Cocaine: be careful about wishing for a white Christmas

For your own sake,work out where and how you want to party

Towards the end of the Celtic Tiger, I came to realise that in workplaces, from health settings to financial services, you could find people using cocaine. The use of the drug crossed all demographics and occupations.

Tiger collapsed but now Tiger.2 has arrived and we are awash with cocaine again maybe because of pressures that people alleviate with drink and drugs.

This time around it’s not only the towns and cities but the villages and rural parishes that have experienced a surge in cocaine use.

Well, it’s Christmas and who knows how much cocaine is going to be consumed in pubs, clubs, house parties, and the toilets of the land over the festive season, already under way.


This season brings temptations to relapse for people in recovery. And active users can go completely over the top into paranoia, hallucination, a stroke or a heart attack.

Logically, nobody would take that risk but the problem here is that cocaine is addictive. If you doubt me, consider the fact that more people sought first-time treatment for cocaine abuse than for heroin abuse in Ireland last year.

It’s worth knowing that our craving system, which is related to our learning system, works off cues. And Christmas and New Year provide a variety of cue-rich environments.

When our ancestors lived in the forest, cues helped them to survive. If you found edible plants or berries behind a particular rock, say, it was really helpful for your brain to learn to treat that rock in future as a cue to get over there and get more food. You see the rock, your brain recognises the cue and the dopamine, which motivates you to move towards an objective, kicks in.


The same applies to rewards of all kinds, though. If you always go out and get smashed on Friday night, then your brain quickly learns to make that link.

So now, when your brain realises it’s Friday, the craving for alcohol switches on. Actually the system of cues works backwards: it doesn’t have to wait for Friday evening; lunchtime Friday will switch on the dopamine.

It’s the same with cocaine but for many people alcohol itself is a cue. This could be due to the practice of snorting cocaine late in the evening to get the energy to go on drinking.

Indeed, if you normally take your cocaine in a pub or nightclub, that setting in itself becomes the cue. The same would apply if you took your cocaine at home: they can all become cues. People who get started on the pinot grigio in the kitchen at wine o’clock will know what I mean.

It is worth considering the potential for overdose at this time of year

So if you’re in recovery, or even if you’re not, and if you’re going to be spending a lot of time in pubs and nightclubs where you normally take cocaine, expect those cravings to kick in. Added to the normal effect of the cue will be social pressure and weaker inhibitions.

It is worth considering the potential for overdose at this time of year. As an addiction progresses, you take larger doses and your brain acts to protect you from the effects. For instance, when it realises you’re about to take a drink, and if you’re a heavy drinker, it lowers the strength of various pathways in your brain and this reduces the hit and the danger.

But if you’re relapsing, it doesn’t know you’re about to do this, doesn’t get time to turn down the strength of the effect, and you can overdose because you get the full blast.

Similar possibilities apply if you take a drug – to which you are addicted – in a completely unfamiliar environment. Again if the brain doesn’t know you’re going to do this, it doesn’t get the chance to kick in the protection.

Christmas and New Year can bring us into unfamiliar and cue-rich places. If you think this is worth protecting yourself against, it might be important now to work out where and how you want to party and who’s too dangerous to play with.

Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (