This article was commissioned for the launch issue of Q Magazine in October 1986. In fact it was the first piece of writing ever done for that magazine. In it, I survey the place of cocaine in crime, entertainment and society. Reading it so many years later I’m struck by how little has changed. 

 

You’re an upwardly-mobile, creative kind of modern person. You know all about people making demands on your time and talents. Cocaine may just be the power-boost you need. Feel inspired again, in charge, on top, right now. It’ll come back for your soul another day. 

Paul Du Noyer relates some parables from the powder room. 

 

I.

Cocaine users are rather like Chinese babies, there are three or four more in the world since you started reading this sentence.

Cocaine: the yuppie drug, the coffee table narcotic. A heartless, unsentimental designer high for ’80s over-achievers. ‘Coke’ (the slick diminutive) or “snow”. Toot, or tootski (but only if you must); nose candy, Bolivian Marching Powder.

By any name, it’s the chic pick-me-up that dumps you back when it’s finished. For the insecure poseur it’s the passport to prestige, the Real Thing. For the creative psyche under pressure, it’s a fast-acting booster. Give me the inspiration I crave, right now, and claim my soul another day.

In America, where a coke habit has been described as God’s way of telling you you’re making too much money, the word epidemic is thrown around like there’s no tomorrow; they’ve got 12 million users in the USA, with maybe 5,000 new ones every day.

And the snowstorm could be blowing in our direction. The UK music industry runs on it already. Save up the amount those people get through in a month and you could build yourself an igloo.

At the British Record Industry Awards, Norman Tebbit commended the pop biz as an example to the whole of British industry. Perhaps this means BL executives should cultivate a taste for appalling Hawaiian shirts, and take to vanishing inside toilets for 20 minutes at a time. And come out giggling.

As for the pop stars themselves, your mother was right. Of course they’re on drugs, except for Bruce Springsteen. Oh. and Chris De Burgh (‘Drugs set is not for me, says Quiet Man of Pop” – Irish Sunday World). From Marvin Gaye to Marilyn, musicians have moved in a reality-free zone, where coke is so accessible you can’t escape it, short of trying a round-the-world yacht trip. At the Led Zeppelin HQ, they bought £1,000 worth in one day.

Punk rock was supposed to put a stop to this nonsense. Yet somehow the class of ’76 got rich, old and seduced, their puritan backlash mislaid. When Boy George stepped into the dock at Marylebone Magistrates’ Court it was, just as somebody said, like punk had never happened.

 

II.

The coca plant grows in the South American Andes. The Indians chew raw coca leaves; it helps them work at high altitudes, doesn’t do much harm, and takes a little of the pain from a shitty existence.

In the affluent West, we prefer it chemically processed into a white powder. Mostly, you chop it up fine and snort it. Or you can inject it. Nice people would rather not. Needles are for junkies, who like mixing coke with heroin in a speedball.

There are newer methods. Freebasing involves some extra processing-work on the coke, which is then smoked. It’s a potent kick, if somewhat complicated to organise. Richard Pryor set himself alight in pursuit of it. Crack is the next step on, a sort of fast-food freebase, very pure, and risky and addictive.

So far as this country goes cocaine is for powdering the nose with. Standard procedure is ritualised: the bright white crystals, chopped to a dainty dust, neatly arranged in lines (most major credit cards accepted), and Hoovered high inside one nostril then the other, preferably by means of one tightly-rolled banknote. All terribly civilised.

This mystique, of rarefied pleasures mingled with the merest tinge of decadence, doubtless accounts for some of cocaine’s allure among the rich and impressionable. Equally responsible is the notion that coke is not addictive, and does you little if any damage.

But is it? And does it?

A ploy favoured by some drug smugglers is to stuff cocaine inside a contraceptive sheath, and swallow it. The occupational hazard is that (these devices being what they are) sometimes they burst inside you while you’re in the queue for customs. This massive dose, delivered straight to your system, brings on convulsions of indescribable agony and, within the hour, death. Cocaine is a tricky thing.

It is a stimulant. A few minutes after sniffing, it acts on the central nervous system; it brings on an extroverted rush, a feeling of urgency and power-under-control. Your brains boil. You don’t go loopy, but you do reckon you’re up to pretty well anything. Megalomaniacs swear by it.

Hence coke’s reputation for being a drug to “work behind”. If nothing else, it’ll keep you awake. Ironically, amphetamines (synthetic speed) can do all this just as efficiently, for longer and cheaper. Connoisseurs say coke is a “smoother ride” but blindfolded, most can’t tell the difference.

After 20 or 30 minutes you’re down again, fatigue and melancholy are creeping up. You’ve become intensely interested in the possibility of having some more cocaine. You’ve become intensely apathetic about anything else.

A coke “habit” is acquired by taking it often. Addiction is more psychological than physical, but real enough. It’s a sly process: you don’t know you’re growing dependent until you already are, by which point you’re in trouble.

You take it to give yourself a lift, but in reality coke can’t “give” anything — you just borrow the energy off your own body, and later you must pay it back, at a handsome rate of interest.

Some, like Aleister Crowley, have found cocaine to be an aphrodisiac. Scientists have shown it can produce a 24-hour erection (very painful, apparently, and surely tedious in a laboratory observation booth). But again, the eventual returns are diminishing: at first, you can’t get it down, in the end you can’t get it up.

The characteristics of prolonged coke-use are paranoia and confusion, not to mention a considerable overdraft. Serious users commonly complain of bugs crawling under their skin — a delusion, but realistic enough to get them tearing at their own bodies. If you really hit the jackpot, then brain damage, respiratory seizures and cardiac arrest are among the lethal possibilities. Others just end up with an extra hole inside their noses, the membranes eaten away.

Another awkward thing about cocaine is the sheer impurity of what you buy. By the time it leaves the street dealer, coke has been cut so many times that it’s often no more than 20 per cent authentic. Dealers of a puckish disposition have been known to lace their wares with strychnine, quinine or glass. In the Midlands recently, a pusher gave out ‘coke’ that was really cyanide, then killed himself with what he had left.

According to the drug agency Release, ‘most people don’t have any problems with coke at all, apart from the big hole in their bank balances. People aren’t barmy, they don’t take drugs for no reason. People get habituated to things which are performing some sort of function for them. It’s a coping mechanism.’

Put like this, coke becomes as banal as the housewife’s Valium. For many users, coke is a furtive adjunct to the daily grind, a habit made acceptable by the belief that it is — to quote the old toupee advertisements — ‘totally undetectable’.

Yet there are users who would feel cheated if cocaine were stripped of its clique-ish mystery and esoteric glamour. They take cocaine, not for its effects, but for the feeling of prestige they suppose it confers.

Pete Townshend has grown scornful of the whole charade: ‘You have all these people snorting coke, waiting for something to happen, and it doesn’t. All you do is that if you snort enough of it, at the end of the night you feel fucking awful!”

There is indeed a certain amount of auto-suggestion among coke users. Having inserted half a month’s salary up your nasal passages, you have a strong inclination to believe in the drug’s potency. You may go further, cultivating the ostentatious snuffle of the regular indulgee, or, equally tiresome, affecting blissful satisfaction after ingesting something that might more usefully have been deployed scouring a lavatory bowl. The cocaine pseud is with us.

Cocaine promotes a clubbiness among its followers. They will gravitate towards each other, and form a sort of adenoidal freemasonry. In toilets and washrooms, they will hunch over their spoils and make farmyard noises. Coke taking actually lacks the delicacy of its gentlemanly predecessor, snuff, but together its fans will, implicitly, reinforce their sense of exclusivity.

Meanwhile, outside, the rest of us sit nursing our drinks and wondering why they’re taking so long to have a pee. Broadly speaking, cocaine makes boorish, overbearing people into more boorish, overbearing people. It is specially favoured, in working environments, by young men who are fond of the phrase “go for it”.

A figure in the music business has this to say: “I’ve always thought that heroin was pretty dreary because people just nod off in corners, a boring drug that makes for very boring people. Cocaine, on the other hand, turns people into complete horrors.

“Cokey people are a nightmare to deal with. They have enormous conviction, and a superficial appearance of togetherness: Can do! Can do! It’s the classic drug for the can-do syndrome. Leave it to me! Don’t worry! Can do! And when you get to whatever it is that’s supposed to have been done, of course it hasn’t. Somebody has imagined they’ve done it.”

 

III.

It’s the height of good manners, at a Hollywood party, to give someone your best wishes by slipping a pack of cocaine into their pocket. At a restaurant, you may tip the waiter with a surreptitious gramme. In the movie industry, it has been known for screen writers to be paid, half in dollars, half in coke. Tinseltown expense accounts can always bury the costs of casual indulgences under Miscellaneous or Food.

And it’s nothing new. According to Kenneth Anger, Joy Powder was rife in the golden age as far back as 1920, putting much of the motion into motion pictures, and setting the manic pace of those early silent comedies. In 1916, Douglas Fairbanks starred in one such, playing a deranged detective called Coke Ennyday.

Much the same source energised the frantic capers, decades later, in John Belushi’s film The Blues Brothers. That was despite the best efforts of Belushi’s director John Landis: at one point, in desperation, he flushed a chunk of his errant star’s stash down the toilet.

Belushi was hell-bent on going down the pan himself. Bob Woodward’s biography Wired paints an appalling portrait of wanton self-destruction — live fast, die young, have a blue and bloated corpse.

“It’s hard to be constantly funny,” Belushi said once. “People in this business need something to keep themselves up and their minds going. You need drugs. You’ve got to be on top … ” To assist him in his quest, he’d have contracts structured to pay a daily allowance of cash-in-hand, financing a 4 grammes-per-day cocaine habit, plus anything from Quaaludes to cognac.

He began, with co-star Chevy Chase, using coke to help sustain the high-wire tension of Saturday Night Live. By the time he’d made movie stardom, he’d liven up a party by spreading a massive line, several feet long, and race you from opposite ends, snorting wildly. He nearly always won.

Belushi, though, supplied his final punch-line in March ’82: he was found dead in a Sunset Boulevard hotel room after taking a heroin/cocaine mix, which shut down his brain and stopped him breathing.

 

IV.

‘Ah, cocaine,’ said Princess Margaret, backstage with the Rolling Stones. ‘Such an amusing drug, don’t you think?’ (Source: a former tour manager, reminiscing to the Sunday Mirror.)

That was in 1976, at Earls Court. A few years earlier in Rome, city of Fellini and Caligula, a local promoter threw a sumptuous rock’n’roll party. Bald dwarves were employed to walk from table to table, bowls of coke affixed to their heads, so that guests might partake without undue exertion.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Ozzy Osbourne, former plumber’s mate, abattoir assistant and vocalist with Black Sabbath, recalls his horror when his wife threw a full bag of cocaine out the window. Osbourne followed it, and spent the night sharing its contents with his manager’s dog, a Great Dane.

Pop stars are the PR men of the cocaine industry. How they delight us with their single-minded pursuit of self-abasement. Delusions of genius, the compulsive flaunting of success by revelling in excess — these are so commonplace as to count as mundane. It would be astonishing if coke did not find itself their most cherished drug of choice.

“I came to the conclusion that cocaine was introduced by the Mafia and the record companies so they could get their money back, by parting rock stars from their royalties.” So says Peter Jenner, a veteran observer whose career has taken in promoting the Stones in the Park and managing acts that range from Pink Floyd to Billy Bragg.

“I do think it’s not coincidental that you started seeing cocaine around in the early ’70s. It was just when all the hippies were getting it together and signing these shrewd contracts with really good percentages, and along comes coke to soak up all this spare cash they’re suddenly making!

“You see, when you’ve got your Rolls Royce, your Cadillac, your house in Malibu and your 25 guitars, and you’ve still got all this money, well maybe coke’s the answer — something that shows you’re so successful you can afford to throw your money down the drain.”

He wonders whether cocaine isn’t ‘a system of control’, akin to the pimp/prostitute syndrome, where the girls’ loyalty is ensured by ensnaring them in dependency on the drugs their ponce supplies.

“It’s not just your rock star’s drug bill, you’ve got to pay huge wages to the road crew so they can afford drugs too. And everyone eventually comes out with no money. It keeps everyone in wage slavery. It keeps the artist going out and working— the goose that lays the golden egg. If you’ve got to pay The Man you do what you’re told. It’s always been a classic device in the music industry, keeping your people in debt.

“It’s like, once you’ve got an overdraft with Barclays, you can’t close your account. If all the money that rock stars have spent on drugs had been spent on asserting their power vis a vis the corporations we’d have a very different music business. The artists could have got control of the record companies. The drugs keep them away from power.

“In music you’re often quite remote from your money, it’s all rather meaningless. And if you can get drugs out of the tour float, well at least it means you’re getting something out of it. At least you’ll know you’ve had a party.”

 

V.

Financed for years from royalties off hits like Monday Monday and California Dreamin’, John Phillips of The Papas snorted his way to fiscal ruin, physical collapse and finally imprisonment. Before his downfall, he’d cavort with John Belushi, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, sharing lines with members of the Kennedy and Getty families.

Later, as a reformed and penitent man, he spoke in his confessional autobiography Papa John of how the white powder “focussed and intensified” his mind. “It honed the inner edge until you felt, in a soaring heart-pounding rush, that your creative blade could cut through anything.”

At least he lived to tell his tale. After the plane crash that killed ’50s teen idol Ricky Nelson last year, cocaine was found in his bloodstream. Persistent rumours pointed to freebasing as the brought down the small craft, killing Nelson, his fiancee and members of his band. (In 1982, Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist Randy Rhoads died as a result of an aeroplane ride that went wrong: Rhoads was clean, but his pilot was flying on cocaine as well as the more conventional fuels.)

Actually, it’s rare that coke can be implicated in celebrity deaths. Philip Lynott and Pretenders Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott were all fatalities who took that Last Long Walk with cocaine about their persons, but the systematic abuse of other drugs was, in each case, almost certainly the deciding factor.

By and large a drug death requires several years of dedicated effort. Alcohol and various prescribed medications have a lively role to play (as in the first legendary OD case, that of Hank Williams, and in the most celebrated, that of Elvis Presley). Above all, there is heroin, whether taken singly or mixed with cocaine, or simply with whatever comes to hand to complete a long-term course of bodily abuse.

Into this category we may file the corpses of, among others, Gary Holton, Deep Purple’s Tommy Bolin, Little Feat’s Lowell George, Hendrix, Joplin, Keith Moon, Mike Bloomfield, Sid Vicious, Gram Parsons. The final exit of John Phillips’ colleague Mama Cass has been variously ascribed to obesity and a large ham sandwich.

First-hand testimony is, inevitably, hard to come by, but it’s probable that both singer-songwriter Tim Buckley and Average White Band drummer Robbie McIntosh met their ends by taking lethal doses of heroin, believing it was cocaine. Among the many pranks favoured by Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham was offering people “a toot of coke” which was actually smack. “Bonzo”, as he was known and loved, bid his own adieu to the world by choking on his vomit after consuming 40 measures of vodka.

Other stars survive, to recount their cocaine encounters with differing degrees of abashment. The zenith of David Bowie’s coke consumption came, apparently, in the mid ’70s and may be heard on records of the Station To Station era. It was around this time the Thin White Duke pursued his interest in Hitler to the fullest. Encouraged by this most power-conscious of drugs, he offered Great Britain his services as a fascist dictator: rebuffed, he retired to Berlin and later surfaced singing duets with Bing Crosby.

Arrests have been strikingly rare; jail sentences almost unknown. Strangler Hugh Cornwall was one of the unlucky ones, going down for possession of heroin, dope and cocaine. In one of rock’s more inglorious episodes, Greg Allman won immunity from a 1975 coke-bust by testifying against his road manager. The roadie got 75 years.

As one of the few rock titans who could conceivably be accused of true genius, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys makes for a poignant case-history. Perhaps the first sign that things had gone awry came the day he installed a giant sandbox in his living room, the better to compose songs inside. Given Brian’s open fondness for coke, and the increasing oddness of his behaviour, friends and family acted to tackle his “problem” (viz. being bonkers) by hiring some very expensive advisors. They came up with at least one solution to his cocaine habit – “which is,” he revealed, “having bodyguards with you all the time so you can’t get to it.”

David Crosby, of CSN&Y, offers one of the most pathetic instances of self-destruction. He is still alive — despite setting fire to his hotel room while freebasing — but recent magazine interviews read like premature obituaries. “I was in jail four months,” he told a reporter. “Want to know how long I stayed clean when I got out? Two days. It never lets you alone. All I want to do is be clean, man. But I’m scared I’m gonna crave it forever.”

The recent death of Boy George’s associate Michael Rudetsky caused even the august trade paper Billboard to confess the extent to which cocaine greases the wheels of the music business. Rudetsky’s partner Michael Levine, indicating that it was freebasing that had killed his friend wrote: “If Michael had not believed that cocaine was a way to make friends and influence people and time and again been proved correct, he’d most likely be alive today.”

Cocaine is visible in every compartment of the record industry. At least one major label in London employs somebody whose chief functions are to supply privileged clients with anything from cocaine to call-girls. An ex-employee of another company recalls how colleagues would begin top-level meetings with an abundance of drive and enthusiasm, only to crumple as the stimulus wore off.

The expense need not be an obstacle, not when it can be sunk into the budget under another name — under “entertaining”, in recording bills, production costs or tour overheads. Drugs are as integrated into the credit card age as anything else: properly organised, the deals don’t have to involve anything so low-rent as handing over money.

Musicians and drugs are a double act — a partnership as institutionalised as marriage. It’s in the nature of their job to be at work where others are at play, to be surrounded by the trappings of pleasure and recreation, to be encouraged to be extreme.

Cocaine’s usefulness goes further. According to the manager of one Top 20 act, “it’s the old Dutch Courage routine. Whatever it is that gives you the confidence to go onstage and make a prat of yourself… a drug that makes you feel like King of the World is terrific. You’re going out in front of 20,000 people; you don’t want to feel like a soggy dishcloth. In the short term, it’s a very functional drug.’

Ian Dury was not so sure. “I done one gig once, on cocaine,’ he admitted. “And I didn’t like it. If you take cocaine before you go on stage you think you’re alreadyJack The Lad.”

Peter Jenner: “They start thinking they’re God, or supermen. And dealing with supermen is a pain in the arse. It’s especially tricky with pop stars, who are already pretty good on ego. Successful performers rarely lack ego. So if you give them a drug that boosts that ego further, it can have the most atrocious effects.

“Coked-out superstars are one of the more unpleasant aspects of the music business. You can’t get a decision out of them, And they get so wired up on coke they need all sorts of other drugs to calm them down.

“I had an artist whose thing was: he’d drink a lot to get mellow, become so relaxed that he was floppy, and therefore felt the best thing was a bit of cocaine to straighten himself out again! And I’d say, Hang about, drinking loads of expensive champagne and getting fucked up, then taking loads of expensive cocaine to straighten yourself out, wouldn’t it be better if you did neither? All that money just to get back to point one!”

 

VI.

Cocaine is a national obsession in the United States: it’s all over the country and most people are very worried. Others, of course, don’t mind one bit.

North America has two difficulties in this respect: one, it’s next to South America, and two, large numbers of its citizens possess more wealth than prudence.

The best way to smuggle it up from the Andes is with a light aircraft. Even at $450,000 you can afford to put the plane on auto-pilot, bale out with your contraband, and let the plane crash somewhere peaceful. The profits are that good. This is how a black bear came to be found dead of a cocaine OD in the Georgia woods not long ago. When a batch got dropped on Haiti by mistake, the villagers apparently used it for foot powder and as a treatment for nappy-rash.

Drugs account for half the £70 billion profit made by US organised crime. It’s thought to be the single biggest cause of police corruption. The cocaine market is saturated. A national helpline, 800-cocaine, gets over 1000 calls a day — like the one from the airline pilot who’d been awake for three days and nights and was due to fly a passenger plane to Europe that same evening. He was advised to go sick.

Crack is rampant in the poorest ghettoes, notably Harlem, where the crack houses are guarded by armed teenagers. Drug wars have turned one neighbourhood in LA into what’s described as ‘Beirut without the tanks’. There are calls to rate movies according to their use of drugs in storylines. Miami Vice is widely accused of glamorising the cocaine dealer’s image among young people.

From Wall Street to Silicon Valley, coke has displaced dope as the top problem drug in American workplaces. On Madison Avenue, says Time Magazine, “copywriters use it to jump-start their creative juices.” While down on the assembly lines, blue collar men take it just to beat the boredom. Many companies, like IBM and Exxon, have started running drug tests on their employees, causing a major Civil Rights controversy. The usual method is urine analysis — there even has to be a witness when you supply the sample. No wonder the unions are pissed off.

America and cocaine were made for each other. A stimulant so good at inspiring rants of go-getting gibberish, it’s practically ideal for a nation of salesman. It suits US culture in another way, too, as one English observer points out: “Because there’s no royalty, or traditions of hierarchy compared with Europe, everything basically comes down to how much money you’ve got. So if you come up with a huge bag of cocaine, which everybody knows is extremely expensive, you’re saying, here I am, a real high-status person. I have made it. I am successful.”

 

VII.

We knew we were seeing the collapse of British society as we know it when, in May last year, there were 11 cocaine-related arrests at the Cotswold Hunt Ball, at Cheltenham Town Hall.

And common lore has it that cocaine finds adherents lower down the scale: not on the council estates, maybe, where its price still keeps it rare, but certainly among cash-handed wide boys in the fun-pubs of South London. As sustenance for the Lads’ Great Night Out, coke may one day surpass 12 pints of lager and a chicken biryani.

There is one tower block in London where cocaine is popular: the place is by Threadneedle Street, and it’s called the Stock Exchange. In the world of City finance, young brokers are facing the classic cocaine scenario — intense professional pressure and huge amounts of spending money. The Big Bang has been preceded by the Big Sniff.

“We’ve had calls from people in the City who are worried about colleagues,” says a worker at a London drugs study centre. “In that group, it does seem that cocaine might become the social lubricant that the lunchtime Martini used to be, at least among the younger set. It’s a functional drug, too. They disappear to the toilets — the ‘powder room’ — then storm back to the floor feeling like kings.”

“Bleep boys” are mobile London dealers, directed to customers by their HQ via personal intercoms. By one account, they were thick on the ground at VIP haunts during Wimbledon — as was a female operative who went by the name of Toot’n’Carmen.

If there’s one thing more expensive than a coke habit, it’s a coke cure. Treatment is not available under the NHS, but there is a string of discreet clinics — mostly in leafy locations across the South of England – where the well-heeled or well-insured can go for help.

The Charter clinics in Chelsea and Hampstead (top fee £l90 per day) estimate 15 per cent of their patients have coke problems, though most tend to be multiple drug users. Like Charter, the Plymouth clinic Broad Reach House (£l00 per day) uses the “Minnesota Method” of care, aiming for total abstinence based on rebuilding the patient’s self-esteem and emotional equilibrium. The minimum course lasts six weeks.

A full course at Broadway Lodge, Bristol, might set you back £4000 (it is a registered charity, and reduced rates are possible) but they say cocaine admissions are still insignificant compared to alcoholic cases. They also stress that “cure’ can be a misleading term: real recovery from addiction means taking one day at a time, indefinitely.

“It’s been mooted in enforcement circles for about a year now that we’re on the verge of a cocaine epidemic,” says one drug worker, the theory being that a glut on the American market will force traders to turn their attentions to Europe. “But it’s certainly not happened yet on any wide scale. It’s cheaper than it was, but the problem is that after 20 minutes it wears off and you need some more. So on that basis it’s not at all cost-effective.”

The Release agency agrees: “Of the drugs which are causing problems, cocaine is not one of the major ones. It’s still relatively expensive, and you need pots of money to build up any substantial dependence on it — or else access to drugs without paying for them. Certainly it’s not taking off among the unemployed. It’s becoming available in cheaper and more accessible forms like freebase, and ‘crack’ may be a coming fad, but it certainly hasn’t thrown up many problems yet.”

For a couple of reasons, we’re unlikely to see a cocaine epidemic occur in this country on the American scale. We’re not so close to South America, for one thing, and we don’t have the big Hispanic populations of New York, LA or Miami. Heroin and cannabis, by contrast, come into the UK along our established trade routes, from countries in the East that we have historic ties with. Coke smuggling is still down to individual couriers with big pockets or false-bottomed suitcases.

Also, say Release, “we do have alternatives, such as a buoyant heroin market which they don’t have in the States. Their heroin is very poor quality, and far less available. And we have a very buoyant home-produced amphetamines market, which takes up a lot of the demand for stimulants.”

Seizures by police and Customs are on the rise, as are the arrest statistics, with London way ahead of the rest of the country. You can get a maximum of 14 years for trafficking, seven years for possession, and/or an unlimited fine. But coke is small potatoes next to heroin (our number one public enemy) and cannabis (our number one private favourite).

You measure a drug’s availability by how low its price goes, and how high its purity rises. London coke prices have dipped slightly, to around £60 per gramme — more than enough for most folk to binge the night away. And purity has gone up, but most of this country’s coke is still muck.

US dealers speak contemptuously of the “sucker trade”, meaning the inexperienced mug punters who can be palmed off with any old rubbish. Britain, says one expert, “is anything but a cocaine-literate society”. It is a whole nation of mug punters, getting the coke they deserve.

 

ENDPIECE

High in the Eastern Andes, another autumn morning dawdles up to noon. Swaying in the mild mountain breeze is the erythoxylum coca plant. It’s an agreeable shrub, not unlike a privet — had we the climate, it would look well with the peonies and marigolds of an English garden.

Mid-day in Miami, actors in attractive clothes pretend they’re policemen, smashing another cocaine racket. Their show’s special guest star, a famous rock performer, fluffs his lines for the 54th time. In a condominium across town, a real-life cop is pocketing a thousand dollars, passed to him by a man in a silk suit, in consideration for the lawman’s understanding attitude.

It’s evening in London. A bug-eyed adman mugs his mind for a snappy way of selling Suddso wonder detergent — little suspecting he has a sample of it up his nose. A Fleet Street leader writer types out tomorrow’s column, in which he will warn us of the most dreadful scourge to afflict the nation since, well, since the last one. A mile down river, an ambitious MP delivers a dose of moral rectitude, to murmurs of approval on all sides of the House.

In the sky above them, there’s a 747 beginning its descent into Heathrow. The quiet man at the window seat observes the No Smoking sign, ensures his seat-back is in the upright position, and starts to sweat, just a little.

Up and down the country, dismayed youths learn their chart-topping favourite has cancelled his UK tour, due to “nervous exhaustion”.

High in the Andes, a peasant picks a coca leaf, chews it and ruminates, as he climbs aboard his bicycle. The crop has been good, life’s not so bad. This time next week he’ll have a moped.