Coke Is It in Europe

European leaders need to get serious about Europe’s cocaine problem. The “white lady” is seducing a steadily growing number of Europeans, and remaining in a state of denial will only worsen the consequences.

Cocaine used to be America’s problem, to the point that the United States started a major campaign against sellers and consumers of crack cocaine in the inner cities, drug traffickers, and suppliers in the Andes. But now demand for cocaine in most of the world is stable or dropping. Coca cultivation has been slashed by a quarter in the past five years, and seizures of cocaine have almost doubled. An impressive 42% of all of the world’s cocaine was seized in 2005.

Only Europe is bucking the trend. Cocaine use is on the rise, especially in Spain, Great Britain, and Italy. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence indicating traces of cocaine found on bank notes and in water supplies.

Here are some harder facts. For the first time, the level of cocaine use in Spain – 3% of the population aged 15 to 64 – now exceeds that in the US. And the United Kingdom is not far behind. In 2005, 2.4% of the UK population used cocaine at least once, up sharply from 0.6% a decade earlier.

Consider another telling indicator. Ten years ago, 20% of all new clients entering treatment for drug abuse in the Netherlands were addicted to cocaine. Now it is 40%. In Spain, the proportion has soared to 42% in 2002, from just 7% in 1995 – and it has no doubt risen again since then.

Europe’s growing cocaine problem is due to several factors. First, drug users in Europe are switching to cocaine from heroin. Cocaine is fashionable because it is attractive: white, not dark; sniffed, not injected; consumed in a living room or a fashionable night-club, not in a dark alley. It is seen as a drug for winners, not losers. To many it is a symbol of success, until they end up in a hospital or treatment center. Cocaine use by high-profile entertainers, executives, models, and socialites who flaunt their illicit drug habit certainly does not help. Nor does uncritical reporting by the media.

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It seems many Europeans need to be reminded that cocaine is highly addictive and harmful. That is why it is a controlled substance. While addicts may be in denial, thinking that they can control their “recreational use,” cocaine, to quote the famous song by J.J. Cale, “she don’t lie.”

Second, too many governments – particularly in rich countries – fail to invest political capital in preventing and treating drug abuse. They are ill equipped to deal with the problem, so their societies have the drug problem they deserve.

This raises a basic credibility issue: how can Europe urge Colombia and Peru to reduce supply when its own drug habit is driving cultivation?

The solution is to attack the problem at its source by addressing both supply and demand. Coca crops in Latin America need to be replaced with agricultural crops, and cocaine use in affluent Europe must be reduced. Solving the cocaine problem is a shared responsibility.

On the supply side, there must be more support for poor farmers in drug-producing countries to give them viable alternatives to growing coca. Most illicit coca growers are extremely poor. Crop eradication will not work over the long term if there is no legal economy to replace drugs. Drug control and development assistance must therefore go hand in hand.

Environmental protection is also at issue. Coca farmers and producers slash and burn forests, polluting streams with toxic chemicals and damaging fragile ecosystems. The Andean region has less than 1% of the world’s land area, but more than 15% of its plant life. Vast areas of vegetation are being destroyed for lines of white powder. At a time of growing concern about climate change, Europeans should be made aware of the long-term destruction done to a precious and fragile habitat for the sake of a short-term high.

But controlling supply is not enough. If all of Colombia’s farmers stopped growing coca tomorrow, unrestrained demand by the world’s 13 million cocaine users would quickly generate as much cultivation somewhere else.

Clearly, the ultimate challenge is to prevent drug abuse and to treat and rehabilitate drug users successfully. Sweden is a good example of how to do it right. Drug use there is a third of the European average – the result of decades of consistent policies (irrespective of changes in government) that combine tough punishment of dealers and comprehensive treatment for users.

The more that can be done to prevent people from becoming cocaine addicts, the less damage these people will do to themselves and their families, the less money will get into the pockets of criminals, insurgents, and terrorists, and the less damage will be done to the environment.

But nothing will be done until Europe wakes up and faces its pandemic.