Britain faces a flood of cheap heroin following two years of bumper opium poppy harvests in Afghanistan, the United Nations warned last night.
It forecast that levels of heroin addiction, which have fallen in recent years, could start rising again as street prices - already as low as £25 a gram in some parts of the country - tumble further.
The UN-backed International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) warned that western Europe was about to pay the price of a surge in Afghanistan's heroin production since the Taliban was removed from power.
Trafficking of heroin to Britain through the Balkans and central Europe was about to soar, the board said in its annual report: "This may lead to the reversal of declining trends in heroin abuse and heroin-related deaths in western Europe, in spite of efforts to treat and rehabilitate drug abusers."
According to police figures, the average street price for a gram of heroin has fallen from £74 in 1997 to £61. But a survey for the charity DrugScope found prices were much lower, ranging from £25-£30 in Birmingham to £70-£90 in Belfast, with drug dealers charging an average of £40 in London and Manchester.
An estimated 45,000 Britons aged between 16 and 59 used heroin in 2002-03, a slight fall over two years, representing 0.1 per cent of the population.
Although the Government has given £70m to Afghanistan over three years to fight the drugs trade, the INCB revealed that 75 per cent of heroin in western Europe still originated in Afghanistan, where nearly two million people earn their living from growing illicit drugs.
Poppy cultivation has increased from 74,000 hectares in 2002 to 80,000 hectares last year as the number of provinces growing the crop increases.
INCB member Hamid Ghodse said that "the greater the availability the more likely that drugs will be used and abuses [sic] on the streets".
Martin Barnes, the chief executive of DrugScope, said: "As long as demand from the West remains strong and economic alternatives for producer nations few, it is unlikely that enforcement agencies will be able to reverse this trend."
The INCB also urged governments to fight the illicit trade in controlled drugs over the internet. Drugs available on the internet include tranquillisers such as diazepam, opiate analgesics used normally as pain killers, and even Ritalin, a drug used usually to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children.
The INCB underlined fears over the relaxation of controls over cannabis. But it did not repeat its previous criticism of Britain for downgrading can-nabis from a class B to a class C drug, noting the move "in no way underestimates the harmfulness of cannabis".
It added: "Ambiguity towards drug abuse is commonin Western Europe. Campaigns call on people to refrain from drug abuse. But authorities do not act against incitement of drug abuse, which may even be promoted through certain media."Reuse content