Police had more than a passing interest in the Kahu when they pinpointed the former navy patrol boat floating off south Devon 10 days ago.
It was escorted into Plymouth, and officers found more than 2,000kg of cocaine hidden within its 37-metre hull. For investigators, its cargo confirmed a troubling trend.
Until relatively recently, such enormous seizures were considered almost unthinkable by the National Crime Agency (NCA). Yet the Kahu’s illicit freight is not even its biggest cocaine find this year.
Lawrence Gibbons, drug threat lead for the NCA and an investigator who has monitored the shifting dynamics of the global narcotics trade for the past 40 years, said the haul underlined a tendency for increased risk-taking by organised crime groups (OCGs), an impulse that meant the size of single cocaine shipments has steadily grown. “What you don’t read about these days is our 100, 200, 300kg seizures because they’re almost run of the mill,” said Gibbons.
“Ten years ago, I’d have been over the moon if I was the SIO [senior investigating officer] for a 200kg job. In fact, I was the SIO for a 230kg find about a decade ago and thought it was the best thing since sliced bread.”
The Kahu’s illegal consignment may have ramifications far beyond the six men charged over the £160m haul. Experts say the seizure should preempt a more honest discourse on the UK’s “war on drugs”. In particular, they point to a recent announcement by the home secretary, Priti Patel, in which she urges police forces to “make an example” out of middle-class cocaine users by naming and shaming them.
Policy analysts say Patel’s promised middle-class crackdown is facile, ignoring the reality of what the size of the Kahu haul tells us. Cocaine, they say, is not a middle-class drug. Every strata of British society frequently uses cocaine.
Jan Gerber, who runs the Paracelsus Recovery addiction clinics in London and Zurich, has closely observed how cocaine has become normalised in all societal groupings. “It’s moved down the socio-economic scale. A demographic of people who, in the past, wouldn’t have been associated with cocaine use are regular users,” he said.
Gerber added: “Cocaine’s become very normal, people are less afraid they will be judged or criminally implicated by offering it.”
Ian Hamilton, a senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York, goes further, believing that cocaine can be categorised as a working-class narcotic. “Anecdotally, I hear of all sorts of people using it; builders, plumbers, joiners, whoever.”
Cocaine, he says, has undergone a radical brand transformation that the government is choosing to overlook. “I’m old enough to remember yuppies in the 1980s – that image stayed with cocaine for a while. Newer generations don’t have that baggage, or perception. Also, they haven’t experienced crack cocaine in the same way as people did in the 80s and 90s.”
“It’s so widely used that it’s now no longer seen as risky. The way it’s framed for most people is that it’s a bit of a treat.”
A cursory scan of newspaper stories from the past week confirms cocaine’s reach. Convictions include a Lancashire tree surgeon, a former footballer in the Scottish Highlands and, 500 miles south in Oxfordshire, a semi-professional player caught storing cocaine in his grandmother’s house. Elsewhere, a mother from Sunderland was found carrying a bag of cocaine and, in the same city, a 34-year-old quality control manager was caught with the substance following disorder in a pub.
Even the nation’s troops are unable to resist. On Wednesday, it emerged that 1,700 military personnel have tested positive for the class-A drug over the past three years.
For many, the realisation that cocaine is a drug of the masses arrived during July’s Euro 2020 final at Wembley. Numerous social media clips showed supporters snorting white powder on trains, outside the stadium and in its seats. Police said the images reflected cocaine’s growing use “in wider society”.
Elsewhere, officers like Gibbons have observed how South America’s supply chain has responded to domestic demand. The NCA’s latest strategic threat assessment estimates the cocaine market across England, Scotland and Wales is worth more than £25.7m daily. Consumption is believed to be 117 tonnes per year, an increase of at least 290% in the past decade.
Of the 1,716 OCGs involved in UK drug supply, most receive cocaine via shipping container, although yachts like the Kahu remain a “persistent threat”.
Several key elements are driving powdered cocaine’s popularity. The first is affordability. The drug’s street price has largely remained stable for years as wholesale prices per kilo have fallen. “It’s become more affordable; relative to income, it’s a very good value drug,” said Hamilton.
The second factor is quality. Purity has soared over the past decade, attracting a new generation of users. Gibbons led Operation Kitley, which – ironically – helped improve the quality of cocaine after it criminalised the import of cutting agents, such as benzocaine, in 2015.
Previously, a two-tier market existed, with poor quality cocaine – its purity was as low as between 3-9% – sold at a cheaper price. That competed against a more expensive product with higher purity of around 30%.
Gibbons says that street cocaine is now uniformly around 60% purity. More people will buy a better product. “And, like any business model, demand generates supply,” said the investigator. Gerber says that dealers brag about offering cocaine with high purity levels to secure “word-of-mouth referrals”.
Another variable is accessibility. Cocaine is ordered and delivered like pizza these days, usually by moped with transactions arranged through end-to-end encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp.
Andrew Noor, head of trends and analysis at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, said: “It’s more readily available. The fact is, you can’t take the drug if it’s not available.” His agency found that more young adults in Britain took cocaine in 2018 than anywhere else in Europe, according to the latest data available.
Cocaine’s become very normal, people are less afraid they will be judged or criminally implicated by offering it.
Jan Gerber, Paracelsus Recovery clinics
There are also cultural reasons why the UK has embraced cocaine so readily. “Something that get’s lost a little bit is how well cocaine and alcohol go together. Cocaine as a stimulant facilitates longer drinking, and alcohol is well embedded in our society, so you get word-of-mouth recommendations, which is really how cocaine popularity is spread,” said Hamilton. But, of course, there is a dark side. Reports of addiction referrals are up, with cocaine deaths increasing for the eighth year running. The rate of cocaine-related deaths among women has increased by more than 800% in the last 10 years, data reveals.
On top of this, Gibbons says, there is the unrelenting knife crime and county lines violence associated with cocaine, along with the misery, brutality and extortion within the South American source countries.
Fifty years after US president Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs, many British experts despair that the UK government remains fixated on middle-class cocaine use.
Laura Garius, policy lead for Release, the national centre of expertise on drugs and UK drugs law, said: “The government’s plan is not going to work. Firstly, we know that cocaine use is not confined to a particular socio-economic group and, secondly, we know that the criminalisation of people who use drugs has no real deterrent effect on use.
“This tired ‘tough on drugs’ rhetoric is a distraction from the failings of current drug policy,” added Garius.
In the immediate future, most observers expect current drug policy to result in ever greater cocaine consumption. Release added that supply-chain issues with cocaine’s party drug rival – MDMA – had left cocaine in an even stronger position.
“Since the second national lockdown, we have seen an increase in the popularity of cocaine purchasing, and with disruptions to the MDMA market, we might expect to see this increase continue,” said Garius.
Hamilton says: “During the pandemic, stimulant use went down but, as things are opening back up, there’s likely to be a surge,” he said.
Away from the nightclubs and bars, Gibbons and his fellow investigators will continue to scan the UK’s shipping channels. There’s no doubt another cocaine-carrying yacht like the Kahu will soon be on its way. The only question is when.