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Does it matter that there’s cocaine in our water supply?

Scientists from the Drinking Water Inspectorate have recently discovered benzoylecgonine in water samples at four test sites, a finding that is thought to be a result of high levels of domestic cocaine consumption. Benzoylecgonine is the metabolised form of cocaine that appears once it has passed through the body, and is the same compound that is tested for in urine-based drug tests for cocaine. It is also an ingredient in a popular muscle-rub, however, so the origins of the compound in our water are somewhat uncertain. Steve Rolles from the drug policy think tank Transform has suggested that the findings are an indication of the scale of the use of cocaine in Britain todayAccording to a 2010 UN report, the United Kingdom is the single largest cocaine market within Europe, followed by Spain.  In contrast to the shrinking cocaine market in North America, the number of cocaine users in European countries has doubled over the last decade, from 2 million in 1998 to 4.1 million in 2007/8. Although the annual cocaine prevalence rate in Europe (1.2%) is lower than North America (2.1%), the UK prevalence rate (3.7% in Scotland and 3.0% in England and Wales) is actually higher than the US (2.6% in 2008). According to the charity DrugScope, cocaine is the second most used illegal substance in the UK after cannabis: there are around 180,000 dependent users of crack cocaine in England, and nearly 700,000 people aged 16-59 are estimated to take cocaine every year. Further, according to the government statistics, in the years 2012-13, cocaine was the only drug to show an increase in use among adults between 16-59. All this does appear to suggest a possible link between the benzoylecgonine found in the water supply and high levels of cocaine use in the UK.

Does this matter? Should the discovery of cocaine in the water supply trouble us at all? Well, we can rule out any negative effects that it may have on our health. A recent report from Public Health England found that the quantities discovered in the water were unlikely to represent a danger to the public. I would like to suggest, however, that it does matter that there is cocaine in our drinking water. We should take these findings seriously, for two other reasons: (i) they have implications in regards to considering whether our current drugs policy is effective in its aims, if use appears to be so widespread (ii) they draw attention to the sense in which the UK is playing a key role in the cocaine trade through providing demand for the drug, rendering it complicit in an industry that is devastating South America, in particular, Columbia, where 90% of our cocaine comes from. Even though it is not certain that cocaine was the source of the benzoylecgonine, other research does suggest the prevalent and increased use of the drug, and it remains that the UK is one of the world’s biggest consumers. We ought to take those wider findings seriously also, for the same two reasons outlined above, and so a discussion is still worth having. It may not be conclusive that it was cocaine in the water, but this news story has served to draw attention to a pressing issue.

On the first reason as to why it matters that there is cocaine in our water supply: drugs policy. It appears that our current policy does not actually regulate drugs on the basis of the harm they cause. If it did, then we would be reclassifying certain illegal drugs, as evidence suggests they do less harm than legal substances like tobacco and alcohol. Professor David Nutt famously drew the comparison between alcohol and ecstasy, claiming that, on average, alcohol causes 22,000 premature deaths in the UK each year, while ecstasy causes 10. Alcohol is well known to cause brain damage, whereas the same has not been shown for ecstasy. Further, Nutt argues “in contrast to alcohol, ecstasy is less toxic in overdose as it does not cause respiratory depression or block the cough reflex and it is not addictive.” It would appear, therefore, that our drugs policy is inconsistent if we are regulating on the basis of physiological harm. It may be objected, however, that the policy makes sense if the main goal is to minimise overall harm. It may be somewhat inconsistent, but we have to draw the line somewhere. As we are not in a position to criminalise alcohol, we may as well limit the harm other drugs can do by criminalising them. However, this position may be untenable for two reasons. Firstly, it is not clear that criminalising drugs has the desired effect of minimising harm – their being illegal means they are more unsafe than they need be, often cut with other harmful chemicals, something that wouldn’t happen if there was a legal and regulated market. Criminalisation also carries with it a host of other harms relating to public health, such as the use of unclean needles, and has external harmful effects related to crime and black market activity. Secondly, even if it were sound to criminalise drugs to minimise overall harm, this still doesn’t explain the apparent inconsistency in how we classify particular drugs – it is not clear, on the minimising harm view why ecstasy is classified as class A, when it is evidentially and objectively far less physiologically harmful than heroin, say.

Cocaine, unlike ecstasy, is regarded as more harmful than alcohol, however. Perhaps, therefore, there are good harm-related reasons for its criminalisation. However, what exactly are we hoping to achieve in criminalising cocaine? Are we aiming for a cocaine free society? Its widespread use, indicated by its discovery in our water supply and by a number of other research studies, suggests that this aim is not being realised. If we are aiming to minimise harm, research would suggest that a significant number of people are being exposed to cocaine’s harms despite criminalisation. It may be interjected at this point that criminalisation is reducing potential harm, as it is plausible that more people would be using it if it were it legal. This is an empirical question, however, and it is not quite clear how effective an argument this is for criminalisation if the answer is basically inaccessible, as there are too many contingent factors. Further, even if criminalisation is reducing harm by deterring people from trying the drug, it is not clear that the hypothetical harm to these people is bigger than, or even significant enough to counterbalance the actual harm occurring through criminalisation, seen in the effects of organised crime both domestically and in South America, and through the health problems generated by forcing drug use underground. Moreover, even if criminalisation is serving as a deterrent, there are still a highly significant number of people using the drug and propping up a global cocaine trade. What we do know is that criminalisation doesn’t necessarily inhibit drug use. It is perhaps time, therefore, to have a more open debate on the aims and effectiveness of our drugs policy.

This seems unlikely to happen, however. Our current approach certainly appears to be more moralised than evidence-based. Professor Nutt, after all, was fired from his position as chair of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for criticising the government’s failure to classify drugs according to the scientific evidence of the harm they cause. He has also recently claimed that drugs laws are preventing vital research into the potential therapeutic use of certain drugs. MDMA is thought to be able to help with PTSD and depression, and could also be useful in controlling some of the symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease, while LSD is thought to be able to treat alcohol addiction. While I am not in a position to suggest any policy reform in this blog post, I would argue that at the very least a more open discussion could be had. It would appear, however, that the government is closed to having such a debate, with David Cameron recently rejecting calls for a Royal Commission (public enquiry) to re-consider our drugs policy, claiming that current policy is working. ‘Working’ according to what standard, however? Interestingly, as leader of the opposition in 2007, David Cameron suggested that as ecstasy was less harmful than other Class A drugs such as heroine and cocaine, it might be moved to a lower class. Nutt cited this in his paper, ‘A Tale of Two Es,’ lamenting that Cameron was then castigated by anti-drugs campaigners. He went on to write,

Despite being correct in his logic Cameron was forced to backtrack on his position because of the present highly charged public view that politicians must be ‘hard on drugs.’ 

Now that he is in a position of increased power and is more vulnerable to public scrutiny and pressure, Cameron has adopted a harder approach to drugs. A question worth exploring, therefore, is the reason our politicians take such an uncompromising anti-drugs position, despite countervailing scientific evidence. The moral outrage surrounding drugs is something that needs to be dissected if we are to move forward in addressing the reality of drug use and the problems raised by criminalisation.

The second reason as to why I think it matters that scientists have found cocaine in our water supply, is that it reiterates to us, as a nation, that we are complicit in a global cocaine industry that is having extremely harmful effects in South America. Cocaine is likely the most ‘unethical’ drug users can consume due to its association with gruesome cartel violence as well as the exploitation of farmers and the poor who are coerced into acting as drug mules. Columbia, the world’s leading exporter of cocaine, has seen 450,000 homicides since 1990, largely due to the cocaine trade. Between 2.5 and 4 million people have left their hometowns in the search for safety and hundreds of thousands of forest acres have been cut down to grow coca and build camps for the production of cocaine. For every cultivated hectare of coca, around three hectares of forest are destroyed. The trade is also thought to have had adverse effects on Columbia’s economy due to the diminishment of infrastructure and physical capital, among other issues. The Columbian government has also had to spend inordinate amounts on public funds and defence to combat the high homicide rate, insurgencies and eradicate cocoa plantations. All this occurs while we in the UK have the highest level of cocaine use in Europe. We are implicated in this violence and devastation through our prevalent cocaine consumption. We are complicit in so far as we provide significant demand. For this reason, we also share responsibility to address the situation. Iris Marion Young has provided a compelling argument that duties of justice transcend the boundaries of the nation state, that can lend support to this concern. In her social connection model of global justice and responsibility, she argued that claims of global justice are grounded in the fact that some structural social processes connect people across the world without regard to political boundaries. All agents who contribute by their actions to the structural processes and schemes of co-operation that produce injustice have responsibility to work to remedy these injustices. In regards to the injustices perpetuated by the cocaine industry, we are part of the process that causes them. If it can be seen that an injustice (homicide, exploitation, deforestation) has social, structural causes (the cocaine industry), then it would seem that all those who participate in producing and reproducing these structures (cocaine users) are implicated. Iris Marion Young addresses the analogous case of the global apparel/sweatshop industry in her account, arguing that we, as socially connected consumers bear responsibility for the poor working conditions and for their improvement. It would appear that the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee (HAC) in its inquiry into The Cocaine Trade (March 2010) concluded with a similar view. They made the following recommendation in their report:

Given the unenviable position of the UK as one of the largest consumers of cocaine worldwide, the UK has a compelling duty to support Colombia in tackling cocaine production. In this context the £1million a year spent by the UK on anti-cocaine operations in Colombia does not seem very substantial, particularly when compared to the amounts invested by the EU and US. We therefore urge the UK Government to re-examine its development budgets to see whether more could be contributed to Colombian alternative developments schemes.

I would agree with the above statement and suggest that the recent findings of cocaine in the water supply emphasise the need for further discussion and action. Even if not correlated with actual cocaine consumption, this news story has at the very least drawn attention to an important issue, that is also supported by evidence from other research into UK drug use. The reality of the global cocaine industry is inescapable; its effects on South America are clear. It would also seem that we have a part to play, and that certain responsibilities follow from this.


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5 Comment on this post

  1. Steve Rolles (@SteveTransform)

    Hi – you reference my quote in the Sunday Times, (which was widely picked up when reported by one of the news agencies) so i thought id chip in. Firstly on the quote itself. I discussed the issue with the journalist for about ten mnutes – from which one small quote was taken. I did not link the research findings to the levels of cocaine use I was commenting on – indeed I specifically said they were a poor indicator of use. We have better indicators from waste water analysis and better still from user survey data. These indicate use rising over the last decade until the last two or three years when it has levelled off and begun to fall. The reasons for these changes are complex – social, cultural and economic factors, the emergence of NPS that act as cocaine substitutes such as mephedrone, changes in teh nature of the market (declining purity), and more besides. You are right to say the the water research itself shows little – it seems that it was more of a ‘lots of people taking cocaine’ shock headline that seems to come out about every 6 months on a slow news day – on this occiassion my slightly out of context quote hitched on.

    On your more substantive point – you are right that consumption of illegal cocaine is unethical. However – to put the blame on consumers is somewhat missing the mark; They do not have an option to buy the ethical cocaine that doctors have access to. This is because of prohibition – which is in turn a policy choice made by our politicians. It is here we should focus our ire and our attentions. The development impacts of cocaine are indeed serious and something that we would need to consider were we to legalise and regulate the trade in some way; a post drug war marshal plan perhaps in which some of the tax revenue from the legal trade was directed to the communities devastated by the drug war. How cocaine products might be regulated and the development implications are all ideas Myself and my organisation have written about in our 2009 publication ‘Blueprint for regulation’ which available free online as a pdf download.

    1. Hi Steve! Thanks so much for getting involved in the conversation, really good to have your input.

      Yes, sorry that you’ve been somewhat misconstrued in the press! I did try to make sure to emphasise that the point I was making was valid even if there was no correlation between the test samples and actual cocaine use. I was just using the recent news story as a catalyst for debate really, and there is plenty of other research that does a better job at indicating use.

      In regards to your second point, I would completely agree that the government and policymakers are chiefly responsible for the UK’s role in the global cocaine trade. Of course I agree that, as the ones making the decisions, and upholding prohibition, they are also the ones with the most power to act responsibly to remedy the situation. I suppose I also meant we as a nation, in a wider sense (including government), not just individual users. However, I do not think it is missing the mark to put some blame on consumers. I still believe there is some sense in which they can be seen as responsible, and certainly complicit. For example, it is possible to imagine a situation where prostitution is prohibited and where all, or at the very least, most, of the women engaging in the activity are trafficked. If a consumer is aware that prostitution is illegal and that prohibition has had the adverse effect of causing a black market in prostitution (rather than a more fair, equitable arrangement, say, where legality removes the role of pimping and ensures a set minimum wage, reducing the possibility of exploitation), and they still choose to purchase these women’s services, I would say there is a sense in which they too are to blame. Although the law is out of their control and there are no ethical prostitution services for them to purchase, as all services are tainted by a black market, it still seems they are doing something wrong in choosing to purchase these trafficked women’s services, knowing full well what the situation is, and that they are contributing to it.

      Similarly, cocaine users (bar addicts, let’s say) that are aware of the industry’s harms do, after all, have a choice as to whether or not they consume the drug. It is feasible for people who engage in recreational use of other drugs to conscientiously object and refrain from using cocaine because of its associations.

      But obviously I agree that utmost responsibility falls on the government and support the idea of a a post drug war Marshall Plan. Though I would maintain that cocaine users are not entirely blameless, are complicit in providing demand. But your point is that demand is only a problem in so far as there is prohibition, which is the true/root cause of the adverse effects in South America. If it were possible, users would buy ethical cocaine, but it is not, so they are not to blame. I suppose my intuitions here are that there is still the choice to boycott, especially as the impact of the industry is so severe, and its harms are relatively well known. The government may be responsible for actively remedying the situation, but there still seems to be a sense in which users who take the drug, aware of its harmful impact, are doing something objectionable.

  2. Steve Rolles (@SteveTransform)

    I take your point although I dont think the trafficked sex workers is a good analogy. Trafficked women are crime victims – people who use them are colluding in a non consesnual sex act for which there can be no justification. Whilst all cocaine use is illegal – not all cocaine markets are associated with violence and abuse, indeed coca growing is an important part of survival economies for some marginalised groups. Crucially most participants in drug markets, whether producers, traffickers or buyers/users are involved on a voluntary and consensual basis. Yes, there are abusive practices and violence but these are not intrinsic to the market as is the case with trafficked sex workers.

    We wouldnt try and justify consumption of unethical cocaine – but rather seek to put the practical and political onus for sorting the situation out the people who have the power to change the broken and counterproductive system.

    1. “Crucially most participants in drug markets, whether producers, traffickers or buyers/users are involved on a voluntary and consensual basis.”

      I’m not sure I agree with this. I suppose I would question the extent of the voluntariness and the validity of the consent of those who ‘choose’ to participate in the cocaine trade, particularly drug mules. Most drug mules are poor and unaware of the risks of trafficking (information failures generate at least a prima facie defect in consent), and are required to swallow dozens of pellets at a time, inserting others into bodily cavities, a highly invasive and painful procedure. It should be questioned as to whether the choice to enter into such arrangements is truly free, or rather, the result of a socioeconomic imperative. The cocaine industry thrives in exploiting an extremely disadvantaged section of the South American population, who perhaps don’t have any reasonable choice but to engage in this dominant and pervasive industry. I really would question your statement that producers are involved on a ‘voluntary and consensual basis’ if they are, as you admit, such a marginalised group, engaging in the cocaine trade because their opportunities are so limited. It is well known that drug gangs control most Columbian plantations, generating a climate of fear. Often, for farmers to have any work at all, they must work for them. There appears to be a sense in which farmers and traffickers, therefore, are coerced into this activity, making them victims in an analogous sense to the trafficked women.

      1. Im not disagreeing with what you say – I hope I made that clear. I have written extensively about the problems you describe and acknowledged in my reply’ that there were ‘abusive practices and violence’ involved with the trade. My distinction was that such abuses are not intrinsic to illegal markets; There are many who are involved on a voluntary basis and large parts of the market do in fact operate in a relatively stable non-violent fashion – unlike sex work trafficking which is intrinsically abusive and always exploitative. I don’t really think this is a huge point to argue over – I just wanted to make a point that i view the analogy as an imperfect fit, and maybe not particularly helpful as a result.

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