'Everyone is taking it': Cocaine addiction spirals in Scotland

Having the worst drug death rate in Europe is an unwanted status Scotland cannot shake off.

Millions of pounds is being thrown at the problem by the Scottish Government, yet year after year the deaths still remain shamefully high.

The poorest communities in Scotland have 18 times more deaths, but every part of society is affected.

This is in part due to the drugs that have flooded into communities over the last decade.

Street valium - on average, five times stronger than standard prescription valium - is easy to find and cheap. It’s also a common denominator in drug deaths.

We’ve seen the damage it’s done, but the fact is these valium pills rarely kill on their own.

Scotland’s drug deaths are almost always related to ‘polydrug use’ - people taking multiple substances throughout a day, sometimes beginning with prescription methadone from the pharmacy.

The cocktails that kill commonly include valium, etizolam, opiates, and strong alcohol.

But cocaine use is rapidly on the rise, being added to the daily mix.

In the most recent Scottish data, 93% of all drug deaths had more than one drug present in the body.

In 2008, cocaine was implicated in 6% of deaths.

That’s increased rapidly. By 2021, cocaine was implicated in almost a third of Scotland’s drug deaths.

ITV News understands it will be even higher in this year’s stats due to be published next week.

Cocaine was implicated in almost a third of Scotland's drug deaths in 2021 - a sharp rise from 6% in 2008. Credit: ITV News

Cocaine is being snorted, smoked, and even injected in Scotland these days.

And it is coming in at such a scale it’s delivered to order like fast food - in fact a cursory look online and you’ll find dealers offering to have cocaine in your hands faster than an order from your local takeaway.

It is more prevalent and more potent than ever before.

Cocaine that is seized from Scotland’s streets is taken to a police evidence lab for tests, and ITV News been allowed in to see the results of the analysis.

“In the late 1990s the purity was relatively low - between 25% to 35% is what we were commonly seeing,” Barry James, from the Scottish Police Authority Forensic Services tells us.

“This year we are still seeing a wide range in purities in cocaine, from less than 1% all the way up to 81%.

“But the average purity we are seeing is 59%.

“It’s a lot stronger than it was 25 years ago.”

Barry James, from the Scottish Police Authority Forensic Services, said the drug is a lot stronger than it was 25 years ago. Credit: ITV News

We’re told most cocaine comes in from Central America these days. It is a smuggled in by serious organised crime gangs operating internationally.

Police in Scotland are adapting to the changing landscape - now trying to treat drug misuse as a public health issue.

“You don’t arrest your way out of this problem,“ says Gary Ritchie, Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable.

“This is a broad societal health problem.

“You’ve got any number of groups who are just sitting waiting to take advantage of vulnerable people in order to increase their profits.”

Cocaine is big business - estimated to be a multi-billion pound industry operating across borders.

'I think it is pretty terrifying that the country I live in, that my family grows up in, has got such a problem,' said Gary Ritchie. Credit: ITV News

Given the scale of the drug industry and the abundance of cocaine, police have been accused of losing control - something I put to the assistant chief constable.

“I wouldn’t say it’s out of control,” he replies.

“The problem in Scotland is we have, I think, an off-the-charts level of addiction.

“I think it is pretty terrifying that the country I live in, that my family grows up in, has got such a problem.”

The level of cocaine addiction is shocking and it was measured in a UN report just over a decade ago that said Scots were, per capita, the world’s biggest cocaine consumers.

Since then, the number of Cocaine Anonymous meetings in Scotland has increased more than 300%.

It is a fraternity for people who are addicted to cocaine now trying to get help.

ITV News has been given rare access to attend one of the meetings, to see how Cocaine Anonymous supports people into recovery.

The meetings are about sharing personal experience, and everyone in the room is attending voluntarily.

We have a chance to listen to harrowing testimony of what cocaine addiction did to their lives, and we also hear genuinely inspiring examples of how people turned their lives around.

ITV News was given rare access to a Cocaine Anonymous meeting Credit: ITV News

After the meeting I have a chance to ask questions myself, and I hear just how tight cocaine’s grip is on Scottish society.

“I was 12 years old when I started using drugs,” ‘Kevin’ (not his real name) tells me.

“Now I am one year in recovery.”

He tells me how widespread cocaine is now, and that using it has become almost normalised in public settings.

“Do you realise that everybody in all walks of life takes it?” he asks me.

“I’ve met people who are doctors, people who are architects, and people who work in shops, and everybody is taking it.

“And the people who get addicted to it are in all walks of life.”

Kevin (not his real name) told ITV News he first took cocaine when he was 12. Credit: ITV News

Here, they see the damage done by that stronger cocaine on Scotland’s streets.

“What we are seeing now is guys in their mid 20s coming to Cocaine Anonymous, says ‘Mike.’

“They seem to have a shorter period of time that they’re using for and they seem to be at that point hitting rock bottom psychologically.

“I don’t know what it is with the drug but the drug seems different.”

Forget the trainspotting generation.

This is Scotland’s 21st century addiction - and users are getting younger.

“First time I took cocaine I was 15 years old,” says ‘Tony,’ a project manager in construction.

“I was at a football game. That was my first experience.”

“All my friends were taking it - it’s everywhere. At the pub, at a wedding, at a communion, at a funeral. Everywhere.

“Getting help was hard. But the meetings have given me a second chance at life. One day at a time is what we say.”

The Scottish government told us they “take the issue of substance use very seriously.”

Despite this, Scottish communities remain riddled with a drug problem that is spiralling even further out of control.

If you would like help or advice about cocaine addiction, information on Cocaine Anonymous can be found on the Cocaine Anonymous Scotland website.

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