A Police car

London’s cocaine problem: how effective is drug criminalisation?

As nitrous oxide joins the list of banned substances in the UK, is drug prohibition effective in mitigating harm and reducing antisocial behaviour?

Despite possession of cocaine being punishable by a maximum of seven years in prison and an unlimited fine, these penalties do not appear to have curbed London’s ever-increasing consumption.

Peter*, 24, a cocaine user from London, explained how accessible the drug truly is in England’s capital.

He said: “It’s very easy to get here. Of course, you need to know someone that knows someone, but the dealers offer an around the clock service and will usually come straight to you.

“It typically takes me 40 minutes to get a hold of – even on busy weekends. Less of a wait than ordering food from some places.”

London’s cocaine market is worth an estimated £1bn annually, with deaths in the UK related to use of the drug rising year on year despite its illegality.

According to the Office of National Statistics there were 840 deaths linked to the ingestion of cocaine in the year 2020, a sharp rise from 708 the year prior.

In comparison, deaths related to the then decriminalised laughing gas sat at a mere five.

Peter added: “When you ban something, it’s just taken over by the black market. There will always be someone ready to meet that demand.

I also believe when something’s illegal it makes people want to try it more. There’s that thrill inherent in doing something you are not supposed to, especially for younger people.”

An investigation undertaken by Sky News in 2019 revealed that the average daily amount of pure cocaine being consumed in the city sat at 23kg – more than Europe’s next three biggest cocaine-consuming cities combined: Barcelona (12.74kg), Amsterdam (4.62kg) and Berlin (4.62kg).

Data released by also shows that the number of people in the UK seeking treatment for addiction to the stimulant is also growing, with an increase of 11% between the years 2021 and 2022.

Claire Manning, 57, a former Metropolitan Police and Child Social Welfare officer, said that whilst possession of drugs like cocaine should be criminal, more needs to be done to improve the circumstances of young people to disincentivise the expansion of the trade.

Manning has experienced the policing of banned substances in London at both the highest and lowest levels, from disrupting the criminal syndicates that control supply, to arresting the young runners tasked with selling drugs to the end user.

She said: “This government has not got a handle on how to manage drugs in general.

“You ban this, you ban that – but when you look at a place like London and have you invested in community policing? Have you invested in youth centres?

“You can’t just bring in legislation without that whole support network in place. What happens, for instance, to children once they get a criminal record?”

Manning was keen to stress that it is often juveniles that bare the brunt of criminalisation, also arguing that a criminal record for possession of less harmful drugs like cannabis or nitrous oxide can prove a stepping stone toward dealing harder substances like cocaine.

She added: “They hook these kids in with the lower-level drugs and we forget, they are mostly children. Children who are not protected enough by the society at large.”

Although Prime Minister Sunak declared a UK nitrous oxide ‘scourge’ this week, analysing the government’s own 2022 drug misuse study, it reveals that consumption has in fact fallen in the last year, from 2.4% to 1.3% of adults using aged between 16-59 years.

Meanwhile, cocaine use remains at its highest level since records began in 1995, with 2% of the adult population admitting to having taken the drug.

Gabriel Watson, 24, a PhD candidate at Kings College London in Cardiovascular Science and Medicine, agreed that whilst criminalising drugs like cocaine does not seem to limit their supply, he believed that total deregulation was not an option due to the potential harm these substances can inflict.

Watson said: “Drugs like this can have a devastating impact on people’s health.

“Cocaine is a potent sympathomimetic drug, meaning that it interferes with processes in the nervous system and overstimulates the ‘fight or flight’ response.

“This causes the heart rate and blood pressure of a person to sky-rocket, which can lead to lead to fatal events such as heart attack and stroke.”

A change in UK drug policy seems unlikely, with Labour leader Keir Starmer hinting that any future government he leads will also take a hard-line toward drug users.

Starmer announced this stance in his ‘Making the Streets Safe’ election pledge.

If you are a Londoner struggling with addiction, the NHS offers advice with can be found here.

Related Articles