'The Truth about Cocaine', Times, 27.7.09


As a British Crime Survey shows the UK to be a country where cocaine is widespread and liberally consumed, an author explodes some of the myths about the drug — and calls for it to be legalised... MORE

1. Is everyone taking cocaine?

No, not everyone is taking cocaine, but it is becoming the drug of choice for many. Figures last week from the British Crime Survey revealed that the number of working-age adults using cocaine is at its highest for 12 years and more young adults in the UK take the drug than take Ecstasy. The percentage of 16 to 24-year-olds who took it in the past year is running at about 6 per cent. The variety of people who are taking it suggests that cocaine use is no longer confined to a recognisable group. It is no longer a yuppie drug or a club drug. Cocaine might be called the drug for people who don't like drugs. The normalisation of cocaine is more important than the actual number of people taking it, because it suggests that the consensus on what is and isn't a morally acceptable intoxicant is getting weaker.


2. How dangerous is cocaine?

It can be very dangerous, particularly for people who have little experience of other drugs, who might find cocaine intoxication worrying. Physically, it can be dangerous for anyone with heart problems and, in large doses, it can have damaging respiratory and neurological effects as well. It can also play havoc with your mental state. Take too much cocaine and you're likely to become disinhibited, grandiose, impulsive, hypervigilant and extremely fidgety. It's also very easy to become dependent on cocaine — in other words, to keep taking it even when you know it's doing you no good, and to relapse even after you've vowed to stop taking it.

But I'm loath to call cocaine addictive, because addiction is a very contentious and overused word. Is alcohol addictive? If so, how come most drinkers aren't addicted to it? We hear more about addictive personalities than addictive substances these days; this may be a good thing, as it shifts the focus from the drug to the user. People can have compulsive relationships with all kinds of substances. Most cocaine users can and do control their intake pretty well. A minority don't, but it's all too easy to blame the drug rather than face up to the user's underlying psychological problems.


3. Who were the first cocaine drug lords?

It's curious that we use such medieval language to describe the big players in the drug economy. We talk of drugs being a "plague", controlled by "barons" and "lords". We appoint "tsars" to launch "crusades" against drugs. These words were devised by people who were inclined to see the demand and supply of class A drugs as a battle between the forces of light and darkness. In reality, drug use is a complicated business and these crude simplifications only divert our attention from the big picture.


Ironically, the first drug dealers were medieval: the Spanish conquistadors and the Roman Catholic Church established coca markets in their Peruvian colony. They didn't approve of coca-chewing by the indigenous population, but as coca was a sacred plant, the Spanish soon realised that by cornering the market for coca leaves they could control the workers they needed to dig up all that silver and gold.


People still think of Pablo Escobar as the archetypal drug lord, but Escobar was killed in 1993 and things have changed a lot since his day. There are thought to be 2,000 mini-cartels in Colombia alone. The cartels have splintered and, at the same time, the main players in Colombia's civil war have become much more involved. This has made the drive against cocaine trafficking a political hot potato. The Colombian Government likes to blame the Farc guerrillas for cocaine trafficking. They are involved but most of the business is controlled by mafiosi allied to paramilitaries, often in cahoots with local politicians and businessmen.


4. What is crack and why hasn't there been the epidemic that we were warned about?

There are plenty of people who take cocaine who wouldn't touch crack cocaine, but they're very similar. Crack is smokeable cocaine. Cocaine decomposes when it is heated, so in the 1980s, people discovered free-basing, which means combining cocaine with ether. In combination, they can be heated to the point at which they turn to vapour, which can then be inhaled. Crack is the same as free-base, but uses baking powder instead of ether.


When you snort cocaine, the active ingredient takes effect in about three minutes. When you smoke it, it takes effect in a matter of seconds, so you get very high very quickly. Most people would find the "rush" from crack a bit overwhelming but many users want to repeat the experience ad infinitum. Crack cocaine has a well-deserved reputation for ruining its users — financially, mentally and physically.


The only places where crack has really taken off have been in deprived communities and among people with existing mental health problems. In other words, among people with little to lose: a few of the biggest cities in the UK, lots of cities in the US, and increasingly Third World cities such as Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Bogotá.


5. How does cocaine get into the country?

The drug economy is truly globalised. Four of every ten cocaine importers doing time in British prisons were born outside the UK, and they come from any one of 34 countries. Cocaine is brought into the UK in many different ways, but the sea-lanes between Venezuela and Brazil and West Africa have become particularly important because the chances of getting caught are so slim. From there, a lot of it is smuggled into the big European ports such as Barcelona or Rotterdam and then across the Channel. The volume of container traffic makes it very hard to identify and intercept smuggling operations.


6. How realistic is The Wire?

Its depiction of "past caring" drug dealing and chronic drug taking, and the isolation of communities from the rest of America, seems very realistic. So too does the cynicism and apathy of the police and politicians in the series. People forget how impoverished much of America is and how dysfunctional many of its institutions are.


I interviewed Kurt Schmoke for my book. He was Mayor of Baltimore when crack hit the city in the late 1980s. He told me that by 1989, one adult in eight in Baltimore had a serious drug abuse problem. He courted a lot of controversy for suggesting that the best way to win the war on drugs was to decriminalise drugs such as crack and heroin.


Funnily enough, Kurt has a cameo role in The Wire, in a scene in which the mayor is panicking about the Hamsterdam drug market that the police have encouraged. The Wire is a real wake-up call to change. Wire-watchers, ask yourself this: what would it take for Bubs to get clean: a prison sentence, a drug treatment programme or gainful employment? I'd say "no" to the first, "maybe" to the second and "definitely" to the third.


7. Why was cocaine banned in the first place?

The prohibition of drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin was a gradual process that began in the first decades of the last century, as part of the same wave of reforming evangelicalism that banned alcohol. The Dry Law was repealed, but the ban on hard drugs lasted, partly because the demand for the hard drugs was weak and partly because America was so powerful. How long the ban can last is highly questionable. In 1970, four million Americans had tried an illegal drug. By 2003, 112 million of them had, so the anti-drug consensus is much weaker. And the cost of spraying coca fields, intercepting smugglers, jailing dealers and treating compulsive users is astronomical — about $69 billion a year. Given that none of these strategies has had the desired outcome, you'd expect a fundamental rethink to be on the table. But it's not.


8. Why is cocaine only 5 per cent strength at the moment? Is it because we are winning the war on drugs?

In May, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) issued a press release which said that thanks to its efforts, the average purity of cocaine in the UK was as low as 9 per cent, and wholesale cocaine prices had risen to £45,000 a kilo. In fact, wholesale cocaine prices are still falling, as they have been for the past 20 years. Any rise in price is a reflection of the weakness of the pound against the dollar, which is the currency in which world drug prices are measured.


Of course, there will always be blips, as particularly large hauls are intercepted, supply routes are disrupted and trafficking organisations are dismantled. But the long-term trend is towards cheaper and purer cocaine. Soca has every interest in exaggerating its successes and its claims are rarely scrutinised by other agencies.


9. Do politicians and the police care about cocaine? And is it in their interest for the drugs war never to end?

I doubt if they care much about recreational users. Problematic drug users are responsible for most of the robberies committed in this country, so the police are certainly concerned about them. But confiscating a compulsive user's supply of drugs only means that he or she has to raise the money to buy drugs again, which just fuels the problem. The Swiss haven't legalised hard drugs, but they have gone as far as you can go in making drug abuse a matter for doctors not police officers. Crime and hard drug use has plummeted in Switzerland.

But in most countries, anyone trying to change things for the better has to contend with the agencies that are responsible for drug control, most of which are founded on moral objections to drug use rather than evidence-based policies. Then you have widespread fear and ignorance, the inertia of these giant bureaucracies and the timidity of politicians. Finally, the war on drugs provides cover for intervention in other countries' affairs. So it's very hard to challenge prohibition, despite its manifest failure to prohibit anything.


10. Should cocaine be legalised?

It should, for many reasons. But there are vested interests that have a stake in keeping things as they are. I also think that people, especially those who came of age before 1970, are very worried about the prospect of legalising drugs. They imagine that legal cocaine would be sold alongside the aspirin in the supermarket. But as the regulation of the tobacco and alcohol trades show, you can control access to potentially harmful psychoactive drugs. You can tax them, which pays for credible education about their dangers and effective treatment for those who need help it. At present, we're lumbered with the worst of both worlds: politicians can't eradicate cocaine and they choose not to regulate it.


11. Is Coke still the real thing?

Years ago, Coca-Cola used to contain about 60mg of cocaine in every bottle, which is about half the average line of cocaine. These days, it removes the active ingredient from the coca leaves that it uses. It may well be that legalising coca products would provide a healthy alternative to cocaine for those who want some, but not all, of the stimulation that cocaine provides. Cocaine is much less popular in Bolivia, where they grow a lot of coca, than it is in the UK. Bolivians generally prefer to sip coca tea, which is a much more cerebral buzz than the one you get from coffee or black tea. Ironically, the American Embassy in La Paz used to recommend that new arrivals drink coca tea for altitude sickness.


12. Should I use drug-testing kits on my teenage kids?

A study from 2008 suggested that 50 per cent of young people in Liverpool have tried cocaine, so you might not like what you see if you do start dipping litmus paper in the toilet bowl. When you look at patterns of drug use and psychological health, you find that people who use drugs heavily often are more likely than most to be suffering from other psychological problems. That sounds like common sense, but what is less known is that the same is true of people who abstain from all drug use. Life satisfaction is associated with moderate, occasional drug use.


Of course, kids shouldn't drink or smoke tobacco until they are of age. But they're bound to experiment, which is all the more reason to divert drug sales from the street to licensed premises. Street dealers don't care about their customers' age or psychological health. Licensees do, because they've got a licence to lose.


Read online at The Times


The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World by Tom Feiling is published by Penguin on August 6 at £9.99.