Joel Meares | SMH | 26 October 2011
Once the choice of inner-city hipsters and the city’s wealthy elite, cocaine is now almost as easy to buy in Parramatta and Penrith as it is in Paddington. Joel Meares looks at the blizzard enveloping Sydney and the price users are paying – to both their bank balance and their health – for their indulgence.
Mike* called them “freaky Fridays”, those regular ends to a busy week when he and his mate would “get on it” at work.
His friend might roll in at nine, twitchy after a big night and still armed with a healthy bag of cocaine, and the pair would set to work chopping it up, setting it out and sucking it up their noses.
They’d do their job, and do it well, and pause for a cheeky beer at lunch to calm the buzz.
When work finished, it was almost always back to the pub and on to a coke-fuelled bender that wouldn’t end until Mike’s head hit the pillow on Sunday night.
Such a blitz is pretty standard stuff at the pointy end of town, where the cogs of power and money that keep the city running thrive on little dashes of white powder. But 27-year-old Mike is not a suit; he’s a car detailer.
His pillow does not rest on a bed in Elizabeth Bay but in a modest home near Liverpool. An occasional cocaine user, Mike says the drug helps him work. “You’re there rubbing down, you’re working hard labour. You have some coke and if it’s good, you’re boosted for at least an hour. You’re charging.”
In a frank conversation about his habits, Mike says he buys his coke from friends, his nose is his best quality tester — “If it stinks, it’s going to give you a good buzz” — and that he prefers to sniff his stash at home. “It’s pretty dirty when you have to do it in a bathroom,” he says. Not even at Ivy? “Ugh,” he grunts, after a long, sober Monday at work. “Too many heroes.”
When rumours of coke dealer Richard Buttrose’s “little black book” emerged after his arrest in early 2009, it wasn’t the likes of Mike who had the press all a-twitter.
Headlines homed in on whispers of a “well-known fashion designer”, an MP and the usual lawyers, bankers and entertainers often linked with the glamour drug; the same set that eastern suburbs-based Buttrose nodded to when he told a court that among his “circle of friends” taking cocaine “was much like having a glass of wine”.
Use of cocaine up 55 per cent
But as the city’s coke lust has grown — with use in NSW climbing steadily since 2003 and jumping 55 per cent between 2008 and 2010 — cocaine has become everybody’s drug. Like our cockroaches, the drug is everywhere, if mostly unseen, as much at home in Buttrose’s blue Benz as in the paint-flecked pocket of the bloke detailing your car. And the consequences of this ubiquity – on our bodies and our borders – are just starting to be seen.
There’s certainly plenty to go around. The most objective measures of use — the number of cocaine overdoses and arrests for possession — are rising.
The past few years have seen more overdoses than ever in NSW and in 2010 there were 688 records of possession compared with 549 the year before and just 182 back in 2000. All this is happening as the use of other “party drugs”, such as methamphetamine and ecstasy, declines.
“In the beginning, I was willing to believe it might have been increased law enforcement but more and more data [is] coming to suggest that there is an increase in consumption,” Don Weatherburn, the director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, said last year.
Nick Bingham, head of the NSW Police drug squad, says these numbers don’t take into account the many users who fly under the radar.
“There is a hidden and more affluent group that you just don’t see, we won’t come into contact with, and therefore we’re not detecting,” he says. “They do it in the privacy of their own home and though we can’t count them, we’re sure that their numbers are significant.”
Even without that cohort, Sydney is leaving the rest of the country in its white dust. Cocaine use in every other state but Queensland has dropped as Sydney drives a NSW surge, and 57 per cent of NSW drug users surveyed for the Illicit Drugs Reporting System admitted to recent use of cocaine (only 14 per cent of Victorian participants did). Our state also has the highest proportion of the most unhidden users – a third of our cocaine-using population are injectors, poorer “addict”-types who usually also use heroin. Many picked up their coke habits during the “heroin drought” of the early 2000s.
And when we use, we use: a study from 2003 showed cocaine users in Sydney snorted, swallowed, shot and smoked nearly four times as much cocaine as their Melbourne counterparts.
On the supply side, cartels are only too happy to scratch our itch: a strong Australian dollar and high street price ensure international syndicates continue to target Australia, with Sydney the country’s biggest market.
As the coke has piled up, the traditional line of users curving along the harbour’s edge has widened to include the entire city. While the east remains the epicentre of use, with 60 per cent of noted possession incidents in NSW happening in the City of Sydney, Woollahra, Randwick and Waverley council areas, Parramatta and other suburbs are rising.
“The eastern suburbs is still dominant in cocaine detections,” says Bingham. “But it has been pushed out to the suburbs — the St George area, the Flemington area, Redfern.”
Paul Dillon, founder of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia, has been watching the city’s drug scene for 25 years.
“It used to be so difficult to find cocaine,” he says. “If you wanted to find cocaine that was of any quality, it was almost impossible. That has changed dramatically in the past couple of years. I have never seen the cocaine market as dynamic as it is at the moment.”
Easy to get
You don’t need statistics to see how easy it is to get cocaine in Sydney — you just need Bert’s number. Emma will tell you that. A chic advertising executive in her mid-30s, Emma used to buy from a fleet of guys, all called Bert, before, she says, the quality “went to shit”.
But the service was always efficient. You simply sent a text to the common “Bert” number saying, “Want to meet for beers?” and advising him whether you needed a schooner or a middy — a “schooner” being about a gram for $350; a middy being about 0.7 grams for $300. Within half an hour a dealer would show up bearing gifts.
It might be the posh 20-something “Bert” who drove a red Barina, the Lebanese “Bert” in the BMW or the Kiwi father in a beat-up car, doing it to make extra money for the family. No Bert will deliver to the police-packed Kings Cross on Friday or Saturday nights.
Emma, who tells me about her nearly two-decade-long use of cocaine, marijuana and ecstasy over a cup of skim-milk coffee, fits squarely into Nick Bingham’s “hidden group” of affluent cocaine users. Nothing about her perfect teeth or polished ad-exec demeanour suggests anything like the popular perception of an “addict”.
But she does go on 15-hour drug binges, last year briefly losing hearing in her right ear after a period of heavy use collapsed her Eustachian tube, the short tunnel between the middle ear and the back of the sinuses. That, she says, was a hiccup in an otherwise manageable habit.
More than manage, Emma thrives. “I’ve taken a lot of drugs over a long period of time, but I’ve been able to establish a really great career,” she says. “I think it’s always been known in my family that I’ve done it but it just gets brushed under the carpet. I still save money, I have nice clothes, I live in a nice apartment, and
I have a good job. I’ve never let it get out of control.”
Cocaine gets good word of mouth in Sydney, thanks largely to folks like Emma and Mike, quiet ambassadors who look to be firmly on the rails and show little sign they will ever slip off.
“Cocaine doesn’t have the nasty connotations attached to it that heroin does: people overdosing, dying in the streets, ambulances rushing people to hospital,” says Clive Small, former NSW assistant police commissioner and co-author of the bookSmack Express.
“Heroin is seen as a working-class drug: you live in the west, you’re unemployed, you’re a junkie.”
Charlie v Smack
Cocaine is traditionally the opposite. You live in a decent suburb, you’re a professional, you’re a success. Consider the nicknames: “Charlie” sounds like someone you might want to buy a beer; a “smack” is something you want to dodge.
Cocaine’s good-time reputation is the reason Tom and others I interviewed for this story snorted up their first lines.
An IT worker from Botany in his early 30s, Tom nowadays indulges mostly on “boys’ weekends away”, when he and a group of six will put in for 14 grams and usually snort the lot by the end of the first night. He tried coke when he was 18 because “there couldn’t be that much fuss over something that wasn’t worth your time”. In a city not known for its wallflowers, confidence is key for some users on their first taste. Marketer Beau, 27, took his first line because he heard it would boost his self-esteem — he ended up staying out for three days.
Virtually everyone I talk to says that, while you still need to be discreet, the drug is both socially acceptable and great for socialising.
“You can walk out of a bathroom coherent and not looking like some jaw-chewing E-dragon that strangers — or new ladies — may judge,” says Carl, a regular in the city’s social pages, comparing it with ecstasy.
It pairs perfectly with alcohol, too, say enthusiasts.
“After about the sixth beer, conversation will always, always, turn to cocaine,” says Tom. “It’s like smoking to drinkers,” says Emma.
A 26-year-old who works in radio says the stigma is no longer about doing cocaine – that’s standard. The stigma is about people doing too much. Nearly all his friends snort it, from the mate who sticks a straw straight in his bag to the big-hearted social worker. “I just think everybody likes doing drugs a bit,” he says.
Cocaine sounds like Sydney
Confidence. Booze. Brashness. Cocaine certainly sounds like Sydney. And researcher Paul Dillon adds another very Sydney trait to that list: aspiration.
“Everything to do with cocaine is image,” says Dillon. “It’s what rich people in a certain social scene do. I think if we started asking questions about ‘why do you do this and why do you do that?’, you would find out it is because it’s what the cool people do.”
As Tom puts it: “You can sit at Ivy and go through a couple of grams of cocaine and look fabulous — I think a lot of people doing it want to be those fabulous people.”
The people interviewed do hint at bad times. Emma once hid a cigarette packet stuffed with pot, ecstasy and coke in a sanitary bin in the toilets of a Paddington pub when drug-sniffer dogs came in. She retrieved it later from a, thankfully, empty bin.
When Carl’s former dealer was arrested, he called and said, “Man, they have my usual contacts list.” Fortunately for Carl, the police had the list from the dealer’s car; our interviewee’s name was on another list, in the dealer’s bedroom.
Meanwhile, Beau is three years sober after many more years of addiction. He stole from his family and wound up sprawled in his doctor’s office, blood streaming from his nose, told he was going to die.
But these are the exceptions, and, aside from Beau, no one has stopped using because of them. More typical is this attitude: “Coke is an easy drug. If you’re wasted on E’s, you can take a line or two and come good. If you’re pissed, you can have a ‘sharpener’ and be right as rain to start drinking again. Magic! All right, now let’s get f…ed!” Or this, from Tom: “To me, it’s like salt; it adds a little flavour to my life.”
For former assistant commissioner Small, there is a danger in coke’s “easy” image. “Because we don’t view the drug in the same way as heroin, we tend to dismiss it and that’s a real risk,” he says. “Every time someone buys an illegal drug, 20 to 30 cents out of the dollar make their way back to organised crime. And that organised crime can only become stronger.”
Last year, the word “Mexi-coke” began appearing in Sydney newspapers, a silly name that carries serious meaning. Members of the Sinaloa drug cartel — based in the north-west Mexican state of Sinaloa and run by Mexico’s most wanted man, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman — had established themselves in NSW and by mid-2010, The Sydney Morning Herald reported, were supplying up to half the east coast’s cocaine.
Recently, we were given a spectacular show of just how the cartel works. When a Sydney-bound shipment of 240 kilograms was discovered coming in via Melbourne in June 2010, concealed in stone paving slabs, the Sinaloa criminal sent to oversee the operation fled. Retribution was swift: his body was later found chopped up in the boot of a car in Mexico.
It takes a lot of work to get cocaine from Sinaloa to Strathfield (see “Cocaine on the Move”, left). But for the Mexican and South American cartels who move coke from Peru, Bolivia or Colombia – where the coca plant is grown and cocaine processed – it’s worth it, says Michele Harper of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.
“Australia is a target because the cost of cocaine here is expensive compared with other countries. The Australian dollar makes it even more viable.”
A gram averages about $300 in Sydney – in the US, no higher than $120; in the UK, about $65. And just like other businesses, the cartels love getting paid in those high Australian dollars. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime also noted the Mexican cartels’ “interest in the potentially lucrative Australian market”.
With nary a scratch from the global financial crisis and with our coke lust growing as America’s gradually declines, we’re ripe for the plucking.
As Lisa Pryor, the former journalist whose A Small Book About Drugs last year suggested criminalisation does more harm than good, puts it, “It is similar to the way we’ve got Gap and Zara coming in. They’ve cottoned on that Australians have money to spend when the rest of the world is in recession and we’re willing to pay more than in other places because we don’t know any better.”
More cracks to slip through
If Australia is the target, Sydney is the bull’s eye. We have more cracks to slip through — the country’s busiest ports and airport — and we are the largest, hungriest market. Even shipments sneakily switched to smaller vessels to land on the NSW central coast, or in Mackay, inevitably find their way to Sydney.
“Cocaine is a Sydney-centric thing,” says Bingham. “They can import it into Sydney and they don’t have to then send it to Melbourne or to Perth. Most of the supply will be taken up in the Sydney market.”
From the high-up Sydney importers dealing directly with Sinaloa right down to Bert, everybody makes money. As has “Aunty”, the Colombian-born mother and dealer who has made millions keeping Sydney buzzed for the past two decades. She’s now in semi-retirement, “enjoying the luxury of her spoils”, according to Small, who wrote about her in his book.
“But there are plenty of people willing to take over because of the profits involved,” he adds.
Golden Gun Syndicate
According to Small, for a local importer, the profits are often $6 to every $1 laid out. These “new kids on the block”, as Small calls them, are not like former surfer Shayne Hatfield, who worked with Aunty after making his way up the criminal rungs, but people who “have become big shots overnight”.
Such people are prone to errors. Take Sydney’s “golden gun” syndicate, rounded up in 2007 and 2008 after allegedly importing 300 kilos of cocaine. Members had stashed millions in a Wollongong roof and spent big on the gold-plated .357 Magnum for which they were named.
“They couldn’t help splashing the money around,” says Small. “They didn’t know how to launder the money, or have the contacts. I guess you could say that some of these new kids haven’t done their apprenticeship.”
And every time a user orders a “schooner”, they fuel the industry. At its violent centre sit South America and, increasingly, Mexico, where turf wars between cartels have claimed at least 40,000 lives since President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006. Civilians are spared – mostly. Just this August, as Hurricane Irene dominated international headlines, members of Los Zetas cartel torched a casino in Monterrey, killing 52. Most were women and seniors playing bingo.
The ethical questions hit close to home, too. On a recent visit to Foundation House, a treatment centre for addicts in Rozelle, I meet Josh. Now 32, he began selling cocaine in the Maroubra area when he was 16, still in private school.
“All the older boys were doing it; I thought it was cool,” he says. He’s been a cocaine addict ever since. In and out of rehab since his first taste, Josh has spent more than half the past decade in jail for dealing.
When he was released, he still had addiction but not the constant free supply he had as a dealer. “I had dramas with my family, I’m in debt up to my eyeballs and in a lot of ways I’m homeless. It’s one of the most addictive drugs on the market and you will sell your children to get it.”
Are there other 16-year-olds being roped in to sell? I ask him. “As the years go on, they’re getting younger.”
In coked-up Sydney, ignorance is a kind of comfy, snowy bliss. We don’t know much about where coke comes from and we know less about what it does to us outside the magic charges of dopamine giving us that coky swagger. “I don’t think about it that much,” says car detailer Mike when asked about coke-related health concerns. Emma also chooses to turn a blind eye.
She should probably stop reading now. That way she won’t meet Sam, a banker from the city’s north-west in his early 30s who recently survived his first heart attack. It came three days after his latest line of coke, on only his third time using the drug.
“I woke up at two o’clock in the morning with chest pains and a sore jaw and headache,” he remembers. “I got a drink, had some Panadol, went to sit back down on the bed and completely missed.”
Soon, he was in Royal North Shore Hospital and adding to an alarming trend.
In the past two years, RNS cardiologist Gemma Figtree has seen a significant increase in the number of professional men in their 20s and 30s with cocaine-related heart problems. Five, including Sam, have done irreversible damage to their hearts.
“You couldn’t design a drug more likely to cause a heart attack than cocaine,” says Figtree. It instantly raises the risk of blood clots, generates spasms in the arteries and causes “nasty rhythms” in the heart.
And one line can be as destructive as 10, depending on the user. A snorter, like Sam, with thrombophilia — a disease that increases the chance of clotting and which he didn’t know he had — is at particularly high risk.
I saw Sam’s heart before I met him face to face, when Figtree played a video angiogram of his right coronary artery taken the night of his attack. On screen, a rich, black dye injected into Sam’s artery curved around its jagged C-shape, hit an invisible clot, slowed and then flowed through, thin and grey.
“You obviously know that there are dangers in taking any sort of drug,” says Sam, “but I was surprised this happened.” The day we met, he was back in hospital after experiencing more chest pains.
Professor Shane Darke of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre says there are a few misconceptions around cocaine that need clearing up. The first is that sniffing cocaine does less damage than injecting it.
“It makes no bloody difference,” he says. “Through your nose, through your arm, through your anus, the damage is a result of cocaine in and of itself.”
The idea that alcohol can calm effects of cocaine is a myth, too. Combined with booze, cocaine produces cocaethylene, a substance that prolongs the toxic effects. Cocaine also raises the risk of stroke by 14 times, can lead to psychosis and double the chance of premature birth in pregnant women.
“Cocaine is every bit as dangerous as heroin,” says Darke.
Figtree remembers the friends of her five recent heart attack victims crowding around their beds, crying and saying they had no idea anything like this could happen. Sam says his own friends did change their habits after his heart attack. But not for long.
“Everybody just thinks this isn’t going to happen to them.”
Back in Sydney after several years away, I recently found myself chuckling with recognition in the men’s room of Darlinghurst’s Darlo Bar. Five skinny-jeaned 20-somethings had wedged themselves into a single cubicle as if it were a clown car, snorting up their lines in quick, giggly bursts.
I later saw the same guys spilling back into the bar, their chests puffed out like proud gorillas’, their eyes wild, ready to take on the night. I thought to myself: welcome home.
There is a casual attitude towards drugs in Sydney that you see in few other parts of the world. And spotting the signs of use is obvious: two girls falling out of a bathroom cubicle in a trendy Rocks bar, casting one last glance toward the mirror to check their noses are dust-free; tiny leftover crystals sitting like breadcrumbs on a bathroom ledge; that guy next to you with the saucer eyes who just won’t shut up.
I didn’t bat an eyelid when I saw all this in the week I came back to Sydney. But I batted both lids when Lisa Pryor told me that cocaine has become disturbingly popular among professionals with children – people in their 30s and 40s or even 50s.
“It’s something you can take at a 50th birthday and be sober enough in time to get home for the babysitter.”
In a city where cocaine is glamorous, available and increasingly seen as “the done thing,” it’s easy to see why both clubbers and parents are racking up.
“It’s still in its honeymoon phase,” says Pryor. “People haven’t seen the dangers yet. It’s still seen as pretty harmless, but I imagine that will change over time.”
For Mike, the Liverpool car detailer whose workplace “freaky Fridays” could stretch into freakier Sundays, that change might already be happening.
“There was a point where I was using it every week, and not just for fun,” he says. Emma, who’s been using for nearly 20 years, is slowing down — she’s eating organic and jogging more, too.
And Tom says his use is tapering off, mostly because the effect isn’t the same. “Still, after that sixth beer …”
For most of the other users, though, the weekend — with its promise of white lines and good times — can’t come soon enough. Their honeymoon continues.
* All case study names have been changed.
COCAINE ON THE MOVE
1. With the coca plant and cocaine production based in South America, the drug needs to be imported. An Aussie importer buying the drug wholesale – at about $US2500 a kilo in Colombia, for instance – often won’t travel to make the arrangements himself, but engage a middle man with contacts in the cartels. This way, there’s an extra layer of distance should things go awry.
2. While Colombia remains the main source of Australia’s cocaine, most of our coke embarks from the US and Mexico. Michele Harper from Australian Customs says syndicates are increasingly moving coke through South-East Asia and Nigeria. “The idea is to confuse us.”
3. The 689 kilos of cocaine seized coming into Australia in 2010-2011 got here a number of ways. The drug can be “body-packed” – carried on someone’s person or in someone’s luggage – and up to about 200 grams can be sent in the post. Large amounts are usually sent by sea – suspended in hydraulic oil in drums within cargo containers, in “cocaine tiles”, and sometimes offloaded onto yachts before landing, as with 464 kilos of cocaine seized last year off the Queensland coast. “We follow trends overseas,” says Harper, whose job it is to spot and stop the coke. “It’s a bit like fashion; what’s happening over there
will happen over here.”
4. Once in the hands of Australian importers, the drug filters down the criminal chain. It is first sold on to “commercial-level dealers”, who are sometimes the importers themselves. Next are the mid-level dealers, who buy from the commercial-level guys and sell in ounce lots to lower-level dealers. Along the way the drug is cut for maximum profit. Levamisole, used to treat worms in pets, is a common cutting agent at the production stage, while agents like glucose lidocaine, and paracetemol are used to bulk up product and profits. With their fatted-up coke in hand, lower-level guys sell on to the street dealers, who sell it for about $300 a gram – or up to $450 for a higher grade.