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Tuesday, May 25, 1999 Published at 10:55 GMT 11:55 UK


Heroin 'epidemic' in rural Britain

Rural towns have reported drug abuse on an unprecedented scale

Experts have warned of a heroin "epidemic" in the UK as the drug becomes more cheaply and easily available in both inner cities and rural areas.

Experts say that every six months there is a 9% increase in addicts seeking help and, perhaps more tellingly, that the profile of the typical user is changing.

The BBC's Kim Catcheside reports on the "rampant" heroin problem in Gloucester
A 1998 Police Research Group report found that towns where there was no problem before are now reporting heroin abuse, with use noted in areas like Lincolnshire, Gloucestershire and Norfolk.

In April, six drug users died in Norwich in one week in overdoses linked to a lethal form of heroin known as "China white".

[ image: Youngsters smoke, rather than inject, the drug]
Youngsters smoke, rather than inject, the drug
And York's Compass Needle Exchange Centre told the BBC it has seen a 20% increase in the number of heroin users in the last year.

Ignorance about addiction

One client, who did not want to be named, said there is an "epidemic" in the city - and put this down to the drug being "cheap and available".

Drugs czar Keith Hellawell and other experts also attribute the growing use of the drug to its decreasing price - and lack of drug knowledge among young people.

[ image: Heroin use is led by
Heroin use is led by "sophisticated, aggressive supply networks"
A "hit" is now available on some streets for just £2 - which Mr Hellawell has pointed out is the same price as a pint of beer.

Suppliers even offer the "first wrap" of heroin free, and convince their new young customers that the drug is no more harmful than ecstasy or cannabis.

This appears easy to do, experts have noted. Many of the new users were not fully aware of the addictive nature of heroin.

A spokeswoman for Stratford Parents Support Group said some teenagers were not even aware what they were smoking: "They are simply offered 'brown', which they assume is cannabis", she said.

Fear of Aids, which used to put adolescents off the drug, is receding as young people increasingly smoke, rather than inject, heroin.

And the image among middle-class youths of heroin as a highly-addictive drug used only by "junkies" has changed on the back of growing recreational use of drugs such as ecstasy.

Campaigners say schools must respond to this changing culture, with improved drugs education programmes.

Heroin should be treated differently from other drugs, they say - and the message "just say no" should be put across unequivocally.

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