London has been described as the cocaine capital of Europe. After testing sewage and waste water in 42 of Europe’s biggest cities, researchers found that the British capital had higher levels of the drug than anywhere else in Europe. VoR’s Simon Parker hosts a discussion.

Amsterdam tested highest for levels of cannabis and many eastern European cities tested highest for methamphetamine.

The study by Lisbon’s European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction also found that drug users in the UK were twice as likely to overdose from hard drugs as in any other country in Europe.

However, government statistics say that one in 12 people in Britain use illegal drugs and just one in 50 people use class A narcotics.

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Simon Parker is joined by:

Mark Dempster, Harley Street therapist and author of Nothing to Declare: Confessions of an unsuccessful drug smuggler, dealer and addict

Nick Barton, chief executive at Action on Addiction

Chris Snowdon, director of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs



MD: “I think historically, in the 80s and early 90s as well, cocaine use was very much contained within various pockets of society in London and I think the demographics have changed significantly. Especially since 1996 where we’ve seen and as is suggested a 500% increase in cocaine use… And also we’ve got accidents and emergencies now that are reporting double the amount of cocaine overdoses than there were before.”

“There are a number of factors and reasons. There are a lot of binges – a very big binge drinking culture within London. I think cocaine use helps you drink more, to socialise more… A lot of the clients that I see in my Harley Street practice are using it combined with alcohol, because each drug on their own is not as effective and euphoric as when you do it in combination. Money as well, as you said before – London’s the capital and there is a lot more disposable income in London. And I think it’s very normalised within the clubs and bars… Especially with the younger people in London cocaine use has become accepted and promoted amongst that sort of group of young individuals.”

NB: “One of the key issues is that it went from being rather exclusive, sometimes described as a champagne drug or designer drug in the 70s and 80s where it maybe cost about 200 to 300 pounds per gram – now down to an average of about thirty two pounds. Like most things when it costs less, there’s going to be more of it… And if you can have the supply than that’s going to widen the use.”

MD: “If you even look at Scotland or Ireland for example where there’s not as much disposable income there tends to be less cocaine use – in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and especially in the north of Scotland.”

“My experience of this is from the 80s… I remember when I first started to use cocaine myself, as an individual – it was only really confined within criminal fraternities or a creative group of people, or people from a higher social spectrum. What definitely did happen through the price changes in the 90s as it became cheaper and cheaper, is it became accessible right across every spectrum of society. It’s really noticeable to me now, when in Harley Street, I get a lot of white middle class women who you just wouldn’t think would be using cocaine, but they’re taking it every weekend. And this is another factor too – because it’s normalised cocaine use and also because a lot of people are using just at the weekends over maybe a long weekend with alcohol.”

“It’s very different from drug use in the 80s where people would be using heroin or freebase cocaine. It’s a different drug using profile. That’s really changed a lot in the last few years.”

CS: “Well it [profile of cocaine users] has certainly broadened out – yes, I think it’s changed. There’s been a fall in the amount of amphetamines and ecstasy being consumed particularly amongst young people and that fall has been pretty strong. In fact, drug use in general is down over the last 15-20 years. But as you see the decline in amphetamines and ecstasy you see this rise in cocaine use, also methadone use and some other legal highs. So you can explain the consumption of drugs using the usual economic explanations of affordability and availability and I think they’re both perfectly germane here. But then you have the rather woollier concepts of culture and fashion – let’s not forget the relevance of fashion here.

“Within youth subcultures you traditionally have different drugs associated with different eras and styles of music even. So amphetamines would be associated with punk, and they came back with the rave culture. Obviously ecstasy is also associated with rave culture. And you’ve really only seen cocaine be a significant part of youth culture in the 21st century because it was too expensive before then.”

NB: “Well there’s a kind of implication in the question, and Mark referred to it as the middle class – how surprising that they use this, that somehow because you’re middle class you should have some kind of immunity or inbuilt resistance to using powerful mood altering drugs. But that ignores the fact that you are actually a human being underneath that – you may have all sorts of reasons for wanting to change the way you feel which is ultimately what the far end of drug use and addiction is all about.”

“You’re experience of life may be somewhat different and you may have the advantages which other don’t have – but it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to be drawn to excitement, thrill-seeking, stimulation to get out of it… In other words, you’re not really at ease with the way that you feel. You’re content with that, so you’re going to do something about it.”

“People do drugs because drugs work.”

MD: “Cocaine – it’s a funny drug… I’ve used every drug, but cocaine gives you such a euphoric feeling, and especially if you smoke it. What we’re talking about within this setting here are people who are sniffing cocaine at the weekends or going out and binge drinking. The other end of that is when you start to inject it, and the feeling you get is so strong – the only way I can describe it is comparing it maybe with an orgasm. Of course what happens is you’re getting a massive amount of dopamine being released in the brain – it’s the law of diminishing returns. You try and get the same – you have a pipe again or you have some more lines, or you inject it again and you’re looking for that same hit. But of course, the hit – you can’t get the same amount of dopamine released in the brain so you keep chasing it and then eventually you wind up sniffing it for days, smoking it for days… You hit a place where you’re depressed.”

“The core of the issue is not so much about the substance – it’s about changing the way you feel, that need for something to medicate a deeper sense of unrest.”

NB: “One has to ask the fundamental question – why are people not content with the way they are. Now why are there non chemical ways – which there are, of enjoying yourself, or getting up or relaxing and so on? Why does it have to be chemical? Because, somehow the self-regulation is not enough. It doesn’t seem to work in many people so they have to turn to something else artificial or external in order to boost those things.”

CS: “I would draw the parallel with alcohol. Most people drink alcohol, a relatively small number of people drink alcohol out of desperation – become addicted to it and drink incredibly large quantities of it. But that doesn’t mean that everybody who drinks alcohol is somehow unhappy or seeking some sort of way out. So, you do have to draw a distinction between people who are injecting cocaine, spending hundreds of pounds a week on it, and people who take it now and again, recreationally, in pubs and nightclubs – never have any problems with addiction as a result of it. I don’t know what the proportion of the people who are taking cocaine in London fall into each of those categories but there’s surely a non-trivial number who are using it perfectly recreationally, not because they’re particularly upset, sad or depressed – probably quite the reverse, probably as just something to supplement the drinking and keep them out partying for longer, and they’ll take it a few times and never take it again after they get to a certain age.”

MD: “I had so much denial… If you would have asked me the same question eighteen years ago [why I did cocaine] I would have been saying – oh I just like to party and have fun even though the consequences are horrendous I still was in denial.”

NB: “It [cocaine] can be considered as a high functioning drug – a bit like nicotine or caffeine to some extent. Some people can take it, stimulate themselves and produce… So that it’s not necessarily just recreational for some people particularly in high pressure environments I suspect, like parts of London. So it’s like an adjunct for super-functioning.”

“Some of those people, they will have a vulnerability they don’t know is there, until they do it.”

CS: “I think the first thing to do [looking at legalisation] would be to accept that the way we consume drugs would be different – there’s no reason to assume that if we legalised cocaine, people would be buying it in grams and snorting and injecting it. There’s no reason why they wouldn’t be put into other products. So, things would change enormously. I don’t know what would happen in terms of prevalence. There are some people who say that the drugs market is already saturated and there wouldn’t be any change in the number of people who consume it, and as evidence they use places like Portugal and the Netherlands where you’ve had a much more relaxed regulatory regime and there hasn’t been a big spike in drug consumption. I’m more sceptical about that. Apart from anything else, legalisation would mean lower prices and in fact, that would be one of the benefits of legalisation as you wouldn’t have such high prices which lead to acquisitive crime. So if you have lower prices, I think generally you would assume that there’s going to be some increase in consumption…”

MD: “The people who are drug dealing, smuggling drugs from country to country – if there’s no market, they wouldn’t be doing it anymore. So what would happen to those individuals is that they‘d find something else to make their money and generate income from. It’s a bit like the mafia came here in the 60s to sell heroin in Britain and London and they could see there was no market really for it, and so they never came back.”

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