Seized drugs wealth pays for addicts' support: A pounds 30,000 bus equipped with methadone - and alarms to deter thieves - is going to build bridges with drug users who fight shy of seeking treatment for their addiction. John Arlidge reports

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PROCEEDS of drug seizures are being used to fund Britain's first drugs 'health bus', making door-to-door deliveries of methadone to heroin addicts.

The pounds 30,000 bus, with panic buttons and alarms to deter thieves, will begin its rounds in west London in March, distributing methadone and clean needles and offering 'full health MOTs'.

Raj Boyjoonauth, acting director of the Riverside Substance Misuse Service, said the programme, based on mobile drug support schemes in the Netherlands and the US, would help establish a 'working relationship' with the estimated 6,000 addicts who do not seek treatment at clinics in the area.

'We have over 1,000 drug users registered with our substance misuse service. We think there are up to 6,000 others who do not want to get in touch with us formally. Over 80 per cent of registered users take opiates. But we want to work with amphetamine and cocaine users who do not see their drug usage as a problem and do not come forward. The bus, we hope, will provide a bridge.'

Drug users or those worried about friends or their partners can speak to counsellors or get a medical check-up on board. They do not have to give their names.

Dr Gul Dhanani, one of the three clinicians who developed the service - which will cost an estimated pounds 50,000 a year - said: 'It is non-judgemental. We accept that drugs are a part of life. It is our job to enable users to lead as normal lives as possible. We need to make sure that they are using drugs safely and are aware of the long- term implications.'

Young people, the housebound, including those who have contracted HIV or Aids by sharing needles, and people who fear they may lose their job or children if they register, are reluctant come forward, outreach workers say.

In the mornings up to five days a week, methadone will be dispensed over the counter or door-to-door to about 50 of the 400 opiate addicts on Riverside's Methadone Maintenance Programme.

The bus has been paid for through the Government's pounds 2m Seized Assets Fund, which was established last year to plough the gains of convicted drugs dealers into the fight against drug abuse. It will use timetables and routes approved by police.

In the afternoon doctors and nurses will provide healthcare screening in a clinical room, at sites away from homes.

Riverside, which covers Earls Court and Victoria, has one of Britain's highest concentrations of addicts; an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 users among the 300,000 population. More than 200 are known to have contracted HIV by injecting drugs and recent research indicates increasing use of crack, the highly addictive cocaine derivative.

Although the bus is equipped with sophisticated alarms, there are none of the armed guards, security cameras and bullet-proof glass found in similar vehicles overseas. Staff, who are trained to deal with violent clients, concede that the bus is a non-moving target and that 'punters' can be violent. But they say there is little risk of theft or attack.

Shane Ryan, 23, who has conducted service trials in Victoria since November, said: 'There is nothing on the bus for anyone to take or for people to come on and get aggressive about. Very little methadone will be on board at any one time. There will specific amounts for patients.'

Health authorities will closely watch the Riverside project. The Department of Addictive Behaviours at the Chilton Clinic in Oxford, which runs a fixed-point methadone dispensing bus, is 'seriously considering' introducing similar services throughout Oxfordshire if the west London example proves successful.

Danny O'Brien, the clinical nurse specialist who runs the Oxford scheme, said: 'If Riverside works, we and others would be likely to copy it.'

(Photograph omitted)