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Page last updated at 06:24 GMT, Monday, 8 June 2009 07:24 UK
Drug habits see a 'major shift'
By Jim Reed & Izzy Fairbairn
Newsbeat reporters

Youth drug treatment hits record

A record number of young people were treated for a drugs and alcohol problem last year.

Counsellors in England alone saw 52,294 people aged 13-24, a rise of 12% in two years, according to data from the National Treatment Agency (NTA).

There's been a sharp drop in those addicted to 'hard' drugs like heroin.

Instead under-25s are now more likely to have a problem with a cocktail of 'party' drugs like cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy, often mixed with alcohol.

Campaigners say treatment services aimed at young adults need to change quickly to deal with what some are calling the biggest shift in drug habits in a generation.

'Taken it all'

Newsbeat went to a drug treatment scheme in Stockport to speak to 24-year-old Steve, not his real name, from Liverpool.

"It first started when I was 15," he said.

Steve started mixing illegal drugs with alcohol while at school

"Cannabis led to whizz, Es, pills and coke. Alcohol and drugs were a major part of my life for five years.

"When you're young you hate to be the one left out and most my friends at school were alcohol and drug users.

"I was taking whatever I could get my hands on and mixing them with alcohol. We would come back at one or two in the morning every night and my mum and dad would be fuming."

Treatment rises

Officials from the NTA say the overall rise in treatment over the last three years does not necessarily mean a record number of young people are abusing drugs and alcohol.

They claim at least part of the increase can be explained by the growth in treatment services.

Young people picked up by the police are also more likely to be drug tested and referred to a treatment centre.

But the figures do show a major change in the kind of drugs young people are getting treated for.

Counsellors are seeing a dramatic shift away from heroin and crack use, the two 'problem drugs' typically linked to serious abuse.

18,597 people aged 13-24 were treated for an addiction to those two drugs last year, down 19% in just two years.

What's in a 50,000 slab of cocaine?

At the same time, more young people are having a problem with booze mixed with 'softer' party drugs, a phenomenon nicknamed ACCE (pronounced 'ace') by drug workers, short for Alcohol plus Cocaine, Cannabis and Ecstasy.

The number of under-25s getting treatment for one or more of those drugs has gone up 44% from 21,744 in 2005/6 to 31,401 in 2007/8.

"Alcohol is cheaper and more available, cannabis is far stronger, cocaine is half the price it used to be and you can get half a dozen ecstasy tablets for £10," according to Howard Parker, Professor Emeritus at Manchester University, who coined the term 'ACCE' last year.

"Put those three together and you've got just as serious a problem for health, family life and society as heroin."

Work carried out by Parker and researchers at Liverpool John Moores University shows the average age of a heroin user in treatment in North West England has risen to 36. The average age of someone with an ACCE problem is just 22.

Alcohol is cheaper... cannabis is far stronger... you can get half a dozen ecstasy tablets for £10

Professor Howard Parker

But while youth services aimed at under-18s can be effective at dealing with an ACCE-type problem, when users hit their 18th birthday they are often forced to switch to an adult-only drug treatment service.

"Those [adult] services are there to deal with heroin and crack users," said Parker. "The real issue is why there are hardly any services for ACCErs when they get to 18. It's just pot luck; it's a postcode lottery."

Adult drug projects are paid twice as much for treating a heroin and crack user as someone with a powder cocaine or ecstasy problem.

As a result, those services tend to focus on medical treatment like methadone replacement, a drug used to wean heroin users off their addiction.

But there are no 'replacement' drugs to treat a cocaine or cannabis problem.

Instead months or even years of therapy and support are needed to get users to manage their drug problem and eventually quit.

Alcohol plus drugs

The man in charge of young people's drug policy for the National Treatment Agency, Tom Aldridge, told Newsbeat that adult services focus on heroin and crack users for a reason.

"There are very clear links between acquisitive crime and problematic [heroin and crack] drug use," he said.

Heroin syringe
Adult treatment services mainly focus on hard drugs

"We want to prioritise those drugs because they have more of an impact on society in terms of criminal activity and public health.

"But we are very clear that people should be given a service depending on their need, not depending on their age.

"If you have a 20 or 21-year-old that requires treatment best given by an under-18 service then they should go to that service."

All under-18 services in England combine alcohol and drug treatment so young people can get detox and therapy for both problems at the same time.

But almost all adult services split alcohol and drugs into two completely separate programmes in different locations with different counsellors and critics say that can often mean young people drop out.

Tom Aldridge accepts that there may be an argument for combining alcohol and drug treatment for over-18s in England, as they have recently decided to do in Northern Ireland.

"We have no responsibility for the alcohol agenda," he said. "If that were the case, there may well be lots in advantages in that. But it's not the case at the moment."

The Stockport solution

But in some parts of the country a handful of treatment services are already changing the way they work to deal with the ACCE phenomenon.

Heidi Shaw
Heidi Shaw says the Mosaic centre has altered its approach

Newsbeat went to see a council-run drug scheme for young people in Stockport that has increased the age range of its patients from 18 all the way up to 25.

Heidi Shaw, who runs the centre called Mosaic, said that decision was a direct result of seeing more young people with recreational drug problems come through the doors.

"We knew those young people would not get help elsewhere," she said. "Their lives are still being devastated by drugs. They are still having problems with crime, housing, training and employment.

"The same profile of substance misuse is coming through. It's cannabis, alcohol and then cocaine."

Mosaic also runs a service to support parents and family members of people in treatment and carries out drug prevention work in Stockport's 14 schools.

Steve has been getting treatment for his alcohol and drug problems there for four years.

My life's changed because I'm off alcohol completely and I'm working on the drugs
Steve, recovering drug user

"I feel more comfortable because they seem to understand more about you," he said. "They contact you virtually every day to see how you are doing.

"I went through detox. They put you in a dry house for a week and give you medication to counteract the effects of alcohol and the cravings.

"Since then I've not touched a drop and I've got Mosaic to thank for that.

"My life's changed because I'm off alcohol completely and I'm working on the drugs. Hopefully this time next year, I will be off them as well."

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