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Last Updated: Monday, 10 October 2005, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
The cocaine paradox
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Posed by models
Partying on down, in both senses of the word
Cocaine is an addictive Class A drug, its use widely deplored. Yet, as recent events perhaps show, its sphere of influence is wider than we might think. So, do we have a paradoxical attitude to the drug?

Everyone enjoys a party now and again, so who could begrudge those celebrities who populate the pages of the tabloid press with tales of their "partying" antics? Yet all is not what it might seem with such stories.

One interesting aspect to emerge from the deluge of coverage following last month's allegations that Kate Moss had snorted cocaine was the use of the word "partying". Frequently it is a euphemism for doing drugs.

"Celebrities are forever saying in interviews: 'X was partying a lot at that time'," wrote author and journalist Anna Blundy. "What they mean is that they were addicted to drugs."

This revelation will come as no surprise to many insiders. From LA to London, cocaine has long been known as a social lubricant.

It is a stimulant, helping users feel alert and socially confident. It dulls the inhibitions that most of us have, to a greater or lesser extent, when mixing with a bunch of people we don't know very well.

Robbie Williams
Robbie Williams claims to have taken coke with journalists
In some parts of some industries - fashion, public relations, the media, city trading, pop music, to name just a few - socialising into the small hours is part of the job. And coke is part of the scene.

Robbie Williams last weekend highlighted what he saw as hypocritical views towards the drug in the media, saying he had personally taken cocaine with journalists who had criticised Kate Moss for doing the same.

For all its associations of glamour, cocaine use is not condoned by modern mainstream society - though things were different in the 19th Century, when it could be found in dozens of medicines on sale in High Street chemists.

While legalisation of cannabis, a so-called soft drug, is a perennial debate, heroin and crack occupy the other end of the spectrum. Hard and highly addictive, they draw in the desperate, and turn them into junkies.

But despite having the same Class A status, cocaine occupies a more paradoxical place. While the media overtly abhors it, in the very same breath it laps up the glamorised celebrity culture that cocaine helps perpetuate.

What's more, sections of society have increasingly come to imitate these values, as individuals become accustomed to spending more on going out and enjoying themselves. The falling cost of cocaine has also made it more accessible.

Mark is 33, owns his own flat, rides a scooter around London and knows how to apply himself in his skilled job of website development. He also enjoys cocaine.

'Socially acceptable'

He is just the sort of person Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, had in his sights when last year he vowed to target middle class cocaine users who think it is "socially acceptable".

Street price has fallen to about 40 per gram
Bought as a 'wrap', can be padded out with sugar, starch etc
Effects are short-lived, can result in a flu-like 'hangover'
Cocaine use has risen sharply in the past nine years, albeit from a low base. Latest figures show 2.4% of 16-59-year-olds in England and Wales had used cocaine in the past 12 months - up from 0.6% in 1996.

In the mid-90s ecstasy and hallucinogenic drugs were more popular than cocaine. Today, coke is the second most popular illegal drug, after cannabis. The steepest rise has been within the 25-34 age group - which includes Mark - where almost 6% took coke in the previous year.

Mark first tried cocaine when he was 19 and his usage now goes in fits and starts.

"I'm waiting for a delivery now, for the weekend. It's a friend's birthday. But it's been six weeks since I last took it," he says. Last year, though, there was a two-month stretch where he took cocaine every weekend.

He likes the drug's ability to "perk you up" on a Friday night, at a bar with a drink after a tiring week, and how it oils the wheels in a social situation.

"There's also the social aspect of going to the loos with a friend and giving them a line of coke. It's a friendly act, and it's also a bit naughty."

Health issues

The drawbacks of snorting coke include damage to the lining of the nose, which leads to surges in blood pressure caused by the narrowing of coronary arteries. Users can suffer chest pains which can lead to heart attacks or strokes, and some experience an itch, known as "cocaine bugs".

Boy George and Frank Bruno
Boy George has denied cocaine use over the weekend, but Frank Bruno admitted to it
Aside from the physical problems, regular use can also lead to psychosis and severe depression, say experts. And, as with all illegal drugs, it can create a divide between those friends and family who also use them, and those who don't.

So far though, Mark has seen nothing of these effects - either in him, or his network of about 15 friends who also take coke.

"You might have a bad night, but you'd have that on alcohol. None of us has been hospitalised from coke."

The alcohol point is an important one for Mark and those like him, who argue there is a moral equivalence between alcohol and drugs like cocaine. Yet one is legal and one is banned.

"You go into the bars where I work and you know people are taking it. It's going on and everyone knows it. Celebrities take coke all the time, but it's just not reported. It's like [comedian] Bill Hicks said - you've got to have a war on something."

Add your comments to this story using the form below:

I'm a 30 year old professional who uses coke from time to time. I like to party every now and then, for special occasions. Sometimes it's very infrequent, with several months in between, other times you might have a more hectic month. The media are hypocrites. Cocaine use by the press, and by people in TV in general is rife. However, I'm glad it's illegal because it would get out of hand - like drink is for wider society today. But generally speaking, the addictiveness and social corruption that is portrayed as going hand-in-hand with cocaine is one of those urban myths. Most users do it very casually, in modest amounts every now and then and it is not a problem.
Andy, London, UK

Although I do not condone drug use of any kind, cocaine is so over rated . I have seen more deaths, violence and anti social behaviour from effects of alcohol. But this is a nice taxable drug so nothing is ever done about it. I would like to see figures comparing deaths from drug related abuse compared with deaths from alcohol related abuse, I think the figures speak for themselves. Let's face it, at around 60 a gram who can afford cocaine, apart from the rich and socialites. You can get 24 cans of Carling for 10..

I occasionally take cocaine, and so do most of my friends. I know several people who have had problems with drink, but no one who has become addicted with cocaine, mainly because its to expensive to take regularly.
Neil, Birmingham

Quite apart from the legal and health questions, what strikes me as odd is that the same metropolitan types who would only ever buy organic and fair-trade food see it as "socially acceptable" to perpetuate the world's most immoral industry, which thinks nothing of participating in every crime from arms dealing to people trafficking, prostitution and murder. How can they say it is just like alcohol?
Seb, London

Would the person in the story be happy about taking those drugs if he was aware of the misery caused to get him his 15 minutes of happiness?
Chris Wills, UK

Good to see a more honest, less knee-jerk report on cocaine use. One thing that the article fails to mention is that people on coke generally become arrogant and obnoxious.
Will, UK

I'm not sure where this view of Cocaine being socially deplored comes from. Certainly no-one in my group of friends has a particularly negative attitude towards it. It seems the only people thinking cocaine is the worst thing since the invention of the gun are those enforcing its illegality.
Andy, Reading, UK

Why is Cocaine socially unacceptable? It is used in every walk of life, from plumbers to policemen. I don't use it myself, but would never condemn someone else for it - it's very small minded to portray it as a celebrity drug - or that people taking it are aping celebrities. It's been in every area of society for a long time and I'm surprised it's even a topic for discussion.
Magnus, Switzerland

You have totally missed one fundamental point about cocaine in your story. And that is the effect on other people around you. For several years I worked with a few people who had coke habits. And the whole experience was a nightmare. It makes people paranoid, utterly selfish and gives them a hugely inflated opinion of themselves and their abilities. It was the hardest job I ever had, purely because of this horrible substance that they thought was "fashionable" to take.
John, UK

Thank you for publishing this interesting and thought-provoking article. It's great to see journalists moving beyond the far too simplistic "drugs are bad" mantra. Although it's for each to make up his/her own mind on this difficult issue, at least different sides of the debate are being aired.
Deepak Nambisan, London

Why waste your lives on addictive drugs? There is a lot more mature ways to enjoy yourself out there! Take a drink or play a sport. It's healthier!
Dennis O Rourke, Ireland

One thing not mentioned in the article about regular consumers of cocaine is how obnoxious many people become when on the drug. That's what does the long-term damage.
Anna, UK

My friends got into cocaine, and after a few months of dabbling, they couldn't go out without it. The mix of alcohol and coke always turned them into violent, aggressive people, and they became more and more selfish and self-consumed, turning their backs on family and friends alike, just to get high. I am no longer friends with these people, and personally I don't think the drug should be treated as 'recreational'. It is almost more damaging to society than binge-drinking and turns even the nicest person into an angry, and needy being, sometimes even a criminal, just for the sake of a line.
Hazel Miller, England

A friend of mine takes an awful lot of coke which started off as a weekend thing and then he suddenly realised that he was doing it on a Monday... Tuesday and then my goodness, is it really Thursday? Almost the weekend again and time for more 'sniff!' When I pointed out that he will end up suffering from "Westbrooke nostril syndrome" he said, "Ah, well... I will be able to fit more in that way!"
Sean C, UK

Quote: "Celebrities are forever saying in interviews: 'X was partying a lot at that time'," wrote author and journalist Anna Blundy. "What they mean is that they were addicted to drugs. "No what they mean is that they were TAKING drugs. How can a supposedly bona-fide journalist twist the term 'partying' into addiction.
Edd, UK

The collusion between the media and celebrities over the years has served to make cocaine usage seem very normal, fashionable, a bit naughty but ultimately safe. On the one hand, says the press, it's OK as long as you don't get found out, but if you do get found out we will feign horror. None of the coverage is at all helpful to ordinary people like me trying to raise children to aware of the dangers of drugs.
Lorraine, St Albans, UK

Compare how many people die from class A substance use with the number killed by 'socially acceptable' drugs such as alcohol, and the danger of illegal substances is shown to be negligible. Politicians and journalists alike love a tipple of course, so no stigma is attached to G&Ts. Some people would call that hypocrisy.
Chris Lockie, UK

Well done for showing a balanced view on this subject.

The one thing that puts me off cocaine ahead of anything else is the sheer misery it causes in the countries where it's produced, and the manipulation and intimidation of the "mules" - usually vulnerable women - who are used to bring it into the country. Reading your recent story on here about Sonia who was forced to choke down cocaine or face threats to her children, I wonder that anyone can justify their weekend high when it costs such a high price to someone else.
Chandra, England

Take it - or don't - but it's unfair of the media and politicians to accept that the use of cocaine is rife when it suits them and to stigmatise people on a whim.

If anyone wants a moral reason not to do cocaine, it's because it's the worst cash crop in existence - there are many thousands of farmers in South America who are forced to grow it because it's the only crop that will make them any money. Developed countries dump subsidised surpluses on them, and local farmers can't compete with the prices. This means they get locked into a cycle of poverty where they have to grow coke - they hardly see any profits, as most of the money is taken by the local cartels who then rule with an iron fist. It's ironic that celebrities and the middle class, who are so eager to support fair trade initiatives on one hand, should nonetheless effectively support such a corrupt system with the other.
Rob, UK

I think there are some very pertinent questions raised in this article, especially about the hypocrisy of tabloid journalists. They scream for the sacking of Kate Moss but one wonders how many of them would go straight from work and do much the same.
Chris, UK

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