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Page last updated at 07:42 GMT, Wednesday, 18 March 2009
How does cocaine get to the UK?

The UK has one of the highest rates of cocaine use in the world. It's estimated that 750,000 people have taken it in the last year. But how does a gram of cocaine travel to the UK, what happens when it gets to this country and how dangerous is it?

Line of cocaine
People can get seven years in jail for possession of cocaine

The drug is often brought in to the UK by drug mules; in suitcases or by swallowing bags.

John Plunkett's daughter Carly, 19, is serving five-and-a-half years for trying to smuggle £250,000 worth of cocaine into the UK from Gambia in Africa.

He said: "Carly was your normal 17-year-old. She loved going out, buying clothes, usual 17-year-old things. Nothing unusual.

"I was led to believe that she was going to Tenerife for a holiday. I was supposed to meet her at the airport.

"She didn't come back when she was supposed to. About 24 hours later I was contacted by the customs saying she'd been stopped at Gatwick with cocaine in her case."

Carly had never taken cocaine but, according to her father John, everything changed when she started hanging out with the wrong crowd.


John Plunkett now gets to speak to Carly twice a week at Peterborough Prison.

"She's got two teenage sisters. They're obviously heartbroken. Their sibling's gone," he said.

"They go and visit her in prison and she has two young brothers. They don't actually know she's in prison.

"I don't think people who take cocaine actually realise the suffering that goes in to actually them putting it in their bodies.

"How would they feel if somebody had used their son, daughter or whatever as a mule to supply somebody else with these drugs?"

Dillon, a Customs sniffer dog
Dillon, a customs sniffer dog, works at Rosslare Europort
Brian Johnson is the operations manager for customs at Heathrow airport.

He explains how the drug gets to the UK.

"All cocaine comes from Central America and the northern part of South America. It doesn't come from anywhere else," he said.

"We find here at the UK airports and seaports that the main routing for cocaine comes by way of going to the Caribbean, mainly Jamaica and Trinidad, and also west Africa, such as Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

"The way it gets there usually is by air or by sea."

Brian Johnson says they use sniffer dogs to detect people who are carrying drugs that they wouldn't usually stop.

"We've had examples where our detector dogs have indicated on couriers that we wouldn't normally associate with smuggling drugs into the UK, such as elderly people in wheelchairs, disabled people, young children."

The addict

Cocaine is the second most used illegal drug in the UK, behind cannabis, according to government figures.

Paul, not his real name, first tried cocaine when he was 17.

"I remember the first time I took it. I wasn't even really that bothered about the fact that I was taking it. It was in a nightclub and somebody offered me some and I had it and I loved it.

"You have a line and it's like goose pimples up your back. You suddenly feel confident. It makes you feel a bit sexy as well."

Suitcase with hidden cocaine
An A3-size package containing 3kg of cocaine is found by customs
Paul started dealing after getting more and more involved but was eventually caught by the police.

"I got four years, six months, which was probably the best sentence I possibly could have got at the time.

"Maybe a blessing in disguise. But I didn't speak to my dad for 10 years.

"When I did get in touch with him when I was in prison he got diagnosed with cancer. I never got to see him again."

The number of cocaine users is growing year on year and the latest research suggests people are taking more of the drug.

Harry Shapiro is from the charity DrugScope.

He said: "Cocaine has got more popular in this country over the last few years primarily because the price has been coming down.

"The price now is probably half what it was say five or six years ago.

"So although it's still got this kind of celebrity image, in fact there are a lot of very ordinary people that are using cocaine, either on an occasional basis or even a bit more regularly than that.

"There seem to be a growing number of young people in the 16 to 24 kind of age bracket who've begun to experiment with the drug.

"They haven't got as much money to spend as older people. So therefore we've seen at least a two-tier pricing market."

The dealer

Cocaine is a Class A drug and is in the same category as heroin. People can get seven years in prison for possession and can be jailed for life for dealing the drug.

Jay is 24 and from Brixton in London and used to sell drugs including cocaine for about £40 per gram. He explained why he did it.

"It all started when I needed extra money," he said. "I found it hard getting a job so I decided to make money on the streets.

It can be now as little as 5% or 10% cocaine and the rest of the material are other additives which will include dangerous chemicals
Dean Ames, head of the Forensic Science Service's drugs unit

"I was selling cocaine and skunk. The thinking behind it was that I don't like selling to heroin addicts, those people that look like tramps.

"So I'd rather sell to people that looked like myself, that dressed well, university students, people that have got good jobs."

"People that were buying it off me were people that were working in offices, men, women, university students, black, white, it doesn't really matter.

"I'd give them what they need. Every week it was the same customers. I wouldn't sell to school kids. Anything older."

But what are people putting up their noses when they snort cocaine?

Dean Ames is head of the Forensic Science Service's drugs unit, which analyses drug seizures in London.

"Lignocaine is what's called a local anaesthetic. It numbs you. But it's also a white powder.

"If you add these other materials to it, which are also white powders, you're not necessarily going to know whether it's been cut or not. And also some sugar type materials, such as mannitol (a baby laxative), glucose or lactose.

"It can be now, when you actually buy something on the street, as little as 5% or 10% cocaine and the rest of the material are other additives which will include dangerous chemicals."

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