While crime surveys have found that 1 per cent of 16 to 29- year-olds have taken crack - about the same number as heroin - experts believe the problem is underestimated because users of the drug tend to lie about their habit.
Cocaine seizures by customs and excise have risen sharply in the past three years, from 940kg in 1995 to 2,074kg last year.
New Home Office research has found that more than a quarter of people arrested in a study in London and Manchester were taking crack cocaine, and that one in 10 arrested in Nottingham had used it.
More women tested positively than men. Prostitutes are among the most frequent users of crack.
But the drug, which costs as little as pounds 10 a hit, is not confined to the stereotype of drug users. A vicar, a 14-year-old girl and a group of pensioners are among the growing number of people who have become hooked on crack, inquiries by The Independent have found. The police are particularly concerned about any rise in the substance's popularity because crack users are among the most risk-taking and volatile drug takers and likely to turn to crime to pay for their habits.
Research and reports from drug agencies show that crack - usually tiny "rocks" created by baking cocaine powder - is available in most cities in Britain and is being used by people from a wider range of age groups and social backgrounds than in the past. It is also becoming more widely used in the club scene.
Among the clients being helped by one drug agency in London are a vicar who is stealing up to pounds 200 a week from the church collection plate to pay for his habit, stockbrokers, lawyers, and teenage girls who have been forced into prostitution after being given crack.
Tim Bottomley, who is carrying out research on crack for the Home Office, said: "You could walk up to a punter in the street and buy it in most cities in Britain."
Previous co-research by Mr Bottomley, leader of the Piper Project, a drugs unit in south Manchester, in 1996 found that crack cocaine addicts in north- west England were typically spending about pounds 20,000 a year on drugs and were particularly involved in offences of burglary, theft and assault.
A Home Office official confirmed the trend yesterday: "There is more available than ever before."
Crack is usually smoked in a pipe and produces an intense high that lasts for about two minutes, followed by about 20 minutes of low-level euphoria before the effect wears off, leaving a craving for further hits.
Among the side-effects is a long low period that follows the short high. This can cause mental health problems ranging from mild depression to cocaine psychosis with symptoms similar to schizophrenia.
Warnings from drugs experts in the late 1980s that Britain was about to experience a crack epidemic similar to that raging in American inner cities were not borne out.
But it appears that crack - mainly from cocaine from South America - is entering the UK in record amounts.Reuse content