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Cocaine: The bad habit of the rich and famous

Collective shock greeted the news that former Olympic swimmer Geoff Huegill and his wife Sara Hills were charged with possession of cocaine at Sydney’s Randwick racecourse on the weekend.

While Huegill and Hills are yet to face court, and the allegations are so far unproven, he has already paid the price for being linked to the drug. AustSwim has suspended him as their national ambassador pending the outcome of the trial, while vitamin company Swisse has dumped him altogether. Speedo has so far refused to comment.

Sponsors might have feigned surprise at the charge, but the experts and the data say we shouldn’t be shocked at the news.

Nigella Lawson, celebrity chef and 54-year-old mother of two, admitted to occasional use last year in an unrelated court case. Cocaine is often mentioned in stories about the powerful and famous going off the rails.

A TV star and an Olympic athlete could be described as one of the drug’s more typical users – stable, successful, and well-educated.

Those in similarly privileged positions fit perfectly within the commonly understood user, according to John Fitzgerald, Associate Professor of Alcohol and Drug Policy at the University of Melbourne.

“Things like cocaine in particular are used in relation to the entertainment industry and certainly it would not be surprising to see cocaine used in a kind of entertainment or leisure setting,” said Fitzgerald.

“That’s certainly been the case for many, many years.”

The fact that cocaine is the illicit substance of choice for the wealthy elite is backed up by the research. A 2007 study published by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre found that the majority of cocaine users in Melbourne and Sydney were employed, well educated and less likely to be disadvantaged.

The affluent affliction

Elizabeth Enter is a psychologist and clinical director of The Sanctuary, a luxury drug rehabilitation facility in NSW’s Byron Bay.

In her 10 years at the rehab centre, Ms Enter has treated a long list of wealthy clients, from Australia and around the world, for cocaine addiction.

“It’s used a lot recreationally amongst those who can afford it. It’s the wealthier person’s amphetamine,” she says.

These patients are often sucked in by the successful people around them who also use the drug.

“Often, the culture in which they work actually sanctions its use. It’s an expected thing often, particularly in money circles, real estate, investment, development.

“When they go out in the business world and they party, they take coke. It’s part of the culture. They believe it clears their head. They feel omnipotent. They feel really fantastic on it, and so they enjoy having that feeling.”

A worrying trend

Cocaine use, according to UN estimates in 2012, is most prevalent in the Oceania region – reflecting the high number of users in Australia and New Zealand.

According to Geoff Munro, national policy manager at the Australian Drug Foundation, cocaine use is also most popular among middle-aged adults.

“The highest rates of lifetime-ever use [is] amongst 30-39 year olds,” he says, based on the most recent data available.

Cost is probably the reason for this limited demographic, Mr Munro says.

“Cocaine is generally very expensive in Australia due to its limited availability,” he says. “Those with higher socioeconomic statuses and employed people were more likely to have used cocaine.”

Middle age crisis

Amber Jefferson, spokesperson for the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), says the average age of first-time use of much older than for other drugs – 23.3 years compared to 16 for alcohol and 17 for cannabis.

The Sanctuary’s Elizabeth Enter confirms that her clientele span the ages of celebrities like Geoff Huegill and Nigella Lawson.

“It’s a particular generation. It’s the 30, 40 and sometimes 50-year-olds,” she says.

Thankfully, cocaine-related deaths in Australia are very low. With its costly price tag and low risk of mortality, it seems cocaine is yet another perk of the wealthy one per cent.

Even rehab can be done in style.

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