View attachment 28864 The good news, according to the latest government figures, is that the number of young adults seeking treatment for heroin addiction is falling, a near two-thirds drop in six years.
But then there is the not so good news. And it is something drug workers have been warning about for a decade: Britain's ageing population of heroin addicts, nicknamed the "Trainspotting generation" after Irvine Welsh's novel about a group of heroin addicts in the late 80s and 90s, is knocking at the door of Britain's treatment services.
Largely because they have not been prolific criminals, many have until now existed under the radar of government statistics. These people are in their 40s and 50s; they have been using heroin since the epidemics of the 1980s and 1990s, but their health has rapidly started to deteriorate. According to the latest figures released today by the National Treatment Agency, this group now accounts for nearly a third of all those in treatment.
Drug workers say the two contrasting trends in young and old are however, linked, through a dynamic that has become known as the "scarecrow effect". The visible physical and mental deterioration of long-term heroin addicts has served as a grim warning to younger generations to steer clear of the drug. But for Britain's first generation of heroin addicts, there was no such warning.
The whirring siren and haunting Hammond organ marked the menacing start of Ghost Town by the Specials in June 1981. It was a fittingly bleak, melancholic backdrop to a nation that was being ravaged by urban decay, social breakdown and rioting. Margaret Thatcher's economic revolution had a bleeding edge: unemployment was spiralling, traditional industrial communities were being decimated and there was a chronic shortage of social housing.
It was in these conditions that enormous quantities of cheap, smokeable, heroin flooded into Britain from Iran and Pakistan. For an increasing number of citizens locked out of Thatcher's new order in cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, heroin became not only a way of achieving a temporary state of oblivion, but gave a structure and purpose to lives cut adrift by unemployment. Hustling for money, scoring and getting high became an alternative way of life whose all-consuming nature made coming off the drug about more than just withdrawing from heroin.
With the arrival of HIV/Aids, and the realisation that heroin injectors were a major public health threat because the virus could be spread via sharing needles, Thatcher's government sprang into action and did the unthinkable for a rightwing administration: it sanctioned the provision of clean needles to addicts, bankrolling a huge expansion of drug treatment.
But despite this, during the 1990s, heroin spread throughout Britain, from the major cities to towns and rural areas. The arrival of crack cocaine only served to ramp up heroin use, with the two drugs being sold, and used, together.
Some of those who had become addicted to heroin were able to stop, usually because they got a job or a child, but not many. The average duration of a heroin career is around 20 years. Many ended up either managing their drug use using a mixture of licit and illicit methadone and heroin, or in a continuous cycle of addiction and relapse.
But the damage, particularly from injecting heroin, began to mount up. Half of all Britain's injecting drug users now have the deadly hepatitis C virus, which can lay dormant for decades. Older heroin users have survived overdoses, but many suffer from respiratory problems and heart conditions.
The chronic effects of drug use, combined with poor general health, means that entrenched heroin users in their 40s, 50s and 60s suffer from diseases normally associated with people in their 70s and 80s. This has been reflected in a sharp rise in drug-related deaths among over-40s, over the past decade from 504 in 2001 to 802 last year.
The survivors of this "forgotten" generation, long-condemned to the scrapheap and now seeking help for chronic health conditions, are emerging to bite a system – overseen by successive governments – whose primary interest in drugs has been cutting crime, not in addressing the health costs of heroin use.
Treatment services will need to adapt to their ageing clientele quickly. In Holland and Switzerland, retirement homes for drug addicts have been set up to cope with growing numbers of elderly addicts. But in Britain, with treatment services battling a range of new drug problems, as well as cuts in funding – which in Greece have already resulted in an alarming rise in HIV rates among injecting drug users – the ability, and the will, to care for those most scarred during the Thatcher years, remains to be seen.
As the issue of drugs remains stuck in a quagmire of political inertia and fear, the collateral damage, the wasted lives and huge costs felt by those at the sharp end of the drug trade continues. Outside of parliament, the drugs debate merely exists as a mildly titillating red herring for the public, the media, academics and politicians to feast on, while the damage continues. In respected arenas of debate such as Newsnight, in revered academic institutions and in the broadsheet media, the same talking heads – the celebrity legalisers and the zero-tolerance brigade – are wheeled out to lock horns in an often ill-informed and ultimately pointless, war of words.
The drug problem won't be solved by hoping it will go away; it never will. Nor will it be solved by allowing the polarised arguments to continue ad infinitum in political and public discourse. Drug use is both a symptom of society's many ills and inequalities, and a cause. Acknowledge this, and we might start getting somewhere.
By Max Daly, guardian.co.uk, Monday 8 October 2012 09.00 BST
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