Too soon to declare victory on heroin
On the face of it, the sharp decline reported yesterday in the availability of heroin in the UK is a thoroughly positive development. If the street price rises proportionately, as crude market mechanics suggests that it should, then the number of people becoming addicted should fall and the number seeking help for an existing dependency should rise.
Even at their most elementary, the figures compiled by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) testify to impressive progress in combating this scourge.
Before everyone congratulates each other and hails a battle half-won, however, it is important to look more closely at what these figures may and may not mean. Of course, it is a good thing if, as Soca claims, it has made strides in apprehending traffickers and interrupting the heroin trade. But any statistics on illegal activity are hard to verify. Black markets of any kind are notoriously hard to track. Soca also has a clear interest in blowing its own trumpet. At this time of cuts, it wants the Government and the taxpayer to know that it has been doing its job.
There is no harm in that and, if success stories work to deter the criminals, so much the better.
But Soca itself has conceded that other factors also seem to be at work here. One is last year's flooding in Pakistan. Another is a decline – or the anticipation of a decline – in the poppy crop in Afghanistan as a result of blight; criminals calculate futures, too. But both of these will probably depress the trade only temporarily. The effect of closer co-operation with Turkish law enforcement may also wear off as traffickers seek out other routes.
Even in the unlikely event that the current heroin "shortage" were to prove longer-lasting, though, law enforcement has its limits. There are an estimated 300,000 heroin users in Britain. Higher prices, while discouraging use, could precipitate an upsurge in criminality, while those now taking diluted doses will be at risk if purer heroin returns. As a number of projects have shown, there are those for whom a safe and hygienic supply on the NHS is the optimum solution. Yesterday's figures should not be used to justify a refocus on criminalisation at the expense of other solutions that work.
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Heroin shortage in UK is ‘putting lives at risk’
• Afghan poppy harvest blighted by fungus
• Dealers adulterating supply to maintain profits
Hospitals are treating a growing number of drug users who have overdosed on heroin mixed with other substances by dealers because of a huge shortage of the opiate across the UK.
One of the most severe heroin ‘droughts’ for five years has been reported in areas across the UK, including, London, Lancashire, Surrey, and Stockton-on-Tees.
The shortage has been linked not to seizures of the drug by law enforcement agencies but to a fungus that has blighted this year’s poppy crop in Afghanistan, reducing it by half.
Users are overdosing on either adulterated heroin, or, in some cases, what has been found to be a combination of a powerful sedative, caffeine and paracetamol. Some have become unconscious very soon after injecting or smoking it, while others have reported vomiting, flu-like symptoms and amnesia, drug agencies say.
One of the most recent reports of overdoses and hospital admissions came last week from Hastings, where four users overdosed even though they had only taken a small amount of what they thought was heroin. Toxicologist Dr John Ramsey, head of the Tictac Communications drugs database at St George’s medical school, London, said he had had about 50 recent requests to analyse adulterated heroin.
While sedatives of the type turning up in recent batches used to be found only in the occasional sample of heroin, there appeared to be much more of it around now, he said.
Gary Sutton, head of drugs at the charity Release, said: „There is a very significant heroin shortage across the UK at the moment. It has been going on for some time now, but the last two months have seen stockpiles exhausted.“
He expressed concern that what was being sold as heroin at the moment appeared to be adulterated with a powerful sedative and mixed with a high percentage of bulking agents like talcum powder or paracetamol.
„If people use this intravenously, perhaps on top of alcohol and methadone [the prescribed substitute drug for heroin], it is extremely risky. We have had many reports of people overdosing. It’s really important that accident and emergency departments understand that they may not be dealing with a ‘normal’ heroin overdose when people are brought in,“ he said.
„When the drought ends, prices will rise. Heroin tolerance will be reduced, so the risk of fatal overdose will be much higher.“
Such is the alarm about the current situation that several drugs agencies committed to harm reduction held an urgent meeting last week to discuss setting up an online warning system about contaminated street drugs.
Neil Hunt, director of research at KCA, a nationwide community drug treatment service, said: „This ‘heroin drought’ appears to be serious and geographically widespread. Street heroin is in a complete and utter muddle at the moment, and users are collapsing unexpectedly. We need to standardise information about what’s out there.“
Among heroin users commenting in online forums about the drought, one long-term user said: „I’ve never known anything like it in 30 years.“