Mother's little helper is back: heroin shortage makes Valium the street drug of choice
· Survey reveals soaring use of illicit diazepam
· More than 2m pills seized by police in last two years
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
The Guardian,Wednesday September 3 2008
Valium is making a comeback, but not as the "mother's little helper" prescription pill that tranquillised British suburban housewives in the 1960s and 1970s. According to an authoritative drug survey, published today, diazepam, as it is properly known, is being used by class A drug users as a cheap alternative to heroin.
The 2008 Druglink magazine street drug trends survey published today says the increased popularity of diazepam in the last 12 months reflects a drop in the quality and availability of street heroin in some parts of the country .
Despite successive bumper opium crops in Afghanistan the snapshot survey, based on evidence from more than 100 frontline drug treatment services and drug action teams, shows some areas experiencing outright shortages of good quality heroin.
The annual survey shows that street drug prices have remained generally static over the past 12 months. An ounce of skunk-type herbal cannabis now costs on average £131 - against £134 last year - and in some areas it is completely dominating the market, making it hard to get lower strength herbal and cannabis resin.
Martin Barnes, the chief executive of DrugScope, the drugs information charity which publishes the magazine, said the rise in the use of illicitly imported diazepam was a cause of concern, as drug users faced a high risk of overdose when it was used in combination with methadone and alcohol. "With the proliferation of counterfeit diazepam comes unpredictable quality and strength," he said.
The survey found that the use of diazepam, better known under its now defunct brand name of Valium, is rising in 15 out of the 20 towns and cities it covered. Known as "vallies" or "blues" a 10 milligram dose costs just £1.
The drugs charity said it was being used as a heroin substitute, and often taken alongside strong alcohol or methadone as a "come down" from the jarring effects of crack cocaine. The two sedatives act together to create a powerful but potentially lethal effect on the body.
"A few vallies can buy a bit of time and ease some symptoms of withdrawal," reported a drug worker in Torquay, Devon. "Diazepam is increasingly popular amongst young people and it is increasingly available to them," said the manager of a young people's drug service in Newcastle. The Strathclyde police drug squad said there was a huge market for diazepam in Glasgow, with heavy drinkers and heroin and cocaine users all using it to stave off after effects.
Drug users say the main source is likely to be smugglers importing bulk quantities of legitimate supplies from France, Spain and Portugal.
Police and Customs seizures of diazepam have soared from 300,000 pills between July 2003 and June 2006 to 2m between July 2006 and June this year.
The Serious and Organised Crime Agency has said that heroin shortages in some parts of the UK could have been sparked by a rise in the wholesale UK price since the start of the summer from around £13,000 a kilo to £17,000 a kilo. Some criminal groups are reported to be having difficulty getting hold of what they perceive to be good quality heroin.
Barnes said that a heroin shortage might appear to be a positive development, especially as it could lead to more people undergoing treatment, "but it can bring its own problems. Users may be more inclined to inject rather than smoke the drug during times of shortage or poor quality. And there is a higher risk of overdose when the market readjusts to more normal levels of supply and quality"
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