Page last updated at 06:07 GMT, Monday, 1 March 2010

Teen cocaine use on the rise as more seek treatment

Amardeep Bassey
The Donal MacIntyre Show, BBC Radio 5 live

Cocaine and Razor Blade
Dropping cocaine prices have led to a rise in use among young people

"I thought cocaine was a bad drug, that it's up there with the worst drugs, like a dirty drug.

"But after I'd seen normal people my age taking it I thought I'd take it because it can't be that bad."

Seventeen-year-old Manny, an unemployed teenager from the West Midlands, had barely left school when he first tried cocaine at a friend's party 18 months ago.

He was with a group of mates who egged each on other to give it a go.

Manny (not his real name) was no stranger to drugs. He had been smoking strong cannabis since the age of 14 and so had no qualms when it was his turn to do a line.

The fact that it did little for him the first time did not deter him. He now spends up to £200 a month on powder cocaine habit.

I think it's just one of them drugs that's not really addictive… I'd say it's down there with cannabis, just one of the party drugs
Manny, 17, cocaine user

"If you take a big line you can feel like Superman, like you can take on the world, but I just stick to the little ones," he said.

"It makes me feel good, it makes me feel better, like if I'm feeling down I'll take a line and I'll be all right."

Manny says he has never had a bad experience on cocaine, although he has friends who have gone to hospital after taking too much.

He remains blasé about the risks of taking the drug on a regular basis, and does not think he is at risk of becoming an addict.

He thinks it is one of those drugs that is "not really addictive".

"I wouldn't put it up there with crack and heroin. I'd say it's down there with cannabis; just one of the party drugs."

Rise in treatment

According to a new report from the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse (NTA), people aged 18 to 24 now account for a third of all those in England seeking treatment for cocaine addiction.

Last year, over 3,000 18 to 24-year-olds sought treatment for cocaine use, with another 745 users under the age of 18.

This is nearly double the number who sought treatment in 2005-2006.

Snorting Cocaine
More and more young people are seeking treatment for cocaine use

Over 60% of all cocaine users seeking treatment remain abstinent six months after completing their treatment, the NTA says.

However, the most recent British Crime Survey estimates there are 437,000 people aged 16 to 24 in England and Wales who have used cocaine in the past year.

The survey says the number of 16 to 24-year-olds to have used cocaine in the past year rose from 5.1% to 6.6% - the highest percentage of users yet.

The Class A drug is no longer seen as the preserve of the celebrity classes and can be brought on most city streets for "pocket money" prices, starting as little as £15 a bag.

Only cannabis and alcohol are more popular, while the use of designer dance drugs like ecstasy is falling.

Tumbling prices and the lack of stigma attached to powder cocaine have also led to increasing use at every level of British society.

"You'll get text messages on your phone and you don't even know who the person is, saying 'Yeh I've got some good stuff.'"
Manny, 17, cocaine user

The number of cocaine dealers is also mushrooming, with a proliferation of younger street-level dealers who are known in urban slang as "shottas".

Many of them started out selling just cannabis to their peers, but soon graduated to "shotting" out small deals of cocaine, as they saw the popularity in the drug rise.

Manny told BBC Radio 5's Donal MacIntyre programme cocaine is now often easier to get hold of than cannabis.

"There are a lot of people offering it now. You'll get text messages on your phone and you don't even know who the person is, saying 'Yeh I've got some good stuff'."

Caught in a cycle

Another young user, Paul (not his real name), told how dealers enticed him with free bags of cocaine when he decided he wanted to take a rest after finding himself spending hundreds of pounds a week to fund his habit.

Paul, 18, the only son of a successful businessman from the West Midlands, said "The dealer shook my hand and I thought he'd given me a fiver to buy a drink, but when I've opened my hand it was a couple of grams of cocaine.

"I asked him what it was and he said it was freebie.

Mixing cocaine with alcohol can prove a toxic combination for users

"I put two and two together and realised that he gave it to me so I got the taste for it again."

The ploy worked, and Paul was soon back buying regularly from his dealer.

When reminded that he may be on the path to addiction, Paul says: "I try not to let it get to me.

"Sometimes you think about it when you come down, and your pockets are empty. Then you just look forward to the next weekend."

Drugs education charities are warning that urgent action is needed so that recreational users are made aware of the dangers.

Cocaine is a class A drug that can cause anxiety, a rise in blood pressure and heart problems, as well as long-term addiction.

Statistics in a recent NTA report show that over 50% of cocaine users will also drink alcohol while using cocaine - a particular concern, as this creates a third highly toxic chemical in the body called cocaethylene, which can cause severe harm to the liver.

The potential health hazards are exacerbated by the fact that a lot of the cocaine sold on the streets is heavily adulterated, or "bashed", as dealers refer to it, with various substances like crushed painkiller tablets and other stimulants.

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One cocaine dealer said unscrupulous dealers would add whatever they could to make up the weight which allows it to be sold very cheaply.

"I carry two types of coke with me. The good stuff for the older customers and some stuff that's really been bashed for those who can't afford the higher grade."

Yet that doesn't seem to deter youths like Manny, who say there is little they can do to ascertain the purity levels of what they are buying.

Manny said: "It's not just me getting ripped off, it's the same for everyone. So if it's all you can get you have to get it."

The full report was broadcast on the Donal MacIntyre programme on BBC 5 live on Sunday, 7 February at 19.30 GMT.

To listen to the programme, download the free podcast or listen via the BBC iPlayer

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