Mon, Jul 14, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Yesterday's drug makes comeback among UK youth

With Afghanistan producing bumper opium crops, heroin is cheaper than ever, giving young people a potent hard-drug alternative


Heroin was seen as yesterday's drug -- the preserve of aging junkies and social dropouts. But wrinkled pieces of scorched kitchen foil discarded in city alleyways tell a different story. Heroin is back in the UK and it's coming out of the nation's deprived housing projects.

Bumper crops in Afghanistan have made the drug cheaper than ever. Just (US$8.15) will buy enough to keep a smoker in a state of euphoria for hours. Puffing the heated white powder -- "chasing the dragon" -- is the delivery method for the new heroin takers, who see syringes as dirty and dangerous.

Despite the removal of the Taliban regime and Western governments' promises to end the dominance of the opium crop, Afghanistan produced 3,400 tonnes last year. That was its biggest-ever harvest -- up 700 tonnes on 2001 -- and returns it to the top of the world league of heroin producers.

The ripple effect has led to lower prices on the streets. When eyes are on cocaine and crack cocaine, heroin offers a bargain-basement, hard-drug alternative.

Students and the working young wishing to dabble are prepared to venture into the sink housing projects to secure their supply.

"I just go up to the shop, buy the stuff and get out of there," said 22-year-old student Keith, describing an empty flat in an area of Glasgow that is a heroin outlet.

"I'll meet up with some friends and we'll smoke. Usually we'll go to a mate's house, but we have had the odd smoke in the park. It's the feeling. The world just fades away," he said.

Yet he said he would not consider injecting.

"Folk who spike their veins go mad. They lose it. Having a smoke now and then is different," he said.

Scotland's largest city has long been regarded as the heroin capital of the UK. At least 15,000 addicts -- 3.1 percent of the population aged between 15 and 54 -- live in the greater Glasgow area and spend more than 60 million (US$260.78 million) a year on their drug habits, largely funded by crime. Of the 300 people who died through drug overdoses in Scotland last year, the vast majority were in Glasgow.

The UK has the fastest-growing number of heroin addicts of any country in Europe. The total amount of heroin seized last year was almost a third more than the amount of cocaine seized.

A spokesperson for the charity Drugscope told The Observer that pockets of increased heroin usage were springing up in parts of the country suffering from economic depression.

Danny Kushlick from Transform, which campaigns on issues of drug policy, added: "Patterns of usage change according to local fashions.

"While an increase may be linked to higher availability, it can also be down to a few `cool' people who begin using locally and encourage others to do the same."

Academic studies have shown pre-teens are now experimenting with heroin.

"We asked drug-using 11 and 12-year-olds in Scotland if they had tried some form of heroin. Between 5 and 6 percent of them said yes. Five years ago the percentage would have been zero," said Neil McKeganey of the University of Glasgow.

This stark outlook has prompted a hardline response. Newspaper campaigns and demonstrations aimed at clamping down on dealers have proved popular.

A US-style Drug Enforcement Agency was launched to tackle the problem. The agency announced last week that it had hauled US$89.64 million-worth of drugs off Scotland's streets last year -- five times more than in the previous year.

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