One version is that inexperienced or incompetent drug dealers in the St Pauls area of the city are unable to gauge the heroin's purity - said by police to be 50 per cent stronger than normal - which has led to the deaths from overdose. More sinister, however, is the notion that some dealers have deliberately sold the purer heroin hoping to carve out a bigger share of the market.
One thing is sure, according to police there is a greater than usual supply of heroin on the streets of St Pauls, with the effect that the wholesale price has plunged from pounds 31,000 a kilo to just pounds 21,000.
Whatever the reason for the growth in supply and increase in purity, the effect is that four people have died in Bristol in a month and three within the past week, from lethal overdoses.
Two days after Christmas, Paul Hicks, 30, from Exeter, was the first to die in Campbell Street in St Pauls. Reginald Phillips, 40, died on Thursday last week in a Salvation Army hostel in nearby Wade Street. The following day Ross Hamblin, 17, died of a heart attack after his parents believed he tried heroin for the first time. Then, on Wednesday, Samantha Bultitude, 21, who had been taking heroin for about two years, died at Bristol Royal Infirmary after collapsing outside a squat in Badminton Road, St Pauls, after taking a lethal dose. Four other people, one a 16-year-old girl, were treated in hospital in Bristol last weekend for heroin overdoses.
It has also come to light that another five people died late last year, two in Northavon, two in Weston- super-Mare and one in Tetbury, in Gloucester. In four of the cases, the heroin was 80 per cent pure.
However, police in Bristol are astonished that drug-dealing among Bristol's 1,500 heroin users, 450 of them registered addicts, has remained steady despite the highly publicised dangers. Chief Inspector Peter Wills, deputy district commander for Trinity Road, which takes in St Pauls, said: 'People are still intent on buying.'
Ian Sherwood, director of the Avon Drug Problem Team, said it was the less experienced users, who only indulge occasionally or have a low tolerance, who are most at risk of suffering from the effects of the purer heroin. The difficulty could have arisen, he said, if the heroin was being sold at the normal price, pounds 10 for one eighth of a gram, then users would have little clue that it was not what they ordinarily got.
Why there should be a glut, and why it should be purer, still remains a mystery. Either the dealers are incompetent, failing to realise the strength and diluting it with glucose or baby milk powder in the normal way, or because of the low wholesale price deliberately failing to cut it and attempting to attract new business, he said.
Police have arrested 33 people for drug-related offences in St Pauls over the past 14 days.