Every generation has its drug cliches. Boomers have acid and quaaludes. Gen X have pills and Prozac. Millennials have coke and binge-drinking. And Gen Z are the sober, smartphone-addicted ones who'd rather protest about climate change than chat shit until the early hours (and if they really must have a substance, it'll be shrooms or weed or some kind of downer that goes nicely with walking around airports).
Or at least, that's the persisting stereotype. In truth, many young adults are just as into uppers as their parents and older siblings. Back in February, a UCL survey found that one in 10 teens in the UK had tried “hard drugs” (meaning class As such as coke, ket and ecstasy).
In 2019, the Crime Survey for England and Wales showed class A drug use among 16 to 24-year-olds was at a 16-year high, in part driven by an increase in coke use. In fact, ONS data showed a 73 percent increase in young adults who had taken coke in 2019 compared to 2013. Who knew? Gen Z really are snowflakes.
The above might come as a surprise to anyone who thought young folk preferred social media over getting on it. But coke references abound online too. The “c0ketok” or “coketoc” TikTok hashtags have been viewed millions of times, with a hefty portion of videos posted by young Brits. “When you hear sniffing in the toilet beside u,” reads a text overlay on one vid, while a girl pretends to bash the wall while shouting “Let me in!”. “When you were on the bag last night but your nose is clear the next day,” reads another, with a voiceover of Gemma Collins' shocked voice going “Sorry, I've just got to take a moment.” (I won't link out to these vids because, well, obviously.)
A lot of young people I spoke to for this piece told me that coke was pretty normal among their mates (or at least “normal” in the same way we’d recognise it being for older generations), but that it's not necessarily considered “cool” like it was in decades prior. This is where the sober, anti-drug stereotype might come from. “No one's going to think you're boring if you say you don't take drugs, just like if you're not into sex, or drinking,” says 19-year-old Charlie*. “It's a preference. That said, when I go hang with friends at the weekend there's a 75 percent chance we'll get a bag in. More so than other drugs, except weed.”
Fran*, 22, says that their friends do coke “every weekend and on their days off. In the past year, with lockdown, I've deffo joined them for two weekends a month.”
They moved to the UK five years ago from the Middle East, and were shocked at the normalisation of coke use among their peers over here. “I was super weirded out,” they remember. “My first time taking coke was when I was 19 and a lot of people I knew had a 'been there done that' mentality.”
Danny*, 20, says that she first got into coke at 17 while working at a restaurant. “We used to take it in the bathroom on busy shifts,” she says. “Then when I went to uni, it was at parties and clubs.”
Pre-pandemic, Danny says she would take coke on most nights out, “so about four or five times a month? An average of a gram between four or five people a night. But with things slowing down and no clubs open I’ve probably only done it six times in the last year.”
Gen Z being into coke isn't a new or sudden thing. Even in the recent past – when drink and drug use was purported to be fairly low among young people in comparison to the 80s, 90s and 00s – coke has always retained a certain appeal. It's the drug that simply won't die; the drug that transcends generations.
“Drink and drugs are still a prevalent part of teenage life,” Chloe Combi, former teacher and author of Generation Z, told VICE back in 2017. “For example, there are a lot of upper class kids really into cocaine now. Private schools have a big problem with it.”
It's not just rich kids who can afford coke these days. In fact, over the past few years, coke has only become cheaper and stronger. Ian Hamilton, a senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York, points to this as a factor behind the drug's rise, particularly in relation to its popularity among young people, many of whom might not be earning so much.
“It's no longer used by the well-off,” Hamilton explains. “We know that price and availability are what determines drug use, and as cocaine has become [good] value for users and it can be sourced more easily, it's no surprise that use of the drug has grown.”
Money is a factor that Fran brings up also. “I grew up with the idea that people who take coke are extremely busy, successful and well-off,” they say. “I never thought that, as an immigrant, I would be surrounded by coke on a regular basis by people who aren’t even ‘that’ middle class.”
Before you start thinking that all teens and young adults in the UK are suddenly going around huffing lines like Hetty the Hoover, this is obviously not the case. Drugs have always been popular among young people, and coke has always been one of the most popular illegal drugs in the UK across age groups. As a number of experts pointed out to me while researching for this piece, any rise or fall of coke usage is usually down to fluctuations in the drug’s quality and price, rather than the whims of specific age groups.
The point is that – contrary to popular belief – Gen Z are no different to the generations preceeding them. They’re just not the clean-living homebodies that headlines would frequently have us believe.
“Young people will always party and take drugs, especially in the UK,” says Charlie. “Anyone who says otherwise probably just doesn't know where the party's at.”
*Names have been changed for anonymity