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Heroin and crack addict numbers dip

The number of heroin and crack addicts needing treatment fell by almost 10,000 over the last two years, figures showed today.

The National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse (NTA) said the number of people addicted to the class A drugs fell from 62,963 in 2008/09 to 52,933 last year.

The numbers accessing treatment for all drugs also fell for the second year running.

The NTA figures showed the number of drug users who have been treated successfully and are getting their lives back on track rose by almost a fifth last year.

Some 27,969 users were classed as recovering in 2010/11, a rise of 18% on the previous financial year and 150% higher than 11,208 in 2005/06.

There was also a sharp fall in the number of addicts under 30 over the last five years, fuelled by the number of 18 to 24-year-olds seeking treatment for heroin and crack addiction halving from 12,320 in 2005/06 to 6,108 last year.

The figures also showed that, of the 255,556 people who entered a drugs treatment programme since April 2005 for the first time, 28% (71,887) successfully completed the course and did not need further treatment.

Paul Hayes, the NTA's chief executive, said the figures, which apply to adults in England only, showed that "recovery is now becoming a reality for more individuals each year".

"More drug users are recovering from addiction, fewer need treatment, and more are getting over their addiction quickly," he said.

"The fact that the next generation are getting the message that hard drugs wreak damage to individuals and communities is very positive, for them and the rest of society."

Speaking during a briefing at the Department of Health in Whitehall, Mr Hayes said that, while the figures "give cause for optimism", they indicate "that it's a trend that's moving in the right direction".

"We're a goal up but it's not half-time yet," he said.

"I think what it shows is that we've probably passed the high watermark of the impact of epidemic of the late '80s and early '90s and that younger groups of people are reluctant to begin patterns of behaviour - heroin and crack use in this instance - that they've seen cause damage to their older siblings, people in their community, sometimes, sadly their mums and dads.

"They realise the consequences of heroin and crack use and they're turning their backs on that."

He went on: "If you see people in your community who actually can't cope because of heroin and crack use, if you also increasingly see heroin and crack dependency concentrated amongst the people in our society who do life least well, as that becomes more apparent, it's difficult to see it as being fashionable or chic.

"If the people who are using heroin are the people who aren't succeeding at school, who aren't working, who don't live in good situations, who aren't attractive to the opposite sex, who are basically in a bit of a state, then that's not much of an attraction if you're 17, 18, 19, to get on that same escalator."

Mr Hayes added that it was "unlikely" that heroin and crack addicts were moving to legal highs.

Most of those who use heroin and crack are "concentrated in our poorest, most disadvantaged communities, among people who suffer with many other problems in life: poor education, risks to their mental health, in and out of prison, inadequate parenting when they were younger leading to them being in and out of the care system".

"Whereas the new drugs coming on to the market tend to be much more part of the recreational pattern of drugs use."

Mr Hayes said officials were also seeing "significant declines in purity" which "suggests that attempts to restrict supply are having an impact".

"It's extremely likely, from where we sit, that the different aspects of the Government's drugs strategy are coming together to have a positive effect," he said.

"There is an impact on supply, young people are beginning to turn their backs on the most dangerous drugs and... the success of treatment, those three different strands are coming together to actually improve the situation."

Mr Hayes also warned that "the great spike in heroin use arose in the 80s on the back of mass youth unemployment".

"We've seen much lower levels of youth unemployment during most of the last 20 years," he said.

"The more young people can actually see opportunities for themselves, hopes and aspirations, then drugs of desperation like heroin will be much less likely to take a hold.

"We need to be vigilant, if youth unemployment does begin to increase, that we don't see a repeat of the 1980s.

"There's no inevitability that we will, not least because help and treatment is now much more readily available than it was in the 80s, and the young people have seen the impact of these drugs.

"So there's absolutely no inevitability that rising unemployment among young people will see a rise to 80s levels of heroin use, but we need to watch that situation very carefully."

He added that £600 million a year was spent on drugs treatment services in the community, including immediate access, advice and needle exchanges, with a further £200 million going on routing vendors into treatment in prisons and treatment for young people.

A decade ago, just £200 million a year was spent.

"The investment has been enormous and the Government has indicated their commitment to this agenda by maintaining investment in drug treatment," he said.

Asked about the increasing number of high-profile people who back the decriminalisation of drugs, Mr Hayes said: "We believe that legalisation would result in increased use; increased use would mean increased risk and increased harm.

"The people who would be most at risk aren't media commentators and academics, it will be the people in our poorest communities.

"If heroin and crack become ever more readily available, because we take the brakes off, then I think more people in those communities will actually begin to use them, become dependent and it will not help them cope with their lives at all.

"Neither will it help the lives of the communities in which they live. We know heroin addiction is a major driver of crime."

The figures also showed that, of the 255,556 people who entered a drugs treatment programme since April 2005 for the first time, one in three was still in treatment and two in five left without completing their treatment, and did not return within a year.

Simon Antrobus, chief executive of Addaction, said it was "hugely encouraging" that young people were shunning heroin and crack-cocaine.

"What this doesn't mean, however, is that there is less for us to do," he said.

"The issues underlying young people's drug use still need tackling, and the misuse of all kinds of drugs - including cocaine, mephedrone and cannabis, as well as crack and heroin - is still far too high. We can't let our guard down."

He added: "While we hope today's figures prove to be a milestone in the tackling of the UK's drug problems, we certainly cannot be complacent."

Martin Barnes, chief executive of DrugScope, said: "For the first time in nearly a generation there is evidence of an overall decline in the number of heroin users in England.

"There can, of course, be absolutely no complacency - there remain around a third of a million heroin and crack cocaine users, many of whose lives are blighted by drug dependency, poor physical and mental health, poverty and exclusion.

"Patterns of drug use and associated harms change and evolve, with the increasing emergence of poly-drug use and substances such as ketamine and mephedrone."