Britain does so much cocaine it’s now in the drinking water


A glass of water is filled at a kitchen tap in 2008 in London. (Cate Gillon/Getty Images)

Britain has a thing for cocaine. Traces of the drug have been found in toilet cubicles in Parliament. One of its major football clubs was just rocked by a cocaine scandal. And a once-prominent banker — nicknamed the Crystal Methodist — just pleaded guilty to cocaine possession.

Coke, unlike most other commodities, is cheaper in the United Kingdom than in most other Western European countries. The government estimates that 4.4 percent of 25 to 29-year-olds use it in powder form.

Britain’s drug use has now affected its drinking water. Water inspectors discovered traces of benzoylecgonine — the metabolized form of the drug — at four sites. The compound, which urine-based drug tests screen for, wasn’t at a high enough level to affect someone who drank the water, and researchers weren’t sure what caused its appearance. “We have not speculated on the source of the trace amounts and the research did not cover that aspect,” Principal Inspector Sue Pennison told The Washington Post.

But that hasn’t stopped others from doing so.

“We have near the highest level of cocaine use in Western Europe,” Steve Rolles, an analyst at Transform, a drug policy think tank, told the Sunday Times on Sunday. “It has also been getting cheaper and cheaper at the same time as its use has been going up.”

Source: World Drug Report 2013, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Graphic: The Washington Post.
Source: World Drug Report 2013, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Graphic: The Washington Post.

While it’s unclear whether cocaine use is still increasing in the United Kingdom — the latest U.N. studies actually show a slight decrease — it’s unquestionably high, propelled as much by market forces as cultural.

In the last decade, the use of most other drugs has fallen. According to U.N. 2013 World Drug Report, the percentage of Brits who smoke weed dropped from around 11 percent in 2003 to around 7 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, the percent of cocaine users has surged in the past two decades from below 1 percent to more than 2 percent.

For explanation, look no further than cocaine’s bargain basement prices. As of 2010, according to the U.N., the going price for a gram is about $60, while two decades ago it was $157. “While in the 1980s and 1990s it was seen as a drug of the wealthy and fashionable,” the Daily Mail says, “it is now widely taken by people of every class and profession — and even by school children.”

A big reason prices have plunged, police told the Economist, is that its quality has dropped. Dealers cut coke more than before to increase profit margins with anesthetic that mimics the numbing effect that cocaine has on the gums. One expert says the cocaine available at pubs and clubs is so weak that “a lot of users wouldn’t know what real cocaine is.” In Scotland, purity can be as low as 5 percent.

So there’s no need to fret that drinking the water will get you high.  “The study looked at ‘worst case’ scenarios,” Pennison told the Post, praising the results. It “is reassuring in that it demonstrated that water treatment was generally very effective in removal of a number of pharmaceuticals which were detected in untreated river water in trace amounts.”

The report adds: “Thus, the detected pharmaceuticals are unlikely to present a risk to health.”

Source: World Drug Report 2013, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Graphic: The Washington Post.
Source: World Drug Report 2013, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Graphic: The Washington Post.
Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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Terrence McCoy · May 12