Blow Time: Inside the Cocaine World of Auckland's Smart Set
Cocaine has long been the drug of choice for Auckland’s champagne set — but its well-heeled users are rarely caught.
Illustration by Tane Williams. First published in Metro, January 2012.
When the 520g bag of cocaine burst inside her in early September, killing her almost instantly, Colombian drug mule Sorlinda Vega might also have killed a few dozen Rugby World Cup parties.
For Auckland’s champagne set, a season of celebration was marred by just one thing — cocaine, the socialites’ drug of choice, was unusually hard to come by. If Vega hadn’t been inconsiderate enough to die of a cocaine-induced heart attack days before the Cup opening ceremony, the $175,000 worth of the drug inside her could have fuelled many a post-match party.
“I was trying to get hold of some for me and my friends for the Cup,” television industry insider Tim told Metro, “and it was difficult. We ended up getting some on the night of the finals through a friend of a friend of some surgeon.”
Maybe in that mad six weeks in Auckland, there were just too many noses to feed.
When Vega’s half kilo was recovered, it represented more than 90 per cent of the total found by Customs in the first nine months of 2011. Despite warnings late in 2010 of an oncoming cocaine blizzard, seizures up till September were 75 per cent down on the same period in the previous year.
“It’s usually a white Christmas in Auckland.”
But Tim predicts brighter times ahead — summer is party season, traditionally the time South American suppliers flood the market for the holidays. The stats back him up — in 2010, two-thirds of all seizures came in the last three months. “It’s usually a white Christmas in Auckland,” he says.
Well, it is for those who can afford it. At $350-$400 a gram, cocaine is high society’s ultimate status symbol and one of its worst-kept secrets.
While sordid snorting tales make the “Guess Who Don’t Sue” column of Rachel Glucina’s Spy pages in the Herald on Sunday almost weekly, she says the beautiful people are “bizarrely unfazed” about the publicity, arguably because coke, for them, represents “success, money and flouting the rules”.
“It’s a sign of being accepted into a world of the People Like Us that’s invariably inhabited by fashion types, advertising execs, musos and media players.
“One well-known brunette in the media industry propositioned me at a TV party recently. ‘Come and do a line in the loo,’ she said. Her offer was an endorsement: you’re one of us. Presumably she meant as long as I didn’t blab.”
Of course, the chosen surface for most snorters at pubs and parties — the cistern of the lav — is one of the greatest ironies for a so-called glamour drug. And yet, despite having to crouch in a crowded cubicle to sniff a line — about $30 worth — through a bank note that’s already been up someone else’s nose, glamorous is how Auckland snorters say coke makes them feel.
“It doesn’t seem dirty — doing it off the cistern seems the least of your worries. It makes you feel hugely attractive.”
“It doesn’t seem dirty — doing it off the cistern seems the least of your worries. It makes you feel hugely attractive,” advertising creative Sonia told Metro. “I think it probably makes you attractive too because you’re so chatty and upbeat. It’s a very sociable drug.”
Forty-year-old Sonia’s first experience of cocaine in Auckland was in the early 1990s when she arrived at a flat party in Grafton to find eight small piles of the drug laid out on a glass-topped table. Each pile was circled with felt-tip with the name of the guest beneath. “They were pot growers so they had a lot of money, but it was amazing — so exciting.
“It makes you feel like you’re at a New York or Hollywood party. It seems like a different class of drug to the grimy cheap speed and P.”
Certainly its users seldom come to police attention. Police told us cocaine is “not believed to currently have any significant influence over criminal offending”.
But they say that just because users are predominantly successful and law abiding it doesn’t follow police are turning a blind eye to class-A drug use.
“There’s an incentive to be proactive about all drugs,” says Detective Inspector Scott Beard, in charge of the investigation into Vega’s death. “But the people we end up dealing with draw attention to themselves — the people who tend to use cocaine aren’t the type of people who are then going out stealing cars and burgling houses.”
Police had been proactive to prevent the supply of cocaine, for example in recent multi-district raids on members of the Rebels motorcycle gang, who were charged with conspiring to supply it and other drugs.
The Rebels are known to sell cocaine in Australia and police have been trying to stop the gang gaining a foothold in New Zealand.
Suppliers often move in far more salubrious circles. The head of the so-called celebrity drug ring so famously busted in 2006 was former company director and thoroughbred racehorse owner John Waterworth. Waterworth’s clients included former sports star Brent Todd and the then multi-millionaire — now bankrupt — property developer David Henderson.
Henderson donated $10,000 to a drug rehabilitation centre after being given a nine-month suspended sentence for attempting to buy 10 grams of cocaine worth up to $4000 from Waterworth, who’d begun selling drugs to support his own habit after he became addicted to P.
But it seems that unlike P, cocaine use among Auckland’s social set is rarely associated with stigma or addiction — or the horrors of the grotesquely collapsed nasal septums seen in international celebrities such as Prince Charles’ mate Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and Atomic Kitten singer Kerry Katona.
That’s partly because most users find coke too expensive, and its availability too spasmodic, to use regularly enough.
“It’s either a feast or a famine in Auckland,” says Tim. “I have friends who are multi-millionaire rich listers and they like their cocaine and can afford it, but sometimes we end up doing speed because we need a night out and there’s nothing else around. Anywhere else in the world they’d be able to have it, but in New Zealand, if it’s not here, it’s not here.”
The purity of the coke circulating in the city is often better than that in Sydney or London.
Although the supply isn’t as reliable, he says the purity of the coke circulating in the city is often better than that in Sydney or London because it goes through fewer hands before getting onto the market.
“I’ve had friends say you can get it any time you want in Australia but it’s rubbish — 10 per cent coke and 90 per cent something else.
“Here it doesn’t get stepped on that much because you don’t want to be importing something any bigger than it needs to be, so you keep it as pure as you can coming in to keep it small, and we’re only a few degrees of separation from there.”
Because the price is much higher here compared with the $50 a gram and £50 a gram it costs in the United States and the UK (Australian prices are similar to here), expectations of quality are higher, too.
Tim says the first line, particularly for a coke novice, can be “incredibly underwhelming”.
“It’s pretty much my favourite drug — don’t get me wrong — but because it’s been built up so much through media and movies to be this incredible intoxicant, the first time you think you’re going to be tripping your head off and running around as if you’re on a cross between Ecstasy, acid and Viagra, as if you’re king of the world. But I was completely underwhelmed the first time.
“If you’re a bit pissed, it straightens you up, for a start. When I had my first one I’d had a pill [E], back when pills cost a lot of money, when they actually contained Ecstasy, and I was feeling really good. Someone said, ‘Do you want a line of coke?’ so I tried it and it killed the effect of the pill in about a minute, bang, like I’d just had a massive cup of coffee and I thought, ‘Great, that’s $80 down the drain.’”
Tim says he’s learned not to mix drugs — or at least, not in that order. By the second line, “you feel you’re suddenly 10 times cooler. I think in New Zealand that’s compounded by the fact it’s so hard to get and costs so much that to have some, or be with someone who’s got some, adds to that rock’n’roll cool factor.
“If you’re walking around with a bag of coke in your pocket, you know everyone is going to be your friend if you want them to.”
He says he’s attended Auckland celebrity parties of 20-30 people where coke was being openly snorted in the kitchen. “At other bigger parties, it’s like nudge, nudge, go into the ensuite and there’ll be something there for you. I’ve definitely been to parties where people who should know better are doing it pretty openly.” But for brazen snorting, nothing quite compares, he reckons, to the Big Day Out performer a couple of years ago who did it on stage watched by thousands of fans.
Tim says in television circles, cocaine use is more common in some production companies than, say, news and current affairs departments.
TV networks are “probably the least-filled-with-coke places I’ve ever seen. I want to go back to the days of [producer and journalist] Neil Roberts. Now they’re a bunch of goody-goods straight out of Christchurch broadcasting school who have straight As and are good looking. They’re very straight — I’ve been trying to corrupt them for years.”
For Eve, a 30-something Auckland fashionista, cocaine, like clothing, is all about appearances.
“Whenever I have to do the chopping up, I wouldn’t use my Onecard, that’s for sure.”
“I have to say it’s the wanker in me, but whenever I have to do the chopping up, I wouldn’t use my Onecard, that’s for sure. Coke makes me feel like all the things I like feeling anyway. I like feeling glamorous and it makes me feel more glamorous.
“I don’t like the sensation on other drugs of losing my head. It makes me feel like a heightened, better me.”
She’s attended weddings where coke’s been on offer. In one case, guests on a harbour cruise between the ceremony and reception were primed with coke laid out in a cabin, while in another, the bride and groom provided a drugs room where an illicit array, including cocaine, was on the menu. “Someone was keeping a list of who had what — I don’t know if it was to stop people being too greedy or for safety. It did seem a little surreal, slightly like you were in a Jackie Collins novel.”
Eve, who says she’s done coke in the toilets of bars including Longroom, Tabac, Soul and Waiheke’s Te Whau vineyard, says she also tries to get a $100 bill to snort with, and would never stoop to using a fiver.
Restaurateurs Metro spoke to acknowledged it wasn’t uncommon to find toilet cubicles shared for snorting.
Former Sale St and now Red Hummingbird bar owner Luke Dallow says he has a zero tolerance for drug use and always throws users out of the bar. “Obviously in Sale St it was easier to get away with because it was so big.”
He says he sprays a lubricant solution on bathroom surfaces to clag up the cocaine and make it useless for snorting.
At Soul Bar, owner Judith Tabron says toilets are monitored for drug use when staff make the rounds to check for cleanliness. “If we know there are two people in a cubicle together, we knock on the door. We can’t tell whether it’s sex or drugs. During the World Cup when it was frantic and there was a queue, you’d have to check it was turning over.”
The larger wheelchair-access toilet is most popular for drug use and offenders are always moved on, Tabron says. “We’re not going to rush outside and grab the police; it’s more like, ‘Get outta here.’
“I have a security camera which could probably give me an idea of how many doubles go into the paraplegic toilet but I’m not going to waste time going through the film.”
She says guests appear unconcerned about whether others might suspect why they are going to the toilet in pairs. “A lot are older and socially confident — I don’t think they have any problem about it at all.”
Tim, who tells us he’s twice been caught snorting in the toilets of Auckland bars, says he once tried to pretend he was giving a blow job, “but they don’t seem to find that acceptable either. You think you’re being really quiet but you’re snorting and laughing and with no ceiling or doors to the floor in the cubicles, it’s pretty obvious what you’re doing.”
He says a friend who’d been caught in Longroom was ordered out of the bar by the bouncer who found him — only to be allowed to stay when he handed over $20.
“It’s hard to be glamorous when you’re sitting with a whole lot of housewives on a Friday night with a $5 bill up your nose.”
Central Auckland mother-of-two Amy says she tries to avoid bar toilets, and prefers to share her coke with a few friends at home after the kids are in bed on a Friday or Saturday night. Unlike Eve, she doesn’t find it glamorous. “It’s hard to be glamorous when you’re sitting with a whole lot of housewives on a Friday night with a $5 bill up your nose and your Onecard.”
But she says she’s been to some parties where there’s been a virtual blizzard of powder. “I went to one about six months ago where women were pulling it out of their bras and purses and men had it in their pockets. So many people had it they were quite happy to share it.”
With the effects of the drug wearing off in 30-45 minutes, it seemed “half the party at any one time were doing it”.
“Doing it” can appear deceptively simple, but Sonia says it can take time to master the art. “The first time I did it was in Sydney in the back of a car. I hadn’t done anything like that in New Zealand and it seemed wildly exciting and glamorous.
“We were driving off to a bar for a drink and I was trying to snort off a book with a rolled-up $20 bill. I was hopeless at it. It’s actually really hard to do. You’ve got to really stick the dollar bill up your nose, which I find a bit gross, especially when other people have used the same bill. And then you have to be perpendicular on top of it to get it up, and if you’re too much on the side you end up just chasing it around. I was chasing it and chasing it and after a while you just lick your finger, rub it in it, and then rub it all over your gums. It’s not that pleasant.”
She says she became a relatively regular user of cocaine in Sydney in the 1990s before returning home to New Zealand to work. “Sydney was awash by the time I left. I remember being at work at lunchtime and one of my colleagues went off and did a line in the toilets and I thought, ‘Oh my god, things are turning when it’s happening at work during the day.’ I think I had a bit of a lucky escape because one of my friends wrecked his career with his addiction and lost all his money.”
She hasn’t heard of anyone suffering a similar fate in Auckland solely because of cocaine. But Drug Detection Agency chief executive Kirk Hardy believes it’s only a matter of time before job seekers will have to undergo drug tests on hair before being appointed to top-dollar positions here.
He says in the United States, applicants for any senior management role in law, banking, accountancy or even the oil and gas industry have to submit to the tests, which can detect drugs taken three or more months earlier and reveal if their use is habitual. “If you get someone with a habit in one of those industries, getting the wrong person could adversely affect your bottom line.”
Such tests in Auckland custody cases have revealed cocaine use in two managers in high-end jobs in the past year. Hardy says one man, knowing the Family Court would order the test after allegations of his drug use, paid $600 for private tests so he could bide his time until the results were clear. “He’d been clean for two months but we picked up cocaine in the third.”
He says the agency, which did 40 hair tests in 2011 (double the previous year’s figure), has let employers know the technique is available here but it has so far been used only by the courts.
Cocaine seldom shows up in workplace urine tests, he says, mainly because its use isn’t prevalent in the manual industries where most testing is done for safety reasons. None was detected in 2011 and only two in the previous year. “But anecdotally, it’s certainly prevalent in those high-end circles.”
None of the users we spoke to reported suffering adverse effects from the drug. Amy told us one of the reasons she likes it is that it doesn’t interfere with her ability to tend to her children or to function well the next day.
“It can turn borderline arseholes into fully fledged arseholes.”
The only downside Tim could think of is that it can turn “borderline arseholes into fully fledged arseholes”.
“It makes for a lot of conversations where everyone is standing around waiting for the other person to finish their sentence so they can tell you what they really want to say. It becomes not so much a conversation as a series of exchanges where everyone is ignoring each other.”
An advertising executive who’s seen the effects on his workmates agrees. You don’t cut people’s hands off like a P maniac, he says, “you just bore them to death”. He says a combination of bravado, alcohol and an air of celebration at awards ceremonies seems to make industry players reckless.
“Even the whole toilet-cubicle thing, if police wanted to make an example of it, it would be mayhem because it would be so easy to line up 20 or 30 people at once.”
But none of the users we spoke to reported any close calls with the police. Tim says the only scrape he’s ever found himself in was when he was caught by his boss in the toilets, giving the boss’ wife a line. “He called me into his office the next day and I thought he was going to sack me, but he gave me a promotion. I think it was coincidental.”
* Cocaine users’ names have been changed.