Heroin UK: Epidemic swamps treatment centres

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The Independent Online
TREATMENT CENTRES are being overwhelmed by thousands of young addicts seeking refuge from the wave of heroin sweeping through Britain.

Specialist charities said yesterday that most Drug Dependency Units were stuck in the past and aimed their services at the middle aged users who had become hooked on heroin in the Eighties.

Peter Martin, the chief executive of the national drug charity Addaction, said: "They are an anachronism. There are not enough places to cope with the demand and they are not configured to today's usage of heroin, which has become much more widespread."

While drug professionals have welcomed Government plans to encourage the diversion of users from custody to treatment, as part of a pounds 217m three- year drugs strategy, the change in policy has unfortunately coincided with a marked upsurge in heroin dependency.

Roger Howard, the chief executive of the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse, said: "With evidence emerging of an increasing heroin problem, it is likely that services will find themselves under even more pressure in the near future. This could be compounded in years to come by the fact that there may be a large number of people diverted from the criminal justice system into treatment services."

Drugs workers complain that many DDU's are spending too much time assisting older clients, who have been collecting prescriptions for the heroin substitute, methadone, for 15 years or more. Mr Martin said: "These units seem blocked. You cannot get anyone into them because no one is coming out the other end."

He criticised the DDU's for failing to encourage clients to take responsibility for their own lives. "The longer they are in, the less they have to face up to the knocks and blows we all have to face up to in life, and the more dependent they become. Instead of creating independence the units are creating dependence."

Many young users feel alienated by the DDU's and the abstinence-based residential rehabilitation centres, which are also filled with older drug users. Nationally, only two private residential centres cater specifically for young people.

Since the inner-city heroin epidemic of the Eighties, the drug treatment market hasgradually shrunk as social services chiefs have been presented with other challenges, such as the introduction of Community Care. The present Government, acting on the advice of the UK anti-drugs co-ordinator Keith Hellawell, is attempting to switch the focus back on to treatment.

A series of pilot schemes have been set up in Gloucestershire, Croydon and Merseyside, designed to encourage magistrates to sentence users to drug treatment testing orders rather than prison. In areas including West Yorkshire and Tower Hamlets, police are actively encouraging the use of cautions for arrested Class A drug users who are willing to seek help. The Home Office has been delighted with the early results of these "arrest referral" schemes.

Although the Government is seeking a uniform system by April of next year, the treatment of heroin users is currently subject to huge geographical variations linked to the attitudes of local police chiefs and the size and priorities of social services budgets. Drugs workers told The Independent last week that funding was often tied to "flavour of the month" issues like the homeless or multiple offenders.

Meanwhile core services for more typical users - who often respond better to treatment - remain chronically under-resourced. There are also serious concerns at the lack of support services for the 70 per cent of intravenous heroin users in Britain who are testing positive for the potentially lethal Hepatitis C virus.