Cocaine nation: ‘The cliche of the rich man’s drug is long gone. It is everywhere now’

Cocaine: ‘Gone are the days of paying €80 for a gramme. You pay €40 or €50, max, these days.’ Photograph: iStock/Getty
Ireland has the third-highest rate of cocaine use in Europe, and there is growing concern about the long-term consequences of unprecedented levels of use among young people

Powder cocaine occupies a peculiar space in drug culture. Unlike its more sinister cousin crack (cocaine in a smokable rock form), powder cocaine has, to some extent, maintained a shroud of mystique and glamour. A symbol of wealth and excess. White lines on silver platters. The young professional’s drug. 

Of course, the reality of cocaine use rarely if ever resembles this depiction. But its relatively glamorous image might explain why it has become so popular in Ireland. According to the Health Research Board (HRB), cocaine was the second most commonly cited drug among cases treated for problem drug use in 2020, after opiates. The number of people seeking treatment for cocaine addiction trebled between 2014 and 2020, from 853 to 2,619. In 2019, the HRB reported that cocaine use in Ireland had “returned to Celtic Tiger levels”. 

Anecdotal accounts from hospitality workers and gardaí describe towns and cities as flooded with cocaine, even during the pandemic and its restrictions on nightlife

Cocaine use does seem connected to periods of prosperity. Rates of cocaine seizures and cocaine-related arrests have long moved in tandem with economic fortunes in Ireland. In 2007/2008, its use was at its highest when our economy was at its frothiest. 

But recent figures show that cocaine use has again spiked, and anecdotal accounts from hospitality workers and gardaí describe towns and cities as “flooded” with the drug, even during the pandemic and its associated restrictions on nightlife.

Denis*, a Dubliner in his early 20s, outlines the appeal of cocaine for him: “The disinhibition factor is big, if I’m in a big setting with a lot of people drinking then I find I socialise better when I’m on it, even though there is the risk of talking sh*te.” 

He believes that the pandemic led to increased cocaine use in Dublin: “The only socialising you could do, and a lot of the time it was technically not allowed anyway, was to go to other people’s houses. When you’re in someone’s house, you’re kind of free to just do it openly, there’s no risk of being caught.” 

Denis also says that, among his group of friends, the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) has helped fuel increased cocaine consumption, with many of his friends on higher earnings compared with their pre-Covid part-time jobs, and fewer expenses. He doesn’t believe the drug is “everywhere” in Dublin, but rather that it is widespread in some workplaces, colleges and friend groups. 

“I sometimes come across other groups of people on nights out and they’re shocked at how it’s as normal as drink or cigarettes for me and my friends, but then I also often come across people who wouldn’t bat an eyelid.” 

You can feel interesting, and feel sociable and feel confident when you take cocaine, whereas you can’t necessarily feel those things at a party without it. Cocaine does the work

Seamus*, also in his early 20s, says he does cocaine about twice a week. He views it as an iron-clad guarantee of a good time. 

“Nights out are hit or miss. A lot has to go right; company, music, atmosphere. With coke you can be in a f**kin’ room with four or five people chilling after work, you can just ring your lad to drop over a bag and next thing you’re having great chats, you’re flying. You can feel interesting, and feel sociable and feel confident when you take it, whereas you can’t necessarily feel those things at a party without it. Cocaine does the work.” 

He says the old stereotype of wealthy young professionals using the drug is “completely gone”. “Everyone, everyone uses it. You would see it in every group, no matter class, age, profession, gender.” And the drug is cheaper than it used to be, he adds. “Gone are the days of paying 80 quid for a g [gramme]. You pay €40 or €50 max these days.” (It is estimated that an Irish cocaine user goes through on average 0.6g of cocaine each time they use the drug.)

The evidence supports Seamus’s belief that the drug now has wide appeal across Irish society. Figures consistently show that men are at least three times more likely to consume cocaine than women, but this gap has narrowed. In the most recent HRB report, examining drug consumption in 2019-2020, a six-fold increase in cocaine use was recorded among young women (aged 15-24) since 2016. The same study reported that, since 2003, total cocaine consumption had more than doubled, though it dipped temporarily in the wake of the 2008 recession.

The recreational user who uses cocaine socially, who gets his €100 worth of cocaine on a Friday or Saturday night, they’re in the middle-class areas and the less wealthy areas

Ireland currently has the third highest rate of consumption of powder cocaine in Europe, behind Spain and the UK. During the previous peak of cocaine use in 2007, it was mainly concentrated in cities and large towns. Now it is as much a rural drug as an urban one. In 2019, The Irish Times reported how cocaine had spread from large towns such as Letterkenny and Sligo to even the smallest rural villages in the northwest. A Garda source quoted at the time said the average consumer was now “a farmer or a nurse . . . it’s universal”.

“The cliche of cocaine as ‘the rich man’s drug’ is long gone; unfortunately it is everywhere now,” says Garda Mark Houlihan of Dublin South Central divisional drugs unit. “The recreational user who uses it socially, who gets his €100 worth of cocaine on a Friday or Saturday night, they’re in the middle-class areas and the less wealthy areas.

“What you’d notice when you go into pubs is that it’s everywhere. You can hear people sniffing in toilets, people are doing it everywhere. It’s nearly become blase the way people are talking about it: ‘I’m gonna head out the weekend and do a few lines, yeah’.” 

Houlihan says his unit conducted successful operations in a number of licensed premises across the city centre prior to the pandemic: “You can see it when the queue to the toilet is like a sponsored walk, people going in and out every five minutes.” 

Echoing Denis and Seamus, he agrees that the market for cocaine has become “uberised”.

No generation in Ireland or the UK have had this level of access to coke before, none. No one knows what the long-term consequences of that will be

“We’ve had detections with [food delivery] drivers ... People are selling their wares on WhatsApp and Snapchat and again it makes it very difficult. Are we going to go down the route of setting up fake Instagram accounts, fake Snapchat accounts? There’s obviously moral and ethical guidelines as well as our own professional guidelines that we have to consider before we pursue that.” 

For WhatsApp transactions, Houlihan says new customers are obliged to have an existing customer vouch for them to the dealer. Once they are accepted, they are included in the mailing list, and are sent weekly “menus” with prices for ketamine, MDMA, cannabis and cocaine.

“It’s very difficult. Compare that to a guy hanging on the street corner; we can certainly do a controlled purchase in that instance, because we can have someone who can adopt the appearance of a drug addict and go up and buy from them, and they’re very well trained and they know exactly what to do.” By contrast the garda notes that “if you want to do that online, behind a screen, it’s almost impossible, so you’re relying on information that comes from the public”.

“No generation in Ireland or the UK have had this level of access to coke before, none,” says Seamus. “No one knows what the long-term consequences of that will be.”

As a garda, Houlihan shares these concerns, remarking: “It’s a hell of a lot easier to get. Every generation has its challenge. This generation’s challenge is cocaine.”

*Names have been changed

Read Conor’s story of cocaine addiction: ‘I just wanted more and more and more’ here


Jack Ryan is a final-year student at Trinity College Dublin and a freelance writer