Beginning to See the Light: Cocaine, a war that cannot be won
‘Now here you go again, you say you want your freedom
Well, who am I to keep you down?
It’s only right that you should play the way you feel it
But listen carefully to the sound of your loneliness’
I readily accept that several of you will perhaps be offended by the subject matter and the mention of HIV/AIDs. If you are, so be it, I make no apologies; this is a follow-up to my original piece on drug use earlier in the year – ‘A War That Cannot be Won‘.
The simple fact that the ONS estimates 1 in 11 adults aged 16 to 59 years had taken a drug in the last year (9.4%; approximately 3.2 million people) highlights the size of the problem. We likely all know someone who uses.
The other side is that this is a business that generates $400-500bn in revenue p.a. All that money goes somewhere, some will finance terrorism, or it is ‘laundered’ through the system. According to the UK National Crime Agency (NCA’), the amount of money laundered into the UK economy can go up to $115 billion a year – and that’s a conservative estimate. (1)
Cocaine was the drug of choice for musicians in LA in the 1970s, Fleetwood Mac’s intake was legendary.
‘ONS estimates 1 in 11 adults aged 16 to 59 years had taken a drug in the last year’
One of their engineers calculated that’s if their drummer Mick Fleetwood had taken an eighth of an ounce every day for 20-years, then, if you laid out the drug in a single snortable line, it would stretch for seven miles.
David Bowie, during his time there in mid-70s was so addicted to cocaine that his weight dropped to 100lbs, in 1976, as the Thin White Duke, he recorded the masterpiece ‘Station to Station’, which some year after he admitted to having no recollection of recording.
In the 80’s cocaine became the drug of choice for the ‘yuppies’ enabling them to work and play 24/7 before they crashed and burnt.
The 80’s saw football fans fueled by cocaine and booze caused mayhem fighting at matches, such was the extent of the problem that people feared for the future of the game in the UK. Much has been made of Sky and the formation of the Premier League saving the game, what is oft forgot is that the drug fueled hooligans discovered rave and moved onto Ecstasy and water which stopped them fighting!
Now, experts say its lure is crossing all classes. So how do we curb its soaring use?
10-days ago police found more than 2,000kg of cocaine hidden on a former navy patrol boat floating off south Devon. What’s worse is that this isn’t the biggest haul found this year. As demand for the drug continues to grow the size of shipments has grown in proportion, seizures of 100, 200, 300kg are almost run of the mill.
Experts say the seizure should pre-empt a more honest discourse on the UK’s ‘war on drugs’. They point to a recent announcement by the home secretary, Priti Patel, in which she urges police forces to ‘make an example’ out of middle-class cocaine users by naming and shaming them. However, analysts say Patel’s promised middle-class crackdown is facile, ignoring the reality of what the size of the haul tells us. Cocaine, they say, is not a middle-class drug. Every stratum of British society frequently uses cocaine.
Jan Gerber, who runs the Paracelsus Recovery addiction clinics in London and Zurich, said, ‘It’s moved down the socio-economic scale. A demographic of people who, in the past, wouldn’t have been associated with cocaine use are regular users. Cocaine’s become very normal, people are less afraid they will be judged or criminally implicated by offering it.’
‘Cocaine, they say, is not a middle-class drug. Every stratum of British society frequently uses cocaine’
Ian Hamilton, a senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York, goes further, believing that cocaine can be categorised as a working-class narcotic. ‘Anecdotally, I hear of all sorts of people using it; builders, plumbers, joiners, whoever. I’m old enough to remember yuppies in the 1980s – that image stayed with cocaine for a while. Newer generations don’t have that baggage, or perception. Also, they haven’t experienced crack cocaine in the same way as people did in the 80s and 90s. It’s so widely used that it’s now no longer seen as risky. The way it’s framed for most people is that it’s a bit of a treat.’
In recent weeks there has been numerous newspaper stories confirming cocaine’s reach. Convictions include a Lancashire tree surgeon, a former footballer in the Scottish Highlands and, 500 miles south in Oxfordshire, a semi-professional player caught storing cocaine in his grandmother’s house. Elsewhere, a mother from Sunderland was found carrying a bag of cocaine and, in the same city, a 34-year-old quality control manager was caught with the substance following disorder in a pub.
Even the military are unable to resist; on Wednesday, it emerged that 1,700 military personnel have tested positive for the class-A drug over the past three years.
Back in July we were treated to social media clips of English football fans at the Euro 2020 final snorting white powder on trains, outside the stadium and in its seats. Police said the images reflected cocaine’s growing use ‘in wider society’.
‘1,700 military personnel have tested positive for the class-A drug over the past three years’
As with any business, and make no mistake this is a business, suppliers rush to meet the increased demand. The National Crime Agency (‘NCA’) estimates the cocaine market across England, Scotland and Wales is worth more than £25.7m daily. Consumption is believed to be 117 tonnes per year, an increase of at least 290% in the past decade. There are several elements behind the increase in demand:
- The drug’s street price has largely remained stable for years as wholesale prices per kilo have fallen. ‘It’s become more affordable; relative to income, it’s a very good value drug,’ said Hamilton.
- Purity has soared over the past decade, attracting a new generation of users. Previously, a two-tier market existed, with poor quality cocaine – its purity was as low as between 3-9% – sold at a cheaper price. That competed against a more expensive product with higher purity of around 30%. Now street cocaine is uniformly around 60% purity.
- Accessibility: cocaine is ordered and delivered like pizza these days, usually by moped with transactions arranged through end-to-end encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp.
- Cultural reasons: ‘Something that gets lost a little bit is how well cocaine and alcohol go together. Cocaine as a stimulant facilitates longer drinking, and alcohol is well embedded in our society, so you get word-of-mouth recommendations, which is really how cocaine popularity is spread,’ said Hamilton.
The harsh reality is that reports of addiction referrals are up, with cocaine deaths increasing for the eighth year running. The rate of cocaine-related deaths among women has increased by more than 800% in the last 10-years, data reveals.
Laura Garius, policy lead for Release, the national centre of expertise on drugs and UK drugs law, said: ‘The government’s plan is not going to work. Firstly, we know that cocaine use is not confined to a particular socio-economic group and, secondly, we know that the criminalisation of people who use drugs has no real deterrent effect on use.
‘This tired ‘tough on drugs’ rhetoric is a distraction from the failings of current drug policy,’ added Garius.
‘cocaine-related deaths among women has increased by more than 800% in the last 10-years’
In the immediate future, most observers expect current drug policy to result in ever greater cocaine consumption. ‘Release’ added that supply-chain issues with cocaine’s party drug rival – MDMA – had left cocaine in an even stronger position.
Hamilton says: ‘During the pandemic, stimulant use went down but, as things are opening back up, there’s likely to be a surge,’ he said.
Like any business, the supply of drugs is based on demand, as this increases, suppliers seek to match supplies to the new demand.
Lawrence Gibbons, drug threat lead at the NCA, said there was evidence that British gangs were forging stronger relationship with other powerful European crime groups, a notable development in the traditionally hyper-competitive world of cocaine trafficking.
Gibbons said the NCA had begun finding large cocaine consignments in the same shipping container that appeared to be divvied up between criminal groups from different countries, which had joined forces to share the same sources and logistics.
This means that UK gangs are working in tandem with groups like Italy’s powerful ’Ndrangheta mafia clan, which controls much of Europe’s cocaine trade.
A relationship with the ’Ndrangheta allows British-based groups to tap into the huge buying power and contacts of one of the world’s richest criminal groups. In 2013, Europol estimated the ’Ndrangheta’s turnover was £44bn — greater than McDonald’s and Deutsche Bank combined.
NCA analysis indicates 1,716 British organised criminal groups (‘OCG’S’) are involved in drugs supply, a number buy cocaine direct from the South American cartels using intermediaries or sources forged by the ’Ndrangheta, along with corrupt officials at ports like Rotterdam and Antwerp, where the drug often arrives into Europe. This suggests Europe’s huge cocaine market has grown large enough to sustain its major players alongside each another. South American cartels in countries such as Colombia prefer to export cocaine to Europe because it avoids the heavily policed US border and dealing with the violent Mexican cartels.
Government actions are not winning this war. Supply reduction has been used for decades; however, evidence suggests that it is extremely expensive to implement, and not cost-effective.
Supply reduction might work if all countries worked together to get rid of illicit drugs. But countries which are significant cultivators and/or manufacturers of illicit drugs, such as Russia, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Colombia, are often politically unstable. In addition, poverty and corruption inhibits the chance of supply reduction. Introducing effective supply reduction is prohibitively expensive and requires massive human and technical resources. Whilst law enforcement agencies continue to make sizeable hauls of drugs, in excess of 90 per cent of all drug shipments still reach the market.
Research shows that the global illegal drug trade industry is worth about US$400 -$500 billion a year.
‘the global illegal drug trade industry is worth about US$400 -$500 billion a year’
In terms of the black economy, it is second in magnitude only to the arms trade, and just ahead of prostitution. The three are often inextricably linked, with money from drugs and prostitution financing arms deals. No country is free of corruption and the huge profits from the illicit drug trade allow corruption to flourish. For example, a kilogram of coca base (for cocaine) in Colombia costs about US$950: it then sells for US$25,000 in the United States.
Lastly, from a public health perspective, supply reduction has had some unintended and disastrous consequences. Research shows that closing down one trafficking route often leads to the development of new trafficking routes and new populations are exposed to drug use and in turn HIV/AIDS.
If curtailing supply cannot be achieved, the government’s needs to consider demand reduction, I.E., preventing people from wanting to and taking illicit drugs, with ideas such as:
- Educating the general community, young people (often within school-based programs) and drug users to enable them to make informed decisions about drugs
- Treatment for drug users such as detoxification, drug substitution and social rehabilitation of drug users by promoting employment prospects and re-integrating drug users into the community
- Community development which addresses poverty, promotes economic opportunities and the integration of people into meaningful social structures.
Research shows that prevention is more effective than cure, E.G., drug education programs are generally ineffective at reducing or stopping drug use. The largest drug education program in the United States, operating for 20 years, is called Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE). Various studies have shown it to have little effect on student drug use. In 2001 the U.S. Surgeon General announced DARE was an ineffective program.
Most drug education programs view abstinence as the sole measure of success. The failure of these programs largely comes from ignoring why people start and continue to take drugs, I.E., the links between drug use and society such as unemployment, poverty, political and cultural factors. Various forms of drug treatment exist, and they have varying degrees of success, they include:
- Detoxification is focussed on manage drug withdrawal with the aim of long-term abstinence. Detoxification succeeds in removing people from the drug scene in the short-term but relapse rates often reach 100%.
- Residential rehabilitation is used worldwide, but it is expensive, slow, and often requires constant repetition
- Therapeutic communities helps to provide an understanding of drug users. For example, addiction is sometimes seen as behaviour requiring punishment rather than as a medical condition
- Drug substitution such as methadone and buprenorphine, have had excellent results for many drug users, especially for chronic relapsers.
The benefits of these treatments include:
- Reduction in criminal behaviour
- Decrease in illicit drug use
- Improved job performance
- Reduction in HIV-related risk behaviours
- Improved retention rates in treatment
- Assisting drug users to regain control of their lives by lessening relapse.
Lastly, demand reduction also focuses on community development and tries to address some of the root causes of drug use. But there are no quick solutions to deeply entrenched social and psychological risk factors for drug use.
A last alternative is harm reduction; the reduction of the harmful consequences of drug use without necessarily reducing drug consumption. Some major harmful consequences of drug use are:
- Blood borne diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis
- The social costs of widespread drug use
- The economic costs of treating people infected with HIV/AIDS
- Legal costs of imprisoning drug users
- The criminalization of drug use leading to the denial of basic health care and other social services.
The philosophy of harm reduction is to encourage drug users to progress towards reduced harm and improved health at a speed that works for them. Importantly, it does not stigmatise those who practise high-risk behaviour, recognising that such behaviours result from various complex social, environmental, economic, cultural, and personal factors.
The aim is to keep drug users alive, well and productive until treatment works, or they grow out of their drug use and can be reintegrated into society. The strategies of supply and demand reduction are primarily focused on mid to long term goals, consequently they do not address the rapid transmission of HIV/AIDS. With harm reduction the emphasis is on short term practical goals, compatible with long term idealistic goals.
Harm reduction involves multiple strategies including:
- Drug substitution programs (which is also part of demand reduction)
- Outreach and peer education is a way to reach at risk drug users, enabling them to reduce their risk behaviours and minimise their risk of blood borne viruses and other health problems.
- Providing sterile needles and syringes plays a crucial role in decreasing the level of equipment sharing and lowers the spread of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C among users.
Scientific evidence shows that harm reduction remains the only successful effective approach to tackling illicit drug use and HIV/AIDS yet devised.
Supply reduction is extremely expensive, has substantial unintended consequences and will only ever have limited success if lots of people want to take drugs.
‘harm reduction remains the only successful effective approach to tackling illicit drug use’
Demand reduction is slow and often unrealistic but is does share some strategies with harm reduction such as drug substitution. Harm reduction is realistic, humane and has been successful in reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS.
While there are substantial differences between the three approaches they can co-exist, complement each other and work together.
Drug use is a major issue, if any of you doubt that the following stats from the ONS might wake you up (2)
- An estimated 1 in 11 adults aged 16 to 59 years had taken a drug in the last year (9.4%; approximately 3.2 million people); this is the same as the year ending March 2019 but an increase from 8.6% in the year ending March 2010.
- Around one in five adults aged 16 to 24 years had taken a drug in the last year (21%; approximately 1.3 million people); this was similar to the previous year (20.3%).
- An estimated 1% of 60- to 74-year-olds had taken a drug in the last year; therefore, the prevalence of last-year drug use in those aged 16 to 74 years (7.6%) was lower than for those aged 16 to 59 years (9.4%).
- 4% of adults aged 16 to 59 years had taken a Class A drug in the last year (approximately 1.1 million people); this was similar to the previous year (3.7%).
- 4% of adults aged 16 to 24 years had taken a Class A drug in the last year (approximately 467,000 people); this was not significantly different from the previous year (8.7%).
- 1% of adults aged 16 to 59 years and 4.3% of adults aged 16 to 24 years were classed as ‘frequent’ drug users (had taken a drug more than once a month in the last year); these are similar to the previous year’s estimates.
‘Just because I believe, don’t mean I don’t think as well
Don’t have to question everything
In heaven or hell’
The Centre for Harm Reduction, Burnet Institute
A departure from all things Brexit and Covid this week – including shortages of gas and pretty much everything else – as Philip delivers ‘a follow-up to my original piece on drug use earlier in the year’.
His motivation is ‘drug use, especially cocaine, is spiraling out of control. What people forget about this are issues such as crime, terrorism, money laundering, and the wider health issues it causes such as HIV/AIDs. The ONS data shows that 1:11 use drugs, which is a ridiculous number; we all know someone who uses’.
The stats as presented paint a picture of drug use permeating every facet of society and yet another problem that will remain intractable to any of Priti Patel’s pledges to ‘clamp down’; so regularly do we hear of her plans to get tough – the Insulate Britain activists are set to be the latest group to literally come unstuck – that expectations of success are not high.
In the case of drugs the chances of ‘success’ look all the more remote because of the sheer scale of the illegal drugs ‘business’, its direct links with activities such as prostitution and the arms trade, and the fact that it is instinctively inevitable that large numbers of those in government or enforcement would have ticked the ‘user’ box if they filled in the ONS survey honestly.
The scale of the challenge is immediately apparent by the huge sums of money and massive growth involved and the reader’s perspective will inevitably be skewed by their personal exposure to and experience of the drugs ‘industry’; or indeed whether they have never been impacted.
If supply and demand reduction are both too thorny, harm reduction makes sense on a number of levels; however, with resources under extreme pressure as we experience the knock-on effect of Covid, whether people would accept a reduction in healthcare provision so that drug users can indulge in their habit in ‘safety’ is a moot point.
Those that have plied their trade in and around the Square Mile since the days of the whale-tail Porsche and the Nokia brick will attest to the fact that those in the tall buildings are not the only busy dealers.
When Philip says ‘heroin and crack might be derided as drugs of the ‘street’, whereas cocaine is the drug of choice for the ‘smart set’ he neatly frames at least part of the problem; whether aimed at junkies or ‘recreational’ drug users, the rewards can be huge, and the the supply chain grotesque.
Without going as far as suggesting that drug lords might be encouraged to take over some of the many empty retail units on the high street and spark a renaissance based upon quality controlled and regulated ‘product’, any attempt to decouple hard and soft drugs could surely play a role in preventing those ‘graduating’ their way to oblivion.
It does seem ironic that supermarket shelves remain empty and bin-men are being fast tracked as HGV drivers, yet the post-Brexit supply chain in Class A drugs apparently remains in rude health.
There is something else that has troubled me this week. As Greta readies herself to mount a snow goose to wing her way over to COP26, we know that Bloviating Boris will be making all manner of claims that opening new coal mines is actually the fastest way to decarbonise, and that allowing aviation to continue to grow is fine because new planes emit only baby’s breath – and the UK ‘leads the world’ in tackling climate change. By eliminating CO2s.
Meantime, we’re being told our Waitrose Organic Babyleaf and Rocket salad may be unavailable because, er, there’s not enough of the stuff. So every time we open a bag of beautifully preserved crispy leaves, a little puff of gas joins the toxic fug coming out of the funnel of a cruise ship, and hastens the incineration of more wombats.
The challenges of supply and demand; if you’re craving some lyrics: ‘Fleetwood Mac with ‘Dreams’ from the album ‘Rumours’ the recording of which was reputedly fuelled by cocaine, and David Bowie’s ‘Word on a Wing’ from ‘Station to Station’, an album he had no recollection of! Enjoy!
Philip Gilbert is a city-based corporate financier, and former investment banker.
Philip is a great believer in meritocracy, and in the belief that if you want something enough you can make it happen. These beliefs were formed in his formative years, of the late 1970s and 80s