Highest number of injecting drug users mars Brighton's sunny image

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The Independent Online

"Addicts always like to come to seaside towns, don't they?'' said Gerry, glancing over his heavily tattooed shoulder at the crowds of sun-kissed tourists on Brighton's seafront.

"You know it's going to be full of drugs and it is. I've been all over the country but Brighton more than anywhere is absolutely full of it."

Gerry, 36, should know. Originally from Wales, he has been homeless for months, a heroin addict for most of the past nine years and moved to Brighton in search of a better life only six weeks ago. "There are lots of addicts here, lots of young ones," said Gerry, who sells the Big Issue to fund his £50 habit of five bags of heroin a day.

"I just wish the young ones would listen to me when I tell them it's not worth it. It starts as fun but ruins your life."

While Brighton has long been celebrated for its stylish residents, beach parties and nightclubs, there is another side emerging from behind its glamorous seafront. Gerry is one of a burgeoning army of addicts on the streets of the city, which was yesterday named as the home of the highest numbers of injecting drug users in the country.

As many as one in 50 young people and adults in Brighton is an intravenous drug user, according to a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

The researchers, from Imperial College London and Liverpool John Moores University, based their study on sources including drug treatment centres, referrals after police arrests and syringe exchange schemes between 2001 and 2002 in Liverpool, London and Brighton.

The study found that rates of injecting drug users among people aged between 15 and 44 were 2 per cent in Brighton, 1.5 per cent in Liverpool and 1.2 per cent in London. Two per cent of the users in Brighton were expected to die each year, twice the rate in the other cities.

As the sun shone yesterday on the crowds of revellers filling Brighton's pebbly beach, there was little indication of the social problems that lay beneath its picturesque surface.

But for the residents of Brighton, the report came as little surprise. Pointing towards the seafront scene, Aaron Rolf, 24, who has worked in a promenade cafe for 10 years, said: "When you come to the seafront and see all of this, your reality is suspended.

"Things have got a lot worse here in the past decade. It used to be drinking, now it's drugs.

"I see people dealing under the arches and needles are left lying around. It's not the people from Brighton but all the people who come here. It's a real problem."

While exact figures are difficult to obtain, there are estimated to be at least 2,000 intravenous drug users in Brighton. Officials are keen to emphasise that the problem is being tackled. "It's well known that we have a high number of injecting drug users but efforts to tackle this are working," said Dr Jenny Bennett, chair of the drug-related deaths steering group, part of the city's drug and alcohol action team.

"Users are receiving treatment more quickly, more frontline staff and drug users themselves have had overdose training and Lewes prison has a new nursing post and detox wing. As a result, deaths involving heroin have fallen by more than 70 per cent in the past two years while between October 2003 and June 2004 the number of people in treatment has risen from 472 to 655."

Simon Martin, team leader at Adaction, an agency in the city for providing counselling, support and needle exchange services to around 80 addicts a day, found it difficult to pinpoint why Brighton had a worse problem than other places.

"In many ways it's like other city areas. Substance misusers are often unemployed, and frequently temporary housed or sometimes homeless. Many have also suffered from individual emotional distress," he said.

Other support workers, however, were more direct. One woman, an experienced youth worker who did not want to be identified for fear of offending the council, highlighted growing housing shortages.

"A lot of the drugs problems are directly related to housing shortages," she said. "It's extremely difficult to get housed by the council, particularly when you arrive here from outside the city.

"A lot of young people in Brighton have run away from home or come here to get away from families and there's no housing for them. It's a very big problem and can often lead to exposure to drug abuse."

But Gerry was not convinced."There's no incentive here to get off the drugs. Hospitals only have two beds put aside for drug addicts. There's no help, the only way for me is to commit a crime and go inside. Then there might be a chance I could get off the drugs again."