THE harmful effects of cocaine are to be reviewed after a huge leap in the number of people using the drug, experts have announced.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) said figures showing a rise in cocaine usage were "deeply concerning".
The advisers said use of the "very harmful" drug had increased fivefold among 16- to 59-year-olds during the past 12 years and the purity of street samples had decreased.
The decision by the council to re-examine the effects of the drug was welcomed by campaigners.
In a letter to the Home Secretary, the ACMD chairman Professor Les Iversen said he hoped his review would "counteract the increasingly common misapprehension that cocaine is a relatively safe drug".
He highlighted recent British Crime Survey statistics showing that 6.6 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds used cocaine last year, compared to 1.3 per cent in 1996.
Usage among those aged 16 to 59 also rose from 0.6 per cent to 3 per cent during the period.
Prof Iversen – whose predecessor, Professor David Nutt, was sacked last year for criticising government drug policy – said he did not expect the report to result in a call for a change in cocaine's existing Class A status.
He also said that, along with the drug's increased usage, the purity of samples had been decreasing thanks to more "cutting agents" being added.
Prof Iversen said: "Cocaine is a very harmful drug to individuals and, more broadly, society and evidence of the continued increasing prevalence of cocaine use is deeply concerning."
NHS figures suggest growing numbers of children are being treated for cocaine addiction.
The review by Prof Iversen is expected to take about a year.
Elliot Elam, spokesman for drug treatment charity Addaction, said people tended to see cocaine as a more "benign" drug than it actually was.
He added: "A review is always welcomed to keep these things up to date. That needs to be followed by a wider understanding by the general public through education that drugs like cocaine are potentially lethal. They also don't have to kill you to cause immeasurable problems."
Mr Elam said research showed treatment for cocaine addiction worked and was available.
"It is a widespread problem and has definitely been growing over the past decade due to availability and cost. It is very dangerous but it is not all doom and gloom. If people are experiencing problems with it, there is help and support available."
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Drugs Forum said: "Clearly heroin use remains the number one illicit drug problem in Scotland, but we have been concerned for some time about the use of cocaine, especially when it has the potential to produce the kind of harms to people and society similar to those caused by heroin.
"This is especially so with crack cocaine, which has a devastating impact on people's lives within a very short time of them starting to use it."
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "It is essential people are aware of the dangers of using cocaine, including the greater risk of heart attacks and strokes."