The cocaine hypocrisy: this is who’s really buying drugs in the UK

The Global Drug Survey, of more than 120,000 substance-users worldwide, has confirmed that England has the highest rate of people having tried cocaine in the world. As Home Secretary Sajid Javid pledges to crackdown on middle-class drug users, Anna Pursglove examines the impact cocaine hypocrisy has on the country that produces the most of it. 

Did you cycle to work this morning? Diligently sort out your recycling? Consider the air miles of your evening meal before committing to it? Chances are you did because urban professionals are embracing the ethical life like never before. Comparing your carbon footprint to that of the Jones’ is now a mainstream pursuit.

In fact, researchers now say that we are displaying the psychological phenomenon of ‘competitive altruism’ when it comes to our ethical shopping habits. Being green is important to us but being seen to be green is what really counts.

In their most recent Consumer Attitudes Audit, trend forecasters The Future Laboratory found that a quarter of respondents linked a person’s eco awareness to their social status. Nearly as many thought that limiting the waste you generate boosted social standing and that figure rose to 50% for Londoners earning more than £200,000 a year. 

“Some forecasters believed the recession would reverse this trend,” says The Future Laboratory’s trends forecaster, James Wallman. “But in fact this hasn’t been the case. At the mass market end you’ve got Asda reducing their food miles, while at the higher-priced end you’ve got luxury hotels lending bicycles to their guests and Aveda using 100% wind power in their manufacturing. The green credentials of a product or service are now what we call a ‘central buying motivator’.”

This finding is backed up by the Co-operative Bank’s Ethical Consumerism Report, which found that, despite the recession, spending on green goods was up by 5% on the previous year with households spending an average £251 on environmentally friendly products.

It seems we are wearing our carefully considered carbon footprints with the same pride we once reserved for our carefully considered wardrobes. There is, however, a product some eco-women are consuming in surprising quantities whose credentials don’t stand up quite so well under this new ethical scrutiny: cocaine.

300,000 hectares of rainforest are destroyed each year in Colombia to make space for coca plant cultivation. That’s four square metres for every one gram of cocaine.

At the last count, the UK was Europe’s largest cocaine market. According to The United Nations Office On Drugs and Crime, there are 860,000 cocaine users in England and Wales and a further 140,000 in Northern Ireland and Scotland combined. This figure has risen consistently since the Nineties.

But it’s women under 35 who are seemingly the most susceptible to cocaine use. The number of twenty and thirtysomethings entering treatment for cocaine dependency has jumped 60% in the past four years. The publication of these figures prompted a flurry of newspaper headlines pointing out that this soaring demand meant a line of cocaine was now cheaper than a high street coffee. Meanwhile medical researchers revealed that as many as 3% of sudden young adult deaths may be attributable to cocaine and that mixing cocaine with alcohol produces a third and highly toxic chemical – cocaethylene – which builds up in the liver over a number of years threatening to wreak havoc on users in their 30s and 40s.

Eco Enemy 

Less widely reported are the renewed pleas from environmental charities, begging otherwise ethical consumers to consider the human and environmental impact of their cocaine use. And the facts are sobering. For every gram of cocaine snorted in Britain, four square-metres of rainforest are destroyed. Worst affected is Colombia, which produces most of the UK’s cocaine – a market thought to be worth between £4bn and £6.6bn. In a single year, 200,000 acres of Colombia’s rainforest is destroyed to grow coca (the crop from which cocaine is derived). The country has already lost two million hectares of rainforest to the cocaine trade – and each of those hectares will take between 100 and 600 years to recover.

“The mistake is to just blame the coca farmers,” warns Hannah Williams, Latin America programme manager for the World Wildlife Fund. “But we are talking about very poor and vulnerable people who have often been displaced into areas of conflict [Colombia’s civil unrest spans four decades and involves the Colombian government battling left-wing rebels and right-wing paramilitaries most of whom are funded by the cocaine trade]. These people are often coerced into growing coca crops. This isn’t the life they’ve chosen for their families but don’t see an alternative.”

Williams confirms that land clearing by coca farmers is a huge problem in Colombia but also points to the destruction that fumigation (the Colombian government’s US-backed strategy for eradicating coca crops) causes. “The thing is that the fumigation destroys food crops as well as coca crops,” she says. “Without the ability to grow their own food these people are even more vulnerable to Colombia’s volatile political and economic situation.”

Williams points out that the cocaine processing sites are not drug baron fortresses but rudimentary outfits hidden in the jungle. “At this end of the cocaine production line it’s all very basic,” she says. “These are not people making a lot of money. They are working in horrible conditions using disgusting chemicals to extract the base from the coca plants.” In an attempt to highlight the devastation that the cocaine trade is reeking on Colombia, in 2012 the country’s then-vice-president Francisco Santos Calderón met UK ministers, where he said, “Cocaine is a silent environmental catastrophe… Anyone living a ‘green’ lifestyle should consider the environmental impact of cocaine, which is not a victimless drug.”

A blind conscience 

So why in all our eco-aware smugness do we turn a blind eye to this blatant cocaine hypocrisy – in ourselves and in others? Caroline*, a 34-year-old marketing executive, who describes herself asa regular recreational cocaine user, says the environmental impact of buying cocaine had simply never occurred to her: “I’m a bit embarrassed that it didn’t,” she confesses. “But it’s not something you hear much about is it? My friends and I are usually more concerned about getting thrown out of a bar when we snort a line. Maybe those signs on the backs of toilet doors should be changed. Rather than those helpline ads – which are appealing to your sense of self-preservation – maybe they should say, ‘You’re just about to destroy this much rainforest – put the banknote down’.”

Harriet*, a 35-year-old media buyer, also describes her cocaine use as recreational. “I’ve noticed that the image of cocaine has changed in the past decade,” she says. “It used to be quite illicit. Now it’s about as shocking to take a line of coke at a party as it is to drink a glass of wine. Colleagues of mine discuss it pretty openly. In fact, my boss came in the other Monday looking a bit befuddled and explained the situation by announcing to the team that ‘Uncle Charlie from Colombia’ had joined them at a dinner party.”

Cocaine is responsible for the murders of 16,000 Colombians a year.

Martin Barnes, chief executive of DrugScope says this is not an uncommon attitude – particularly among affluent professionals. “Cocaine is now seen as pretty run of the mill,” he says. “It’s also developed a reputation for being cleaner than other drugs.” And although the purity of the cocaine found in the UK is currently the highest it’s been in a decade, it’s led to an increase in addiction, with 30,300 people entering treatment programmes in 2016 – a fifth more than two years prior.

And if the fast-vanishing rainforest doesn’t move a person’s conscience, then stop for a moment to consider the human cost of the cocaine trade. Although the current Colombian government has brought the homicide rate down to the lowest levels in years, more than 16,000 people are still murdered every year. And it’s always linked to the cocaine trade.

Lost innocents 

The sad fact is, the victims aren’t isolated to the traffickers or smugglers, most are innocent farmers or peasants caught up in the fighting between Marxist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and the Colombian armed forces who are all trying to control the cocaine trade. Thousands of children have been forcibly removed from their families and recruited into armed gangs, used to smuggle drugs and guns and sent into large cities to sell cocaine because they provide cheap labour and also provoke less suspicion. According to a BBC report one in five of them will be killed within two years, either by the drug lords that own them or by bags of cocaine splitting in their stomachs when they act as mules or by drug gangs. And it’s estimated that three million Colombian families have been forced out by gangs who use the land for drug factories.

Relatives and friends of Luis Dagua, a murdered peasant leader, attend his funeral in Caloto, Colombia this year. Peasants and indigenous guards are the subject of violence after facing off against armed groups that attempt to control drug plantations and cocaine routes. 

So anyone taking a line should consider the drug mules forcing packages the size of pint glasses into various orifices in an attempt to smuggle the cocaine into Europe and America. The children who become ill after inhaling the chemicals that the coca crops are sprayed with. The Colombian troops killed trying to clear mined coca fields. The innocent feet which explode after stepping on the IEDs [improvised explosive devices] left by guerrillas to protect their secret cocaine laboratories hidden in the jungle. In the words of Francisco Calderón: “Every gram of coke consumed is soaked in Colombian blood.”

WWF’s Hannah Williams says that any cocaine user would benefit from a trip to the coca farming regions of Colombia. “There is no such thing as Fairtrade cocaine,” she points out. “These people earn very little money and their lives are dominated by it. Parents are too terrified to let their children go outside – they can’t even go to school because the coca crops are being sprayed. And after the spraying finishes we’re talking about Vietnam war-esque destruction. Anyone who had seen it first hand would never touch coke again.”

Images: Luis Robayo/Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

This article was originally published in October 2018.


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