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Is the UK really the ‘cocaine capital’ of Europe?

The National Crime Agency’s findings say British people consumed 117 tonnes of coke in 2019 alone

On Saturday (May 16), the National Crime Agency (NCA) told The Times that the UK is the ‘cocaine capital’ of Europe, with Brits consuming 117 tonnes of the drug in 2019. A report by the NCA says that the UK’s coke market is estimated to be worth up to £11.8 billion a year, but doesn’t expand on Britain’s drug consumption in comparison to Europe.

Dazed reached out to the NCA for more details, and was referred to the EMCDDA’s European Drug Report 2019, which showed that 4.7 per cent of young adults aged 16 to 34 in the UK use cocaine. The analysis – which was only possible “for a small number of countries” – showed figures of 4.5 per cent in the Netherlands, and 3 per cent in France. 

The study also offered statistics for wastewater tests taken in selected European cities between 2011 and 2018. The results showed that Bristol had the highest concentration of cocaine residue in its water, closely followed by Amsterdam and Barcelona. 

Speaking to Dazed, the director of the Global Drug Survey (GDS) says that while there’s likely truth to the claim that the UK is the ‘cocaine capital’, it’s almost impossible to prove. “I’m not surprised (by the news),” explains Adam Winstock of the GDS, “but it’s unlikely any single measure can offer a definitive answer.” Winstock questions how the NCA has come to this conclusion, asking: “Is it police seizures? Water waste analysis?”

The NCA’s report doesn’t explain how it estimated the UK’s coke consumption – Dazed is still awaiting further comment.

Winstock continues: “Cocaine purity has gone up from 20 per cent to above 60 per cent now. If the data is based on water waste analysis – measuring the amount of cocaine in water from our loos – and it’s not adjusted for a rise in purity, then the data might just reflect better quality coke.”

2018 study that tested wastewater across Europe found that cocaine purity across the continent is at its highest level in a decade. The same report confirmed too that coke use was highest in the UK, with 4 per cent of people aged between 15 and 34 saying they’d used it in the past year, compared with 3.7 per cent in the Netherlands, 3 per cent in Spain, and 2.9 per cent in Ireland.

In October 2019, a study also looking at wastewater found an enormous concentration of benzoylecgonine (BE) – the compound excreted in urine after cocaine is processed in the liver – in London. This put the capital’s daily consumption at 23kg, meaning its market is supposedly worth approximately £1 billion per year. 

“If the data is based on water waste analysis and it’s not adjusted for a rise in purity, then the data might just reflect better quality coke” – Adam Winstock, the Global Drug Survey

Winstock admits that London does “consume lots of cocaine”, explaining that it’s “a big international city with a large number of tourists, students, and young people with a relatively high disposable income”. He adds: “You can match this with record levels of supply and purity, but is it vastly above that of Berlin, Amsterdam, or Barcelona?”

Lawrence Gibbons, head of drugs threat at the NCA, told The Times: “A lot of the consignments we see coming into Europe – through Spain, Belgium, or the Netherlands mainly – a significant proportion is destined for the UK.” Gibbons adds that coke usage in Britain has risen by almost 300 per cent in less than a decade.

“As an illegal activity, it is almost impossible to know the scale of the cocaine market in any real detail,” Niamh Eastwood, the executive director of drug expert organisation, Release, tells Dazed. “Police seizures simply do not give us a complete picture of the market. What we can say is that cocaine continues to be popular, and indeed it is fair to say that consumption has risen in recent years.”

It’s believed young people are among the biggest users in Britain. Carol Black, who ran the Home Office’s 2019 drug review, told The Times that the UK’s county lines – when drugs are transported from one area to another – are established in “many of our universities”.

Winstock tells Dazed that although “cocaine, like most drugs, is pretty classless” – though it is used considerably more by white people in higher managerial roles, according to The Times – the Global Drugs Survey and other services find that it is primarily used by people in their 20s, and a significant number are male. However, he adds: “It’s worth remembering that even in your 20s, if you’ve used cocaine in the last 12 months, you’re in a tiny minority.” According to the 2018/19 Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), just 8.7 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds had taken a class A drug in the last year.

Eastwood says coke’s increasing popularity proves that “criminalisation has little deterrent effect”, adding that “the current drugs legislation is not fit for purpose”. She continues: “Criminalisation can negatively impact people’s employment and educational opportunities, and can act as a barrier for those seeking support for their use if they need it.”

Speaking to The Guardian in 2019, Ian Hamilton, a senior lecturer in mental health at the University of York, said: “If you are a young person who is a bit anxious, lacking in confidence, or not sure of your place in the grand scheme of things, coke sorts all that out for you. I’m not recommending it, but austerity has created a real bottleneck in people getting the support they need (via health services), and drugs are far more instant.”

“Criminalisation can negatively impact people’s employment and educational opportunities, and can act as a barrier for those seeking support for their use if they need it” – Niamh Eastwood, Release

Winstock has a warning, though. “People who use cocaine need to note that better purity coke isn’t better for your health,” he asserts. “If it’s good coke, take less.”

Despite being in the midst of a global pandemic, people are still buying drugs as usual, with the coronavirus crisis found to be likely increasing drug habits among recreational users. “Facing an increasing number of COVID-related stresses in work everyday means it’s good to (get coke and) blow off steam with my housemate at night,” 26-year-old Thomas*, who works in a hospital in Liverpool, told Dazed earlier this month.

South east London-based dealer David* told Dazed that the coronavirus has “logistically been a bit of a nightmare”, due to a surge in demand for drugs. Last month, it emerged that drug dealers were disguising themselves as key workers during lockdown to avoid the police, with some even dealing from supermarkets while pretending to stockpile toilet roll.

The Global Drug Survey is looking into how the coronavirus is affecting people’s use of alcohol and other drugs. You can take the survey here.

*Names have been changed