John Harris

Journalist & Author

Cocaine, the perfect drug for a brittle and anxious Britain | John Harris

How did the high-rollers’ drug of choice become so widely used that the country now tops the European league tables?

When it comes to the image of the week, there is surely no contest: it’s a slam-dunk for that picture of Cameron, Gove, Osborne and Cable gingerly raising their glasses in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, genuflecting to the towering power of Wen Jiabao and quietly hoping that their travelling companion, Tamara Mellon, might divine a Chinese market for Jimmy Choos. There is poetry here, of a kind: four horsemen of the fiscal apocalypse, so awkward-looking that their image cuts straight to one of the defining features of Con-Dem Britain: a sharp slip in national self-esteem – so steep, in fact, that the belated act of post-imperial rebranding that was Cool Britannia now feels like something that happened aeons ago. By way of further evidence, consider a few other recent news stories: the prospect of aircraft carriers without aircraft, the cuts in aid to our once-beloved creative industries, and England’s “ailing” World Cup bid.

Still, let us acknowledge at least one area in which Britain remains a world leader. According to this week’s annual report from the EU’s Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, we are now top of the European rankings for cocaine use – which includes the minority pastime of crack-smoking, but largely denotes the standard ritual whereby the drug is powdered and shoved up people’s noses. Spain once threatened the UK’s supremacy, but no more: such is our appetite for the stuff that our per-capita experience of the drug now even exceeds that of the US. One in 10 of us have tried it; 15% of 18- to 34 year-olds say they have had some at least once. According to another report from Straight Statistics, each year, nearly a million Britons either give it a go or indulge a regular habit.

Twenty years ago most people understood cocaine as a distant, almost mythical substance – prohibitively expensive and thereby restricted to either metropolitan high-rollers or those in the higher reaches of the entertainment industry: “God’s way of telling you you’re earning too much money,” as Robin Williams once said. I can well recall the first time I was aware of its use: at a 21st birthday party attended by a smattering of young aristocrats, whose possession of such a rarefied substance prompted awe-struck whispers.

For people lower down the social scale, the recreational pharmacoepia revolved around more affordable sources of enjoyment: cannabis, amphetamine sulphate; and, for those who had immersed themselves in Britain’s seemingly unstoppable club culture, ecstasy – an illicit substance whose creation of a kind of delirious sociability arguably did Britain a great deal of good.

Then something happened. In 1990, the average price of a gram of cocaine was about £90; five years later, it was closer to £60. Via such voices as the Gallagher brothers and the early Loaded magazine, it followed a standard enough route from some of the more celebrated parts of the culture into the population. Circa 2003, its price per gram came down to about £40; in 2006, it was reported that Gloucester – Gloucester! – had registered the UK’s lowest street price, at about £30. Now surveys suggest that some 6% of 15- to 16-year-olds have tried it. For someone of my generation, who recalls the acme of teenage experimentation being a weak joint scored from a helpful sixth former, even that relatively small proportion seems mind-boggling: proof of cocaine’s passage from yuppie land to somewhere remarkably close to the bike sheds.

Higher up the age range, this week’s figures point up the blurring of our alcohol and drug cultures, and an underrated aspect of the British fondness for boozy excess. As any cocaine user will tell you, one of its main effects is the increased capacity for drink, which must substantially add to the takings of those great alco-sheds that now dominate our towns. If you read the shock-horror reports of those Friday nights-out that take in incredible volumes of booze and end in A&E, bear in mind that cocaine will often have something to do with it.

By way of shining light on our times, however, the most important point is this. Cocaine is not a drug to plug you into the collective consciousness; instead it leaves you marooned on your own tedious island, little caring about what anyone else has to contribute. Unlike ecstasy, cannabis, or acid, it is not contemplative or mind-expanding. It tends to kill humour and camaraderie and render the collective mood brittle and anxious. All too often it fosters arrogance, anger, and even violence: last year, Greater Manchester Police found that in a sample of 1,000 people arrested for violent offences, of the 500 who tested positive for drugs, 86% had been using cocaine. And stats like that bring the inevitable conclusion: that if the idea of the caring, sharing 90s turned out to be a brief mirage, and we end the current decade more atomised and volatile than ever, the popularity of cocaine speaks volumes, embodying the spirit of our times while also feeding it.

We remain, as Damon Albarn once put it, “a stroppy little island of mixed-up people”, hundreds of thousands of whom are in the habit of frenziedly talking themselves up, while anyone not on the same warped wavelength pays them little attention. Again, one’s mind goes back to those slightly absurd images from China: somewhere in the cocaine experience there may well be an analogy with the entire post-imperial condition.

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