The government's expert drug advisers are to publish their first significant review of the harms caused by cocaine use this week to counter the "increasingly common" idea that it is a relatively safe drug.
The increasing popularity of cocaine use among young adults in recent years has put Britain at the top of the European "league table" for cocaine abuse – a position it has held for six out of the last seven years.
Cocaine is the second most popular drug in Britain, after cannabis, with its use increasing markedly in the past decade from 0.6% of 16- to 59-year-olds reporting use to the British Crime Survey to 2.4% in 2009-10. This is equivalent to nearly 800,000 people reporting that they have used it within the last year. Among those aged 16 to 24, the increase in use has been even sharper from 1.3% to 5.5% in 2009-10 – or about 367,000 teenagers and young adults.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) wanted to launch its review of cocaine last year but was delayed by requests for advice from the home secretary, Theresa May, on banning the new generation of designer drugs or "legal highs" such as spice and mephedrone.
The council is to confirm the cocaine review at its open meeting in London on Tuesday. The review, which is expected to take a year, will not be looking at the illegal class A status of cocaine.
The drug council chairman, Professor Les Iversen, recently wrote to the May telling her: "The ACMD has previously indicated that it would initiate a review of cocaine and that this review would be focused on the nature of the trade, its prevalence in the UK and the harms of the drug – not classification issues.
"As you are aware, the substantial work the ACMD has undertaken on the legal highs agenda has prevented it from having resource to initiate this review, however, the ACMD is now in a position to start this with immediate effect."
Iversen, who took over from Prof David Nutt after he was sacked, said that he was firmly of the view that cocaine is, and should remain, a class A drug. He said that the council has never looked at cocaine as a single substance in its 40-year history and the review was needed to reinforce public health work to reduce its harmful effects. It would tackle "the need to disabuse the misapprehension that cocaine is a relatively safe drug".
The decision to prioritise the cocaine review means that a similar investigation into the use of qat, requested by the home secretary in February, is now unlikely to start until May at the earliest. Qat is a leafy green plant whose leaves are chewed and used as a stimulant principally among Britain's Somali community.
The drug advisers are also finalising their official advice on the wider implications of the emergence of the "legal highs" phenomenon and make further recommendations for tackling suppliers and reducing market demand.