Britain has a passion for cocaine. It's in the water, on the toilet cistern and – according to new Home Office statistics – more likely to be sniffed up the nation's nose than at any other point in the last two decades. No longer exclusive to the nasal passages of slick city bankers and trust-fund kids, powder cocaine is increasingly omnipresent across every area of British culture: from north to south, football terraces to members clubs, on rowdy nights out and big nights in.
The drug is cleaner than ever before – often as high as 80 percent purity at street level – and relatively affordable, with the average price point sitting at around £40 to £50 a gram. It's also more accessible than ever, with drivers who often arrive in around 20 minutes working 24/7 in many big cities. All of this has led to a new phenomenon: the rise of the two pint coke habit – or, as you might know it, getting a bag in on a Tuesday night after a couple of after-work drinks.
"The thought usually creeps up halfway through the second pint, then from there it takes very little for me to crumble," says Jim*, a 22 year-old law student, explaining how the two pint pick-up process has infiltrated his social group. "It's become part of the norm now, hasn't it? I can't say we ever go for a drink without picking up anymore."
In Jim's case, putting the call in after a few drinks isn't exclusive to one setting. "It's literally anywhere – that's the problem with it," he says. "The pub is the natural habitat, but it can be at home, pre-drinks before a night out, wherever. Even round someone's house, I'll go round to say hi and bosh, shit happens."
While alcohol was previously the sole starter to an evening, cocaine has been added to the menu. "It's not even pre-drinks anymore. It's like pre-drinks and pre-lines, before you go out," says Rebecca, a 25-year-old who works at a marketing agency.
As anyone who's been on a night out in the last three decades can tell you, drinking and drugging have long gone hand-in-hand; it's not like people wanting to do coke after they've had a few drinks is a new thing. But the increasing availability of cocaine has led to a lot more indulging, and presents a new set of problems.
"Though people who use cocaine, say, 20 times a year don't have an addiction – they're not dependent – the perceived value for money and the ease of getting it makes it very difficult for people wanting to control their use," says Dr Adam Winstock, addiction specialist and founder of the Global Drug Survey.
The difficulty surrounding control is something 28-year-old Adam experienced at its most brutal.
"Even if I had minimal money I'd be picking up .2s [of a gram] and .3s with my last bit of money, just to get some," he says. "There wasn't a point where I'd done it sober – it was always when I was drunk. If I was sober I wouldn't think about it. I'd think about it in the sense of, 'Oh, I want to get fucked up,' but I wouldn't do it until I'd had a drink."
Though he wasn't waking up and using every day, Adam was taking coke every time he drank alcohol. This culminated in a dangerous spiral that eventually led to him moving back home and getting sober. "The only time I've had a drink since then was, coming back from holiday, I had a beer – and even then I was thinking about it," he says, "so I had to completely cut alcohol out."
Getting sober to combat the two-pint pick-up habit is a common theme. James, a 26-year-old marketer, found himself picking up every weekend once he'd had a couple of drinks at the pub. "I stopped drinking last year for six months to try and kick the habit," he says. "But then on the first night out I ended up doing it, so I stopped drinking again for three to four months."
It's only now, several months later, that he feels comfortable heading out to have a drink. Even then, he avoids being around people who do cocaine.
As well as the damage that combining alcohol and cocaine does to your wallet, when taken together the two drugs create cocaethylene, a toxic substance that increases the damage done to your body. "Combining the two increases the risk of sudden heart problems," adds Dr Winstock. Other experts worry the normalisation of drinking and sniffing together is becoming dangerous after several deaths this year.
The prevalence of Britain's two-pint problem feels indicative of two things.
One, the large amount of alcohol we drink. "The more you drink, the more tired you feel, and obviously coke is like, 'Oh-my-fucking-god, let's get fucking rowdy!' It feels like it sobers you up [from the alcohol] too," explains Louise, a 20 year-old student, who'll often have a key or two after a couple of drinks.
And two, in the specific case of men, the need – and sober inability – to open up to one another.
"We’ll sit there and chew the fat and often it’ll get pretty deep, pretty quickly. We’ll mull through issues whether they’re political or personal issues," says Jim, explaining how cocaine adds another level of conversational lubricant on top of the drink. "Without cocaine, we don’t usually talk about that stuff, so it’s refreshing to have that, really."
Adam goes one step further: "It's like there’s a hidden depression in society. And it doesn’t matter how rich you are, what class you come from. Cocaine just makes everyone happier and able to forget what’s going on."
*Names have been changed.