The number of young people addicted to cocaine has nearly doubled in four years as dependence on heroin or crack declines, NHS figures suggest.
Officials heralded the end of the “Trainspotting” generation as the number of 18 to 24 year-olds seeking treatment for heroin and crack problems has fallen 30 per cent from 12,320 in 2005-06 to 8,603 last year.
But the number in this age group seeking treatment for serious cocaine addiction rose from 1,591 users in 2005 to 2,998 in 2008, reflecting the increasing popularity of the drug in Britain’s pubs, clubs and bars.
Paul Hayes, chief executive of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse (NTA), said that the rise in young people seeking treatment for a dependency on cocaine was significant, as many could be using the drug without feeling like they had a problem. He said: “What seems to be happening is that for people who engage in normal late adolescence, early-20s night-clubbing, pub-going, cocaine use is becoming more normal among that population. It’s become an adjunct to alcohol or cannabis use.
“Most of the increase in powder cocaine use is as part of a lifestyle rather than necessarily the consequences of the problems associated with poverty, crime and social dislocation that often lie behind crack problems.”
Overall, record numbers of adults are being treated for drug addiction, with a total of 207,580 adults undergoing treatment in 2008-09, data from the NTA shows.
“A dramatic generational shift is taking place,” Mr Hayes added. “Young adults with early problem drug use are getting into treatment quicker before their addiction becomes as entrenched as it used to.
“We are optimistic that we may have passed the high water mark in the heroin epidemic that began in the early 80s and the reduction of the number of 18 to 24-year-olds coming forward to treatment is a reflection of a very positive trend.”
While heroin use had been glamorised as “chic” in the 1980s and 1990s, and led to films such as Trainspotting, based on a book by the Scottish author Irvine Welsh, Mr Hayes put the decline in use down to a combination of factors including the availability of treatment and “less ignorance” about the consequence of using drugs.
“Young people are very savvy. They have seen the consequences of using heroin for earlier generations. It’s no longer seen as having any glamour attachment to it at all.”
Heroin and crack, the most addictive Class A drugs, were responsible for 61,636 people seeking treatment last year, but this fell from a peak of 64,288 users in treatment in 2007-08.
But while young people in treatment fell, the proportion of over-35s seeking treatment for the first time for heroin and crack has increased by a fifth from 20,465 in 2005-06 to 24,414 in 2008-09.
There are an estimated 330,000 heroin and crack users in England. The average time for accessing treatment is less than five working days.
Heroin and crack account for 83 per cent of cases in which adults were seeking treatment for the first time in 2008-09, while cocaine accounted for 6 per cent of cases and cannabis also accounted for 6 per cent.
Of the 172,624 adults in treatment for crack and heroin problems, 162,000 (94 per cent) “successfully completed or benefited” from their treatment, the agency said.
Dr Emily Finch, a psychiatrist from the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (Slam) with a long history of treating drug users, said: “We are attracting people to treatment earlier. People aren’t using for 10 to 20 years any more, they are using for three to four years.
“It’s good that treatment is attractive and available enough that people do that.
“Reduction in use with young people would indicate to me that we are getting on top of this problem.”
Martin Barnes, chief executive of the charity DrugScope, said that it was encouraging that fewer young people were presenting to services with problems with heroin or crack cocaine.
"However, suggestions that we may have reached the ‘high watermark’ of heroin and crack problems in this country may be premature, not least at a time of recession when a growing number of young people are not in employment or training and overall unemployment is rising.”
The figures come after research published this week suggested that an experimental vaccine to treat cocaine use could help some addicts to halve their dependency on the drug.
Animal and human studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that high levels of anti-cocaine antibodies in the blood can stop addicts experiencing a high. Doctors at Yale University School of Medicine gave the vaccine to 55 cocaine addicts and found that 38 per cent were able to achieve the necessary antibody levels to reduce the drug’s effects, enabling them to wean themselves off it. However, the researchers add that users would require repeated injections to maintain the effects and it may be several years before a viable vaccination is available.
October 8, 2009