The Cocaine Trade - Home Affairs Committee Contents


76. In previous chapters we observed a notable increase in the number of people using cocaine powder, a diversification of users, and the emergence of cheaper, more adulterated cocaine powder, its use often combined with other drugs, alcohol in particular. What has contributed to these changes?

Relative popularity of other drugs


77. It is important to consider trends in cocaine use in the context of trends in use of other drugs. The UK Drug Policy Commission told us that "overall stimulant use has remained largely stable, with a corresponding drop in the use of amphetamines and, to a lesser extent, ecstasy that suggests a move from these drugs to cocaine".[103] Matthew Atha of the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit agreed:

    you need to look at [cocaine use] within a pattern of overall stimulant use. The majority of people who use cocaine have also used amphetamine, for instance, and you tend to find that if they are a stimulant user they will use whichever stimulants happen to be available at the time.[104]

78. He noted that the effect of disruption of the amphetamine market in the 1990s, in which the average purity of amphetamine dropped from about 16% to 4% or 5%, had been that "regular use of amphetamine halved but regular use of cocaine doubled", and suggested that "if the purity of cocaine becomes too poor for the users they will turn to something else, and we have of course meth amphetamine or crystal meths waiting in the wings".[105] Sarah Graham, an ex-addict, agreed, saying that "the influences within popular culture are moving into other substances. I have recently written an article for Addiction Today talking about the emerging crystal meth problem which is starting in the gay club scene".[106]


79. Dr Fiona Measham, a member of the ACMD and expert in changing patterns of drug use amongst young people, considered that crystal meth use was "not rising at a rapid rate", but pointed to ketamine as the next big trend in drug use: "that has taken off quite rapidly in terms of popularity".[107] Ketamine is primarily used as a horse anaesthetic. Professor Nutt told us that:

    We are seeing a very worrying, persistent increase in use with some very unpleasant consequences, particularly bladder spasms, bladder pain and we are worried that there may be some huge problem with long term bladder dysfunction developing in these young people.[108]

80. Professor Nutt reported that the ACMD was concerned about two types of emerging drug with increasing popularity:

    One relates to the sedative drug, GBL, and for butanedione, because of their acute toxicity, particularly if you take them when you are drunk. Then there are the synthetic cannabinoids like "Spice".[109]

Dr Measham added a third category: "there is a trend towards people buying drugs on the Internet which are currently legal, methcathinones".[110]

81. A recent survey of dance music fans, by MixMag magazine supported the increase in ketamine use, with 32.4% of respondents reporting having taken it in the last month (the fifth most commonly taken drug). The survey also reported a rapid rise in use of 'legal high' mephadrone, which 33.6% of respondents had taken in the last month.[111]

Celebrity 'glamour'

82. Some have suggested that cocaine use has been encouraged by its glamorous image in popular culture—the regular pictures of celebrities snorting cocaine to be found in magazines. The UN International Narcotics Control Board criticised a general 'celebrity cocaine culture' in a report in 2007, which urged governments to pay more attention to high profile drug abuse cases. It concluded:

    Celebrity drug offenders can profoundly influence public attitudes, values and behaviour towards drug abuse, particularly among young people who have not yet taken a firm and fully informed position on drug issues. Cases involving celebrity drug offenders can also profoundly affect public perceptions about the fairness and proportionality of the response of the justice system, especially if there is a less lenient response to similar or lesser offences committed by non-celebrities.[112]

83. Despite the association with celebrity and a certain glamour emanating from that association, our witnesses did not judge that young people were overly influenced by the behaviour of celebrities. Harry Shapiro of DrugScope argued:

    That is a massive red herring, to be perfectly honest. I think it is completely ludicrous to start blaming celebrities whose alleged use of dodgy, fuzzy photos of doing whatever are only made public because the tabloid press are prepared to put them on the front page and pay huge amounts of money for doing so. My take on this would be that it is the media which is glamorising celebrity drug use, not celebrities. The All Party Drugs Misuse Group in 2008 heard from a group of young people associated with Mentor UK, which is a drug education charity and the MPs asked the young people what they think when they read about Amy Winehouse or Pete Doherty or any of these people. The general response was that they felt sorry for them. They appreciate the fact that they are good singers or good songwriters but they just wish they would get their act together.[113]

84. Martin Barnes of DrugScope told us that a literature review by Liverpool John Moores University in 2006 had concluded that there was no evidence of a causal link between coverage of celebrity drug use and young people's level of use or even attitudes towards drugs.[114] The UK Drug Policy Commission agreed: "although cocaine may have a more 'glamorous' image among young people than other stimulants, there is little evidence to directly link celebrity drug use or the publicity surrounding it and the behaviour of young people".[115]

85. Sarah Graham thought that pictures of celebrity drug users did not on the whole encourage young people to drugs, but criticised businesses for failing to punish celebrities associated with them for drug use: "when we have a person who is ostensibly successful in the public eye who is exposed to drug-taking and then is apparently rewarded by big business because their celebrity status has gone up, so the company then cashes in on that status and gives them a new contract".[116]

86. Dr Brener of The Priory—which has treated a number of celebrity addicts—considered that celebrity culture did not drive people to take drugs, but that it might perhaps lead them to use a certain type of drug.[117]

Social norms

87. What appears more concerning than celebrity use is the reputation of cocaine-taking as a regular weekend pastime of middle and upper class professionals at weekend dinner parties, and the reported acceptance of its use in particular professions, such as the media industry. Sarah Graham, a former media executive, told us that:

    There is a culture within the media and within the celebrity world that is very relaxed around the use of cocaine. It is seen as something that is socially acceptable in certain areas. It is true of other industries too and it tends to be industries where people are working very hard, where the work hard/party harder ethos exists.[118]

88. The Independent Drug Monitoring Unit regularly surveyed attitudes towards various drugs during the 1990s. Respondents were asked to give drugs ratings (marks out of ten), with 10 being the most positive, and 0 the most negative response. Attitudes towards both cocaine and crack had become generally more positive in 1999 compared to earlier years, suggesting the drug to have gained greater social acceptability among drug users.


Table 4: User attitudes towards drugs, 1994-1999 (0=negative; 10=positive)[119]

The IDMU also found in 2003 that, of those surveyed who had not previously taken cocaine, 5.94% might consider using it in future.

Greater availability

89. Sebastian Saville of Release argued that cocaine use had risen because it was simply more available:

    Take kiwi fruit: in 1970 to find a kiwi fruit was very hard, a bit like cocaine in 1970, you had to know exactly where to go; now you can get kiwi fruit anywhere, just like cocaine.[120]

ACPO agreed that "cocaine is readily available at street level".[121]

Emergence of cheaper cocaine

90. The UK Drug Policy Commission suggested that growth in cocaine powder "might be partly explained by the creation of a 'two-tier' cocaine market, with dealers selling a cheaper, less pure product to a new market of consumers".[122] John Mann MP, member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Misuse and Chair of the 1997 Labour Party Manifesto Review Group on Drugs and Alcohol, was more certain that price drove use: "you have a drug here in cocaine where the more it is available the cheaper it becomes; the cheaper it becomes the more people use it".[123]

91. Although it is hard to say conclusively what has driven the increase in number of cocaine users, a corresponding decrease in amphetamine use and the clear emergence of cheaper, more heavily adulterated, cocaine at street level seem to be the most compelling drivers. There is no evidence that celebrity use has made more people turn to cocaine, indeed our witnesses argued strongly against it. However, the seeming propensity of celebrity users to 'get away with' using cocaine does contribute to a general trend of glamorising use, as does the social acceptability and normalisation generated by 'successful' people who appear to function normally, often holding down high-flying careers, whilst using cocaine. These are doubly dangerous as they contribute to the misguided reputation of cocaine as a relatively safe and non-addictive drug.

103   Ev 153 Back

104   Q 106 Back

105   Q 113 Back

106   Q 183 Back

107   Q 314 Back

108   Q 317 Back

109   Q 318 Back

110   Q 319 Back

111   MixMag magazine, 10 February 2010, pp.45-46 Back

112   UN International Narcotics Control Board E/INCB/2007/1, Annual Report 2007, p.11:  Back

113   Q 44 Back

114   Q 44. See also Ev 153, citing Witty, K. The effects of drug use by celebrities upon young people's drug use and perception of use, National Collaborating Centre for Drug Prevention:  Back

115   Ev 153  Back

116   Q 198 Back

117   Q 283 Back

118   Q 175 Back

119   Independent Drug Monitoring Unit website:  Back

120   Q 67 Back

121   Ev 95 Back

122   Ev 153 Back

123   Q 214 Back

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