THE WHITE STUFF
RECREATIONAL cocaine use sounds like something yuppies did. It was a phenomenon in the 1980s, when a small personal stash of coke was as much an outward sign of material success as a GTI, black leather furniture or a Rolex watch. Observers of Dublin's social scene over the past year will know that cocaine is back as the drug of choice among the current generation of partying, affluent thirtysomethings.
"In the same way you'd expect a student to drink a pint of Smithwicks, you'd expect certain people to take coke, it's that common," said one very sociable restaurant hostess.
The signs are there at certain private dinner parties in Dublin's fashionable suburbs where cocaine is served as dessert; at gala functions where the loudest table seems to be made up of people constantly beating a path to the bathroom; and, predictably, among the glamorous set at clubs and concerts.
The reasons behind this resurgence of interest in cocaine are all to do with money. A famous rock n roll quote from the 1980s sums up coke's image as a status symbol: "Cocaine is God's way of telling you you've made too much money." A booming economy means there's simply a great deal of disposable income around. A gram of coke (current street price £70-£100) says as much about your bank balance as any designer label.
"It's all about status," says one 32 year old user who works in the music industry. "It's associated with success, of having made it. And coke has a clean image. It's not like heroin - that's what junkies take and it's what they die of. Doing a line of coke is just like having a drink, it's purely recreational." A further attraction is that the price of a gram has nearly halved in the past 10 years.
The popularity of ecstasy on the clubbing scene means there are thousands of young people for whom taking an illegal substance holds no particular terror. They've also established relationships with dealers which make the action of buying a whole variety of drugs easier. E is perceived as a young person's drug - for teenagers or those in their early to mid-20s. It's not a drug with a sophisticated, "adult" image cocaine is.
Both drugs have similar euphoric effects, but E removes a sense of control from the user, white cocaine promotes the illusion of being in charge of a situation. There's also more cocaine available on the streets. Garda drug seizures are not a particularly accurate barometer of what illegal substances are available, but they do provide some sort of measure. Last year 22 kilos of cocaine were seized as against 6.5 kilos of heroin.
The new devotees probably wouldn't have dreamed of taking cocaine five years ago, largely because they would not have known where to get it. Now, users say getting coke in Dublin is as easy as ordering a pizza - it's just a phone call away and it's not perceived to be a phone call to the criminal underworld. The supplier is likely be someone with the same DART accent as the user.
How cocaine is consumed - usually by snorting - makes it attractive to people who do not think of themselves as being hard drug users or potential drug addicts. The white powder is usually placed on a mirror or other reflective surface. It is then cut into lines using either a blade or a credit card and snorted through a tube, frequently made from a rolled banknote.
An item of jewellery you won't find mentioned in fashion features but spotted on two thirtysomething women at a glamorous Dublin 4 party over Christmas was a silver coke holder dangling on a neck chain, pendant style. Screw off the cap and as well as an evening's supply of coke there's a little silver spoon inside for easy snorting.
RATES of consumption vary, of course, but a quarter of a gram would be enough for a couple of lines. The powder is not pure cocaine. It has been diluted or "cut" by the dealer with a variety of similar looking white powders to make it go further - these substances include cornstarch and talcum powder. One observer of the rise of cocaine among middle class professionals maintains the quality of cocaine currently available is very poor - "but they're yuppie saps and they don't know the difference, so it's good enough for them".
The instant psychological effects of the drug sound attractive, especially to anyone with low self esteem. A sense of empowerment, self confidence, the illusion of being in control and a sense of being better able to cope are just some of the effects. A non using film producer explains the special attraction of cocaine in the entertainment industry: "People pitch ideas to me all the time and at this stage I can spot cocaine users simply by their false sense of self confidence. It's as if taking the drug helps them sell themselves. It's entirely bogus of course and completely transparent - but the user doesn't realise that."
Add intensified consciousness, a complete lack of interest in food and heightened sexual interest to the mix of effects, and the attraction of taking cocaine, particularly to status seeking business types and glamorous socialites, is obvious. One woman tells of being stopped in her tracks at a dinner party over Christmas when she was moaning about the need to go on a diet
"Why bother?" another female diner advised her and the rest of the nonplused table. "Just do coke, it works for me."
The down side to taking the drug is equally obvious. Psychologically, cocaine's instant and powerful effect makes it highly addictive - with all the attendant social, psychological physiological and financial problems that inevitably follow the drug damages the brain's neurotransmitters so that eventually the user has difficulty experiencing feelings such as happiness, spontaneity or self confidence without taking cocaine.
Prolonged use can induce paranoia and a lowering of the immune system leaving the user open to bugs and viruses. Physical effects include eczema around the nostrils and a perforated nasal septum - the snorting method of consumption gives rise to the most telltale sign that someone has been using the drug, a near obsessive attention to his or her nose which always seems to be running or sniffly.
Apart from, the addictive downside of the drug, from a social point of view cocaine users are extraordinarily boring to be around if you're a non user. All that talking, hyperactivity, egomania and in your face self confidence means socialite cocaine users tend to socialise together.
MAURA Russell, director of the Rutland Centre for addiction treatment, emphasises the dangerously addictive nature of cocaine, and says coming down from it is horrendous. Some people use heroin to help them come down off the drug's high - which explains why coke users who present themselves to clinics for drug rehabilitation often do so with a mixture of addictions.
"Drugs come in phases," says Ms Russell, "and certainly over the past few months more cocaine users are, presenting themselves for treatment. The illusion of being in control that cocaine gives to its users certainly seems to be attractive to a certain status seeking business type."
While a post snort runny nose seems to be becoming socially acceptable at certain smart dinner parties, the use off crack cocaine - with its association with poverty and addiction - is not. Crack or "freebase" involves mixing cocaine with baking soda or a similar, substance to separate its ingredients. The result is a much purer drug which is usually smoked off tinfoil or in a pipe.
Last year Garda Sgt John O'Driscoll, attached to Dublin's North Inner City Drug unit, warned that while there was no evidence of people selling crack on the streets, cocaine was being baked in users' homes for personal consumption. Crack is highly addictive, and he warned the Dail's Legislation and Security committee that there was a possibility of a serious crack cocaine problem developing in the inner city.
Socialites and affluent party types might perceive a vast difference between the two forms of the same drug professionals working in the area of drug addiction will see the similarities.