Cocaine has come a long way - from the champagne accompaniment among the rich and famous to the drug of choice in the pubs and clubs of northern ireland. in a culture of celebrity worship it has become a killer fashion accessory. today belfast telegraph crime Correspondent Deborah McAleese begins a three-day special report into the use of the deadly drug, revealing its alarming rise in Ulster, its growing accessibility to our young people and how it is destroying the lives of rich and poor alike
Ulster's deadly cocaine market has exploded by more than 2000% in just six years.
The amount of the killer drug taken off our streets in the last financial year was the highest on record.
Over 36,000 grams of cocaine powder - amounting to an estimated street value of around £1.5m - was seized in 2006/2007 compared to 1,700 grams in 2000/01.
"Treatment figures would certainly suggest a growing cocaine problem and that assertion would be supported by increased police seizures," said Detective Superintendent Hayden Bell, head of the PSNI's Crime Operations Drug Squad.
Latest police statistics show that from April to November 2007, over 19,000 grams were seized from across the province.
Although the largest seizures made within that time were in Ballymena (5,030g) and east Belfast (5,031g), Mr Bell said this is not necessarily an indication of a specific problem in those areas. He said that big seizures could be made in specific geographical areas which had been selected by traffickers as a distribution point elsewhere in the Province.
The emergence of an 'economy' cocaine market in Northern Ireland is thought to be one of the contributory factors to the growing cocaine problem here.
According to police, cocaine with a purity of as little as 2% - which means it is more heavily 'cut' or mixed with other substances - is now available in the province, opening up a whole new market for younger age groups, students and those on low incomes.
On arrival in the UK cocaine purity levels are believed to be around 50% to 60%. However, the average purity of cocaine at street level in the province is thought to be around 34%.
With the emergence of the economy cocaine market the drug is being cut down even further to both increase profits and attract those who would not normally be able to afford the highly addictive drug.
Crime gangs within Ulster are working with national and international crime gangs to secure their supplies of controlled drugs and Mr Bell said that with the growth in cheaper airfares it is easier for criminal gangs to travel to distribution spots.
"Borders are not an impediment to this criminal activity. PSNI Drug Squad and the Garda National Drug Unit work very closely on cross-border operations and have achieved some significant success," he said.
"Drugs come into Northern Ireland by air, sea and land and by working with other law enforcement agencies at local, national and international levels we identify the routes and target the gangs involved.
"Drug traffickers are continually looking for new transport routes and methods to traffic drugs and so law enforcement across the world has to be constantly aware of the possibility of some new method."
In the past few months police have made 36 arrests in relation to Class A drugs which, Mr Bell revealed, has disrupted 12 different crime gangs here.
Class A drugs seized during that time included a quantity of the highly addictive stimulant crack cocaine, which sparked concern of a growing market. However, Mr Bell said while it is available in the province within specific groups and geographical areas there is "no evidence to suggest a growing crack cocaine market at this time".
'My habit split family'
Brian*, a 30 year-old from Antrim, lost his job, home and family because of his addiction to cocaine. This is his story.
"I was addicted to cocaine for 10 years. It wasn't the first drug I took. I started taking drugs when I was about 11, sometimes in school. I started out sniffing gas and then that progressed to party drugs like 'E' and speed. I was into the rave scene and drugs went along with that. It ended up that I wasn't getting enough of a buzz from 'E' and speed so I tried cocaine when I was about 18 and had a bit more money. It really appealed to me, it was a grown-up drug.
I was working in the catering industry at the time earning about £200 to £300 each week. It was a good job and I enjoyed it. But I began spending twice my wages on cocaine every week.
It got to the stage that I had to get the money for cocaine any way I could. I needed the drugs so I robbed and stole from my mother and father and was selling bits to friends.
I was taking it at the weekends and sometimes during the week. If I had enough money to buy it every day I would have used it every day.
It made me feel good, really confident. But when the buzz wore off the paranoia was terrible, it was one of the worst things when coming down. I also got headaches and cramps but the paranoia was the worst.
I started to realise that cocaine was ruining my life, I was no longer controlling it, it was controlling me. I had lost respect for myself and my family. I had let myself go.
I eventually lost my job and my home and my habit split up my whole family, I no longer had any connection with them. When my girlfriend and I had a child that was what made me finally decide that I wanted to get clean.
I moved to Ballymena as I had to get away from the old scene and old friends.
I have now been off it for one and a half years.
Every day is still difficult but the Hope Centre in Ballymena (which runs a family and addicts support group) is helping me get a bit of stability back into my life. I have rebuilt my relationship with my family and my goal now for the year is to get back into employment.
It has been a huge struggle and I still need a lot of support. I also still have a lot of guilt about what I put my family through.
I had a normal, happy family childhood, the same as everyone else, my mother and father both worked and we had a good income. My upbringing had nothing to do with me becoming a drug addict.
I lost a large part of my childhood through drugs.
Cocaine is now more readily available and I would advise people to stay away from it altogether. If they don't they could end up like me."
* Not his real name