Trainspotting: the reality

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A disturbing picture emerged yesterday of a British society caught up in a culture of drugs, widescale illegality, official corruption, and an inability to cope with the rising tide of narcotic abuse.

A Home Office study estimates that there are more than 30 million drug deals each year in London alone, of which only one in every 4,000 street sales results in an arrest. If the average deal costs pounds 20 the annual amount spent by consumers on drugs in the capital is pounds 600m.

Researchers also highlighted a fraud involving private doctors being paid pounds 25 bribes to prescribe large amount of drugs to addicts. Users charged new drug consumers an introductory fee to meet the corrupt doctors.

The report Tackling Local Drug Markets gives a fascinating but depressing insight in the secretive world of dealers, buyers, and addicts. It shows how drugs, sleeping tablets and prescribed medicines are illegally obtained via a clandestine web of contacts. Dealers go to extraordinary means to protect themselves from the police and complex relationships are established between the traffickers and clients.

The findings are believed to mirror other large cities in Britain, where law enforcement officers and drug workers have conceded that drug abuse is continuing to spiral out of control.

The study, by the Police Research Group, focuses on the dealing of pharmaceutical medicines and Class A drugs such as heroin, crack cocaine, and ecstasy, that takes place in public or semi public places.

Of the estimated 30 million drugs transactions in London each year, deals that take place on the street or in public places are believed to account for between three and five million. The majority of sales, usually of cannabis, occur in homes.

The people questioned spent on average pounds 333 a week or pounds 17,300 a year on their drug habit.

The core of the research examined six street dealing sites in London. A picture of each area or "market" was built up using interviews with drug users, probation officers, the police, and drug workers.

A picture of a multi drug abuse emerged in which orders were taken on stolen mobile phones, people queued to obtain illegal drugs from pharmacies, secret identities were used, consumers bought their daily fix along with their shopping and a casual disregard for the police were commonplace. Hard drugs appeared freely available in all the areas studied..

The researchers also discovered a scam involving corrupt private doctors and pharmacists. The private GPs were charging a weekly pounds 25 "consultation fee" to be paid before the prescriptions were handed over. Some doctors are believed to have long lists of "clients" who take advantage of the system. "The least scrupulous of private prescribers can maintain high throughput by offering minimal patient care: some respondents told us that they were given prescriptions in the absence of drug screening, medical histories and urine tests," said the report.

They found that excessive amount of drugs were being prescribed, suggesting the doctor knew some were for resale.

Drug users reported that pharmacists could also make large amount of money by handling the private prescriptions. "Some of our respondents firmly believed that their doctor and pharmacist worked in profit sharing partnerships," said the report.

"Pharmacists often allow users credit. This enabled the users to collect half their prescription, sell it and then pay off the pharmacist and collect the remainder of the prescription."

Researchers estimate that of the 500,000 people in London who regularly take illicit drugs - mostly cannabis - between 20,000 and 40,000 are "problem users". In 1994 the Metropolitan Police prosecuted or cautioned 23,000 people for drug possession or supply offences.

Sales of street heroin were typically pounds 10 for a 0.1g bag, crack was on average pounds 20 for a rock. Users obtained their money from a number of methods including drug dealing, benefit fraud, shoplifting and prostitution.

Two-thirds of the people interviewed said their market place was violent. Being mugged, either for drugs or money, was commonplace and in some areas turf wars between rival gangs took place.

In most of the areas studied drugs could be obtained 24 hours a day. In one market users seeking a fix said it took on average about 10 minutes to get their drugs. Stolen mobile phones were frequently used by dealers to take orders for drugs. The phones were recycled among the criminal fraternity to avoid detection by the police.

In poor, multi-ethnic, inner-city areas the white, Asian, and West Indian dealers competed to provide narcotics, which often led to violence.

Even apparently rich areas suffered from the blight of drug abuse. In one area the researchers noted: "Buyers commented that this was a pleasant area in which to shop; they would sometimes buy drugs while doing their weekly shopping or sit and have a coffee while waiting for a seller. The stalls, shops and people are also provided opportunities for shoplifting and selling goods."

In this cosmopolitan area heroin was available in Portuguese cafes, cannabis from street vendors, crack from West Indians, and pharmaceuticals from a chemist.

Among the recommendations were calls to tighten up controls over private prescriptions and pharmacy dispensing, more used of surveillance cameras, increase the police practice of monitoring drug dealer's mobile telephones, and make more use of surveillance operations. Driving prostitutes off the streets may also help in lowering the demand for drugs.