Distraught families, medics working around the clock, teenagers collapsing with heart attacks and ruined lives punctuated by routine psychiatric appointments. This is the reality of drug-abuse and light years from the glamorous image of celebrities snorting a line before heading onto yet another glitzy bash – and its rise in the past few years has been relentless and unstoppable.
Spain currently holds the dubious title of having the world’s greatest number of cocaine addicts, even ahead of Colombia and the USA. Even more terrifying is that first-time users are becoming younger – by the age of 14, thousands will have already tried illegal drugs.
In the Murcia region, the crisis is particularly serious. The number of under-18s who have taken cocaine has more than doubled in the past decade to 7.7 per cent, with 10 per cent of teenage girls admitting to sporadic use of the drug. In fact, just over six per cent of the region’s adult population has taken it in the last year, compared to a national average of 2.5 per cent.
La Arrixaca Hospital in the city of Murcia says its casualty department is constantly busy at the weekends with young people admitted suffering from the classic symptoms of drug-use – trembling, agitation, fits and even heart attacks and haemorrhaging.
The increasing level of substance abuse is particularly notable in the psychiatric wing, with more and more patients being admitted or attending as outpatients because of drug problems.
Hospital director Diego Teruel laments that no amount of publicity, policing or awareness campaigns seems to work – the figures continue to rise inexorably. “Every weekend we get new cases, and when we carry out tests we find a high percentage of patients have taken cocaine,” he reveals.
According to the head of the Reina Sofía Hospital’s detoxification unit, José María Basterrechea, “the problem is much worse than research suggests. “We have noticed an alarming rise in psychological disorders such as paranoia and hallucinations, which are usually caused by cocaine use.”
Most people who are treated at the weekends, say the Reina Sofía’s accident and emergency team, have taken a mix of substances – cocaine with alcohol, speed, or hashish. Staff say patients are often aggressive and frequently security guards have to intervene.
Although the percentage of drug-use is higher amongst the young, medics say they have patients of all ages.
“We find many people in their 40s, as many men as women,” reveals a spokesman for the hospital’s casualty department. “Yet when a 17-year-old comes in showing symptoms of heart failure, we have very few doubts. Either they have an existing pathological condition, or they’ve taken something.”
José*, 34, a recovered addict, declares, “there are more people using cocaine in Murcia than we believe. In fact, the traditional profile of a drug-addict – homeless, badly-dressed and dishevelled – no longer applies. They are people like I was.“In my family’s eyes I was a model son, father and son-in-law,” he reveals. “Normal, of smart appearance, with no apparent problems.”
José was one of the lucky few – his wife stood by him, his family supported him in kicking the habit and he has fully recovered. Yet many more will face a bleak future unless they seek help, and fast.