New generation junkies

Shocking though it is, the story of the 11-year-old heroin addict in Scotland is far from unique
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The Independent Online

When an 11-year-old girl slumped at her desk at school, her teachers assumed she had fallen asleep. But the girl had collapsed after having taken heroin.

The girl, who lives in Glasgow, is said to have become addicted nine months ago at the age of 10. She had watched her mother and father take heroin in their home and had started to experiment, a relative said.

But while her story shocks, it is not unique. Research suggests that there could be about 60 children in Glasgow who have used heroin by the age of 12. Not only that, but almost one in 10 children aged 11 and 12 has been offered illegal drugs, and nearly a third have been in situations where illegal drugs have been used.

But the problem isn't unique to Glasgow. There are about 350,000 children in the UK with one or both parents addicted to illegal drugs who are at serious risk of addiction, if they aren't hooked already.

Relatives initially thought that the girl, who was becoming gaunt, was suffering from anorexia. She had been teased at her school in Pollock, in the south-west of the city, for being overweight. Then members of her family started noticing black foil marks on her clothes. The girl and her sister were put into foster care in Ayrshire when their mother finally admitted she could no longer cope.

When they returned, they went to stay with a relative on the east side of the city and were transferred to a different school. Three weeks later, the 11-year-old collapsed. She was taken to hospital and told social services she had taken public transport to buy "tenner bags" of heroin from a female dealer at the Pollock Centre, a rundown shopping mall.

Pollock, which has a long association with poverty, is a forlorn place where drugs are said to be widely available. The shopping centre is a depressing hangout, even without its recent notoriety. Locals heading for the shops have to cross a bridge over a river into which traffic bollards have been chucked. Inside the mall more shops have closed down than are open. Certainly everyone is horrified at what also appears to have been on sale at the centre.

"It's disgusting. She's a wee lassie," said student Ashleigh Chambers, 16. "What was going through her mind?" Her friend Suzanne Boland, 17, was equally aghast. "It's terrible. A wee girl that age shouldn't even know what heroin is."

One 56-year-old shopper, who didn't want to be named, said she had seen drugs been dealt in the area. "One day I passed by with my daughter and they were doing deals outside the bank and it was 11.15am. It's rife."

Since her collapse, the girl has been admitted to the city's Sick Children's Hospital. Too young to be given methadone, she is going cold turkey.

This incident comes as no surprise to Neil McKeganey, professor of drug misuse research at Glasgow University. "As tragic as this case is, one positive thing that might come out of it is that it opens many people's eyes to the reality that age is now no barrier to becoming involved with serious drug abuse," he said.

Glasgow has a long-standing drug problem. In Calton, a couple of miles from Pollock, life expectancy for men is 53.9 years, compared to Iraq's 67.49.

Last year, 214 children under the age of 15 were treated in Scotland for drug addiction treatment, up by more than 150 per cent compared to five years ago.

"A child of that age could easily suffer a fatal drug overdose because of the immaturity of their body and the lack of tolerance that one often sees in older drugs users," added Professor McKeganey. There are also the severe emotional consequences of children knowing that they come second to their parents' addiction.

The 11-year-old's mother has since booked herself into a detox clinic. Many recovered addicts say it was the realisation of the effects of their habit on their children that forced them to stop. But by then it is often too late for the child who has already paid the price.