Before Christmas, it seemed you could hardly read a newspaper, listen to the radio or watch TV in Ireland without being bombarded with stories about how the country was awash in cocaine.
It’s an attractive story, tying in nicely with the death of lingerie model Katy French, hand-wringing over Ireland’s recent ‘celtic tiger’ wealth, a supposed loss of our traditions, etc. etc. RTE, our national broadcaster, made a tabloid series called ‘High Society’, which cashed in on the issue in a particularly crass way — crappy “reconstructions” of actors chopping lines with voiceovers, dodgy-looking men handing over money to ominous music, that kind of thing.
Well, just before Christmas, Vincent Browne wrote a fantastic op-ed in the Irish Times regarding this. I have to quote this particularly perceptive passage:
Cocaine abuse is a social problem, but the thrust of much of RTE’s coverage of the phenomenon is to suggest that it is a widespread, pervasive problem. There are no recent statistics available on the prevalence of cocaine consumption in Ireland – the last survey was done four years ago. The National Advisory Committee on Drugs (NACD) will be publishing a prevalence report next month and we will know then the size of the phenomenon.
But we have some indicators about the scale of cocaine use. The European drug agency EMCDDA estimates that 3 per cent of all adults in Europe aged between 15 and 64 have used cocaine at least once in their lives.
A third of these took cocaine during the previous year and half of these took cocaine during the previous month. This means that about 0.5 per cent of the adult population took cocaine over the previous month. And the data suggests that, for at least two-thirds of those who have ever taken cocaine, the drug is not a problem for them.
In the US the statistics are higher. Almost 15 per cent of the population aged between 12 and 64 have taken cocaine in their lives and 2.5 per cent took cocaine over the previous year. Again, this is suggestive that cocaine use for most people is not a problem, otherwise the number of people who took cocaine during the previous year as a proportion of the number of people who ever took cocaine would be far higher.
The figures for Ireland are likely to be that about 4 per cent of the adult population have taken cocaine in their lifetime, with about 1 per cent having taken cocaine in the previous year and 0.5 per cent having taken cocaine in the previous month.
It would be better if people did not take cocaine, but the prevalent contention that the consumption of cocaine at all is necessarily harmful and addictive is obviously false.
It would also be better if people did not drink here, for the problems related to the consumption of alcohol are far, far greater than in the case of cocaine.
Instead of presenting a balanced picture of the cocaine phenomenon, RTE has greatly exaggerated the issue, in a way more typically associated with tabloid journalism.