Cheaper, easier to get, harder to police: Britain's drug problem

The war on drugs is high on Labour's latest agenda. A new report will make sobering reading. By Sophie Goodchild and Andrew Johnson
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An ecstasy tablet that costs as little as a bar of chocolate and a line of cocaine for the price of a glass of wine. Many illegal drugs are cheaper and more widely available than ever before in Britain, despite the relentless attack by Customs and the police on traffickers and dealers.

An ecstasy tablet that costs as little as a bar of chocolate and a line of cocaine for the price of a glass of wine. Many illegal drugs are cheaper and more widely available than ever before in Britain, despite the relentless attack by Customs and the police on traffickers and dealers.

Class A drugs are now within the reach of an ever-widening group of people. It is no longer the preserve of hard-core addicts but also young, recreational users looking for weekend hits that can work out cheaper than a binge-drinking session down the pub. A gram of cocaine can be bought for as little as £35 according to the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit (IDMU) which has published research for the first time showing the average price of street drugs, including cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and cannabis, every year for nearly a decade. The reasons for the decline are complex and vary from drug to drug, ranging from increased competition between gangs to a decline in demand for now unfashionable ecstasy. Heroin can now be cut with cheaper chemicals, making it more dangerous, while cannabis traffickers have in part been hit by a huge rise in home-grown cannabis.

Matthew Atha, from the IDMU, which provides expert evidence on drugs in court cases, said that the increase in recreational users had also influenced drug prices.

"Cocaine especially has become more attractive to professional types who use it on special occasions or to users who share it between their friends," he said.

The changing profile of dealers has also influenced prices across the country. Once the illicit drugs market was controlled by a select number of established crime gangs or families. But the increase in competition means that these have now been overtaken or replaced by a multitude of traffickers, including Kurds and Albanians who are forcing other dealers to diversify and lower their prices.

In the case of powder cocaine, this new breed of dealer is operating on a low profit margin - retail prices in London are said to be the equivalent of £40,000 a kilo compared with up to £32,000 a kilo for the wholesale price. In London, established Colombian importers are now using British drug criminals to manage the supply chain.

The decreasing purity of some drugs, especially heroin, is another factor in the fall in prices. Dealers are importing the drug, adulterating it with chemicals, then selling it on the street for as little as £35 a gram. This is less than half the price in 1995 although in reality a gram contains far less pure heroin.

The fall in the price of heroin has shocked many anti-drug abuse charities. Release, a charity that offers drug safety advice, says it has received anecdotal reports that heroin is selling for as little as £600 for 28 grams - about £21 a gram.

"I didn't believe it at first. That is by far the cheapest I have heard of in 12 years of involvement," said Gary Sutton, head of drugs services at Release.

"The price of heroin has dropped dramatically even over the past two months."

Another more fundamental reason for the steady drop in prices is that traffickers are flooding Britain with class A drugs because demand from users has increased. A report published last week by the EU's drug monitoring unit revealed that cocaine abuse is more prevalent in Britain than anywhere else in Europe for example.

"The UK has always been one of the countries with a long-established and severe drug problem," said Paul Griffiths, who is responsible for monitoring the European drug situation for the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction which compiled the report.

"These problems are not getting any less severe. Some of the most innovative [drug treatments] and best practices have been pioneered in the UK, but I would not be complacent."

Ministers have dismissed the EU research as being out of date and insist that crack and cocaine use have stabilised as a result of more treatment programmes - 54 per cent more users are in treatment compared with 1998.

But they admit they are not complacent about drug abuse. The fact drugs are now cheaper and more available puts greater pressure on the Government to find new strategies to win the war on drugs, which is becoming increasingly complex.

Figures released by the Office of National Statistics show there are about 200,000 crack cocaine users in the UK, in addition to the estimated 475,000 who use powder cocaine. Home Office research shows that one person in 20, aged 16 to 24, has used cocaine or crack.

The drugs landscape has altered dramatically over the past decade alone, which poses a major problem for treatment agencies. They are reporting an increase in the number of drug addicts who are "poly-drug" users and who have multiple addictions, including alcohol.

Turning Point, a drugs and alcohol awareness charity, said it has anecdotal evidence of clubbers now smoking crack cocaine, which is highly addictive, when they go clubbing, in place of ecstasy or powder cocaine.

"Crack use has increased considerably quite recently in places like Sheffield particularly among people who are already heroin users," said Janine Strange, who manages substance misusers in South and East Yorkshire.

"It is as easy to buy crack now as it is to buy heroin and cannabis and there is less stigma involved than before."

Bristol is described as the "drugs hypermarket" for the South-west, with the M4 corridor making it the perfect distribution point for crack and heroin. Police have arrested more than 1,100 people in the past three years. Nearly 3,000 of the city's 8,000 problem drug-users are in treatment as part of a £3m programme.

Alison Comley, head of the city's community safety and drug strategy, says improvements are being made but there is still a long way to go.

"Bristol has a particular issue with crack and heroin," says Ms Comley. "We have to stop the drugs getting into the city in the first place, help people get off and liaise with neighbouring cities."

Martin Barnes, chief executive of drugs charity Drugscope, said: "Political point-scoring on the issue seems to be increasingly the norm. Parents are right to be worried about their children taking drugs, but we need more information and debate, not the promotion of fear."

Mike Trace, a former government drugs adviser, said ministers were right to target problematic drug users but that punitive measures would not work. "It would be wrong to think that stronger coercion into treatment will make the system work better - the focus should be on improving the quality of the treatment available," said Mr Trace, director of the Beckley Foundation drug policy programme.

However, there are drugs law reformers who are calling for a more radical approach leading to legalisation. Transform, which campaigns for effective drug policies, says that an "enormous" part of the drugs epidemic in Britain is directly related to prohibition.

"A responsible government would not abrogate responsibility for the supply of drugs by gifting it to organised criminals and unregulated dealers," says Danny Kushlick, Transform's director.

Additional reporting by Malcolm Fitzwilliams and Charlotte Norton

Cannabis

1994 £15/eighth of an ounce 2004 £10

Aka: hash, pot, marijuana, dope, weed, grass

What is it? A plant, the leaves of which are smoked. Can also be eaten.

Appearance? Dried green leaves, brown in its resin form.

Effects? Relaxation and contentment.

Dangerous? Can cause mild paranoia and worsen existing mental disorders.

'It's become more respectable'

Steve, 29, a joiner, has smoked cannabis for 11 years

Steve smokes at least one joint a day but doesn't smoke cigarettes. It is quite easily available in Hull for about £40 an ounce, he says.

"Alcohol doesn't interest me," he says. "I drink four of five units a week. I just enjoy cannabis more. It relaxes me, to be honest. I could have three or four pints but I wouldn't get the same effect and would feel bad the next morning.

"I think it has become more acceptable, especially to the older generation, really."

Cocaine

1994 £57/gram 2003 £46

Aka: coke, snow.

What is it? Processed cocoa leaf.

Appearance? A crystalline white powder.

Effects? Self-confidence and well-being.

Dangerous? Addictive. Risk of heart attack. Long-term use can destroy nasal membranes and induce psychosis.

'I had the best evening'

Jane, 33, started taking cocaine regularly five years ago

Jane didn't like cocaine the first time she tried it. But five years later she met a new partner whose friends were regular users.

"That time I loved it," she says. " I'd been to the pub for a birthday. I had quite a lot and we talked and talked and I had the best evening."

For about a year Jane took cocaine every weekend, spending £60 a time. "It isn't glamorous," she says. "Some of the places you snort it can be quite disgusting. But I had a brilliant time dancing all night. Then I split up with my partner and stopped seeing those people, and gradually stopped using cocaine. But I'd never say never.

Ecstasy

1994 £14/tablet 2003 £4

Aka: E, MDMA.

What is it? A chemical which occurs naturally, first synthesised around 1910.

Appearance? Tablet, capsule or powder form.

Effects? Feeling of euphorialasts for several hours.

Dangerous? Dehydration; there are concerns about long-term effects and impurities.

'I was smiling at everyone'

James, 39, a musician, takes ecstasy occasionally

I first had it about nine years ago. I thought it was fabulous. The people who introduced me to it were hardened clubbers. We went to Heaven. I was wandering around smiling at everyone and everyone was smiling back. I had rushes of euphoria; I was dancing and getting into the music."

But James has never been "gung-ho" about drugs and so only uses ecstasy occasionally. "I did have that Tuesday thing but nothing really bad," he says, referring to the delayed ecstasy comedown. "I think if something changes in your brain there's probably some kind of payback. I'm not looking out for it but I would never say never."

Heroin

1994 £80/gram 2003 £35

Aka: brown, skag, smack, H.

What is it? Opiate from the poppy.

Appearance? White in purest form but usually reddish brown. Injected, smoked.

Effects? Well-being, warmth.

Dangerous? Addictive, risk of overdose. Injecting risks hepatitis or HIV. 'Cut' with pollutants.

'I was burying emotional pain'

Patricia Goacher, 42, was an addict for 14 years

Ms Goacher lost her partner to a drug-related illness. The couple used to pay £1,000 for an ounce of heroin, but Ms Goacher says the price has tumbled.

"Everything is half the price it used to be," she says.

Her addiction has left her with needle scars and a criminal record for possession. "I was burying more and more emotional pain that I had created for myself," she says. "The more shame you have, the more you want to suppress those feelings. That is what heroin does. It suppresses feelings."

She now works to promote better health and education among drug users.

Crack

1994 £22/rock 2003 £22

Aka: rocks, white.

What is it? Smokeable cocaine.

Appearance? White waxy rocks smoked in a pipe.

Effects? Intense euphoria lasts a few minutes then a strong 10-minute high.

Dangerous? Addictive. 'Crash' leads user to want more. Risk of overdose, heart and lung failure.

'I stole two mobiles and gold'

Website post from a 17-year-old student turned prostitute:

Yesterday i saw my councellor (2 get off crack) finished college, did coursework. i then went to the area worked my arse off. some man let me into his house i stole 2 mobiles and a jewlery box filled with indian gold. i WALKED out, sold it and smoked all the riches of it. Was out until 6.30am, tooting. got home washed and went to college. getting picked up at 5 and gonna do the whole thing again. i just have not got the willpower to stop. i justify being a prostitute and smoking white with the fact im in college and i see a councellor. i dont wanna stop and yet i knowall the effects of this bullshit. someone please man. please.