Cocaine has settled in among Spain’s youth

Times Staff Writer

Around dawn on a Sunday, packs of young people are huddled at stoplights, or ambling down Paseo del Prado.

Despite the hour, the day isn’t just beginning for them. Like thousands of young Spaniards, they are ending a long night of hard-core partying that very likely included the unbridled snorting of cocaine.

At crowded clubs and throbbing bars along Madrid’s Gran Via, and on side streets radiating from the Puerta del Sol, the city’s heart, a gram of coke is casually sold for 50 euros -- about $79 -- and quickly consumed in restrooms or nearby parked cars.


“It’s easier to get cocaine than to get a library card,” said Gustavo Rodriguez, a 31-year-old business student, recalling his nocturnal carousing before he went into rehab.

Spain has become the top consumer of cocaine in continental Europe, according to a recent European Union study on drug use. By a United Nations count, 3% of Spain’s adult population consumes cocaine; that’s a bigger percentage than the erstwhile leader, the United States, at 2.3%.

Among younger age groups, the number of Spanish users has doubled, even quadrupled, during the last decade, the statistics indicate.

Part of the reason for the dramatic increase is that Spain is the primary transit point for cocaine smuggled into Europe from Latin America. In cargo ships and on airplanes, hidden in machine parts, frozen octopus or just about anything else, tons of cocaine arrive at Spanish and Portuguese ports every month.

And you can’t be a transit point forever without eventually sampling the goods.

It was a similar story a couple of decades ago for the world’s top producing countries, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia; for years they boasted of being free of drug addiction in their own populations -- they merely grew and processed the stuff and shipped it onward. But it didn’t stay that way.

In Spain, the rise in consumption is also linked to a swift transition in Spanish society. In barely one generation, this nation of 40 million moved from a long, repressive military dictatorship to a dynamic, youthful democracy with (until recently) a vibrant economy.

With Spaniards’ newfound freedom came a cultural reawakening and fast-paced change, an era called La Movida that also gave way to permissiveness and a breakdown in traditions. And though some of the hedonism of the ‘80s has evolved into something a little more sophisticated, a fresh crop of young Spaniards won’t let go of a firmly held compulsion for frenzied celebration of the weekend.

“It’s a spoiled generation. They’ve suffered little, matured little and are not well-educated,” said Modesto Salgado, who runs one of Spain’s main drug rehab programs. “They live for the moment, to enjoy.”

Salgado says Spain’s predominant drug problem in the ‘80s and early ‘90s was heroin. Today, cocaine is by far the drug of choice: Nearly two-thirds of the patients in the 26 centers managed by his program, Proyecto Hombre, are cocaine abusers. Proyecto Hombre started the coke program only five years ago; it hadn’t seemed necessary before that, Salgado said.

At his rehab center in Guadalajara, a bedroom community 35 miles northeast of Madrid, patients are in yearlong residential programs or larger outpatient regimens. Most are in their late 20s and are middle- or upper-class professionals.

On a recent evening, the mostly male clients were standing in front of the new brick building, having a smoke. Their mothers and other relatives were inside attending a special meeting for families; some emerged tearful.

Rodriguez, the business student, was there. A tall, strapping man with good looks and an easy smile, Rodriguez said the danger of cocaine is that it sneaks up on you. And, compared with heroin, it’s still socially acceptable and, in the minds of many, associated with glamour and success. Plus, it’s cheap -- a line costs about as much as two cups of coffee.

“You think you can live normally, but you don’t see what it does to your health, over time,” said Rodriguez, who added that he has kicked a 10-year habit. “I couldn’t finish anything I started. My parents didn’t know where I was or what I was doing. The tragedy is the core of my family life was destroyed.”

The overwhelming majority of cocaine users in Spain, and of those who seek rehab, are men, Salgado and other officials said. Women still face more of a stigma than do men when it comes to using drugs and turning to treatment, said Antonio Cuadrado, a therapist at Proyecto Hombre.

Police and some government officials question the ranking of Spain as Europe’s top consumer. Authorities say they think they are getting a handle on the problem, and the Health Ministry says consumption among the young fell last year for the first time.

But no one disputes the prevalence of the drug and the fact that cocaine being shipped through Spain is leaving a trail of dust and dope.

Traffickers, peddlers and other purveyors of the powder “are finding a very good market here,” said Jose Luis Conde Velazquez, chief of the drugs and organized crime police unit.

Yet the government is still figuring out the best way to fight cocaine. Carmen Moya Garcia, an epidemiologist who heads the Health Ministry’s National Plan on Drugs, said attention that has been focused on the interdiction of traffickers is finally shifting to include consumption.

A four-year action plan launched last year by the government attempts to break the glorifying myths surrounding cocaine with TV and Web campaigns. And nightclubs, bars and other establishments of leisure are being asked to cooperate with authorities in prohibiting drug use on their premises, by posting signs and keeping bathrooms clear.

Moya said authorities have been able to argue to the clubs, with some success, that cooperation won’t hurt business.

Last summer, in party mecca Ibiza, the government sent a message by shutting down three clubs on the Mediterranean island with such names as Amnesia for a month or more, at the height of the season, as punishment for what police said was flaunting of drugs.

Demand for rehab treatment has soared the way consumption has, and programs such as Proyecto Hombre are at capacity. The experts in those places say the crisis is a deeper phenomenon of questioned ideals and changing values, something that cannot be resolved merely by cracking down on clubs and rounding up small-time pushers, known here in slang as camellos.

“Society has gone from being very rigid to too permissive,” said Cuadrado, the therapist. Cocaine abuse “is going to grow,” he said. “We are only just beginning to treat this.”