In late 2015, the UK's National Crime Agency released a short cartoon to encourage casual cocaine users to think twice before doing that next bump. Over the course of two and a half minutes the mini-film (released with the hashtag #everylinecounts) lays out a recipe for cocaine that includes major deforestation and dead Colombian policemen. It culminates in you, the casual consumer, passively facilitating an entire industry of exploitation.
With its emphasis on environmental and humanitarian repercussions, it's certainly a refreshing departure from the traditional "don't do drugs, you'll die" approach we've come to expect. But will it be enough to deter a nation when it comes to ordering in that next gram? We spoke to some casual users to find out.
Tristan, 24, Guitarist
VICE: How much do you reckon you spend on coke per month?
Tristan: I would estimate I probably pretty consistently spend about £40 [$60] a month on coke, although that's only been in the last year or two.
How much do you know about where it comes from?
I don't know anything. I prefer to keep a bit of distance because, to be honest, I don't like that I do it. I don't like to do it—well, I do, obviously—but I don't really like to make it a habit. I've never met the guy I buy off, he's just a number on my phone. I feel like I should do more research, but at the same time when I smoked weed as a kid I never knew where that was coming from.
What do you know about the trade in general?
I think it's much like fruit and sugar and many of these resources. It's largely unfair trade for people who are on the fields, picking and making it. I imagine they probably don't get paid very well and it probably resembles something closer to slave labor than a Western idea of paid work.
The thing is, because I think of it as a vice, I compartmentalize it from the rest of my life. I tend to be quite a healthy and fair person day-to-day, but with things that I know are bad for me I try not to think about it because I already don't like that I do it. Same with the alcohol I drink, the porn I watch—I don't really investigate where it comes from because I know it's a bad thing already.
What do you think about the NCA video?
I think it's much less black and white than that makes out. There's no mention of the systems at play that have made the trade so dark and violent. This video is pitting the little man against the little man, when really they're both victims of the illegal underworld they created.
Sure, but regardless it is still a fact that if there wasn't a consumer at the other end there wouldn't be people dying.
That's true, but if they made alcohol illegal people would get killed for that. Does that mean it's our fault for wanting a beer? I don't think so.
OK, you seem to have worked it through in your head. Are you going to stop?
I feel a bit more conscious of it, because regardless of whether it changes or not, the demand is still a factor. However, I'd much more readily campaign for the legalization of it than stop altogether.
Tracey, 21, Student
How much do you reckon you spend on coke on average?
Tracey: If I could I'd take coke every time I go out, which is like three times a month, and spend about £20 to £50 [$30 to $75] each time, depending on how much I take. I had my first bump of coke when I was 16 or 17, but I didn't start taking it regularly or buying until I moved to London aged 19, so I'd say the regularity with which I take it now has only been in the last two years.
What do you know about where your cocaine comes from?
I've never had a friendly connection with any of my coke dealers, but I have had friends who are dealers before. It's my experience that you just take what you're given and it all falls under "miscellaneous white powder." If they rip you off, there's not much you can do about it, but you can normally tell what it's going to be like from looking at it and how much you've spent on it.
What about the implications of the cocaine trade more broadly?
I don't really know much about the cocaine trade apart from the occasional gangster movie or book or public figure exposing all in some undoubtedly glamorized version of the south American cocaine trade. Sometimes a dealer will text me saying he's got the "banging Peruvian," so maybe it's from Peru?
OK great, now watch this video from the NCA. What do you reckon?
God, that was a bit peak—I feel like I'm going to look like a wanker now. It definitely raised a few things I hadn't thought of before, like the thing about the environment. It's hard, though, because all consumerist things seem to have bad environmental consequences.
Do you think you'll think twice about ordering another gram now?
Realistically, I know I won't stop taking it just because I know these things a bit better now. I knew about the violence before, but I guess I just feel like I'm such a small chain in the link. I'm a self-interested individual like everyone else, but I also think the impact of a few consumers stopping is a drop in the ocean compared to global and national drug reform and a more morally-sound farming procedure.
That said, the message of the video is definitely a lot stronger than the traditional "don't do drugs, you'll get addicted and die" message. That just really annoys me because it's so unrealistic and it undermines the governmental and moral systems that enforce it, which distances the consumer even further from these networks. It's like, "I took it, I didn't die, clearly everything you say can't be correct then." It really pisses me off.
Charlie, 25, Barista
How much do you estimate you spend on cocaine?
Charlie: Probably between £150 to £200 [$220 to $300] a year, but that's spread over periods of high density and then gaps of little use.
How much do you know about where it comes from?
My dealer changes fairly regularly, probably about every six months to a year, and I've never known them very closely. Generally when I pick up I get it through several chains of different people, usually someone I know who knows someone who would then go and pick it up. In terms of where they get it from, I'd have no idea, really. I'd always just assumed it was all from the South America-type region...
How aware of the repercussions of the cocaine trade are you?
Most of what I know I probably got from pure fiction—TV shows, things like that. There's that Johnny Depp film, Blow, and that TV show Narcos on Netflix.
OK, so you're aware of the political context?
I'm not sure I've got to that bit yet—I'm only on episode two.
From what you know about the trade, is it something that gets to you much?
No, I definitely compartmentalize it. I feel like we're bombarded so much these days with terrible things going on around the world that lead to all sorts of pain and misery that, in a way, you sort of become desensitized to it.
Did the NCA video make you re-think your cocaine use?
I was sort of vaguely aware of the kind of widespread criminal networks that exist to transport and facilitate it, but the environmental effects never really occurred to me. This might sound kind of bad, but it's something that makes me think a lot more and speaks to me a lot more because it's kind of larger than just our species.
Does it make you want to stop?
Probably not, but it might make me think a bit more next time.
As in have a moment of guilt before you indulge?
Yeah, more like that. Unfortunately I don't think a short video will have enough impact to make me stop, but it might make me more aware at points. Maybe lots of similar things like that, over a long period of time, might make me think about changing. But for now I don't know.
Jonny, 30, Designer
How often do you do coke?
Jonny: Back when I did it regularly, it was probably a line or two a week if I was offered it, and then maybe buy a gram every three or four weeks on top of that. I tried it for the first time when I was 17 so have been doing it for 13 years, give or take, although I stopped taking all drugs two months ago.
How much do you know about where it comes from?
I've got lots of dealers, all who I know either personally or who I have a long-standing relationship with. I have a last-minute guy who does good stuff, I have a specialist guy who does all different varieties of high-quality stuff and who I would go to if I knew I was getting it in advance. Then I have the guy who I go to if I'm going to festivals; he sells pure, uncut pellets, the ones smugglers have to shit out. I only really call him for Glastonbury and then split one with a friend.
What do you know about the global repercussions of the trade?
I'm sadly very aware of the repercussions of the trade and the sort of effect it has had on farmers in places like Peru. It's a dark trade. Most of the information I've picked up from articles and TV programs and it's something I do try and keep in mind, but it's like anything else you are desensitized to: I don't think about the slaughterhouse as I'm eating my meat, but I'm fully aware of the reality of what it took to get it to the point of me consuming it.
Would the NCA video make you consider quitting?
I thought it was good, but I don't think it's really shocking enough to actually affect anyone. The cuteness of the video kind of diffuses the whole message in my opinion. You need something that makes users feel guilty enough to remember that feeling when they are pissed out their head on a Friday night. Most people won't buy coke when they're sober, yet they'll spend their rent money on it when they've had enough to drink.
So a harrowing documentary on the trials of narco-warfare might be more effective for you?
Yeah, I personally knew all the info in that video anyway and it didn't stop me before. If I'm going to get hammered on a Friday night, I'm not going to think about a cute cartoon. If you showed me a PETA-style video of a fox being skinned alive, that might come to mind.
So why did you stop? Was the ethical side anything to do with it?
Nope, it was far more selfish: health and happiness.