London’s cocaine market is now worth an estimated £1bn a year after new tests revealed people in the capital are taking an average of 23kg of the Class A drug every day.
More than half a million doses of cocaine, with an estimated street value of £2.75m, are being consumed in London on average each day – twice the amount of any other European city, according to a study seen exclusively by Sky News.
Forensic scientists at King’s College London University looked at waste water in the capital and tested for benzoylecgonine (BE), the compound produced when the body breaks down cocaine.
They found that the average daily amount of pure cocaine being consumed in London was 23kg – more than Europe’s next three biggest cocaine-consuming cities combined; Barcelona (12.74kg), Amsterdam (4.62kg) and Berlin (4.62kg).
It means London’s annual pure cocaine use now equates to more than eight tonnes which has an estimated street value of more than £1bn.
The tests also revealed Londoners are big weekday users of cocaine unlike other European cities.
Dr Leon Barron, forensic scientist at King’s College London, told Sky News that researchers found sustained cocaine usage across the week in the capital, with only a slight rise at the weekend.
That is in contrast to other cities where you see a very marked recreational use at the weekend, and so cocaine is an everyday drug in London, he added.
London’s average daily amount of cocaine used (23kg) represents pure cocaine and does not include substances which the Class A drug is cut with – usually anaesthetics such as lidocaine and benzocaine.
Of the two UK cities tested by King’s College – London and Bristol – Bristol was recorded as having more users of cocaine per head of population, and came out highest per capita of the 75 other European cities tested.
London’s consumption of cocaine doubled from 2011 to 2015 but has slightly reduced since then, suggesting its market may have saturated.
It may explain why dealers are seeking to expand their criminal operations to other towns and cities, in what has become known as County Lines.
Tony Saggers, former head of drugs threat at the National Crime Agency, said: I would say London has got to the point of saturation.
The demand has gone up, the price has stayed stable, people are able to lay their hands on it freely, readily… but I would say, yeah, the other cities are catching up.
In Bristol, Sky News met hairdressers, bar staff, a teacher, medical workers and students who admitted using cocaine.
A bar owner, who did not want to be named, said the surge in drug use had caused her to increase her spending on security by £1,000 per week.
It’s everywhere, she said.
I think it is because of austerity and cuts to public services and greater stress – people are taking more drugs.
I call it Eau De Bristol – the Bristol smell. We’re trying to keep it out.
One reason cocaine has become more prolific is the wholesale price has come down.
More international crime networks have entered the market and it has become more competitive.
Shipments from Colombia are ever more ambitious with large concealments in containers of legitimate goods.
Mr Saggers said: For cocaine, it is commonly smuggled in fruit but not exclusively. Pineapples and bananas, two of the most common we consume more of those than any other country in Europe.
It’s using pineapples as a paper work exercise because you would expect to see them coming to the UK, and then using the pineapple itself as an additional visual concealment.
The dark web is also a growing market place for illegal drugs to be sold, with one online dealer telling Sky News he relies on e-bay-style trader ratings.
The dealer, who gave his name as John, said: There’s a nice disconnect so that you don’t have to feel socially responsible for meeting a drug dealer in the street or worry about giving you some dodgy stuff.
You’ve got a call of recourse there with the feedback system which is quite nice and very organised.
John said that in some cases he could mark up his product by nearly 1,000% and that posting three letters in the post box amounted to a week’s work.
He added: After a hundred grand, you don’t really want to make anymore. Two grand a week, that is enough for a holiday.
With competition rising, the price of cocaine has remained roughly the same in recent years at around £40 a gram.
However the purity of a gram of cocaine has increased, which may explain the increase in the concentration found in sewerage tests.
Lawrence Gibbons, the head of drugs threat at the NCA, told Sky News: Prices remain reasonably stable, however purity over the last few years has begun to increase and it is higher purity now.
I think it suggests that people want the higher purity cocaine, they don’t want to go back 10 years when purity on street-level was down to 3 to 5%. It really wasn’t the product they thought they were buying.
With purity now at 30-40% plus, cocaine’s retail price is effectively cheaper than in recent years and more addictive.
Cocaine Anonymous, which now holds more than 600 meetings a week in the UK, granted Sky News rare access to meet recovering addicts in Bristol and London.
Many of those attending meetings said that while addiction is a taboo, the acceptance of cocaine as a recreational drug fuelled their problem.
One recovering addict called Sarah, said: My entire social network was doing it and it started out as a lot of fun and I was partying a lot with it.
It was a socially acceptable drug to be using because everybody was doing it and it’s that kind of middle class drug, and then suddenly I was the one chasing the party all the time.
Another recovering addict named Lee, said: I bought into the Hollywood lie, you know, the cocaine champagne type of thing that came across in Hollywood films. There is certainly a social aspect to it.
A woman called Wendy, who has also battled cocaine addiction, told Sky News that she became aware of a cocaine culture while working in a hair salon aged just 13.
She said: All the stylists would get together, it would be the end of the day and the adults would wrack up a line out the back in the kitchen and this was a respectable white middle class hairdresser’s and they would all have a line.
And, when I was 13 years old, I was watching that, I wanted to be part of it.
Author and columnist Bryony Gordon, who has written about her past cocaine dependence, said the problem is that it is seen as a party drug and not vilified on the same level as heroin or crack cocaine.
I suppose it’s the fact that celebrities take it, middle-class journalists like me take it, politicians take it and it’s either considered okay to take it or it’s not as problematic, she told Sky News.
It’s recreational. That’s the word, recreational. It destroys lives.
She added: But no one wants to be an addict. And I think to have a bit more empathy for people we need to look beyond the drug-taking to the reasons for the drug-taking.
Author Dr Gabor Mate, a world-renowned expert on addiction, said it was a product of childhood experience combined with worsening social circumstance, which here in Britain have been exacerbated by three decades of the breaking down of the social network.
He added: The current cocaine ‘epidemic’ you might call it in the UK is really a social malaise, that’s totally related to larger social, political and economic factors.