Cocaine comeback - what it means for rugby

Just a little toot. That’s where it’s starts with cocaine. But where will it end? For New Zealand Rugby, that’s a question well worth considering. Because, anecdotally, cocaine is back. More accurately, it never really went away. A drug with a short, sharp effect that clears the bloodstream quickly, cocaine has long been the choice of footy players from certain sets.

The arrests of Ali Williams and James O’Connor in Paris while in the act of purchasing cocaine, and the confessions of Kiwi-born West Tigers star Tim Simona, which include encountering cocaine for the first time at a Mad Monday celebration and using the drug regularly with a cabal of team-mates, have brought the issue of cocaine use within both rugby codes to the fore.

Simona’s (unsubstantiated) claims strongly suggest he was hardly the Lone Ranger when it comes to cocaine use in the NRL, while the ensnarement of Williams and O’Connor has prompted Toulon’s Mourad Boudjellal to warn fellow club owners about a growing cocaine problem among professional rugby players in France.

In Australia, the list of elite players from both codes who have dabbled with cocaine is extensive - Wendell Sailor, Andrew Walker, Karmichael Hunt, Ben Barba - to name but a few.

I'll be in France. Former Sharks player Ben Barba signed for Toulon after returning a second positive test for cocaine while playing in the NRL. Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal has warned of a growing cocaine problem in French rugby. Photo: Getty Images

Add to the list the two un-named Premiership rugby players who last year were fined £5,000 and ordered into rehab by Britain’s RFU after testing positive for cocaine – which followed two similar cases the previous year – and there is clearly a bit of Charlie floating about the rugby scene.

Given the difficulties in detecting cocaine use through traditional drug testing measures – the window for detection through urine is two to five days – it’s probably safe to assume more cocaine is being used by rugby players than is public knowledge. Simona, for instance, claims to have used the drug regularly without returning a positive test, or even fearing one.

Former players spoken to by Newsroom have indicated Simona’s tale of cocaine use at the Wests Tigers has a ring of truth to it – and that such behaviour is unlikely to be limited to the one club.

Drug rings, such as the one described by Simona, have been unearthed before. In 2011 Danny Wicks was jailed for three years for trafficking ecstasy and methylamphetamine, while his Newcastle Knights team mate Chris Houston was arrested and charged but cleared by the courts.

A year earlier, England prop Matt Stevens was suspended for two years after testing positive for cocaine after binging on the drug on a Thursday night before a Sunday Heinekin Cup game. Stevens confessed to a cocaine addiction that had begun to spiral out of control. What he didn’t confess to was how long he had been using the drug and getting away with it, or the extent of cocaine use by team mates and peers at other English clubs.

“If you look at society as a whole, there is a massive drug culture among all of it, so why wouldn't there be in rugby?” Stevens said in a confessional interview that stopped well short of being a tell-all.

At Stevens’ club, Bath, his suspension turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. In the following months, five players would be accused of taking cocaine on the team bus during ‘Mad Monday’ celebrations that would descend into a nasty punch-up with players from rival club Harlequins. The drug use was so brazen that at one point former Wallabies lock Justin Harrison grabbed the bus microphone and shouted "Class A, it's OK, everyone's doing it”.

Harrison would quit the club after admitting using cocaine, while three of his team mates were suspended for nine months for refusing to undergo drug testing during the club’s investigation into the affair.

New Zealand Rugby and Cocaine

Ali Williams surrounded by white lines: Picture Getty Images

In New Zealand, cocaine isn’t really much of an issue - at least, in comparison to P and pot. That’s the view of folks such as drug researcher Chris Wilkins, workplace drug tester Errol Brain and rugby unionist Rob Nichol.

Cocaine might be around here or there, but it doesn’t manifest itself in literature, research or screening as being overly prevalent or bothersome.

Judging just how much cocaine is out there in New Zealand isn’t an exact science, but research undertaken by Wilkins – the lead drug researcher at Massey University’s College of Health – is a useful starting point.

The New Zealand Arrestee Drug Use Monitoring report produced by Wilkins’ team surveys people detained by police about their drug use.

In the most recent report, published in April last year, 24 percent of detainees said they had tried cocaine in their lifetimes, and 5 percent had used cocaine in the previous year (2015). Five years earlier, the proportion of detainees who had ever used cocaine was 17 percent. In Christchurch, the figure increased from 13 percent in 2010 to 24 percent in 2015.

Another report from Wilkins’ Massey team, the Illicit Drugs Monitoring Report (IDMR), found that the average street price for a gram of cocaine had plummeted from $617 in 2013 to $340 in 2014, and has subsequently stabilised.

Both the increased usage and decline in price suggest an increase in supply. That would certainly tally with a massive increase in the global supply of cocaine being driven from Colombia.

A report published by the Washington Post earlier this month estimates Colombia’s coca crop doubled between 2013 and 2015, reaching nearly 400,000 acres.

That abundance of supply had translated into a huge spike in the number of Americans trying cocaine for the first time – up from 670,000 in 2011 to 968,000 in 2015.

Overseas, at least, coke is firmly on the comeback.

So what about New Zealand? Seizures of cocaine here tend to fluctuate dramatically, with the occasional big catch punctuating what is typically a relatively minor trickle. June last year, when police found a record consignment of 35 kilograms hidden inside a diamante horse head, was a classic case in point. Along with the unusual smuggling method, it was noted that the drugs in the spangled horse head were destined for the Christchurch market. Typically with consignments of that size, New Zealand has been a staging point en route to Australia. Not this time.

Broken down into packages for individual sale, that 35-kilogram consignment would represent 35,000 individual sales – more if the drug was cut pre-sale.

Would any of those 35,000+ packages have made their way into the hands of Christchurch-based professional rugby players? Unlikely, says New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association boss Nichol.

For starters, the education and monitoring processes now in place in New Zealand rugby make it extremely difficult for players to conceal drugs.

“You’d have to be a master tactician to get away with drug abuse in our environments,” says Nichol.

Players are most at risk during the times they are outside of the team environment, when they come into contact with people – often friends and family – for whom use of recreational drugs is relatively normalised. But, even in those instances, drugs such as marijuana and methamphetamine – which are vastly more prevalent in our communities – are a much greater risk than cocaine.

Nichol’s view is likely backed up by testing data. Either no New Zealand-based rugby players have tested positive for cocaine (while in New Zealand) or, if they have, the results have never been made public.

Testing for cocaine is problematic says Brain, the former Counties No8 who is now General Manager of the Drug Detection Agency, a company that specialises in workplace and court-ordered drug testing - whose clients include New Zealand Rugby.

Last year the company conducted more than 140,000 drug tests across New Zealand and Australia.

“What we see typically, unfortunately is methamphetamine and cannabis,” says Brain. “In a general sense, we haven’t seen an increase in cocaine use at all. That’s not to say it is not happening, but in the testing we do it hasn’t been something we’ve come across.”

Again, that’s not overly surprising. Even hair follicle testing – a process that can detect drug use over a period of 90 days (and which is being performed on New Zealand professional rugby players for the first time this season) has significant limitations.

“Hair follicle testing will only pick up regular use, it won’t pick up a one-off,” says Brain. “It has to be a lifestyle user.”

In other words, it’s not much use for picking up whether a player is prone to snorting a line or two after a tough match, or when they find themselves at as Paris nightclub with time to kill.

It is particularly useful – and increasingly popular –with employers in industries seeking an insight into the lifestyles of potential employees during the pre-employment phase.

“We are seeing companies, as part of their due diligence, making sure they are getting the right people inside the company tent,” says Brain.

It might well be that New Zealand’s geographical isolation and cultural indifference to what is a costly, scarce substance popular mainly within certain societal cliques, will continue to insulate the country’s players from rugby’s growing habit. But, beyond these shores, it is a different story.

"I think all the presidents should be in a state of vigilance,” Boudjellal warned France’s club owners following Williams’ and O’Connor’s arrests. "I do not want the third half of the day to be cocaine," he said in a reference to players’ post-match habits.

"It does not mean that rugby is like reggae or hard rock - but beware.”

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