Millennials are an ethical bunch. Veganism is on the rise, primarily down to the environmental impact of meat production and animal welfare issues. At universities, statues of historic British figures are squabbled over due to their racism or imperialism. Abortion; assisted suicide; racial profiling by the police; clothes manufacturing; bamboo coffee cups. The list goes on.
Mostly, I side with my generation. While I don’t think ripping down statues is the answer, we should receive a broader interpretation of our history at school. Though killing an animal isn’t necessarily wrong to me, factory farming, the mass production of animals, and destroying the environment are.
But there’s one issue where I seemingly stand against the grain. While twenty-somethings fight the cause during the week, ethics fly out the door on the weekend. I’m talking about cocaine. Once a preserve of the rich, the resurgent white powder has yet again become the party drug du jour.
“It’s so easy to get hold of. My guy comes in 15 minutes wherever you are in London, at any time,” says Jack (whose name, along with others in this article, has been changed), 27, echoing recent news reports suggesting cocaine deliveries arrive quicker than pizzas.
As festival season gets underway, the permissive drugs culture will soon be in full swing. There’s no Glastonbury this year, but it was at last year’s event that I realised just how normalised cocaine has become. In London, people scuttle off to the toilet to hoover up their powder. But in the sunny fields of Somerset, it was freely – and frequently – consumed without a care to who was around.
The recreational users I’ve spoken to cited the following reasons for partaking: its confidence-inducing properties; its ability to make you drink for longer; or that it was just a bit of fun. “It makes me feel confident and comfortable, and everything is interesting and exciting. You can stay awake for hours and can keep drinking,” says Jack, who has been using it regularly for four years.
Alice, 24, also from London, agrees. “It’s always to supplement a night out, whether it’s to give me more energy at a party that goes on late, or just to make evenings more fun. There are other drugs that are similarly fun but a lot cheaper, so I’ve started doing those more.” Both said it would cost £60 for a night’s worth of cocaine, at best.
But in the supposed age of increased consciousness, how is it that cocaine is on the up?
In 2009, the author and journalist George Monbiot wrote an essay citing the then UN Office on Drugs and Crime executive director Antonio Maria Costa’s declaration that drug policy should “shift its focus from drug users to drug traffickers” – it was music to the casual user’s liberal ears.
Monbiot said: “Informed adults should be allowed to inflict whatever suffering they wish – on themselves. But we are not entitled to harm other people. I know people who drink Fairtrade tea and coffee, shop locally and take cocaine at parties. They are revolting hypocrites.” I’m inclined to agree.
In 2005, over 23,000 people were killed as a direct result of the cocaine trade, in Colombia alone; the country supplied 80pc of Britain’s coke. The Netflix show Narcos, about Pablo Escobar, claims that six people died per kilo of cocaine in the early 1990s and, while the real number is hard to ascertain, the devastation is obvious. In the years since, things aren’t looking any rosier.
I’m well aware of the havoc caused by the drug in Brazil, my mother’s country, having visited many times. “Brazil, this beautiful country, has the world’s ugliest record,” said Ilona Szabó de Carvalho, a gun and drug law campaigner, at a Ted Talk in 2014. “We are the number one champion in homicidal violence. One in every ten people killed around the world is a Brazilian. This translates to 56,000 each year.” Brazil is one of the largest consumers (and exporters) of drugs – particularly cocaine – and around half of those homicides are drug-related according to de Carvalho.
Has knowledge of the death and destruction helped quell the cocaine trade? Are millennials worried about the deforestation that goes with cocaine production, pushing animals to exctinction? Or the excess product that pollutes local water supplies?
Far from it. According to the European Drug Report 2018 (EDR), released last week, cocaine production is being ramped up in South America – and it’s doing so because of the West’s insatiable appetite. “For cocaine, in contrast [to heroin], several indicators are now trending upwards,” the report says of Europe. It cites wastewater analysis and drug seizures among other quantifiers of the drug’s rise.
And who might the EU’s biggest consumers be? The UK. London’s sewers are full of residue; more Brits are checking into „specialised treatment related to cocaine“; and cocaine-poisoning deaths are up (from 139 in 2012 to 371 in 2016, according the the Office for National Statistics).
While it may be easy to set aside death and destruction on another continent, we only need look closer to home to see how we are complicit in the trail of destruction. Gun and knife crime in the UK is soaring – we’ve all seen the news. We hear less about how that relates to drugs.
Dr Andrew Whittaker, Associate Professor of Social Work at London Southbank University, has spent time studying a gang in Waltham Forest, northeast London. His report revealed how gratuitous violence and traditional displays of gang loyalty have given way to a savvy business approach. Gangs, he says, deal all sorts of drugs, from heroin and cannabis to crack and powdered cocaine.
Dr Whittaker explains how Brits, more than anywhere else, buy their coke on the dark web, a fact corroborated by the EDR. But the dark web hasn’t stopped violence, and neither has the new business model.
“In terms of Waltham Forest, about 50pc of violent deaths are drug related, which fits in with the national picture. The government’s Serious Violence Strategy states that the percentage of homicides in which either the perpetrator or victim was a user or dealer has risen from 50pc in 2014/15 to 57pc in 2016/17,” Dr Whittaker tells me.
Setting aside the debate on current legislation, which clearly needs to be looked at, illicit drugs are wreaking havoc – yet we can’t get enough of them. The Telegraph’s Paul Hayward wrote last month of cocaine-fuelled scuffles at horse races; the Economist cites Black Friday-style discounts to entice new users; and the Police Federation’s Simon Kempton says middle-class users partly are to blame for the violence.
His view is supported by Sheldon Thomas, an ex-gang member and now a social worker, who told the Guardian last month: “We need to tackle street gangs and gang crime but for me the big incubator is middle-class people who buy these drugs. We need to tackle middle-class white people who are buying cocaine in very large amounts.”
It’s a question I put to those willing to speak about their recreational use. For a generation obsessed with all things ethical, isn’t it unethical to buy drugs when there’s so much baggage surrounding the trade? “It’s in the back of my mind, but I also don’t think about how my clothes are made, how meat is produced, or how much the avocados and quinoa I eat affect people who are exploited for it to end up on supermarket shelves,” says Jack.
Alice agrees: “There are ethical factors around everything we consume. The best we can do is to engage, understand responsibility, and reduce our unethical consumption as much as we can. Some people choose not to do coke but drive a 4×4. I choose to occasionally take coke and not eat meat or fish.”
I put the paradox to Dr Whittaker, whose answer echoes Monbiot. “People want to know whether their clothing is traded fairly and their chicken is free range, but may not think of the ethical provenance of their cocaine. The sad truth is that the drugs market will continue as long as there is demand, and involves untold misery that would appal most recreational cocaine users.”
Ethics, for all of us, are to some degree a pick and mix; it’s impossible to fight every battle. I’ve never been tempted by cocaine, but I do sometimes eat meat, buy avocados and I’ll use plastic bottles – when I’ve forgotten my thermal one at home.
But with cocaine use on the rise in Britain – an estimated 3.6pc of millennials took the drug last year, well above the EU average – this is one area where young people clearly have a moral and ethical blind spot. As a millennial myself, I find my generation’s complicity hard to stomach.