UK tops European cocaine league table
Levels of cocaine abuse in UK outstrips those in the US, says EU report which also points to 30 new variants of 'legal highs'
A renewed popularity in cocaine use among young adults over the past year has put the UK at the top of the European "league table" for cocaine abuse and now even outstrips the levels seen in the US, according to the annual report of the EU's drug agency published today.
The European monitoring centre for drugs and drug abuse also warns that more than 30 new variants of designer drugs or "legal highs" – similar to the banned Spice and mephedrone – have appeared this year.
The latest figures reported to the EU drugs agency show that a sharp rise in the popularity of cocaine may be taking place in the UK with nearly 15% of all 18- to 34-year-olds reporting having tried the drug at least once.
The persistent nature of the cocaine problem in the UK is underlined by the fact that Britain has featured with Spain at or near the top of the European cocaine "league" in six out of the last seven years.
But the latest figures show that the UK has moved sharply ahead in 2009 with 6.2% of those aged 15 to 34 saying they have used cocaine in the last year. This compares with 4.5% of young US adults in the same age group
They EU's drug agency also warns that there are worrying signs that use of crack cocaine is creeping up in parts of London.
The Lisbon-based agency says that the use of cocaine in the UK and Spain, which has the second highest level in the EU, increased dramatically in the late 1990s before moving towards a more stable but upward trend throughout the last decade.
The agency's annual report says that cocaine use across the 27 EU countries has increased markedly since the 1990s and is now the second most commonly used illicit substance after cannabis with more than 3 million young adults using it every year.
Cannabis use is generally stabilising or on a downward trend across most of western Europe, including the UK, but levels are now rising sharply in eastern Europe particularly in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Estonia, adds the agency.
The European drugs experts also report that a record number of new substances – many of them "legal highs" were reported in 2009 through the EU's early warning system. Twenty two new psychoactives were officially notified to Europol for the first time – the largest number in a single year and double the number in 2008. So far 31 new substance mainly "designer drugs" similar to Spice and mephedrone that imitate either the effect of ecstasy or cannabis. The newer products that have appeared this year tend to imitate cocaine and amphetamines in their effects.
The annual report says that Britain's decision to ban mephedrone in April has wiped out the boom in UK-based online sites selling the drug - it record 77 at the peak in March this year. But the majority have now ceased to exist. The 2010 survey shows only 20 remaining UK-based online "legal high" sites and the Netherlands has taken over as the online designer-drug capital of Europe with twice the number.
The increase in popularity in cocaine across Europe has been matched by an associated rise in cocaine-related deaths with around 1,000 reported annually and the number in the UK doubling from 161 in 2003 to 325 in 2008 although there was a small decline last year.
Experts warn that increasingly sophisticated techniques are being used to conceal and smuggle cocaine into Europe from South America. They cite one technique which involves incorporating cocaine base or hydrochloride into "carrier materials" such as beeswax, fertiliser or clothing and then setting clandestine "extraction" laboratories within the EU. Thirty such "extraction" laboratories were uncovered in Spain in 2008.
"Too many Europeans still regard cocaine use as a relatively harmless accompaniment to a successful lifestyle," said Wolfgang Götz, director of the European drug agency. "But we are progressively seeing that, as cocaine consumption grows, so too does its impact on public health. Not only can use of this drug escalate quickly, but it can also result in fatalities, even when intake is occasional and doses are low."
The annual report also highlights the increased use of two "cutting agents" to increase the market value of cocaine. The EU drug experts are particularly worried about the health effects of levamisole, which is usually used to worm cattle, and phenacetin, an analgesic.
Typical cocaine users in Britain are now just as likely to be poor, working-class young men as wealthy City traders. The latest school surveys show that 6% of 15- to 16-year-olds have tried the drug. A survey on the online dance music magazine Mixmag found that 22% of British clubbers reported having taken the drug during the evening.
The EU drugs agency says that overall heroin use still accounts for the greatest share of drug-related deaths across Europe with the number of "problem drug users" cautiously estimated at 1.35 million. A growing number – 670,000 at the last count in 2008 – are receiving substitute treatment, often methadone, which has seen a tenfold increase since 1993 and is now available in all 27 EU countries.
Alan Travis in Lisbon
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 10 November 2010 10.02 GMT