AS CHILDREN play just yards away on a summer afternoon in East London, a gang of cocaine dealers circle, looking for their next customer.
This is the reality of life on busy Columbia Road in Bethnal Green – dubbed “Cocaine Street” – as brazen dealing and soaring crime rates have seen it fall victim to Britain’s coke epidemic.
The area is blighted by street dealers, with more than 50 drug-related incidents reported to police on Columbia Road and its adjacent streets in the last year.
The same roads have also seen 257 incidents of anti-social behaviour, 137 violent offences and 36 robberies.
Columbia Road’s drug problems aren’t linked to deprivation – the street has an average property price of £550,000, more than double the national average.
The street also has a famous flower market and thriving independent shops and bars.
But its proximity to the nightlife hotspot of Shoreditch and network of adjoining cul-de-sacs has seen it become a rat run for dealers.
Desperate residents – dubbing themselves the Columbia Road Cartel – were forced to erect street signs and parking notices with slogans such as “Drug dealers only” and “Crack pick-up point” in a last-ditch bid to get the local council’s attention.
Locals also turned detective by filming open drug dealing and sending footage to police.
EAST END RESIDENTS’ MISERY
This ease with which people can buy illegal substances in the area is why fed-up residents felt forced to take matters into their own hands.
They erected street signs last year to highlight how drug dealers had taken over the area, claiming police and council bosses weren’t tackling the problem.
Jonathan Mobereley, of the Weavers Action Community Group, said: “It’s happening all the time, day and night.
“The drops happen by cars arriving, always at great speed.
“The users will gather round, do the deal through the car window, and the car will race off.”
Jonathan’s own stepson Jake had his ankle broken in a hit-and-run by one of the dealers last year.
The signs were quickly removed by Tower Hamlets Council after they were erected in September last year.
Penny Creed, vice-chair of the Columbia Tenants and Residents Association, said at the time: “Drug dealing on our streets has reached astonishing levels with some local streets seeing up to ten deals in a single day.
“Dealers driving fast cars are putting residents at risk and users have been accessing communal spaces in properties to use on resident’s doorsteps.”
‘COCAINE STREET’ PART OF NATIONWIDE EPIDEMIC
More than one in ten British adults have tried cocaine, double the EU average, and use among young people is surging, with 20 per cent of 16 – 24-year-olds taking it in the last year.
Cocaine use has doubled in Britain in the last five years, with more than a million Brits have put their lives on the line by using it in the last year.
Columbia Road has seen a boom in the drugs trade as neighbouring Shoreditch replaced Soho as London’s busiest nighttime economy.
One barman who works on Columbia Road, told The Sun Online: “You do get approached at random quite a lot around here, which shows there is a strong market for it.
“The bars try and police it. You notice the big queues for the cubicles, people looking wired but they’ve been holding the same drink all night.
“There’s a knock-on effect for people living here, when there’s competition for that market people become more ruthless.
“Young people and the night-time economy is where the money is around here now though and drugs and everything that comes with it are the consequences.”
SCOURGE OF THE STREETS
The dealing and violence on Cocaine Street have inevitably spilled over onto nearby streets.
We witnessed a number of other brazen drug deals taking place in broad daylight.
On Batty Street in Shoreditch – another nightlife hotspot – drug dealers appeared to openly sell through car windows.
In one incident, a man in a Ford Focus chatted to two men before selling them what appears to be an illicit package.
While standing in the sunshine on the pavement, the man in tracksuit bottoms opened his palms showing small, white rocks which seemed to be crack cocaine in his hands.
In another incident, a man walked into a red phone booth on White Church Lane where he appeared to order drugs.
The same man was later seen smoking a suspicious substance from a metallic pipe on Batty Street as schoolchildren walked by.
Of course this isn’t just a London problem either. Earlier this year Collingwood Street in Newscastle was named the drug hotspot of the North East, after it recorded the most drug offences in the area.
Police stats recorded 5,129 drug offences in the North East last year, and 71 of those were on Collingwood Street.
The drug problem on Tower Road in Newquay is so bad that tackling it is the local police’s number one concern – county lines gangs from Nottingham, Manchester and Birmingham are known to operate there, with police seizing thousands in cash and huge amounts of drugs earlier this year.
And Bristol was recently named the cocaine capital of Europe, thanks to the amount of coke in its sewage. Unsurprisingly several streets in the city are beset with drug problems, with Broad Weir one of the worst.
Stats show 185 offences, including drugs and other crimes, were recorded there in the year to August 2018.
Cocaine is far more accessible these days as the price has plunged to around £50 a gram compared to £250 thirty years ago.
In fact, doctors have warned a flood of cheap and potent cocaine into the UK is fuelling suicide rates.
More than one in ten British adults are believed to have tried the drug at least once in their lifetime – double the EU average of one in twenty.
Use of the drug has doubled in the last seven years, while deaths have quadrupled since 2011.
Once seen as a middle-class drug, the plummeting price means that you’re now more likely to use cocaine if you’re unemployed than a high earner.
Dr Sarah Jarvis, GP and Clinical Director of Patient.info says: “I worry hugely how many people see cocaine as a ‘party drug’ and assume that it’s basically harmless.