Crack explosion 'has led to upsurge in street robbery'

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The Independent Online

The huge growth in crack cocaine addiction has changed the nature of crime and is leading to an upsurge in street robberies, the police will warn a national conference tomorrow.

"A large and growing user group" of drug addicts taking crack and heroin is also emerging throughout the country, a separate intelligence report has concluded.

Alarm at the spread of crack cocaine has resulted in police mounting a series of armed operations and has prompted police chiefs and ministers to discuss how to tackle the problem at tomorrow's conference in Blackpool.

Assistant Chief Constable Steve Otter, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers' crack tactical group, will warn delegates that the explosion in the popularity of crack is a significant threat.

His comments come as the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) completed a threat assessment into crack cocaine this month, in which it concludes that gangs of Jamaican, West African, South Asian and white Britons are making millions in profits from the growing crack market.

"Criminal groups have targeted existing heroin users to exploit potential markets," says the NCIS. Its unpublished report says that a rock of crack - which gives a user an intense "hit" that lasts just a few minutes - sells for £10 to £20.

Mr Otter said yesterday: "Crack has changed the nature of crime in British cities. It is so much worse than heroin because it creates an insatiable greed for cocaine rocks. Criminals need quick access to cash to pay for it. This means they need to go out and steal money straight from a victim.

"It's a terribly destructive cycle. They will often only get £20 or £30 from a robbery, which will pay for a hit, and they then need to go back out and rob to buy more."

Police have found that as soon as crack reaches a community the addicts quickly turn to crime to pay for their habits. In Bristol, within a year of the drug hitting the streets in significant quantities in 2000, the number of robberies and muggings doubled from about 45 to 90 a week. After a series of police operations in Bristol, the level has dropped back to 45. During interviews with 31 offenders who took crack in Avon and Somerset, all but one said that they chose robbery because it was considered to be the most convenient offence to provide them with cash.

Most cities with a large heroin market also have a thriving crack industry. They include London, Bristol, Liverpool, Nottingham, Birmingham and Aberdeen. But smaller towns, such as Cambridge, and even market towns in Somerset and East Anglia are experiencing crack use. The NCIS inquiry says that dealers are making an extra £20,000 a kilo by converting cocaine into crack by heating cocaine with baking soda. It adds: "There is a lucrative money-laundering market existing around crack cocaine with some dealers utilising electronic money transfer outlets to send millions of pounds in drug profits out of the UK."

Mr Otter said initiatives to stop Jamaican gangsters bringing crack into Britain, which included imposing a visa restriction for people coming from the Caribbean island, had resulted in addicts travelling to the West Indies to buy the drug.

"We can have an effect on the crack markets and disrupt them, but we are never going to eradicate it," Mr Otter said. He added that it was vital that rehabilitation and treatment was used alongside tough law-enforcement measures.