The number of teenage heroin users in Britain's small rural towns is rising at an unprecedented rate, according to research that shows many users are starting at 15.
A study published today suggests that heroin outbreaks among young people are occurring in towns and rural areas that have had no previous history of the drug.
The findings have alarmed drug specialists because they indicate children are experimenting with heroin two years earlier on average than during the heroin epidemic of the 1980s and that, contrary to popular belief, most of the teenage drug users did not come from abusive backgrounds, but had a "normal" upbringing.
"These teenage users are younger and more naive than expected. They live in towns in rural areas where there is no heroin history, no junkies on the streets and they seem to have no idea that the drug is addictive [nor] understand its potency," said Professor Howard Parker, of the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of Manchester, who conducted the research.
The study, published by DrugScope, a new national charity combining the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence and the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse, showed that three-quarters of young heroin users also used or had tried crack cocaine.
The researchers visited a small city and three towns and asked 86 young people between 15 and 20 using drugs detailed questions about their habits. Although the sample was small, the quality of the research exposed the extend of hidden heroin use in Britain. The study found that although the teen-agers came from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, most had had little parental supervision from the age of 13.
"They were early smokers and drinkers and moved into a phase of florid drugs experimentation starting with heroin at 15," Professor Parker said.
The young people were normally introduced to heroin by a friend, and smoked rather than injected the drug. Within two or three years, two-thirds of the teenagers were injecting. Heroin appeared to lead on to cocaine and crack cocaine, with 75 per cent taking crack cocaine and 55 per cent cocaine. The findings showed heroin users had tried most other drugs: 99 per cent had tried cannabis, 92 per cent amphetamines, 83 per cent LSD, and 82 per cent tranquillisers.
Those surveyed did not use local drug advice servicesand distrusted adult authority. Seven out of 10 had tried to come off the drug alone, asking their parents to lock them in their room while they went through withdrawal.
"We are definitely seeing quite together middle-class families with one son or daughter on heroin," Professor Parker said. "These people tend to treat their children privately and do not appear at local drug services because they want to keep it quiet." The users spent on average more than £160 a week, or £8,000 a year, on drugs.
Roger Howard, chief executive of DrugScope, said: "This extremely important study provides us with a crucial insight into the world of teenage heroin users. Many of the youngsters interviewed had no idea of the potency of heroin before they tried it."
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