The illegal drug market is starting to mirror a "junk food" economy with a menu of increasingly low quality, cheap and readily available products being sold to an ever less discerning group of customers, according to the latest survey of street trends.
The 2009 annual Druglink magazine survey shows that the purity of drugs including powder cocaine, ecstasy, speed, cannabis, and heroin have severely dropped in most areas in the past year.
The findings, based on feedback from 70 frontline drugs services, police units, drug action teams and user groups in 20 towns and cities, also show there has been a rise in people using a much wider variety of drugs.
"The wider variety of drugs people are taking on a night out, the less worried they are likely to be about the quality of each individual substance," said Max Daly of Druglink.
"In turn, poor quality drugs, such as ecstasy pills, can mean users start to 'top up' or experiment with alternative highs such as GHB or ketamine."
The survey found a fall in the reported quality of powder cocaine and crack cocaine in 17 out the 20 areas, although prices have held steady with a gram of cocaine ranging from £25 to £50.
Bristol police said bags of cocaine sold on the street contained as little as 2% of the real thing. A drugs squad detective in Strathclyde described the drug as having been "adulterated into oblivion" by the time it reached Glasgow. In Manchester "bitesize" wraps of cocaine were being sold for £10.
This fall in the quality of street cocaine has been matched in the purity of heroin, ecstasy pills and amphetamines. In some cases a "two-tier" market is evident with higher quality drugs sold at much higher prices. This is now extending to prescription tranquillisers such as Diazepam. Authentic 10mg pills are being sold for £1 while fake, low quality, versions from Chinese and south-east Asian labs sell for half the price.
The survey also shows that this drop in quality is leading older teenagers and younger adult recreational users to swap or combine illicit substances with cheap high-strength alcohol.
One Suffolk drug squad officer reported: "A few years ago crack was being sold in Ipswich at 60% purity, now it is 20%. Lots of people are coming off crack because it is such low quality and taking valium or alcohol instead."
The findings also show an increasing interest in alternative substances such as ketamine, a hallucinogenic anaethestic, which is now much more widely used, and "legal highs" such as GBL – which imitates the effects of ecstasy. Ketamine is reported to have become the "main stimulant drug" for teenagers in Birmingham.
Drug workers also report a drop in street corner-style dealing with more networks operating by mobile phone appointments.
In London the police say there is evidence that social networking sites have been used for selling illicit drugs. In the centre more aggressive sales techniques are being used including handing out slips of paper with mobile phone numbers and conducting business outside addiction clinics.
Drug treatment services in nearly every area said police enforcement operations were initially successful but markets often returned to normal within a month.
Strong and cheap alcohol looms large with many areas reporting an increase among both young and class A drug users. In Manchester and Portsmouth teenagers reportedly indulge in heavy drinking sessions in parks, drinking cheap vodka and strong supermarket lager.
Overall the 2009 survey found street prices were relatively stable compared with 2008, with minor falls in the average price of cocaine down from £42 a gram to £39 a gram and ecstasy – MDMA powder – down from £39 a gram to £36 a gram this year.
Martin Barnes, the chief executive of DrugScope, the drugs information charity, said that while the overall levels of drug use had remained stable in recent years the range of substances appearing on the radar appeared to be increasing.
He said: "The shifting patterns are a reminder of the challenges faced by drug services and police forces."
By Alan Travis
September 11, 2009