A childhood of whiz, poppers and crack: With drug users as young as six, Imogen Edwards-Jones finds how the problem is being tackled at school

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'I FIRST took crack when I was 13. It didn't have much effect on me the first time, so I did not take it again until four months later. I did it because I wanted to, not for any special reason. You do it if you want to be in with the crowd. I mean you only live once and you have to experience things don't you?'

Shiva is 14 and started taking drugs when she was nine.

'I used to roll up a joint as soon as I woke up, before I went to school, if I bothered to go. I went on holiday to India with my mum and that's where I first had marijuana. I smoked it there, with my mates, and when I got back I carried on. All my money went on clothes, shoes and drugs. I took the little drugs first, like draw (cannabis), weed, trips and then E's and coke. That's how most of us started. I used crack twice a day. It was all right at first, but then my health got really bad. I became thin and anaemic.'

Shiva attends the Newham Drugs Project, in east London, which specialises in drug abuse among teenagers. Steve, a counsellor at the project, says that hers is not an unusual case. 'The majority of kids in the area are involved in drugs, although not all of them are in it as deep as her.' The project, set up in 1987, claims to be the only one in Britain that has been invited into the surrounding schools. Just over a year ago, the Department for Education agreed, through mutual consent with the schools, that counsellors could go into classrooms to educate and talk to the pupils about drugs and their drug problems, either in groups or one-on- one sessions.

Steve blames the availability of drugs in the area for the amount of abuse. 'There are kids selling them to each other in the schools. I know of one boy who shifts a kilo of cannabis a week. They get into dealing through their father or older brother - uncles are notorious. And the sellers nearly always use. They do it usually because there is something fundamentally wrong at home or there are pressures at school. They take drugs because everyone else is doing it, to be in with the hard core gang or just for excitement. When you smoke openly already in school, it's much more exciting to go round the bike sheds and smoke some draw or go and have a reef at lunchtime.'

Colin Cripps, chairman of the Newham Drugs Project, says drug abuse in schools is more widespread than either the schools or the Government will admit. 'Most schools won't admit to having a drug problem because it gives them bad publicity and, in an environment where they have to compete for pupils, they can't afford it. So they expel problem pupils for some spurious reason and they get passed around from school to school.'

'It's a universal problem,' says Colin. 'But to make a song and dance about a particular school with a problem is just ridiculous. You can't pretend it's not happening, without it taking hold even more. In almost every school in the country there are kids who are using. One day it will just explode in their faces. It's only by dealing with it in the schools, where the problem starts, that we can get on top of it.'

Steve believes the children are not taking drugs through navety; they know exactly what they are doing. 'But when they live in such a negative environment, and believe that their future is messed up anyway, they don't care very much.'

Shiva says 75 per cent of the children at her school are taking drugs. 'It's mainly draw and that, although there is a lot of whiz (amphetamines) and some sniffing poppers (amyl nitrite).' She says that there is another 10 per cent who are regularly taking hard drugs. There are those who do it because they have family problems and are unhappy, or those whose parents are already junkies and they get into it that way.

'I had a friend who used to shoot up whisky or vodka when she had run out of drugs. I remember one day going round to find her screaming for someone to inject this whisky into her neck. All her arms were too messed up to take any more injections. I didn't want to do it, but I thought that it would either be me who did the injection or someone else. She was my friend, and I wanted to help her. And at least if I did it then I knew it would be done properly. So I did. She died a few months later. After that I suddenly thought shit, one day that's going to be me.'

Shiva is now receiving counselling. 'I didn't want to, but I was forced to by my school, and anyway it's a good way of getting out of lessons. I sat around while they talked at me and suddenly I realised they made sense. But when you have a Government that is always bringing you down, you know you're not going to get a job, you can't even get a social worker when you're an emergency case and you've chopped and changed schools like I have, there isn't much hope.'

Colin Cripps believes that the crack problem in Britain is much greater than it appears. 'Most drugs projects are funded for HIV work, with needle exchanges and methadone, so if you are using crack that is the last place you'll go. There's nothing to attract you in there, so we don't hear about those using crack.'

Of the 287 clients coming to the project in the first six months of last year, 39 were being treated for rock cocaine - crack - abuse. More than 100 being treated in one-to-one sessions were under 20 years old, with 68 referred to the project through their schools.

'We are counselling children as young as six and are operating in five primary schools in the area,' says Colin. 'We know of 12-year-olds running for crack dealers and getting drugs in return, and we have one 15- year-old girl who was spending pounds 500 a week on her habit.'

Colin maintains that crack has a glamorous image that helps its popularity. 'It's constantly called the champagne drug and is associated with success, BMWs, cellphones, nightclubs and shows like Miami Vice. Heroin, on the other hand, has a bad image, it is seen as the loser's drug. We have few young people on heroin, but people will use it to come down off crack.'

But what of the future? 'We have to help them,' says Colin. 'The important thing to realise is that they are human beings and not to be looked down on. We have to empower them so that they can make decisions for themselves.'

Shiva is one of the success stories. 'I'm off drugs now,' she says, with a smile. 'I feel normal and I've gone healthy. My main dream now is to finish school and become a nursery school teacher.'

(Photograph omitted)

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