Welcome to cracktown: hundreds of users, and 'party bags' on sale for £10

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So when police investigated this former mining town as part of a Derbyshire-wide drugs study, they were shocked at what they discovered. Beneath its unexceptional, pleasant exterior, Ilkeston has a major, disturbing problem with crack cocaine.

The revelations come after an unprecedented study by drugs agencies into addiction in a typical English market town. As part of what became known as the Derbyshire Drug Market Project, the police carried out a series of raids and gathered intelligence in a place identified only as "Old Town" in its eventual report. The Independent has established that "Old Town" is Ilkeston. According to the report: "There was no intelligence about crack being used or sold prior to the operation [in Ilkeston]."

The extraordinary police figures revealed to The Independent suggest there are 240 crack users in Ilkeston, out of a town population of 15,000. Crack has been sold in the town's streets at the bargain price of three "rocks" for £10.

When seven dealers were recently arrested, others quickly took up the reins. This quiet, typical English town is living through a crack epidemic, and local agencies and police believe that Ilkeston is far from unique.

The final report of the Derbyshire Drug Market Project was only completed this year. The investigators had expected to come across a small number of people supplying amphetamines and a handful of heroin users. Instead, they found cut-price drugs being sold as a loss leader to hook addicts. In total, seven people were charged with dealing crack to the locals. Latest reports suggest that others have quickly taken their place.

The implications for hundreds of other small towns across England are alarming. The discovery that this highly addictive drug was being hawked in a traditional market town at a knock-down rate will surprise many, but drug squad officers and criminologists say the practice is becoming the norm throughout the country. In most towns and cities in Britain there are crack users. For Ilkeston, read Anytown.

There is also growing evidence that small numbers of middle-class drug-users, particularly clubbers who use cocaine, are turning to crack.

The rise in the consumption of crack is particularly alarming since users get quickly hooked on the intense but short-lived high, and are far more likely to turn to crime to fund their habit than other drugs. The comedown after using crack can also lead to psychiatric problems, such as depression, as well as violent behaviour.

Operation Quantum, as the project was also called, carried out a study of four different types and sizes of communities in the county. As expected, they found crack in the city of Derby, where an estimated 1,000 crack users spend up to £29m on the drug every year.

But no one was prepared for the findings from Ilkeston. The town's biggest claim to fame is an association with the novelist DH Lawrence, who lived four miles away, and is believed to have set some elements of Lady Chatterley's Lover in its streets. The community was also praised in 1835 for the health-giving properties of its spa, which was said to treat numerous ailments, including rheumatism and gout.

But times have got harder. By the 1970s, the last mine was closed, and the local lace and textile industries were almost extinct. The residents, however, are clearly proud of their history - with a neat and enthusiastic town museum and a tidy high street. The locals, almost all of whom are white, tend to be traditional and conservative. Yet police estimate that, in total, between 350 and 400 heroin and crack users live in the community. That is about one in every 37 people.

In the town, the easy availability of crack is common knowledge. One of the addicts, a 39-year-old man, said: "I just know that it was supposed to be a big clampdown but there still seems to be a big gang of them [dealers] at the moment".

Another, a man aged 28, said: "I can score [crack and heroin] whenever I need it. It just takes a phone call to one of my regular dealers. They just come round and drop it off. At the moment I'm paying £10 a rock."

Karen Hancock, the Ilkeston team leader for the national drug treatment charity, Addaction, said dealers were also selling special "buy one, get one free" offers. However, the current rate had gone up to £20 for each hit.

While the crack users are concentrated in the town's housing estates, Mrs Hancock said they come from all walks of life. "They can be anyone from single mums, to young men, to people in work."

She said a similar pattern was found at two other towns in Derbyshire - Ripley and Swadlincote - where there are Addaction offices. "The majority of clients we see are using crack as a treat on payday," she added.

She said the drug is particularly dangerous for people with chest infections and multiple drug users whose resistance is low. The drug users who contact Addaction are offered help in getting on to treatment programmes and advice on safer sex and injecting.

Steve Holme, a retired drug squad officer from Derbyshire Police, and now the manager for the Derbyshire Drug Market Project, said: "Wherever there is a heroin market you'll find crack. We find that dealers market them together, although crack is usually the second drug of choice."

He admits it was a surprise to find crack use in Ilkeston, but now believes: "It is the same everywhere in Derbyshire. Every town with heroin users also has crack now - you are talking about 80 per cent of towns."

He added: "One thing we have noticed is that some of the people who use cocaine, particularly in the club world, are becoming crack users."

In Derbyshire, the police estimate there are about 8,000 heroin users, of whom about 5,000 also take crack.

Drug specialists, such as Howard Parker, emeritus professor at Manchester University, who co-wrote the report on the Derbyshire project, have been warning about the rise in crack use. He said: "The British Crime Survey estimates that 240,000 people have tried crack. I'd guess it's double that.

"Crack bedded in almost unnoticed during the 1990s, initially in the old heroin cities such as Liverpool and Manchester and especially London, which is undoubtedly the crack capital. "From the millennium, its spread has been spectacularly rapid."

He continued: "Heroin prices have fallen, suggesting supply is greater than demand so business is revived by pushing crack."

"We are seeing the spread of crack outside the heroin scene. We have casualties from the recreational scene who have moved from coke to crack."

Professor Parker's gloomy analysis is supported by official figures. Crack users known to the police spend, on average, £500 a week on all drugs, equivalent to £24,000 a year. There is also growing evidence of users injecting crack and heroin together, known as "speedballing" or "snowballing", which can increase the risk of overdosing.

Researchers from Imperial College London and the University of Bristol believe there could be 46,000 crack cocaine users aged 15 to 44 in London.

Despite that shift towards crack use, which has taken place since 2001, 84,000 heroin users are in treatment - 12 times the number of crack users at 7,200, according to a study - The Crack Report - by the drugs organisation, Turning Point.

Turning Point said: "Crack is transforming drug use in the UK. It poses growing health and social care challenges, which undermine family and community life."

Most of the cocaine is smuggled in from South America, often by British traffickers, Colombian gangs, and West Indian and West African groups.

A drugs analyst for the National Criminal Intelligence Service said: "We have found the greatest change that has happened in the past five years is the linkage between existing heroin users in the UK and their use of crack cocaine either by their own volition or by the dealer feeding them crack cocaine. Sometimes they provide a 'buy one, get one free' offer which is aimed at developing a habit."

"The perception has been it was a problem with the parts of London and pockets in Birmingham and Bristol where there was a Jamaican community but the reality is there is a large growth in the crack cocaine market.

"[In] the main cities where usage of heroin is large there is usage of crack cocaine, but we are also finding it in the shires."

He added: "It's not just the socially underprivileged. We have seen and had reports of a broader audience which have begun using it. We have some very early indications of middle-class professionals using crack cocaine."

The reality of addiction

Alex, 26

Alex was born and brought up in Ilkeston and started his drug habit at the age of 15 with amphetamine, or speed. By the time he was 18 he was involved in the town's drinking culture.

To fund his drug habit he started shoplifting. By the time he was 20 he had become one of the estimated 400 people among the 15,000 population of the market town who took heroin.

In 2001, one of his dealers offered him some free crack with his usual heroin.

Next time, the crack was on offer at £7 a rock, rather than the usual £20. By now Alex had been hooked. He took crack two or three times a week as a "treat" on top of his regular heroin dose. His shoplifting sprees were becoming more frequent and whenever he off-loaded stolen gear at a second-hand shop, he used to splurge on extra crack.

At his peak he was spending about £100 a week on crack and £350 on heroin. To supplement his income he started acting as a runner for a drug dealer. Other crack and heroin users would ring him and order their drugs.

His job was to pick up the drugs from the main dealer and drop them off. His reward would be to keep one wrap of heroin or crack rock for every 10 deliveries.

Sally, 41

Sally moved to Ilkeston from Derby where she had been a prostitute since the age of 18.

She had previously been a drug user but it was when she arrived in Ilkeston that she became seriously hooked. Having lost her income from prostitution, she became a small-time dealer, selling heroin to neighbours. As well as the money from drug sales, she also received social security benefits, much of which went on crack and heroin.

When arrested, she told police it was fair enough as she had been dealing for more than a decade and had never been caught.