Despair spawns a squalid trade that defies solution: John Arlidge visits Glasgow, where 12,000 young people spend an estimated pounds 132m on drug-taking each year

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AT 9 O'CLOCK each morning Alan reaches the end of the Gorbals arcade. In his left hand he grasps a sealed condom containing 'score bags' - tiny squares of paper filled with heroin. He has already used one bag himself and will sell the other five for pounds 100.

As he waits for customers, he keeps a look out for 'Boilerhead' - the local police constable. 'If he makes a move for me, I quickly swallow the condom,' Alan said. 'Then all he can do is move me on or get me for obstruction. The condom re-emerges later, I repackage the contents and go back to the arcade to do business. It's easy money.'

Alan, 22, is one of thousands of young Glaswegians for whom taking and selling drugs has become a way of life. Across the city, about 12,000 young people use an estimated pounds 132m worth of drugs each year - mainly heroin, sleeping pills, painkillers and solvents.

Addicts who do not sell drugs to earn the pounds 30,000 a year needed to sustain an 'average' heroin habit steal instead to raise the money. Strathclyde Police say two-thirds of offences committed in Glasgow are drugs-related - mainly burglaries, car theft, shoplifting and muggings. They put the annual cost at pounds 500m.

Senior officers concede that they cannot stamp out the problem. Det Supt Kevin Orr, head of Strathclyde drugs squad, said: 'We have failed to tackle the supply of drugs or demand for them. We have had some successes but the problem is too big to solve outright. Drugs have become a fact of life and the police, as well as the public at large, have to come to terms with that.'

Social workers who counsel addicts agree. They describe the grip drugs have on some communities as overwhelming. Peter Ritchie, head of the East End Drugs Initiative in the Barrowfield district, said: 'To talk of stamping out drugs is unrealistic - Sunday school stuff. For some people, selling drugs is their life. The rewards are astronomical and teenagers growing up see that the people with the good houses, the flash cars are dealers. It is a lousy role model.'

Strathclyde Police have recently joined forces with social workers and counsellors in an attempt to tackle the drugs problem by reducing demand. Youngsters arrested in 'drugs areas' are now given information about treatment centres and urged to contact outreach workers. At the same time, officers help run social programmes in deprived areas to provide leisure opportunities for the under-25s and constables have begun visiting schools to speak to under-15s about drugs.

Det Supt Orr said: 'We have to be more flexible in our approach, to accept the limitations of supply control and turn towards demand management. We have lost a large part of the current generation of young people to drugs. We can't abandon them, but we have to concentrate our efforts on the next generation. The only way to make any headway is to adopt a multi- agency approach to try to stop youngsters taking drugs in the first place.'

Addicts say the initiatives have encouraged users to give up, but say that without improved social conditions, young people will continue to abuse drugs.

Tommy, 21, from the Gorbals, who has used heroin for six years, said: 'Look at this place - there's nothing. When you hate your life as much as youngsters do here, heroin is the one thing that makes you feel good. When you take it all your problems disappear. Heroin gives life. Until jobs or something come along to offer some other way of getting through the day, kids will carry on jagging.'

(Photograph omitted)