentum fundraiser and Peppa Pig World” while working undercover. The UK works some of the longest hours in Europe, which could also account for its popularity. 

Meanwhile, use of the drug is taking place in different social contexts, with research by the University of Stirling suggesting that at football matches, cocaine use is now a bigger problem than binge drinking, according to The Times. 

Drug dealers are also coming up with more inventive ways to get their product to customers – from “dressing up as joggers to posing as food delivery drivers”, said Glamour. Social media is facilitating new ways of arranging deliveries, while more people are happy to take drugs in the privacy of their own homes rather than in public social situations – possibly a hangover from lockdown. 

What are the implications? 

Despite its white-washed image, cocaine is linked to “firearms, serious violence, modern slavery, burglary and robbery, and money laundering”, according to the National Crime Agency, and in the UK deaths linked to cocaine appear to be on the rise. According to the ONS, 840 deaths involved cocaine in 2021, which is 8.1% more than 2020 and more than seven times the amount recorded a decade earlier.

The government wants to persuade cocaine users that buying the drug is not just illegal and unhealthy but “morally wrong”, said Vice News. As a result, sentences for dealing drugs are getting heavier. The number of sentences of more than four years for selling cocaine has doubled, from 686 in 2017 to 1,393 in 2021. 

In a stark indication of how the courts are treating casual drug dealers, last year Courtney Healy, a 21-year-old NHS worker from Wales with no previous convictions, was given a three-year jail sentence after she was caught taking cocaine into a music festival, and pleaded guilty to possession with intent to supply. Sentencing her at Chester Crown Court, Judge Steve Everett branded her behaviour “evil”.

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