How heroin is running in the veins of a tax haven tax haven

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The Independent Online
JERSEY, the tax haven associated with wealthy businessmen and quiet beaches, has developed a heroin problem to rival the worst of Britain's inner city black spots.

Seizures of drugs on the island trebled between 1997 and 1998 while warnings were issued last week that double-strength heroin was circulating, which is thought to have caused the deaths of up to three users in as many months.

In spite of low levels of crime and almost non-existent unemployment, Jersey has seen an exponential growth in the use of heroin since 1993. During that year, police seized just 4 grammes.

By 1995, that figure had grown to 410 grammes, rising to 657 last year, small in mainland terms yet significant among a population of only 85,000. As yet unpublished statistics for 1997-98 are expected to show that more than 1,200 grammes was confiscated.

"The death rate here is reflective of a community which has a sizeable opiate problem and is consistent with the worst figures ... in the UK," said Bill Saunders, head of the island's Alcohol and Drugs Service.

The service has issued warnings to users after the appearance on the island of 60 per cent pure heroin - twice as strong as usual - and the overdoses of at least two addicts. An inquest has yet to establish the cause of a third death last week, while, on the island, leaflets have been distributed warning: "Watch out, strong gear about."

"I reckon there are about 2,000 opiate users on the island, out of a population of 85,000, and about one-third of those will be in trouble," said Mr Saunders.

There are thought to be a number of factors why Jersey has such a problem. There is a large immigrant population working in the tourism and service industries. Housing laws dictate that no outsiders qualify to buy property until they have lived there for 20 years.

In the meantime, they must live in "unqualified" accommodation, which invariably means low quality bedsits and single rooms, a depressing "bedsitland" which can lead to solitary drug abuse.

Locals talk of a high level of incest and sexual abuse - Mr Saunders said 60 per cent of the women who come to him for help have been sexually abused. There is also a tranche of young people who feel neglected by wealthy parents who have spent more time making money than paying attention to them.

All these factors, coupled with the Channel Island's status as a holiday playground, have resulted in a heady mix open to drug abuse.

"I think heroin has now become widely acceptable to local abusers," said Detective Inspector Bob Bonney, head of Jersey's drugs squad. "This is not a problem peculiar to this island, but the fact that such great profits are involved from only small amounts of the drug means that the temptation is there for drug traffickers."

The profits are, indeed, huge. On the mainland, in areas like Glasgow, Manchester or central London, a gramme of heroin can cost as little as pounds 60 to pounds 100. According to users on Jersey, it costs them up to pounds 200. Mr Bonney said it could cost as much as pounds 300.

Sarah, 22, and Jim, 26, are trying to kick the habit, but they are still occasional users. They say heroin use on Jersey is now endemic.

"A few years ago, the police clamped down on grass and hash at a time when heroin was suddenly available, so people went for it," said Sarah. "It's still available - although sometimes there are problems with supply; it comes in fits and starts.

"We started smoking it, just once a month, and then it became more regular and we started injecting and, at our worst, we were both doing a gramme and a half a day each. We would wake up with no money and no food but, somehow, we would get drugs."

Jim, a gardener, dealt in heroin to finance their habit. "It's much more expensive here than on the mainland, but you can get it when you want it," he said. "There are not that many dealers and, usually, there is just the one batch going round."

Jim and Sarah (not their real names) are benefiting from the island's progressive approach to the problem. Unlike many local authorities, where prevention and punishment are the watchwords, on Jersey they have adopted a "harm reduction" strategy, aimed more at rehabilitation than punishment.

Any addict who asks for help can be on a detox programme within 48 hours. Methadone, a heroin substitute, is widely available but rigorously monitored - it must be taken in the presence of a pharmacist. Users are even given the heroin antidote, Narcan, to keep in the fridge at home for use in the event of an overdose.

"We are negotiating with the courts to concentrate more on treatment of offenders than jailing them," said Mr Saunders, who has worked with the most desperate of addicts in Glasgow and Australia.

"If we can get them off heroin here, there is less chance of them getting back on it."