Mon, May 24, 2004 - Page 7 News List

More Britons die as cocaine price falls

DRUG ABUSE As the price of cocaine has declined, more young professionals have started to take it recreationally at the weekends, and more of them are drying from it


Soaring levels of cocaine use among young British professionals have led to a record number of deaths, according to new figures.

A drastic drop in the price of the drug, coupled with the belief among young people that cocaine is "safe," led to 87 deaths linked to its use for the first six months of last year -- double the figure for the same period in 2002.

With a gram of cocaine -- enough for up to 20 lines -- now costing £40 compared with £70 a few years ago, the rising death toll has been linked to growing evidence that young professionals are now using it as the weekend drug of choice. Figures show more than 640,000 people used the drug last year -- triple the number in 1997.

While cocaine has been dubbed the the "drug without a downside" on account of the lack of a narcotic hangover, doctors warn it can trigger fatal heart attacks and strokes, as well as causing severe long-term depression associated with heavy binges.

Fabrizio Schifano, addiction researcher at St. George's medical school in Tooting, south London, said the latest figures showed the tragic and rising cost of recreational drug abuse. He warned that easier availability, falling prices and the growing popularity of cocktails of several drugs are behind the trend.

"The rising toll of fatalities mirrors the increased use of cocaine among wealthy young professionals," said Schifano. "People who use drugs after a hard week at work don't consider themselves addicts. They may take a combination of stimulants, which is more often implicated in fatalities. But these drugs can also kill on their own."

When the drug is taken with drink it is more dangerous because it produces a toxic substance known as cocaethylene, which damages the heart.

"Heavy drinking with the drug really pushes up the level of risk," said Schifano. "Most people take it with alcohol, not realizing that it increases the chance of having a stroke or a heart attack."

For years cocaine has enjoyed a high-society image in Britain, where it is associated with pop stars and celebrities. It is not associated with crime in the way heroin is, and someone who can afford it can stay on cocaine for years before finding they have a serious addiction.

Whereas crack cocaine is believed to be immediately addictive and highly dangerous, cocaine snorted through the nose as white powder has less effect because only 30 percent to 40 percent of it enters the bloodstream, compared with nearly 100 percent absorption when smoked as crack.

Schifano said: "Typically, we'll see people in our clinic who have become addicted through social habits. They go to a club, they drink a lot, they are offered coke and they take it. Then they crash out on a Sunday, and are back to work again on Monday morning. They will feel depressed and low, but they can get through the week until Friday when they start all over again."

Celebrities Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and Danniella Westbrook are among those who have been treated for addiction to cocaine.

Footballer Diego Maradona is in a Buenos Aires clinic, withdrawing from addiction after nearly dying from a heart and lung condition.

The drugs charity Turning Point believes lower prices have had an effect.

A spokesman said: "It may actually be beating ecstasy now as the drug most commonly used by clubbers."

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