Addictive: stories about middle-class drug users. Credit: Getty

July 19, 2021   6 mins

The “woke coke” story surfaced again last week. Like it did last month. And last year. It’s the one about how middle-class users are buying very expensive, ethically sourced cocaine from dealers who allege their product is fair trade and cartel-free. The media obviously love the story, and not just because it rhymes.

Stories about drugs have always been used to sell papers. They’re usually the perfect mix of the forbidden, the immoral and the shocking. These days they’re clickbait. The British media has re-published the same two stories — “what to do if you suspect your neighbours are smoking weed” and “how cocaine can make your skin rot” — thousands of times since 2017, because they never fail to get traction. But the tales of “woke coke” provide an extra twist: they serve as culture war missiles aimed at the metropolitan liberal elite.

The problem with these stories, like many others lobbed around in the war on drugs, is that they are mainly bullshit. Woke coke doesn’t really exist. It’s largely a media invention based on the fact that occasionally a dealer might try and claim their powder is whiter than white, to give them an edge in a competitive market. But you’ve got to be fairly gullible to believe that Barry from Bermondsey or Snow_Flake on Telegram have really been to Bolivia to ensure their wares are 100% ethical.

The only tangible evidence, to date, offered by the media of fair trade coke being sold outside of South America has been an advert on the dark web posted in 2013. I’ve been investigating the drug trade for 20 years, and I’ve only heard of one case, now five years old, where a UK dealer had convincing proof his powder was ethically sourced from a small group of cartel-free Peruvian farmers. Bona fide ethical supply chains like this are extremely rare, especially in Europe: virtually every grain of the 117 million grams of cocaine consumed in Britain each year will be the usual rain forest-damaging, cartel-linked product. That’s just the nature of the industry.

“Organised crime groups invest direct with Latin American sources and control domestic wholesale,” says Tony Saggers, the former head of drugs at the National Crime Agency. “Why would they be interested in ‘woke coke’ concepts when they’re already shifting hundreds of kilograms to a market disinterested in the consequences?”

Most of the ‘evidence’ regarding woke coke, then, comes from unsubstantiated claims made by dealers, and parroted by users to journalists. But the reality is, newspapers aren’t that bothered about whether ethical coke actually exists. The real point of these stories is to have a go at hypocritical liberals who buy organic shoes but are happy to snort a drug that — whether or not it’s fair trade — stems from an illegal, inherently exploitative industry.

These liberals also stand accused, by the media, of boosting the obscene profits of the drug lords, because they are paying through the nose: the ‘ethical’ stuff, at around £200 a gram, is up to four times more expensive than your average gram. Of course, by this logic, it’s okay for people who don’t profess to care about ethics to buy as much coke as they want — because, in the culture war, the worst of all crimes is hypocrisy.

“The notion of woke coke exists for one reason: to label certain users as immoral,” says Mike Power, author of Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High. “Is it OK for rich, right wing drug users to buy coke drenched in the bloodshed caused by prohibition?” Not really. So why are the liberals who purchase what’s marketed as “woke coke” getting all the flack?

The woke coke story is not a one-off. It’s a more recent companion to the “woke coke killers” narrative, which informs us that “middle-class drug users are behind London’s murder epidemic — but don’t seem to care”. Liberals who pride themselves on being ethical, the story goes, are getting high on cocaine while the young black boys who deliver grams to their door are knifed on the streets. Tory politicians have been issuing soundbites criticising these naive metro liberals for a few years now: in 2018, for instance, Justice Secretary David Gauke echoed other senior politicians, police chiefs and the Mayor of London when he said that middle-class people who used cocaine “should feel a degree of guilt and responsibility” over street stabbings and murders in the capital”.

But again, the facts just do not back the spiel. Murders by and of vulnerable young black teenagers in London are rarely about the drug trade. If they are involved in it, these kids will not be selling powder cocaine pulled out of their bums to the middle classes; they are far more likely to sell crack and heroin on highly exploitative urban to rural ‘county lines’ drug networks.

But then, county lines is also the fault of middle-class cocaine users — according to received wisdom repeated ad nauseam by politicians, crime chiefs and journalists over the last few years. If everything you know about the drugs industry comes from HBO’s The Wire, then it sounds about right that middle-class drug users are, via a domino effect down the drug chain, responsible for the deaths of impoverished teenage drug runners. But it’s completely inaccurate. County lines customers are addicted, semi-homeless crack and heroin users, not dinner party snorters. In fact, the whole idea that cocaine is a drug of the privileged set is about 30 years out of date.

There’s a precedent for vilifying progressive, privileged drug users. In the Sixties and Seventies, the growing popularity of drugs such as cannabis and LSD within the counterculture movement was viewed with horror by the authorities and the media. Musicians, hippies, artists and Left-wingers were monitored like hawks by the drug squads. Harsh sentences and high-profile busts of people such as John Lennon were used as warnings that Britain, the land of the pissed, would not tolerate this outlandish, anti-social foreign drug culture.

Now, the media and authorities have the Left-wing, metropolitan elite in their sights again. As Sajid Javid said two years ago as home secretary when he was talking about middle class drug users: “They may never set foot in a deprived area. They may never see an act of serious violence, but their illicit habits are adding fuel to the fire that is engulfing our communities.” Since Brexit, referencing woke coke users has become another way for the Right to emphasise how un-British the urban liberal Left are — how completely out of touch with the real world, and with the lives of the working classes (and another way to conceal the fact that they’re no better.) “Woke coke” is just a salvo in the culture war, a source of endless media content and and cheap tricks for politicians.

Using drugs does, inevitably under prohibition, fuel organised crime and murder. And recreational drug users with well-paid jobs have more power to exercise choice over what they buy — illegal or not. So they’re fair targets for the police and government, who are well aware they cannot stop drug supply, and therefore have to try and reduce demand. The best way to do this is to dissuade people from taking drugs.

Culture war point-scoring aside, the Tories are now formalising the strategy of guilt-tripping Britain’s army of 870,000 cocaine users into ditching the drug. Dame Carol Black’s independent review into Britain’s drug problem, published last week, confirmed that the Government is preparing a publicity campaign aiming to discourage use of cocaine. It’s not going to be easy. A series of anti-cocaine TV and magazine adverts made by the Home Office featuring Pablo the Drug Mule Dog in 2005, the joint Colombia-UK “Shared Responsibility” campaign in 2008 and the National Crime Agency’s Every Line Counts campaign in 2015 have all failed to dent the meteoric rise of cocaine use, especially among young people, in the UK.

A study by researchers at Liverpool John Moores University published in May looked into why this could be. It found that even when cocaine users are told about the damage the drug trade causes, they tended to deflect responsibility. They might claim, for instance, that users only play a small part in the harm caused by the cocaine trade, compared to criminals, police and politicians. And the lead author, Professor Harry Sumnall, points out that, in general, “we defend our behaviour to ourselves and others by establishing our moral credentials or building up moral credits”. He says: “Cocaine is not unique in this regard, it’s factored into consumer culture. So it’s OK, for example, to buy a smart phone made with exploitatively-mined rare earth metals, because we made that charitable donation to dig wells in drought areas; it’s fine to take that polluting but convenient domestic flight because we shared that petition on Facebook about climate change; it’s fine to buy a gram or two on that special occasion because everyone knows of our volunteering work.”

“Our findings suggested,” Sumnall concludes, “that media campaigns that focus on personal responsibility of use are unlikely to have the anticipated effects.” Stories about the hypocrisy of “woke coke”, though clickbait gold, won’t do any good.

In fact, they might actively do harm. In deceitfully linking the use of powder cocaine to the epidemic of teenage homicides and the county lines drug trade, these stories are just adding to a pile of disinformation. And this can lead not just to confusion, but to dark places. In countries where the drug war narrative has gone haywire, anti-drugs rhetoric has been used as a proxy weapon against the people. In China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and the Philippines, where the threat of drugs is exaggerated by the authorities, people who use and sell them are painted as anti-social subhumans, tortured and executed. In the US, the war on drugs started as a moral crusade, but ended up becoming an excuse to arrest, jail and kill black people.

These examples are extreme. But there’s a shadow of this rhetoric in the UK, where the constant flurry of “woke coke” stories trickled into the last London mayoral campaign. Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey used the fake narrative of recreational drug users killing young black men to try to win votes. He promised that, Big Brother style, every employee in the capital would, in order to stem gang violence, be regularly tested for drugs, including cannabis.

With every over-egged, “too good to check” story, the reality of Britain’s drug problem is ever more obscured. There are very reasonable concerns about the ethical nature of getting high. But as we continue to linger in a prohibition world, it’s best to cut the spin. You never know where it may take you.

Max Daly is an award-winning journalist and Global Drugs Editor at Vice.