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Cocaine use 'firmly embedded in UK'

The use of cocaine in the UK has more than trebled in two decades and is no longer the "the preserve of wealthy bankers and celebrities", a report has found.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs said the drug has spread throughout all areas of society since the mid-1990s following the emergence of a market in cheap, low-purity powdered cocaine that operates alongside a more expensive and far higher purity version of the drug.

The access to cheap cocaine - often mixed with harmful cutting agents - is "highly likely" to have driven the rise in the number of users from "hard pressed" or low income backgrounds, as well as the "comfortably off", living outside cities where drug use was traditionally uncommon.

But more surprising to authors was the "phenomenon" of older people up to the age of 54 using cocaine - a trend not seen in other drug types.

The report, addressed to Home Secretary Theresa May and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, is the first of its kind to investigate powdered cocaine use and was launched in response to fears of a perception that the drug is safe as use increased.

Professor Les Iversen, chair of the ACMD, an independent body which advises the Government, said: "Consumption of powdered cocaine in the United Kingdom has changed radically over the last two decades.

"Once characterised as the preserve of wealthy bankers and celebrities, the research highlighted in this report shows a cheaper, low-purity version of the drug has permeated society far more widely.

"Given the clear health risks associated with even infrequent cocaine use, and associated issues such as dependency and crime, this development has posed a huge challenge to health professionals, law enforcement, educators and academics."

He added: "I believe the drug is firmly embedded in UK society."

Using data from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, the report said 0.6% of 16-59 year-olds took powdered cocaine in 1996, compared to a peak of 3% - or 885,000 people - in 2008/2009.

While the report said a slight fall in use since 2009 - to 743,000 people in 2013/2014 - could be a sign of a general decline in the UK, Mr Iversen said it is not yet significant.

Despite the rise Tim Miller, one of the authors of the report, said only a small minority of people use cocaine and warned against launching an anti-cocaine education campaign.

"I think we need to tread carefully around drugs education and prevention because it can backfire," he said.

"One of my worries is that if people think everyone is doing it then they might think it's OK to do it."

The drug can cause significant harm even in first-time or occasional users, including strokes, heart attacks, over-heating of body temperature to life threatening levels and psychiatric problems.

Health problems are also caused by cutting agents used to make the drug more profitable - including levamisole used to worm sheep - which can lower blood cell numbers and phenacetin which can cause kidney problems.

The report also found in the last year cocaine use was also found to be more than twice as popular among gays and bisexuals compared to heterosexuals.

A Home Office spokesman said the department " continues to be concerned about the harms caused by cocaine use, which is why it is a Class A drug".

"Law enforcement continues to tackle the supply of cocaine at home and abroad and the Coalition Government has introduced new powers to combat the trade in cutting agents, which are mixed with drugs by criminals to boost their profits," he said.

"We are grateful to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for its review and recommendations on the use, prevalence and harms associated with powder cocaine. We will consider its advice carefully and respond in due course."

Dr Paul McLaren, a medical director at the Priory Group, which treats for drug and alcohol abuse across its 250 sites, said he was "not surprised" by the report.

"What I've seen is a wider range of use both across age range and the social spectrum", he said.

"It's certainly more widely used and appears to be more socially acceptable in young professionals. It's a common story that cocaine is available in social settings at parties, clubs and pubs and is easy to access.

"It's certainly not unusual to see university students using cocaine when in the past they would not have been able to afford it.

"I think in the past it's had a cool image that has contributed to its increase in use. It's not a safe drug, it's highly addictive and highly harmful.

"I see people with holes in their noses, with emotional and psychological damage from using cocaine.

"It's not as immediately addictive as something like heroin. Some people may be able to use it socially for years before developing a problem with it."

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