Alarm at rise of middle-class crack houses

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The Independent Online

Government advisers are warning of the emergence of middle-class crack dens, where users can take the drug in comfort and relative safety.

According to Aidan Gray, director of the National Conference on Crack and Cocaine (Coca), it is the latest alarming development in the battle against growing drug abuse.

Mr Gray says that numerous upmarket crack havens catering to rising numbers of middle-class professionals have cropped up in London and the south-east this year.

In stark contrast to the traditional profile of crack dens as a seedy refuge for low-lifes, prostitutes and hardened addicts, they appear to be exclusive facilities with strict entry requirements to ensure they attract the right clientele.

"They are very different to the traditional crack dens," said Mr Gray, whose organisation works with drug treatment agencies. "They appear to be aiming for the well-to-do crack and cocaine user, for people coming out of upmarket clubs who want to go somewhere to smoke it. They are a service for the middle classes."

A spokesman for the self-help group Cocaine Anonymous was also aware of premises for wealthy users. "We have only been aware of them for a few weeks," he said. "They are very new, but a problem that needs addressing straight away."

Use of cocaine has escalated by more than 200 per cent in the past three years. Britons now spend an estimated £2.1bn a year on it. With inner-city markets saturated, dealers are targeting more affluent areas, rapidly making cocaine the most classless of Class A drugs.

To date, government efforts have focused on tackling cocaine use at street level, but have failed to address the rising use of the drug among more affluent social groups, which Mr Gray regards as "perhaps the most significant development in the future of the drugs market".

Professor John Henry, head toxicologist at St Mary's Hospital in London, says that cocaine is now widespread across the social spectrum: "You can get it anywhere, and for as little as an evening's alcohol consumption." At around £50 a gram, cocaine is the same price today as it was 20 or 30 years ago.

Dr John Marsden of the National Addiction Centre at the Maudsley Hospital said: "Crack and powder are increasingly evenly distributed among people from different backgrounds. Residential locations for middle-class users is not something I have come across yet. But it is a phenomenon worth watching."