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Will snow be the highlight snow of your Christmas party; Emma Johnson looks at the truth behind Britain's second most abused drug.

Byline: Emma Johnson

HE Christmas party season is in full swing and chances are you will roll into work at least once during the coming fortnight with a hangover. Or is it more likely to be a "comedown?" While alcohol has always been a staple of the festive season increasingly, for some people, a new ingredient is key to a great Christmas party - is cocaine.

Only the most stupid would dream of chopping out a few lines at the office party, but on the granite kitchen worktops of Liverpool's suburbs and on toilet cisterns in the city's top bars, bankers, solicitors, doctors, secretaries and otherwise law-abiding folk are hoovering up Colombia's finest.

According to the most recent Home Office statistics 635,000 people in the UK are thought to have taken cocaine in the past year adding up to an astonishing pounds 352.8m worth of the "white stuff".

But unofficial reports suggest that figure could be even higher and in Merseyside and Cheshire it seems those looking for a good time are sniffing their share of the Class A drug.

"The traditional ways of measuring cocaine use are all showing an increase," says Andrew Bennett, director of HIT, formerly the Mersey Drug Training and Information Centre, which provides information on drug abuse and offers training programmes.

"However I think some of those studies actually mask the full extent of how coke has become more acceptable in society and more in use by a much wider group of people."

It will come as no surprise to anyone who waded through the acres of news coverage in the wake of the "Cocaine Kate" drugs scandal focussed on supermodel Kate Moss, that cocaine use has risen most sharply in the 25-34-year-old professional age group.

Around 10 years ago only 1.1% of people in this category admitted to trying the drug. However according to the 2003/04 British Crime Survey this figure had risen to 4.5%.

And with an estimated 250,000 people sloping off for "a snort" every weekend, the cost has come crashing down, the price of a gram dropping from pounds 70-80 seven years ago to pounds 40-pounds 50.

Mr Bennett admits that cocaine does still have a glamorous edge over other recreational drugs but says that its plummeting price has also placed it within the reach of the average worker.

"10-20 years ago coke was associated with the Champagne set. I don't think that was ever strictly the case but it is definitely perceived as a glamorous thing to do and that has led to interest from a much wider group who want to taste that glamour," he explains.

"We live in this age of conspicuous consumption and branding and I don't see why that doesn't apply to drugs. coke has got that glamour aspect to it and that is definitely a factor and it is cheaper than it has ever been."

"Cocaine is everywhere you go these days," says Kelly (not her real name), a 30-year-old recruitment consultant from Crosby. "I have never bought it myself but I have tried it. I don't consider myself to be a user, it's just one of those things which seems to be on offer at most parties. If I go to a house party or end up back at a friend's house after we have been out then you know there will be coke there and everyone is invited to join in.

"I'm not saying everyone does but even those who don't do it themselves are unlikely to say anything to the others and I don't think most people even consider the possibility of getting caught when they are at home with it."

While the price has clearly been a factor in cocaine's popularity, experts suggest the drug's growing acceptability in society has also boosted the number of users.

"Liverpool is awash with cocaine," is the view from Cindy Fazey, a Professor of International Drug Policy at Liverpool University. "I get my information from my students, who work in bars and they tell me 'everyone is taking coke'."

Professor Fazey says part of the problem with cocaine is that users do not know the real risksor don't believe the risks are true. "People think, 'I'm just doing a few lines'. I think we have over-exaggerated the risks of drugs and that has minimised the effect of the information," she says.

"Before cocaine we had amphetamines and before that you had ecstasy and I am wary about any hysteria when it comes to drug education. My approach would be to teach healthy lifestyle courses in schools relating not only to drugs, but even vitamins and alcohol.

"Any death of a person prematurely involving drugs is a tragedy but when it is blown out of all proportion the credibility of the information goes out of the window."

"Think back to tobacco," Prof Fazey goes on. "Even though it was definitely linked to lung cancer in 1952 people said 'It won't be me' and tobacco is much more addictive than cocaine. It has taken a lot of education to change that opinion."

Earlier this year Britain's most senior police officer Sir Ian Blair, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, promised to come down hard on what he termed "dinner party" cocaine users, saying that those who think it is "okay to do drugs" may find that it's not.

In Liverpool, Merseyside Police's specialist Matrix team has the task of stamping out illegal drugs supply and usage.

In the last year Matrix has seized cocaine with a street value of over pounds 3m and they maintain that they are determined and dedicated to tackling the control, supply and distribution of Class A drugs.

Currently possession of cocaine carries a maximum penalty of a seven-year prison sentence and a fine but Andrew Bennett is not sure this threat is enough to stem its popularity though.

"Many people (who take cocaine) will be law abiding citizens," he says. "When people are prepared to break the law like this, the deterrent is not the potential penalty but the perception of getting caught and in many cases they won't be.

"If the police went for everybody who possessed cocaine, we would be building more prisons than ever before.

"I'm not minimising the risks associated but law enforcement alone is never going to rid this country of cocaine."

In the meantime for people from all walks of life across Merseyside, Cheshire and the rest of the UK, it looks destined to be a white Christmas

What cocaine does

COCAINE is currently the second most abused drug in the UK after cannabis.

Cocaine comes from the erythroxylon coca bush, growing primarily in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. and was first used in the mid-19th century in tonics and medicines A fine white powder it is often cut with talcum powder or sugar or with local anaesthetics such as procaine and benzocaine.

Cocaine speeds brain activity up producing feelings of mental well-being, making the user energetic and talkative. It also suppresses the appetiteand need for sleep. As brain activity speeds up, so does the heart rate and breathing rate.

Blood pressure and body temperature increases and can lead to chest pain, nausea, blurred vision, fever and muscle spasms.

Snorting cocaine can seriously damage the nose, causing the septum to rotA recent study at St Mary's Hospital in London revealed that 10% of patients admitted for chest pains and suspected heart attacks had taken cocainep For more information on cocaine or any illegal drugs visit www.hit.org.uk or call the National Drugs Helpline on 0800 776600

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Revelations over Kate Moss's drug use caused a sensation but, while most people assume cocaine is part of a Champagne lifestyle, the facts reveal that it's just as likely to be taken by your next-door neighbour; Lining up for trouble
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Dec 14, 2005
Words:1307
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