One drug that has never really been widely available in this country is cocaine. Although it has been claimed by many that it was only a matter of time before the drug became a major problem, the drug has never really claimed a major spot on the Australian drug scene. There are a number of reasons for this but many believe that the major reason is that we are a very small market and the risks are simply too great for both the importers and exporters. Cocaine really only originates from one area of the world, i.e. South America, so trade routes are far more easily tracked than those for other drugs. The drug is also easily detected by sniffer dogs, so identification at the border is far simpler than it is for drugs like ecstasy and other amphetamine-type drugs. Accordingly, cocaine has always been relatively expensive compared to other drugs.

It is a completely different situation in Europe at the moment, however, as they are currently seeing increasing rates of use of cocaine and resulting harms. In fact, recent media reports suggest that the soaring levels of cocaine use among young British professionals have led to a record number of deaths.

A drastic drop in the price of the drug, coupled with the belief among young people that cocaine is safe, led to 87 deaths linked to its use for the first six months of 2003 -“ double the figure for the same period in 2002. With a gram of cocaine now costing £40 compared with £70 a few years ago, the rising death toll has been linked to growing evidence that young professionals are now using it as the weekend drug of choice. Figures show more than 640,000 people used the drug last year -“ triple the number in 1997.

While cocaine has been dubbed the drug without a downside on account of the lack of a narcotic hangover, doctors warn it can trigger fatal heart attacks and strokes, as well as causing severe long-term depression associated with heavy binges. Doctors (in the UK) have warned that easier availability, falling prices and the growing popularity of cocktails of several drugs are behind the trend.

Many cocaine users use the drug in social situations, particularly with alcohol. During the 1980s, a line of cocaine and a glass of champagne were commonplace at many parties. Unfortunately we now know this is one of the most dangerous ways to use the drug. When the drug is taken with alcohol, experts believe it produces a toxic substance known as coca-ethylene, which damages the heart and can lead to strokes.

In Australia we have far fewer cocaine-related deaths -“ between 1993 and 2002 146 cases were identified. Cocaine was a direct cause of death in 86 percent of cases. Deaths usually occurred when the drug was injected. However, there were deaths linked to nasal, oral and even anal use. Over half of the deaths were associated with cardiac problems and this is one of the greatest risks associated with the drug. If you have a pre-existing heart problem, cocaine is not the drug for you. Unfortunately, many young cocaine users are unaware of any such problems they may have.

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