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The wines and lines mums: How our culture is changing

Once only associated with glamorous A-listers, cocaine is now prevalent with the soccer-mum set – as likely to be imbibed at a school fundraiser as a nightclub. The Weekly looks inside this illegal, addictive, rising trend.
Blurry wine glasses cheersingAAP. Getty Images. Stocksy.

The kitchen bench is strewn with the remnants of the day’s barbecue, but the kids are finally in bed. The salads are wilting, and assorted sippy cups and squeezed-out tubes of sweetened yoghurt have been left next to the sink. Clean-up can wait until tomorrow. For now, the assembled parents are free to enjoy some fun. Husbands and wives move onto the deck to drink more wine, continuing their discussion of house prices, TikTok and the recent head-lice outbreak. The doorbell rings and one of the mums leaps to her feet in eager anticipation. That will be the cocaine.

The creep of cocaine into suburban homes is well known, but not well understood. Articles occasionally surface describing school fundraisers fuelled by white powder or a sneaky line of coke on a child-free Sunday with friends. All identifying details have usually been stripped from the stories including, often, the author’s name.

This is, of course, because possessing a class A drug carries a potential penalty of six months’ imprisonment. However, cocaine is flooding into Australia and New Zealand at record levels, and the data backs up the anecdotal evidence that plenty of the customers are middle-class mums.

Mid-forties professional and mother- of-three Anna* agreed to speak about her experience and observations on the condition of anonymity. She first tried cocaine a few years ago. Now, she looks forward to an occasional “fun weekend” instead of drinks at the pub.

“It’s now almost acceptable,” Anna tells The Weekly. “If I tell people I don’t drink, there’s an assumption among some that I do cocaine. I don’t advertise it, but I don’t deny it.”

Other women in her social circles are open about their cocaine use too. “It is happening and it’s happening more regularly,” Anna says. For her, it’s preferable to booze. She likes that she can get a high “without being doped from the alcohol, without slowing down”.

Statistics tell us that Anna is far from alone. The most recent wastewater report released by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) revealed cocaine consumption went up 19 per cent between August 2022 and August 2023. Over that time, Australians consumed four tonnes of the illicit white powder. Sydney, at 1.9 tonnes, was responsible for almost half of that. In New Zealand, the numbers are up over 90 per cent and we consume more than 2.3kg per week.

While cocaine has traditionally been mostly used by men, the number of women partaking has more than tripled over the past 20 years. The cohort of casual users Anna identifies with is mostly hidden. This is because these women don’t generally engage with addiction support services. Yet in the latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey, nearly four per cent of Australian women confessed to having used cocaine in the previous 12 months. And recovery professionals say the face of Aussie drug users has shifted from urban criminals to “professionals and housewives”.

wine and cocktail glasses on a bar

Mums’ night out

Diane Young, Director of Clinical Supervision at the South Pacific Private treatment centre, says the stimulant has become a popular crutch for busy mothers.

“It’s everywhere – it’s absolutely everywhere,” says Diane, who witnesses the “wines and lines” culture among her clients. “They use it because they’re trying to stay on top of their very hectic lives. Once or twice, they’ll use it with some girlfriends and realise, ‘I can get more done! I can stay more focused!’”

They’re mostly taking it at girls’ weekends and parties, she says.

“They use it to party, but the subtext is that they’re using it to cope with the amount of things they have going on in their lives.”

According to Diane, it’s no coincidence that the rise in cocaine use is taking place at a time of increasing pressures on women.

“We’re managing work, businesses, children and partnerships, so we’re full,” she explains. The patients she sees are mostly from Sydney’s well-heeled areas, but the ACIC says the stereotype that cocaine users are high earners and sports stars no longer holds true.

“Cocaine users come from a wide range of income levels and occupations, so its demand base is increasingly diverse,” says the ACIC’s Principal Drugs Advisor, Shane Neilson.

Part of the appeal is the expense. It’s a status symbol. For class-conscious mothers, the perceived glamour of cocaine may add to the allure, but it’s more than that.

Australia’s rates of drug-taking and drinking have risen since COVID. Given the choice between alcohol and cocaine, many prefer the option that won’t leave them disoriented and hungover.

“Of course, alcohol’s the easiest go-to, but if you’ve had a few drinks, everyone knows. If you’ve had a few lines of cocaine, no one necessarily knows,” Diane says. “They don’t see it as getting stoned and escaping from reality. It’s about lifting up. It’s used more with other people like you. With people from your world.”

Anna sees her cocaine use as preferable to the binge drinking she used to engage in.

“I didn’t drink at home – I only drank socially,” she says. “But that did involve binge drinking. I was tired of the hangover and tired of the depression. Tired of the post-drinking anxiety. Most women I know, we wake up in the morning and are concerned about what’s been said or done, or how we’ve been perceived.”

Anna believes the small volume of cocaine she consumes is less addictive than alcohol. Also, because she takes it so infrequently, the cost is not prohibitive.

“Life is stressful,” she says. “To seek an altered state is part of the human experience. It’s not a new phenomenon. We have a lot of pressure and we want to feel good. And it’s not a commitment the way alcohol is.”

She would like to see greater harm-minimisation techniques, like drug-testing kits or facilities. “I don’t have anywhere to test,” she says. “There’s nowhere I can go without judgement and say, ‘Hi, what’s this?’”

There are generational divides when it comes to middle-class drug use in Australia. A 2020 study, led by Professor Jackob Najman, compared the drug habits of two generations of women. It found that those born in the early 1980s used cocaine at a rate 19 times greater than the generation before them.

“Illicit drug use by young Australian women is common,” the report said. Women from the older generation, however, generally only used cannabis, if they used illicit drugs at all.

Other details of the research, published in Addictive Behaviours, provide clues to what is driving this trend. The daughters were more likely to be single and have a higher level of education. Relatively few of the women from the older generation were in the workforce.

Cocaine has been almost “normalised” in some industries, according to addiction psychiatrist Associate Professor Shalini Arunogiri from treatment centre Turning Point. As more women have joined those industries over the years, there’s been a correlating increase in cocaine usage.

“Hospitality, advertising and marketing, for instance, in some settings have higher proportions of people who report using cocaine,” she says. “We’ve seen a lot of social change in the last 20 years in terms of women being able to be more affluent and also be able to access drugs more easily.”

The young women identified by Professor Najman’s study will now be around Anna’s age and may have children of their own. Whether they are employed, raising children or working part-time, they are more likely than their mothers to have been engaged in the workforce at some stage. Even if that experience was limited to bar or restaurant work, that would place them in one of the worlds where they’re more likely to come into contact with the drug.

A blurry image of a woman on cocaine

The drug flood

One factor in the rising rates of “racking up” is that there’s simply more cocaine around. In 2020-21, both the number and weight of cocaine seizures reached record levels, and there was a record number of cocaine arrests.

“Cocaine production overseas is at record levels. There are many transnational organised crime groups attempting to supply Australia’s lucrative market,” Shane says.

While cocaine culture has long been the domain of cities – particularly on Australia’s east coast cities – the latest ACIC report detected it in regional centres in record numbers.

This is a sign that more of the drug is coming into the country, Shane adds. “There were sufficient quantities of the drug available to supply users in both the capital cities and at least some regional areas of Australia.”

While cocaine appears in the media in dirty bricks seized from shipping containers and outlaw motorcycle gang clubhouses, dealers are working hard to reach customers all around Australia and the buying experience has become more palatable.

Jenny Valentish is the author of addiction memoir Woman of Substances, and a consultant in the alcohol and drugs sector. She says technology has made purchasing drugs faster, easier and safer.

Around the 2010s, it became possible to buy illicit substances on the dark web. All that was needed was cryptocurrency and a friend “in the know”. This meant no more face-to-face contact with dealers.

“These online marketplaces looked as innocuous as eBay and had the same system of user ratings, which meant that dealers couldn’t afford to get bad reviews and ratings by selling bad-quality products,” Jenny says.

“In the past few years, it’s become even easier to buy drugs via encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram. Once accepted into a channel – usually by being invited by another buyer – a consumer can see a list of what’s on offer and if you live in a big city, the drugs can be delivered to your door, Uber Eats-style, the same day. Once again, dealers can’t afford to get negative feedback, making the service reasonably safe for women.”

Addiction specialist Dr Stephen Bright says sales-savvy suppliers offer specials. As the crypto markets became destabilised, buyers moved to the private message function on Instagram and Facebook. This had the advantage of geographical targeting. “It’s like a dating site for drug dealers. You know there’s a drug dealer in your area.”

“It’s really, really accessible,” Anna says. “I don’t do the purchasing as a general rule simply because I’m a middle-aged white lady and people don’t trust me. If I do try and source it, I’m not taken seriously.”

Anna has a girlfriend who provides it to her. Cocaine is usually supplied via delivery. For those who know where to get it, it’s extremely accessible. “Potentially, even more so than alcohol in some circumstances,” one person from the recovery space says.

“Once they’ve got someone they can buy it from, they’ve got them on speed dial,” Diane Young adds.

A woman walking out of a building
Publicist Lisa supplied cocaine and ecstasy.

High-risk highs

While cocaine may not seem to have the undesirable effects of alcohol, it brings its own set of demons. Mood swings, exhaustion, irritability, paranoia, panic and anxiety, and of course – as experts point out – you never know what it has been cut with.

Long-term effects include sexual dysfunction, hypertension, kidney failure, heart disease and death. It’s also an addictive substance. “We think it’s harmless enough because everyone is using it,” Diane says. “You will become addicted.”

“Engaging in that comes with a whole range of harms,” Associate Professor Arunogiri says. “From how you access it to what happens if you’re caught with it.

“When you buy alcohol, because it’s a regulated market, there are industry standards. Whereas when you purchase something like cocaine, it’s often cut with quite a range of different contaminants.”

Cocaine is commonly cut with the anaesthetic lidocaine, talcum powder or sugar. The Australian Federal Police has also reported detecting levamisole, an animal worming agent, and phenacetin, an analgesic that is no longer in use because it has been linked to cancer and kidney damage.

Dr Bright, who lectures at the Edith Cowan University in Perth, says cocaine is smuggled into Australia on the east coast. By the time it reaches the west coast, it’s generally extremely poor quality “unless you’re very well connected”.

West coast cocaine is often cut with methamphetamine, more commonly known as P or ice. That has a quite frightening checklist of health and addiction risks of its own.

Anna says she does worry about the unknown chemicals the cocaine may be cut with, “but not enough to make me stop”.

Despite the perception in some circles that cocaine is socially acceptable, law enforcement doesn’t see it that way. The huge demand for the drug makes it an attractive marketplace for outlaw motorcycle gangs, criminal triads and drug cartels.

“There are many transnational organised crime groups attempting to supply Australia’s lucrative market,” says Shane Neilson. “Illicit drugs continue to pose a serious and ongoing threat to the Australian community.” The penalties for being caught with it reflect that.

In 2014, advertising copywriter Kristina Hampel pleaded guilty to drug trafficking after police raided her South Yarra home. She was ordered to perform 200 hours of community service.

Kristina found that cocaine’s veneer of social acceptability shattered once the police got involved. Although she escaped a criminal conviction, she suffered severe reputational damage that hurt her business.

She had turned to supplying the drug, she told the court, to pay for her own habit. “It’s very expensive,” she said in her plea hearing.

The following year, Sydney publicist Lisa Stockbridge was jailed for four years and nine months for supplying cocaine and ecstasy to 200 inner-city and eastern suburbs clients. She said it was an “enormous error of judgement”.

Last year, a Four Corners report, Cocaine Nation, explored the cocaine trade in Australia, depicting an industry that was as dangerous as it was lucrative.

Journalist Mahmood Fazal revealed in an interview that they cut a five-minute scene filmed at a house party.

“It was a mothers’ club from an upmarket Melbourne private school who’d get together for wines and lines on the weekend,” Mahmood revealed on Vice. “It was really evocative of the kind of juxtaposition. How we feel about the stigma and who the people are using it, and what the reality is on the ground.”

The stigma of cocaine usage is a paradox. On the one hand, cocaine’s associations with affluence give it a more benign reputation than its grubbier associates, P and heroin.

Yet for people – and in particular women – who become dependent, the stigma of admitting to an illicit drug habit can be a barrier to seeking help.

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) research from the US says that women are just as likely as men to develop a substance-use disorder but are less likely to engage with recovery and support services.

Simple things like not being able to find childcare can make it harder for mums to get support. There can also be gender health bias, which means medications are often tested on and calibrated for men. This can be true for treatment prescribed for addiction, the NIDA report says.

In Australia, women are more likely to access help online or over the phone. Associate Professor Arunogiri insists these services are available to anyone who needs them.

Diane says that many of the cocaine users who consult her don’t come to her practice because of their cocaine use, but that is often part of why they want help. “What they’re more likely to say is, ‘I need some help with my anxiety or my depression.’ It’s only as you dig a little that they will perhaps make the link between that and the cocaine use,” she explains.

Sometimes it’s not easy to tell, she adds, “how much of what you’re using is to take the edge off and how much is because you have become addicted”.

A woman smiling wearing sunglasses
Copywriter Kristina was trafficking drugs to pay for her habit.

Would you like coke with that?

In New Zealand, there has been a significant increase in the use of cocaine. The NZ Drug Foundation says the volume of consumption has increased 93 per cent in the years 2022/2023 when compared to the previous three-year average. The organisation uses wastewater testing data from across the country to paint a picture of New Zealand’s drug use.

While the upsurge in number is large, we need to take into account that Kiwis’ use of cocaine is still relatively low when compared to other countries. Just over one per cent of adults in NZ have used in the past year. However, the increase is in line with global trends of increased production and supply of the drug.

“We’ll be keeping a close eye on whether cocaine use continues to trend upwards as it does have a higher risk of addiction and harm compared to more common drugs like MDMA,” says NZ Drug Foundation Executive Director Sarah Helm.

According to wastewater sampling, Auckland has the highest rate of cocaine use in Aotearoa. Whereas in the Waikato, it’s methamphetamine and for the Southern Police District, it is MDMA.

Most people associate cannabis with drug use in NZ. While that usage has increased 51 per cent over the past 10 years, there has been little change in numbers since 2019. However, it’s interesting to note that usage in those aged 65 to 74 has jumped from less than one per cent in 2012/2013 to more than six per cent in the current figures.

If you or someone you know needs support for drug use, visit alcoholdrughelp.org.nz

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