The arrival of rogue high-purity batches of heroin is believed to have triggered a spate of overdose deaths in the middle of Britain's longest heroin drought, drugs charities have warned.
A snapshot survey of frontline drug services, police and service users in 18 towns and cities, publishedby Druglink magazine, reveals the scale of the "unprecedented" heroin drought first identified last October – and the risks of using the new supplies.
It says: "In some areas, batches of good quality heroin have appeared and may have been responsible – because of users' reduced tolerance levels – for drug-related deaths." The magazine discloses that unpublished Forensic Science Service figures confirm that the average purity of available street heroin is at its lowest level since 1984.
"From an average purity of between 30% to 40% over the last 26 years, heroin seized by the police on Britain's streets plummeted to 13.6% and 13.1% in January. By February, it rose slightly to 14.5%," says Druglink's article, The Great Heroin Crash.
One of several theories concerning the drought suggests that increasing amounts of the Afghan poppy crop are being diverted to rapidly expanding markets in Russia and China.
The Druglink survey finds that in most places across Britain the drought began last October, accelerated in December and is still present.
The magazine reports: "Police believe that three heroin users who died in the space of one hour in east Lancashire may have overdosed on the same batch of high- purity heroin."
The bodies of three male users were found in houses in Burnley, Colne and Nelson on 25 February, and police have made 10 arrests in the hunt for the suppliers.
"There have also been six reported heroin-related deaths in the last two weeks of February in Ireland where the drought has also hit," Druglink reports.
Police in Cleveland reported 14 heroin-related deaths in November and December last year.
Drug service workers across the country have been putting up posters warning of the risk of overdoses and they report that many users continue to use heavily cut heroin while "topping up" with illicit tranquillisers, pharmaceutical opiates, alcohol and stimulant drugs such as speed and crack cocaine.
The magazine's survey followed reports by drug-testing company Concateno last month that positive tests for heroin had dropped among users in treatment by more than 50% in the last year.
Police figures for drug tests on those arrested in Cleveland and Lancashire showed a similar dramatic fall.
Drug workers believe the results do not mean people are no longer using heroin but that its purity is so low it no longer registers in the tests.
Martin Barnes, chief executive of DrugScope, the drugs information charity, said the drought was unprecedented in length and scale.
"It is not yet possible to know how long it will continue. High-level enforcement activity may be contributing to the shortage, but other possible factors include increasing diversion of heroin to other countries where there is growing demand," he said.
"Although there is, as yet, little evidence of a significant increase in presentations to treatment services as a result of the shortage, it is important that health and treatment services are geared to responding. There are indications of a rise in heroin-related fatalities in some areas and, while it would be premature to link the deaths in Lancashire and Cleveland directly to the drought, a sudden increase in purity greatly increases the risk of accidental overdose.
"With the change and increasing unpredictability in heroin availability, users of the drug are even less certain of what they are buying.
"Users and their families should be increasingly alert to a sudden increase in purity, which could put lives in greater danger."
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
The Guardian, Tuesday 15 March 2011