On week days, you’ll find Sophie* preparing chicken salad lunches and doing weights at the gym before work. But that all changes come Friday. ‘If I’m drinking in a bar or even just round a friend’s house, I’ll often order a gram of coke from my dealer through WhatsApp,’ the 30-year-old communications manager says. ‘I try to keep healthy during the week, but once work’s over I want something to combat the exhaustion.’
Meet the part-time partygoers – those who drink green smoothies and work out Monday to Friday, then indulge in drink and drugs come the weekend. While the number of us eating vegan has quadrupled in the past few years and almost 50% of us now buy organic food, our cocaine use has also increased. According to a new crime survey for England and Wales, cocaine was used by an estimated 875,000 people in 2017-18 – the highest number in a decade, and a 15% year-on-year rise.
It is a rise that seems counterintuitive in a society that’s obsessed with wellness, but casual users such as Sophie say they don’t see it as being at odds with an otherwise healthy lifestyle. ‘One reason I eat well and exercise is because I tend to overindulge at the weekend,’ she explains. ‘My friends and I have never seen cocaine as bad, because it only stays in your system for a short time. It won’t get you completely out of it like other party drugs will.’
Many may feel like a big cooked breakfast or a dessert after dinner ‘doesn’t count’ on the weekends, and that we deserve a treat after working hard all week. Some justify class-A drug use in the same way: Emily*, a 35-year-old TV producer from London, avoids meat and dairy and practises yoga during the week, but will often take cocaine at festivals and parties. ‘It feels healthier than just getting drunk because it doesn’t have the calories,’ she says. ‘If I know I’m going to take it, I’ll get lots of healthy food in and load up on supplements to take the edge off.’
Fiona Measham, a drugs research scientist and founder of harm-reduction charity The Loop (wearetheloop.org), says she believes cocaine is popular with the wellness generation because it’s easy to do a small amount that may feel like it ‘doesn’t count’. ‘Women tend to favour stimulant drugs that increase your energy and suppress your appetite,’ she adds.
The drug’s side effects can be shocking, though, and the past decade has seen a trebling of those admitted to hospital for mental health disorders relating to cocaine use. NHS figures reveal there were 14,470 mental health admissions due to cocaine in 2017-18, up from 5,148 in 2007-8. Measham warns that the idea that you can counterbalance drug use with a healthy lifestyle the rest of the time absolutely isn’t true. ‘All drugs carry risk, and the risk increases with the amount you do and the other drugs you do,’ she explains.
Both Emily and Sophie admit that they rarely stick to a small amount when taking cocaine socially, and often end up having a heavy night out. In fact, the drug’s ability to keep them awake – and therefore drinking for longer – is part of its appeal. ‘If I just drink booze then I’ll get really sleepy around midnight,’ says Emily, who believes the drug helps her let off steam after working long hours in a high-pressure job. ‘If cocaine is involved then I know it’s going to be a good, long night.’
‘Lots of people have the idea that alcohol and cocaine complement each other – the drink takes the edge off the high of the coke, and the coke stops the lethargy from alcohol,’ says Measham. But she warns that this can lead to people doing far greater amounts of both: ‘ is will give you acute problems within the next 48 hours, and in the longer term it will place an added burden on your heart.’
Another risk factor is that cocaine in the UK is currently the purest it’s ever been. ‘We’re testing cocaine that is 70, 80 and even 90% pure, which is extraordinary,’ Measham says. is increased purity can cause extra damage to the nose and increases the risk of a heart attack. As a result, cocaine-related deaths in the UK are currently at an all-time high. The Office for National Statistics found there were 432 deaths in 2017, nearly four times the number of deaths in 2011, when rates were beginning to rise again.
It’s not just health risks that part-time partygoers may want to think about. Last summer, London Mayor Sadiq Khan spoke out against people who take cocaine at ‘middle-class parties’ and believe it to be a victimless crime. Then, in an interview earlier this month, Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick linked the drug trade to an alarming rise in knife crime, and agreed with an interviewer that recreational users have ‘blood on their hands’.
‘The middle classes might think this is relatively harmless,’ she said. ‘It’s not, in terms of the misery it spreads among our young people, particularly in some of our already most disadvantaged areas of London.’
‘There is violence and exploitation the whole way along the supply chain,’ agrees Measham, explaining that traffickers often target pregnant or vulnerable women in developing countries to act as drug mules. Cocaine farming has also made it difficult for indigenous people in South America to grow food and contributes to rainforest deforestation. Both Emily and Sophie admit they rarely consider what their drug use may be funding. ‘I feel like a hypocrite, as I’m conscious of how my clothes are made and where my food comes from,’ confesses Sophie. ‘But it just feels so far removed when you’re out partying.’
Our rising cocaine use demonstrates how different our private behaviour can be to the smoothie bowls and right-on political statements we may post to social media. And even if health and ethical worries seem far away, these part-time partygoers admit the drug can take its toll in other ways. ‘I’m trying to give up after a recent big night – I couldn’t move for two days afterwards,’ says Emily. ‘I feel so guilty wasting a weekend like that.'