Drugs: a new kind of rural pursuit: A mobile unit is touring the countryside to help combat the growing problem of the village addict

THE CAMPER van parked near a red-brick bus shelter in Shipton Bellinger, a peaceful village tucked into the folds of the Hampshire hills, looks as though it might hold a family en route to the south coast, pausing for a rest on a long journey. Inside, however, are Pete Edwards, a drugs counsellor and dispenser of clean needles to addicts, and Gary and Anne, recovering heroin users.

The van is a mobile advice centre run by the Community Drugs Advisory Service, and its presence is evidence that drug abuse has spread to the market towns and villages of rural Britain.

The CDAS, based in Winchester, now operates 85 per cent of its service in such places. 'People think only inner-city areas experience drug problems, but that's nonsense,' says its manager, Derek Harper.

A survey of 2,047 East Sussex schoolchildren revealed that a fifth of youngsters aged 14 and 15 in rural areas had tried an illegal drug. Lack of leisure facilities and poor transport were pinpointed as reasons.

In the pretty Cotswold villages of Moreton-in-Marsh and Stow-on-the-Wold, the availability of drugs has contributed to a 17 per cent increase in rural crime; rural crime generally is rising at a faster rate than in urban areas, according to recent research by the Labour Party.

Youngsters in country areas are experimenting with a variety of new substances. In the town of Driffield in Humberside, teenagers were found to be injecting themselves with pig tranquillisers stolen from farms, and in Gloucestershire an incident of silage-sniffing has been reported.

Other veterinary products including Ketamine and Phencyclidine have already found their way on to the dance scene under the names Special K and Angel Dust.

But the full extent of the problem in rural areas is still largely hidden because many people are afraid of admitting their problems to their GP.

Police in country areas are now trained to recognise signs of drug use in the same way as their urban counterparts. Parents in the affluent village of Wetherby, West Yorkshire, were stunned recently when an officer uncovered a large number of Ecstasy users in one school.

Transport is a major problem facing drug users in rural areas who want to seek advice and counselling. Hampshire's mobile drugs advisory service, which calls in at villages once a fortnight, was created to help rural drug abusers feel less isolated.

With buses passing through Shipton Bellinger only twice a day, Gary makes a three-mile round trip on foot to pick up his methadone from the nearest pharmacy three times a week. But knowing that he could buy a fix just a street away puts an added strain on his will to resist heroin.

'We visit people at home, on farms or in the camper,' explains Pete Edwards, the service's psychiatric nurse, who travels 600 miles a month around Hampshire's Test Valley region. 'I've met one man in a car park and been out for a drive in the country with others. Sometimes they just want to talk about football and other times they want advice on how to deal with their problems.'

For outreach workers, dealing with country areas makes different demands from urban drug counselling and often calls for ingenuity and flexibility. Helpers on a Gloucester drug project are as likely to offer counselling in pubs and street corners as going for a stroll in the Cotswolds.

Says Mr Edwards: 'I'm not just seen as Pete the drug worker but a member of the community, which is quite different from my experiences as an inner-city drug worker.'

Eric, 36, and his wife, Sylv, 39, took heroin for 10 years - five of them as dealers. They claim heroin is now easier to obtain in Hampshire villages than cannabis.

'People come from Andover and Salisbury to the villages to score because of the policing in towns,' Eric says.

'We only used to deal to people we knew, but now the dealers don't give a shit and sell to anyone regardless of age.'

Eric and Sylv, who are looking forward to the arrival of their first grandchild, abide by their own code of ethics on drugtaking. While they would allow their four children to smoke cannabis or take 'acid' (LSD) in front of them, they draw the line at heroin. Both were appalled recently to learn that their teenage son had been secretly sniffing lighter fuel.

Rolf Gerstad, an outreach worker with the Powys Drugs Line in North Wales, believes many youngsters are turning to drugs from alcohol.

'Magic mushrooms are very big in this area as is cannabis, acid and speed,' he says. 'There is a hell of a lot of unemployment and rural deprivation in this area and it's worth remembering that these drugs help people pass the time.'

Latest figures released by the Home Office (for 1992) point to an increase in the number of notified addicts, seizures and offenders in police forces with largely rural areas. Notified addicts in Hampshire rose from 286 to 480, Avon and Somerset from 382 to 531, Devon and Cornwall from 358 to 490, and Cheshire from 430 to 558.

Seizures of controlled drugs rose in Devon and Cornwall from 958 in 1991 to 1,395 in 1992, in Wiltshire from 521 to 914 and Avon and Somerset from 1,529 to 1,782.

The CDSA, squeezed into the attic of a former Victorian workhouse-turned-hospital in Winchester, helps people tackle the root problems which lead to their addiction.

Job retraining is encouraged to help drug abusers feel they are regaining control of their lives. But with the prospect of poorly paid work or long-term unemployment on the horizon, it is difficult to stop some from becoming demoralised.

'People want to know what's in it for them at the end if they embark on a withdrawal programme,' says Mr Edwards.

The decreasing age of its new referrals is also alarming the CDSA.

'Ten years ago the average age was 25 to 30, but now they tend to be 10 years younger,' says Derek Harper. His youngest client is 14.

GPs in rural areas are now waking up to the problem of drug abuse and a few practices are working in partnership with drug agencies. Many pharmacacies have introduced needle-exchange schemes, but Eric believes making free needles available will add to an increase in drug abuse.

'Getting guns (needles) across the counter is good in one respect but bad in another because it gives people the opportunity to inject the drug who would otherwise just smoke it occasionally,' he says.

Unlike Gary and Anne, Sylv and Eric plan to stay on in their village with their four children despite knowing they are not welcome by some. 'I'm not allowed into the corner shop or the local pub anymore,' Eric laughs. 'No one wants my money here. The only place left for me to spend it now is in the phone box.'

(Photograph omitted)

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