“When you’re taking cocaine, you just want more,” said Gemma Saville, a 31-year-old Londoner. “More drinks, more sex, more coke, more everything.”
Even in comparison with London, Gemma—whose name, like others in this article, has been changed—was surprised by the easy availability of cocaine in Barcelona when she moved here with her partner Matt four years ago. “It was everywhere. We’d get a gramme in on Friday night, polish it off on Saturday evening, and get another gramme in on Saturday night.” Using a selection of dealers recommended to them by other foreign residents, Gemma and Matt found that it was easy to spend €500 a month on the drug, as cocaine became a routine part of their social life.
Gemma and Matt were tapping into one of the darker aspects of Spanish culture. Cocaine is Spain’s stimulant of choice: according to the UN World Drugs Report, more Spaniards have used it in the last year than anywhere else in the world, but the US. It is more popular here than it is in Colombia, Bolivia or Peru, where the drug is produced. What’s more, consumption is falling in the US, while in Spain it continues to rise. This is partly due to Spain’s unhappy position as the main entry point for cocaine being smuggled into Europe, but falling prices (a gramme is currently €60), Spain’s famously late-night bar culture and shifting attitudes towards the drug are factors, too.
Police, doctors and drug workers say that cocaine use has exploded in the past decade. “It doesn’t get labelled as dangerous [by consumers],” said Josep Maria Jansa, a narcotics expert for Barcelona’s public health agency, Agència de Salut Pública de Barcelona. “People see it as recreational, so use is spreading rapidly.”
For Gemma, the drug hardly seemed to pose a threat. “You forget that it’s illegal—it seems like it’s all right in Barcelona. It’s incredible, the amount floating around. We found that we were getting it in a bit too often.”
The fun stopped abruptly when Matt had an incident that Gemma will only refer to as “a funny turn”, which scared both of them so badly that neither of them has touched cocaine since. Gemma now notices how much it was affecting her. “There’s no hangover, no visible effects, no gurning or pupils like saucers, so you think, nobody can tell I’m on coke, and somehow that makes it fine. But God, I was low during the week. Now I’m not doing it, I notice how terrible it was, and how awful I was to get on with.”
Users are underestimating some serious side effects, according to Josep Maria Jansa, and health services are noticing the change. He lists heart problems, sinus problems, temporary impotence, depression, fatigue and loss of memory as dangers, adding, “It’s relatively easy to get addicted.”
Although the vast majority of cocaine users take the drug recreationally, an ever-growing number of people are finding themselves in serious trouble. Generalitat figures show that more people are in rehabilitation for cocaine than for any other illegal drug, and health workers are reporting a corresponding rise in the number of violent incidents in rehabilitation centres. “Cocaine triggers more mental disorders than heroin does: addicts can suffer alterations of perception and hallucinations, and they’re much more aggressive than heroin addicts,” said Jansa.
In the nine months since he left rehab, Fernando Salas, 28, has continued to battle a cocaine addiction that started almost by accident. “I started off taking it a weekend here, a weekend there, sharing a gramme between friends. Then it was every weekend. Then it was a Thursday night as well, then a Tuesday night, too. Suddenly, I was taking half a gramme a day, on my own—I couldn’t stand the thought of sharing it. I realised I had a problem when I was taking it because I had to, not to feel good but to feel less bad, to feel normal. It becomes so habitual, you just keep on doing the same thing, and if you can’t do it you can’t function. It carried on until I was using two grammes a day.”
Fernando fits the profile of the typical cocaine addict neatly, according to Oriol Esculies, who runs the Catalan branch of drug charity Proyecto Hombre: an educated male, aged around 30—although, he added, an increasing number of women are seeking help. “The profile of the cocaine addict is not the conventional drug addict,” he said. “He has a job, and an education, but somehow he finds himself trapped by cocaine, using it more and more. But cocaine addicts don’t reach the depths that other drug users do: yes, they lose their jobs and become absolutely incapable of thinking about anything else, but they don’t break totally with their families and friends, and end up homeless.”
Fernando, who works for his mother, did not lose his job, but his life dwindled to seeking out and taking cocaine, and he alienated many friends. Eventually, under pressure from his family, he went to a centre. “I was there for nine days, undergoing therapy. But it’s not something you can sort out in a week. The struggle starts on the day you leave the centre: when you’re back to normality, and you know where you can get it, that really stings. Every night, I—”, he broke off and chewed his fingernails. When asked whether he has overcome the addiction, he was vague: “I don’t know. There’s something recorded in my brain, and that’s what I have to keep fighting.”
Around half of their patients succeed in beating their addiction, said Oriol Esculies, and added that treating addicts is a long process: “For adults, it’s 18 months to two years. It’s a complex course of group and individual therapy: it’s not just about stopping consuming. We have to arrive at a point where the patient no longer needs to drug themselves.”
A major part of the battle against cocaine is making it harder to buy the substance. Spain accounts for over 40 percent of all cocaine seizures in Europe, but plenty still reaches the streets: Fernando said that he can name “five or six” different places to buy the drug within a couple of blocks of his home.
Like Fernando, Guillermo Sanchez drifted into cocaine; unlike Fernando, he deals it. A big, friendly man in his thirties, he started off by selling beers and occasional bars of hashish on the beach. Over time he started selling hash more frequently, and occasionally somebody would ask him if he could get hold of cocaine. “It’s not like I planned to do this, it just happened.” He claimed to avoid selling to addicts: “I only sell to friends, and I don’t think it’s a priority for most of my friends, it’s recreational. People mostly do it at weekends. I do have friends who buy regularly, but I don’t ask. The way I see it, I’m not worried about my friends getting addicted or whatever: if they want drugs they can get them, whether I sell them to them or someone else does.”
Guillermo, who said he has never tried cocaine, said that his job requires constant caution. “There’s a shitload of police everywhere, and a lot of undercover police. And it’s not like they’re standing around getting fat—you see them arresting people all the time. You've got to be really paranoid. Always.”
Interestingly, Guillermo is in full agreement with Toni Salleres, the head of the Mossos’ drug squad on one matter. “I’m absolutely against marijuana being legalised, because I think it leads to other drugs,” he said. “It’s the first jump. I know people who smoke but don’t take anything else, but everyone I know who takes Ecstasy or cocaine also smokes weed.”
Toni Salleres said, “There’s a perception that hashish, which is very cheap, has very little risk. But habitual users are taking a step towards cocaine.”
Salleres said that the Mossos’ efforts are devoted to tackling dealers and traffickers, rather than consumers, but he admitted that cocaine use continues to grow. “People used to believe that it was dangerous, but it’s not up to the police to change perceptions: it’s up to parents, teachers and publicity campaigns. And we have to start connecting cocaine to other drugs.”
First published April 2007.