Crack team with a winning streak

A radical - and successful - approach to the drugs war is being pioneered in Nottingham. Workers negotiate directly with pushers and pimps and encourage addicts into rehabilitation. Lucy Johnstone watched them at work
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It begins with a mobile phone call. Then Henry's BMW races down empty streets in the dawn light. We stop outside a row of brick houses. Henry says: "I hope Angela comes out soon. It's dodgy - a lot of dealers live in these houses."

Angela calls again: "I'm coming." Henry sinks into his seat. "She owes someone money and they're giving her grief," he says. Ten minutes later, a 28- year-old black woman walks towards us, barefoot and heavily pregnant. She climbs into the car and starts to sob.

Henry is a member of Nottingham's Crack Awareness Team (CAT), funded by the Government and local health authority. His day-to-day work involves negotiating with dealers, pimps and money lenders on behalf of users under threat. The team has inside knowledge of the drugs scene. Members know the networks inside out. CAT's task is to win the user's confidence and persuade them to enter rehabilitation.

CAT was founded two years ago and is one of nine drugs projects in Britain run by the London-based drugs agency APA Community Drug and Alcohol Units. It is the only drugs project in which the team is able to shadow its clients and deal directly with the drugs underworld on their behalf. This radical approach is succeeding where others have failed.

CAT boasts a high success rate with crack addicts in Nottingham. Out of 400 addicts seen, 106 have stopped using crack or reduced their consumption. The problem is not a nine-to-five one, and CAT is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, responding to crisis calls.

Angela started to use crack in her early twenties. A friend claimed it would help her to lose weight. Now, sitting in CAT's headquarters, a narrow building in Nottingham's market square, she is in tears. "They're going to put me in prison. I don't want to go. I can't have my baby in prison."

Dave calms Angela down. She finally takes herself into another room for some sleep. Later that day Henry reports that Angela has decided to try rehabilitation: after five hours, Dave has won her over. Both Dave and Henry have combined their street knowledge with a more traditional drugs approach - they are trained as counsellors to help them to handle the demands of their work.

Dave and his colleagues play down any threat to them from disgruntled dealers, citing their knowledge of both the pushers and the market as a defence.

Eddie Killoran, of the APA, explains: "The dealers are just not that organised. And besides," he says, "they've got enough customers already."

Dave understands the problems associated with crack. A former acquaintance who was involved with the drug drove his car to the seaside, ran a pipe from the exhaust and gassed himself. "That made me think," Dave says. "I saw what crack was doing to people. It was making people so messed up, depressed, violent and turning them into thieves."

Crack, a smokeable form of cocaine, is highly addictive, and its use in Britain is expanding. Seizures of the drug have more than doubled in the past year and increased by sixfold in London, according to figures from the National Criminal Intelligence Service. Over the same period, drug seizures generally rose by only 19 per cent.

Crystals, or "rocks", are smoked from a pipe and produce an instant sense of euphoria. No other drug gives such an intense high. Users can be easily hooked. But each time the drug is smoked, less dopamine, the chemical that produces the high, is absorbed into the body, so it takes more crack to produce less effect. The high lasts only minutes, after which the user starts to "crash", a steady downward spiral into depression and paranoia. The only way to banish the feeling is to have another "hit".

With the street value of crack at about pounds 15-pounds 25 a rock, an addict can spend anything up to pounds 2,000 a week, compared with pounds 130-pounds 500 spent by the average heroin user. Few can afford to finance their addiction. Angela turned to prostitution to finance hers, and almost all addicts resort to crime, particularly theft.

"The craving for crack is like nothing else," says Janaka Perera of the London-based Centre for Research on Drugs and Health Behaviour. "It is so bad you'll do anything - muggings, snatching, hold-ups. One 15-year- old boy had such a craving he put his head through a car windscreen to get a stereo. Many women who turn to prostitution get so desperate they'll have sex for pounds 10 without a condom."

"In inner cities, you can order crack faster than a pizza. It is the most vitriolic and dangerous drug there is," says Peter Martin, who runs APA.

Crack also encourages aggressive behaviour. In the 17 months to May 1994, 13 murders and 32 attempted murders were linked to the crack trade in London alone by Scotland Yard's Violence Intelligence Unit. Detective Inspector Barry Langham says: "There's more violence related to crack dealing than other drugs because there are more profits involved.

"Crack dealers work from street corners, competing for business and protecting their areas; few are afraid to use extreme violence or guns to do it. Crack-dealing is rife in the deprived inner-city areas across the country. If it keeps escalating, it will get as bad as New York, where the life expectancy of a black man is 25."

CAT faces a local explosion in the use of the drug. From January to March this year more than 80 people have contacted CAT and 58 users in Nottingham have attended a CAT assessment of their condition, although the team was expecting to deal with only 20 cases.

One of the reasons for the explosion is that few drug programmes are geared to cope with crack victims. Drug dependency units mainly treat white male heroin addicts, and although many drug units offer help to crack addicts, only CAT offers round-the-clock support. From the moment of contact, the crack-user needs direct access to drug teams. No substitute for the drug - such as methadone for heroin - is available; the habit makes the user volatile and unpredictable.

Crack-users find it difficult to keep appointments, so counsellors are limited in their ability to build relationships and prescribe treatment. "Most services were set up four or five years ago when heroin was the main problem. They don't know what to do with crack-users," says Janaka Perera.

The problem is not only an urban one. Early evening at the CAT headquarters and Louise, in her thirties, with drop pearl earrings and blond hair, bursts into the office. "How are you, babe?" she asks Dave. Louise is one of Dave's long-standing clients. A mother of two teenage girls, she used to live with them and her broker husband in a pounds 250,000 house in southern England. But when her husband got into financial trouble he walked out. Her daughters now live with relatives. "I had American Express, Visa and the mortgage on my back. I was lonely.

"I started when I met up with an old acquaintance, a white South African. One day he brought some crack round. It was amazing, like being tied to a rocket during launch. It took me out of myself. I didn't think I could get addicted."

But she did. Her friend supplied her in return for sex. Eventually, he wanted money instead. "One morning he woke me up at six and said, 'Get your smartest clothes. You're going to work'. I said, 'What sort of work?' He said, 'On the beat'. I was terrified."

Louise became immersed in the prostitution scene. She eventually fled from her friend, but continued to fund her habit in the same way. One night, staying with a relative in Nottingham, she broke down. She had heard about CAT from friends and found them through directory inquiries. "I broke on the phone. I said, 'My life's a fucking mess'. I was suicidal. Dave understood. I was on the phone for two hours. Eventually he said, 'Where are you?' and came and got me."

Dave got Louise into rehab after five days. "It didn't cure me, but I'm a lot better," she says. "I used to wake up and do crack all day, now I only use it at night."

CAT involves itself in follow-up care, working with housing associations to get former addicts rehoused if they want to move away from suppliers. "You do need the whole range of services - you need outreach," says Colin Cripps, of Newham Drugs project in London.

Despite the team's role at the frontline of the crack war, its ability to take addicts beyond the first step is limited. CAT's funding is too small for it to do more than refer the user to another agency.

The sheer scale of the problem is pushed home the next day. A stringy- looking man walks into the office and speaks to Dave. He knows that one of CAT's biggest priorities is confidentiality. He tells Dave that a female crack-user left home a week ago without warning, taking all the benefit books and leaving her children in the house without food. Dave grabs his phone and jumps into the BMW. We speed to a dreary estate. A scruffy, blonde six-year-old girl stands outside a house. "Mummy's gone," she announces. "Can I have 10p to ring Nan to see if she's there?"

Someone told Dave the girl's mother was seen that day working as a prostitute.

Inside, a cadaverous-looking black-haired man is watching television. "She's bloody gone. Taken everything down to the mascara. I haven't got any money," he shouts.

"We've had no money or food for seven days. I've had to feed the kids on porridge and peas. Social Security won't give us any money. She's a bloody bitch."

The sink is filled with greasy dishes and the house smells of dirty clothes. All Dave can do is come back with food.

Peter Martin from the APA wants CAT to come to other towns and cities. "The CAT team are adapted to the crack lifestyle. They know all the drug networks. They are trusted. They provide crisis intervention to people just when they need help. My dream is to develop their model," he says. "London and other cities ... they really need this."

Names of CAT clients have been changed.

This is an edited version of an article appearing in this week's 'Big Issue'.