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Why do Spaniards love cocaine so much?

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"It's easier for a 16-year-old in Spain to get illegal drugs than alcohol and cigarettes," says law professor Araceli Manjón Cabeza. File photo: YouTube
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How did Spaniards come to be among the biggest consumers of cocaine in Europe? Is there something about the drug that makes it a perfect fit for Spain? The Local talked to movers and shakers in the field to get the inside story.

"Cocaine is glamorous but also dangerous — like the blonde femme fatales you see in the movies", Eusebio Megías, Technical Director of Spain’s Foundation against Drug Addiction (FAD) explains emphatically.

"What international observers often don’t take into account when looking at drug use in Spain is the cultural aspect.

"For about 25 years, or up until 2008,  Spaniards experienced many changes in terms of politics and culture."

Mejías is referring to the period when post-dictatorship Spain reinvented itself as a modern, prosperous and liberal-minded nation.

"There was an emphasis on free time and enjoying the moment. It was a splendid time for Spain economically, and cocaine was a symptom of that."

"Our society became very permissive and limitless; people thought 'I can take anything I want'."

"Cocaine is the perfect drug in that cultural climate. It’s a recreational drug that prolongs pleasure," adds the FAD director.

FAD campaign against cocaine use: "Coke goes straight to the brain, from the first line, even if you don't notice it, even if you think you can control it. Use your brain, turn your nose up at coke."

Europe's biggest coke users?

More than 13 percent of Spaniards between the ages of 15 and 34 have tried cocaine at least once in their lifetime, an EU drugs report from 2012 states.

That's the highest figure for the EU: the average is 6.3 percent.

Spain’s youth are also the most habitual coke snorters in Europe, with 4.4 percent admitting they've consumed the drug in the last year and 2 percent in the last month.

"It’s impossible to get accurate results (on usage) when studying illegal substances," says Araceli Manjón Cabeza, former technical director of Spain’s National Plan against Drugs and currently a professor in criminal law at the Complutense University of Madrid.

"You have to keep in mind not everybody will own up to consuming drugs and there’s no way of determining the exact amount which is circulating around Spain and elsewhere.

"What I do know for a fact is that it’s easier for a 16-year-old in Spain to get hold of illegal drugs than it is of alcohol and cigarettes," Manjón affirms.

Spain’s former number two in the fight against drugs — her boss was Spanish super judge Baltasar Garzón — has actually carried out studies in which she handed teenagers a €50 note (equivalent to $67) and asked them to see what substances they could buy with the money.

"The kids would find it easier to score ecstasy pills or coke than they would to buy a bottle of rum or a pack of cigarettes over the counter.

"Drugs are readily available and no dealer is going to ask a potential client for ID," she explains.

"That’s just one of the reasons why I changed my stance in the fight against drugs and am now in favour of their controlled legalization."

Spain: Europe's cocaine gateway

"If Spain is the gateway of cocaine and other drugs into Europe it’s purely because of its geographical positioning," Manjón tells The Local.

"Whether it's cocaine from Latin America or hashish from northern Africa, we’re just the ones closest.

"Galicia (northwest Spain) already had the infrastructure for tobacco smuggling, allowing local drug traffickers to work with South American drug cartels from the 90s on.

"We also have a lot of coast, which may explain in part why there are so many drug heists in Spain," she adds.

But the law professor is careful to play down the importance of some of these heists: "The Spanish press aren't always accurate when reporting on the fight against drugs. Every drug bust they write about is bigger than the last one, and when you look at the figures afterwards the numbers simply don’t add up."

"According to the UN, only 5 percent of illegal drugs are seized globally. That leaves you wondering whether waging the war on drugs are doing their job properly or not," explains Manjón.

"What I want to make clear is that there’s no way prohibition is going to reduce drug trafficking and consumption in Spain or anywhere else for that matter.

"It’s allowing drug cartels to have a monopoly on the business," she says.

"They in turn can reduce the quality of the drugs, turning them into poison.

"And society’s most vulnerable, from children to those who are desperately living without jobs or homes, are consuming them or facing jail time for using them."

Map of cocaine prevalence in Europe (darker green countries are the biggest users). Click here to see detailed map of drug prevalence across the continent.

End of an affair?

After a prolonged spell of popularity, it seems cocaine may finally be falling out of favour in Spain.

In 2009, a record 10.2 percent of all Spaniards aged 15 to 64 said they had tried the drug once in their lifetime, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

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But 2011 that figure had dipped to 8.8 percent, the first fall in nearly two decades.

For Megías at FAD, it’s all about the state of Spain’s economy: “After 2008 things changed. That was because of the crisis,” he explains

"There is more anxiety and depression now and people are reaching for drugs that calm them down, like alcohol, and tranquilizers."

"People are depressed and scared, and are now spending less on all recreational drugs, including cocaine, because they have less money."

Problems with cocaine remain, however.

"Until recently cocaine was seen in Spain as a fashionable, high profile and relatively low risk substance," Julian Vicente, the head of the EMCDDA's Prevalence, Consequences and Data Management unit told The Local via email.

"(But) there are still social and health costs due to cocaine use in Spain."

"A number of people pass from being occasional and recreational users to intensive users, which creates social, economic and health problems."

A 2012 EMCDDA report cited figures showing there may be as many as 121,130 problem cocaine users in Spain.

This is based on the idea that a problem user is anyone who has used cocaine on 30 or more days in the last 12 months.

And while even the EMCDDA admits it is difficult to define what makes someone a problem cocaine user, one fact remains clear.

Spain's love affair with cocaine is not yet completely a thing of the past.

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