British women are one of the biggest groups of cocaine consumers in Europe, but also one of the most environmentally-conscious. Here, a writer and climate change campaigner explains why she had to quit the drug for good.
I am a hippie-crit.
I take part in climate change awareness marches and donate to fundraising appeals after natural disasters. I quit dairy, for the sake of the cows, then soy milk for its carbon footprint. I boycotted Nestle because they use so much palm oil, signed petitions to ban plastic straws, and drove vans of donations to refugee camps.
But cocaine remained part of my weekend routine. At the time, I didn’t realise I was an addict, I just considered myself a very keen and habitual user. Yet there were very few nights out when I wasn’t disappearing into toilet cubicles to rack up lines on the cistern. I liked the energy and confidence it gave me, and found it surprisingly socially acceptable. I’d buy whatever my dealer would deliver, barking down the phone to the driver if he kept me waiting in the rain.
I even went on holiday to Colombia, the world’s ‘cocaine capital’ where the drug is cheap and pure and readily available. My nostrils twitched with excitement when I first headed out into Bogota’s nightlife. Yet, none of my newfound Colombian friends would touch it, furrowing their brows when I suggested a purchase. To me, cocaine was classy, a symbol of wealth and an enviably hedonistic lifestyle. I associated it with high-end clubs and celebrity chic, but to them it clearly didn’t have the same allure.
My knowledge on the human impact of cocaine production was paltry and mostly garnered from watching the first season of Narcos, the Netflix series supposedly accurately depicting the rise of Colombia’s cocaine empire from the late 1970s and subsequent efforts to overcome it by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. The show has been repeatedly scorned for its romanticised portrayal of the infamous drug lord, Pablo Escobar, but, alongside millions of viewers worldwide, I was curiously charmed.
More than 25 years since Escobar was shot dead, Colombia is still the world’s top producer of cocaine. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates enough coca was grown last year to produce 1,520 tons of cocaine in Colombia’s clandestine laboratories – up nearly a third on 2016.
In Medellín, the home of the Colombian drug cartel, to even utter Escobar’s name is a faux pas as he is so deeply despised. Numerous travel agencies offer controversial guided Escobar “experiences”, all of which are regarded as disrespectful, and operate under farcically surreptitious names like the ‘Do not say that name tour’.
I joined one sightseeing procession through the notorious neighbourhood of Comuna 13, gawping at the vibrant graffiti adorning the tin-roof shacks, entranced by tales of gang wars, trafficking and smuggling. There was something odd and uneasy about it all. The community’s years of terror under the control of merciless drug cartels have become a visitors’ attraction; the must-see, must-selfie, must-Instagram of Colombia’s most-trodden tourist path.
In the bars later that evening, the cocaine seemed tainted. That usual gloating coolness was seeped with guilt. I felt dirty and seedy, scurrying back to the table in shame. The evening’s clientele was a mix of locals and tourists, but it was only the foreigners who were high on cocaine, their clenched jaws an immediate giveaway.
We know the cocaine trafficking trade is murderous, though the true number of people killed due to drugs is impossible to ascertain. During the height of its drug operations in 1991, Medellín had the highest murder rate on global record, with 381 deaths per every 100,000 people.
Although it has since dramatically improved, Colombia remains one of the world’s most dangerous countries and, during the past few years, homicides in Medellín have begun to rise again. Yet it has become a hipster mecca, with bus-loads of tourists piling in each day, many eager to sample the local speciality.
Every line of ‘Charlie’ stems from a trail of blood. A half-century of guerilla conflict in the coca growing regions of Colombia claimed the lives of 220,000 people and forced nearly 6 million people from their homes. Grieving widows and children left behind are trapped in the criminal underworld, and entire communities along the extensive trafficking routes are unwillingly intertwined, living in fear amid violence with little or no alternative. Children as young as eleven have been recruited into gangs and killed.
At the end of 2016, the then President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, won the Nobel Peace Prize for forming a peace deal with one of the major guerilla groups. But with ongoing demand, comes the need to supply. New players quickly took up position, and the devastating factory line continues. Each gram we purchase funds the black market. Families are torn apart and futures deprived for an overpriced and underweight bag of ‘marching powder’.
The reality is so far removed from the glamorised perception I bought into when I did cocaine in London. I took a look at myself – on one hand speaking out on behalf of chickens to call for an end to battery farming, on the other making a sizeable weekly donation towards barbaric illegal cocaine production. It just didn’t add up. I was snorting decades of human suffering.
Then there’s the drug’s environmental impact. From the 300,000 hectares of Colombian rainforest destroyed each year to clear land for coca plant production, to the European eels so intoxicated from cocaine residue running into rivers and streams they are unable to make their journey to mate. Yet I still felt chuffed with myself for recycling my carton of organic Almond milk.
So I quit cocaine. Not for the expense of it, nor the fact it turned me into arrogant bolshy twat, nor how a heavy weekend left me reeling on a Monday morning. But for the utter hypocrisy to love our planet and its people, then destroy it all for the sake of a 30-minute buzz.