Rabbi: We're in denial about cocaine

By Simon Rocker, April 1, 2010
Drugsline founder Rabbi Arye Sufrin

Drugsline founder Rabbi Arye Sufrin

The Jewish community, says one drug addiction expert, is in denial about the rising use of drugs - particularly cocaine.

David Smallwood is head of the addiction treatment programme at the Priory in Southgate, which is in an area with a large Jewish population.

He has seen a "steady upwards trend" in cocaine use. "A decade ago cocaine was £70 to £80 a gram, now you can buy it for £40. It is much more readily available." He estimates that of the 120 people annually in the overall addiction programme (eg all types of addiction sex, drugs, drink, gambling whatever) around 35 will be Jewish and, of those, around 20 will have used cocaine.

"Over the years, there has been a huge amount of denial in the Jewish population that it exists. I remember talking once to a rabbi who said there are no addicts in the Jewish faith." Cocaine use is associated with high-powered jobs - and the pressure to be successful among parts of the Jewish community can create anxiety. "Any addiction of any description is using it to deal with feelings they can't handle," he says.

On a Friday lunchtime at Southgate and District Reform Synagogue (SDRS), half a dozen people, not all Jewish, are meeting.

Each introduces themselves by their first name followed by the word, "addict". They have come for a weekly meeting of Cocaine Anonymous. Sometimes the synagogue group can attract as many as 20. It started some four years ago, fostered by an ex-user who had been counselled by SDRS's Rabbi Marcia Plumb.

A parliamentary committee reported only last month that around three per cent of 16-59-year-olds in Britain had tried the drug - a prevalence second only to Spain in Europe - according to the British Crime Survey for 2008/9.

According to Professor Neil McKeganey of Glasgow University's Centre for Drug Misuse Research, who is cited by the report, "cocaine use is one of the most serious threats that we face relating to drug misuse".

There were 235 cocaine-related deaths in the UK in 2008, while non-fatal admissions to hospitals owing to cocaine more than tripled from 2001 to 2007. Such is its availability that even a rabbi in Manchester was convicted of possession of the drug last year.

Drugsline, the charity begun by Rabbi Arye Sufrin, which treats both Jewish and non-Jewish addicts, says that there has been an 80 per cent increase in calls from cocaine users since 2006. It estimates that calls from those identifying themselves as Jewish have increased by 100 per cent in 2009 compared with 2008. Last year, calls regarding cocaine specifically made up 10.7% of the calls from those identifying as Jewish.

Drugsline says that the escalating problem with all substances, including cocaine, is "unfortunately reflected in the Jewish community".

Drugsline can be contacted on freephone 0808 1 606 606. Cocaine Anonymous can be contacted at 0800 612 0225 or via www.cauk.org.uk

‘This is a spiritual illness’

Rick, not his real name, 29, was “quite religious” as a youngster, went to a yeshivah programme as well as summer tour to Israel.

But, “by the time I attended parties at the age of 12 or 13, I was already drinking at the weekend. And then I was introduced to marijuana at house parties with people I knew from Jewish youth groups.”

During his gap year, he was introduced to ecstasy and cocaine, and “towards the end of university, I started buying cocaine”.
During law school, Rick’s cocaine use took off. Despite nearly failing his law exams, he managed to get taken on by the law firm that had sponsored him.

“It dominated my thoughts. On occasions I was still high from the previous night at work. Eventually I was told I was not going to be taken on.” Still, he found another good legal job. But his usage — 4-5g a week, costing around £10,000 a year — was “increasingly unenjoyable. I would come back from work, meet my dealer and start using at 10.30. I started getting psychosis, seeing insects on my skin.”

What put an end to his habit was the recession. He was made redundant — and with his payoff went on a drugs binge.
He went on a month-long residential course at the Priory Clinic in north London, attending the CA group there. “It became apparent to me that I couldn’t use, and even if I could, I wouldn’t want to risk it.”

Having accepted the need for abstention, Rick says the CA meetings have been vital to his wellbeing. Recently, he started a new job. One consequence of the CA programme was a more positive experience of Judaism.

“In shul over Rosh Hashanah I had a more connected feeling than I have had in many years. Addiction is a three-fold illness — physical craving, mental obsession, spiritual malady.”

‘I first tried drugs on yom kippur’

Sally, not her real name, is 45, married with two children at college and runs her own business. She grew up in north-west London and used to go weekly to her Reform shul.

Her first experience of drugs came when she was 16 — on Yom Kippur.

“I was fasting and in the afternoon, I was with a friend and we went to see a friend of his. He was smoking dope, and I tried it. I loved it from the word go.”
She and her first husband regularly smoked marijuana, though not when she was pregnant or when the children were around. At 21 she tried cocaine. “I loved it. I was in awe of it, it was a classy drug.”

When Sally’s marriage broke up in her early 30s she took up with a man with easy access to cocaine. “My real addiction took off then,” she says. “I was a binge user. I would go out on Saturday and use until it was all gone. I could do a gram, maybe more.”
After splitting up with her boyfriend restricted her supply, she made what she calls a “pathetic suicide attempt”, ending up in hospital after swallowing pills. Then she made another. Her sister came over. “She had to pick me up, put me in the bath, wash me. She went to a friend of hers, a Jewish girl, who was in Cocaine Anonymous. She said that I needed help. The last time I used cocaine was Valentine’s Day 2002.”

Now Sally has remarried. She continues to go to CA meetings, not only for her own welfare but to help others.

She says that CA has “exploded. There are a lot more Jews coming in. Cocaine has a snobbery about it and I think that appeals to Jewish people. I see lots of young Jewish girls. Many have food problems and cocaine is an appetite suppressant. I had turned my back on Judaism and am actively involved in my shul,” she says.

Last updated: 12:39pm, April 1 2010