London's High Flying Cocaine Bankers Get a Wink and a Nod
The week before Christmas, and a party at one sales firm in the City of London turned out to be “somewhat eventful”. Two members of staff were ejected – in full view of their colleagues and the directors – after being caught snorting lines of cocaine in a toilet cubicle.
Looking back, a senior employee recalls his surprise days later when the same directors made it known that nothing would be said to those involved, let alone any action taken. “I was somewhat perplexed and asked why, because I thought it would send the wrong message – that we condone drug use,” he said. “They answered: ‘We were in the other cubicle moments before doing the same thing – so how can we discipline anyone?’ ”
For the employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, the story is characteristic of a culture that continues to turn a blind eye to what he calls the “rife” use of cocaine in London’s financial district.
It is a view shared by Tony Saggers, recently departed head of drug strategy at the National Crime Agency (NCA), who is challenging big businesses to talk more openly about their employees’ use of cocaine. He wants companies to establish social responsibility schemes aimed at educating workers about the health risks of cocaine, the toll the trade takes on poor producer countries, and the way the proceeds subsidise slavery and trafficking.
“I am a little bit of a cynic but I think sometimes the commercial nature of industry means they can’t afford to be too ethical with regards to what their staff are doing,” Saggers says. “From a reputation point of view, of course they will say that they have a zero tolerance attitude towards drug use, but what does that really mean?
“My main thought – and I have just had my wings unclipped in terms of leaving the NCA – is: at what point will brands really start to put something in place that says they want to minimise or mitigate their contribution to the sort of outcomes people like me have been warning them about for years?”
The statistics are stark. Cocaine use among young British adults (4.2% of the population) is more than double the European average, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the amount of the drug seized by police and border officials surged to its highest level in more than a decade in 2015-16, when 4,228kg of the class A drug was confiscated in England and Wales. Home Office data published in August for the third quarter of last year indicates that seizures for 2016-17 will have been higher again.
Usage permeates a social demographic that includes the middle classes and those on lower incomes, according to government drugs advisers. But while Hollywood narratives such as The Wolf of Wall Street continue to feed the work-hard-play-hard stereotype, the reality is that addiction is a very real problem among salaried professionals such as those in the Square Mile. City officials have admitted that there is “a particular risk-taking culture that may contribute to the development of health issues and addictions”.
A 2014 review by the City of London Corporation, the local authority for the Square Mile, said of its drug and alcohol services: “In terms of prevention and awareness-raising activities, attitudinal research shows that City workers do not like to admit that they have relinquished control.”
Little has changed since then, according to Richard Kingdon, an addiction specialist based in the City, who says the typical attitude of employers to drug use is still to ignore the problem. “Cocaine use is illegal, so a lot of people won’t go to their human resources department, and especially now that there is also a climate of fear in the City,” says Kingdon, who runs the City Beacon drugs and alcohol clinic in the Square Mile. “As long as you are pulling the money in, they just turn a blind eye. These organisations do not want negative publicity.”
A call-out by the Observer for City workers to anonymously share their experiences of cocaine yielded a diverse range of accounts. Some used words such as “pervasive” and “prolific” to describe the extent of cocaine use. “It’s the late starters who seem to be the most vulnerable to getting themselves into trouble,” said one, who said he had worked as a City solicitor for five years. “Whether it’s a result of the ‘toot’ [a snort of a drug, especially cocaine] or just symptomatic of the risk-taking behaviour, getting into coke when you have money also seems to lead to other bad behaviour.”
Some took a nuanced view, including one northern English male who told of being a heavy cocaine user since he started worked in the City six years ago but described the “City-boy cocaine user” as a lazy stereotype, adding: “I feel the London part of this is more significant than the City.”
A digital marketing consultant made a similar point, referring to cocaine as an “every-weekend normal part of the house party, the pub and the club” in major UK cities: “It’s normal. You will come across the law professor, the factory worker, the just-got-out-of-prison guy, the bar worker and the high-end CEO on coke over the weekend.”
For their part, corporate interests in the City are extremely reluctant to broach the subject on the record. The vast majority of prominent City companies contacted by the Observer about their drugs policy declined to respond.
Among those who did respond was property multinational CBRE, which was the focus of unwelcome publicity this summer when one of its employees narrowly escaped a jail sentence after swindling the firm out of nearly £270,000 after he became addicted to cocaine.
“In common with other large corporations, we run a 24/7 employee assistance programme to support colleagues and their families with issues ranging from legal and financial matters to health and wellbeing, including stress and substance abuse,” said a spokesperson. “This is a free and confidential service, offered face to face or through telephone counselling sessions, with specialist medical professionals and legal advisers.”
The City of London Corporation declined to say whether it had specifically responded to the 2014 report, which warned that its spending on various services was unbalanced and that more focus was needed on prevention work with healthy or low-risk users.
But a spokesperson did say it continued to maintain spending levels on drug treatment and prevention, with money going to WDP Square Mile Health – a drug and alcohol charity with a clinic in the City, which offers outreach work with companies.
Yasmin Batliwala, WDP’s chair, said it had reached hundreds of City employees this year using such programmes, and that this summer it had also established a support group tailored towards LGBT workers.
She agreed that a “risk-taking culture” in the City was a factor: “People do work longer hours and the idea of people working hard and playing hard is actually very true. Recreational use of drugs like cocaine is certainly an issue, although I can also say that we have had a lot of success in terms of our outreach work.”
But she added: “The funding cuts are the biggest single threat to drug treatment recovery outcomes. The government’s drugs strategy may have all the best rhetoric but it is not particularly imaginative and is somewhat behind other countries in terms of moving forward with things like harm reduction. The funding for UK services still tends to be all about recovery.”
Additional reporting by Kaif Siddiqui
FACTS AND FIGURES
In the past year 4.2% of Britons aged 15-34 have used cocaine, according to an OECD report. Across Europe, this is the case for 1.9% of young people.
Men are almost three times more likely than women to use the drug, according to NHS Digital.
In 2014 and 2015 London was labelled the cocaine capital of Europe, with residents releasing the most coke into waste water per person. In 2016, London was ranked second to Antwerp, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
In 2015-16, 4,228kg (9,321lb) of cocaine was seized in England and Wales – the highest amount in more than a decade.