- 06 Feb 08
While certain elements of the chattering classes decry cocaine as the devil’s dandruff, precious few have got around to pinpointing the real hazard: badly cut merchandise.
For the last month and more, Ireland has been having an internal monologue on the topic of cocaine.
Who sold Katy her coke? We should lock them up – better still, flog them – and strangle the supply chain. No dealers, no coke. But we’ve been trying that, and it hasn’t worked. We need a new plan, a national effort, an all-out war on coke.
Bertie Ahern whipped himself into a frenzy in the Dail, expressing his exasperation at the Gardai’s failure to simply raid these ‘drug parties’ everyone knew about. The leader of the modern (new) Labour Party, meanwhile, cut a distinctly old-fashioned figure as he ranted about the ‘drug barons’, who should, of course, be ‘smashed’. But if awkwardly inappropriate rhetoric is your thing, Eamon Gilmore could not hope to compete with Ireland’s resident political comedian, Enda Kenny, whose curiously confused phrase-making culminated in his angry denunciation of the despicable ‘drug pimps’.
All of this is emotive nonsense. Other countries – notably the US – have spent vast fortunes and thousands of lives in pursuit of this imagined victory, this ultimate smashing of the criminal networks, which the politicians foolishly – or cynically – pretend is possible. Of course, half a century of unremitting failure in terms of the global ‘war on drugs’ breeds its own contempt, and that impotent rage is now being vented on cocaine users, who are now about as welcome in polite company as a veal-eating racist in a fur coat. (Except when they are that polite company).
The one side that has been largely excluded from the national debate is the pro-cocaine side.
“Where are the responsible users?”, self-proclaimed responsible user Ronnie asks, before answering his own question. “They’re sitting in the editing suites cutting sequences of repentant addicts talking about the misery of cocaine.”
Ronnie is a 40-something-year-old entrepreneur whose European business travels took him into the path of cocaine. He says he never understood the appeal of the drug on the few occasions he had taken it in Ireland, but when he was offered some after a conference in Amsterdam, he says he finally ‘got’ cocaine. The difference was the purity. “The best European coke is 80% pure; the other 20% is vitamin B,” he says.
He tells me that he recently sampled Irish cocaine, and found that just a small amount resulted in severe pains all over his body, which persisted for a day afterwards. In his opinion, the substance had been disastrously mixed and had become something substantially more harmful than cocaine.
“You can die from a cocaine overdose, but that’s not what happened [with Ireland’s recent cocaine related fatalities]. They say you shouldn’t take cocaine because you don’t know what’s in it, but the reason you don’t know what’s in it is because it is illegal, and because people aren’t educated enough to know what they’re getting.”
Ronnie’s voice is a mixture of disgust and pity as he laments the poor quality of cocaine available in Ireland.
“I’ve been offered so-called pure coke in Ireland for e120 a gram, but it’s basically bullshit. You can have your coke cut or badly cut – it depends on how much you want to pay. You want coke for e50 a gram? No problem! Just get me my coke and a few Bold tablets, and I’ll have your bargain gram with you in five minutes. The stuff is never more than 40% pure coming into Ireland, so by the time it gets to the street, it’s more like 10% or 15%.”
The market is so centralised, and controlled by so few people, that the entire country is basically connected to the same supply. This means that when a bad batch arrives, it will be dispersed throughout the country and will only be taken out of commission by going up people’s noses, or being seized by the cops.
Ronnie has no doubts about the ultimate cause of the current coke crisis. The chain of events started, he says, with the Colombian suppliers changing the rules. Traditionally, drug shipments were sent from host countries on the understanding that payment would only be received if the shipment was successful. The Colombians apparently took a unilateral decision that, henceforth, payment would be made regardless of whether or not the product was received. The European gangs were in no position to argue, and they continued to make ever-more audacious shipments until a combination of greed and weather combined to take a massive quantity of the drug out of commission off the south coast of Ireland. As a result, a lot of Europeans were out of pocket, none more severely so than the major Irish players. On the lookout for a quick earner, they snapped up a large batch of discounted cocaine which had been making the rejection rounds in mainland Europe due to its toxic nature.
The stark lesson here is that even when drug prohibition is successful, it only succeeds in very limited ways. As with all major hard drug seizures, availability is rarely impacted; purity is the only variant, and the suppliers continue to make their money regardless.
Cocaine is an easy substance to cut, so the only palpable result of even a drug seizure as monstrous as July’s haul off Cork is that people would be putting a fraction less coke and a fraction more Disprin or washing-up powder up their noses instead. Except this time, it’s not ‘only’ Disprin or washing powder. It’s something else, something that’s killing them.
Meanwhile, the cocaine ‘debate’ wraps itself into tighter knots of despair and hopelessness. The fatal flaw in all of the prescriptions offered to solve the problem is that they fail to take account of the cocaine user. There have been no practical suggestions, because practical ideas are politically unthinkable.
Take two of Ronnie’s notions. The first is that the government should authorise the health service to buy back contaminated cocaine from dealers. One can only imagine what Enda Kenny would make of that, but Ronnie argues that, if they were really interested in stopping people from dying above all else, they would take this dangerous product off the market at any cost.
His other suggestion comes as a surprise because it’s not common knowledge that the coco plant can easily be grown in Ireland. The advantage to this approach, besides the fact that you know exactly what you’re taking, is that nobody knows what coco plants look like, so they wouldn’t look out of place in your back garden for example. Indeed, this is where Ronnie grows his. He then brews it into a tea; he says it’s stronger than street cocaine and tells me that you can get 4 yields a year from coco grown in Ireland.
Of course, that sort of imaginative gardening’s not likely to catch on among casual cocaine users, but it is at least refreshing to hear someone make a practical suggestion for ending the current disastrous reliance on unscrupulous criminals.
Cocaine is not a popular drug. Indeed, you can argue – correctly – that cocaine is an addictive hard drug which can kill its users at a stroke, and which causes serious damage if used heavily over a long period of time, but the same is true of alcohol. I would feel no more comfortable telling Ronnie that he should not take cocaine than I would telling a drinker not to drink alcohol. I may not partake of either drug but I don’t feel that I have the right to tell Ronnie what to do. Certainly, I see nothing morally or ethically questionable about growing and consuming coco plants.
Ronnie knows perfectly well that cocaine functions by directly interfering with your brain’s two emotional reward systems, and that this is what makes it addictive. Those who use cocaine on a long-term basis may lose the ability to regulate their dopamine and seratonin levels. This results in profound depression and a dependence on cocaine to artificially induce happiness. This may be why Ronnie reserves cocaine for special occasions, thereby minimising any potential damage.
Having weighed the highs and the lows, Ronnie has taken an educated decision to consume cocaine simply because he enjoys it. Ronnie may not be a typical cocaine user, but his voice needs to be heard. If we’re to have a debate, it has to be informed. We need to also seriously consider the issue of contamination. This is usually brushed aside as though it were a red herring in a conversation about an otherwise harmful drug. The little white lie in the debate is that coke is always deadly dangerous, regardless of contamination.
Ronnie is walking testament to the opposite. It may not be fashionable to stand in defence of cocaine, but the other side of the argument should always be posited. Ultimately you can’t call it a debate if nobody is disagreeing.