Pubdate: Sun, 18 Jul 2004
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2004 The Observer
Author: Tony Thompson
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Heroin)
Bookmark: (Methadone)
Bookmark: (Treatment)


Once restricted to a black and working-class urban base, crack cocaine
is now smoked by people of all backgrounds - and with 45,000 users in
London alone, it has become an epidemic, leaving violent crime and
shattered lives in its wake. Tony Thompson reports

The stocky black man in the heavy trench coat with an orange bandana
tied around his head appears for the third time in 20 minutes. His
circuit takes him all the way around the base of the four-storey block
of flats. Sometimes he lingers at the stairwell; sometimes he spends a
few moments lurking in the shadows that hide him from the main road;
all the time he is watching.

It's just after 11pm on Friday and the latest crack house to open on
the sprawling Woodberry Down estate in Hackney, north London, is ready
to trade. Straddling the Seven Sisters Road and consisting of 57
individual blocks, the estate is one of the most crack-infested areas
of the country. Since the start of the year Hackney council, working
alongside the Metropolitan police, has used the new anti-social
behaviour legislation to shut down more than 100 crack houses, at
least a dozen of them on the Woodberry.

Yet despite such radical action, which involves arresting the tenant
and sealing off the property so that no one can enter for at least six
months, residents say the problem remains as bad as ever.

'These places close down but a couple of weeks, sometimes a couple of
hours, later they open up somewhere else,' said one woman who asked
not to be named. 'You can take away the supply but if the demand is
still there the dealers will always have a reason to come back.'

The man in the bandana is lookout for a crack house in a two-bedroom
flat on the top floor of the block. From the opposite walkway you can
see that the door to the flat is wide open and only a security grille
blocks the way to the outside world. Visitors are few. Some stay just
long enough for a quick handshake through the bars; others are invited
inside, through the stark white hallway and into the living room.

It is a scene being repeated across Britain. The use of crack cocaine
is soaring to epidemic levels, fuelling a dramatic rise in violent
street crime and driving the price down to a record low. Abuse of the
drug has become so widespread that specialist police units targeting
muggers, carjackers and petty criminals are arresting more crack
addicts than heroin users. A study by the National Association of
Probation Officers shows that crack users typically spend as much on
drugs in a day as heroin addicts do in a week.

Experts say the shift in patterns of drug use has affected the types
of crimes being committed on the street. Heroin addicts, previously
identified as being responsible for most property-related crime,
traditionally fund their habits through burglary, breaking into parked
cars, shoplifting and credit card fraud. Crack, however, leaves heavy
users edgy, paranoid and dangerously desperate. They are more likely
to get involved in violent, opportunist crimes such as mugging, mobile
phone theft and carjacking.

The problem is most acute in London, but Birmingham, Bristol,
Manchester and Northampton have also recorded large increases in the
numbers of users. There is also increasing evidence that the drug is
spreading from its traditional user base, with addicts just as likely
to be Asian, white or middle-class as to be black or

For those working with crack users, one worrying development is the
fact that there has been an increase in casual use of the drug. Casual
users, who may take crack only at weekends or a couple of times a
month, rarely come into contact with the treatment system and are not
counted among the official statistics.

'Crack is a difficult drug to control,' says Maggie Telfer of the
Bristol Drugs Project, 'but there are some users who will binge once
or twice a month, perhaps for an entire weekend, but not at any other
time. They manage to keep their addiction under control to some
degree, but most users will have difficulty doing this for long.

'In Bristol the number of users has remained fairly steady for the
past five years since crack first arrived and the core users are those
who also take heroin. Drugs tend to work in cycles and the worry is
that in 10 years' time we will see another explosion of crack users.'

The use of crack on a casual basis falls outside most people's
perception of the power of the drug but seems to be increasingly
common. One user, writing on a forum for the
website, which exposes the actions of local dealers, notes: 'I myself
have been a crack user for quite a few years. I was brought up very
well and never had to want for anything. I was exposed to crack by an
ex-boyfriend in my late teens. Not everyone is the same and not all
situations are the same. Not every crackhead robs and steals. Not
every crackhead sells their body for their addiction. Not all
crackheads are the ignorant and underprivileged. I've seen many people
who are addicted and hold down a job, have families, even own
businesses. The consequences are the same for everyone, though. And it
depends on how far you let your addiction take you.'

Overall drug seizures in England and Wales rose by 10 per cent in
2003, but the amount of crack cocaine seized during the same period
more than doubled. While a recent estimate suggested there were around
45,000 crack users in London alone, most drug workers believe the true
figure is far higher. Earlier this year the Metropolitan police
revealed that cocaine seizures in the capital had rocketed 400 per
cent in the last year, from 96kg to 360kg.

Prostitution, long associated with the use of heroin, is now being
fuelled by crack. One prostitute, Leanne, told The Observer : 'A
couple of years back when I started on the game, all the girls were on
brown, nothing else. Then the dealers starting selling what they
called 'party packs' - a bag of smack and two free rocks. We all got
hooked but, surprise surprise, once we did, the rocks started costing
money. Now the only time people take brown is to help them come down.'

Much of the crack trade is controlled by Yardie barons, many of whom
come from Jamaica. One, Michael, said he was making UKP5,000 a week
selling crack in Bristol before being arrested and deported to
Kingston, Jamaica.

'I used to hang around in the Black and White Cafe in Bristol with a
few guys I knew from Jamaica. Some of them used to sell stuff on the
front line. The first time I went on the line, I bought just an ounce
of black hash. I didn't want to get too deep. But within the space of
an hour, that was sold out and I bought two more ounces and went back
on the line. I just double my money in an hour. At the end of that
first night I went home with about two ounces of black, an ounce of
weed and UKP300 in my pocket.

'So I say to myself, yeah, a few hours and I get this! Come on, I'm
going to do this full-time. And now a bit of greed got caught up in
me. I said to myself, why not sell some cocaine? The first time I
bought a sixteenth of an ounce, the smallest portion, for 150 quid. I
got on the line at 5pm and the first man that came up to me five
minutes later bought four grams. In the space of 10 minutes it was all
sold out and I had made UKP150 on my UKP150.

'Then I started cooking crack and selling that. And that was the best
business of all. The cash comes in so fast you don't know what to do
with it all. I was making money, making money - four, five thousand a
week. I had a flash car, flash clothes, flashy girls all over the place.'

The Woodberry Down estate, one of several visited by The Observer as
part of its investigation into the growth of the crack trade, is not
an easy place for strangers to blend in. Roads that look as though
they lead somewhere turn out to be dead ends, forcing a retreat along
the same path. Non-residents stick out a mile and more often than not
are treated with grave suspicion.

That is why this and other estates are the perfect places to open up
crack houses. According to a recent report by the Greater London
Authority, there are three main types of crack house. The first is the
fortified retail outlet which may also double as a crack factory.
Here, doors are reinforced with steel bars to give the occupants as
much time as possible to dispose of any evidence in the event of a
police raid. Such crack houses are usually the most obvious and
therefore the most heavily targeted.

Then there are houses that have been taken over by dealers. The
occupants are either elderly, mentally ill or simply too scared to
resist. Some flats are owned by ex-addicts who have kicked the crack
habit but are forced back into addiction by others. Like the property
on the Woodberry, such flats may have good-quality furniture and
fittings, at least to begin with, and blend in with their

The final type is the one which doubles as a brothel and allows users
to exchange sexual services for drugs. All crack houses have the
advantage of allowing users to smoke in a social set ting and of being
available when regular street dealers are not.

Yet while supporting the move to close as many crack houses as
possible - last year the Met shut down 512 and this year it aims to
top 600 - experts warn that the strategy may have only short-term benefits.

According to the GLA report: 'Illicit drug markets are resistant to
policing. Many buyers are intensely motivated to buy and sellers are
equally motivated by profit. Research has identified various
adaptations to, and perverse effects of, policing strategies. The most
frequent response to policing is displacement - over place, time or
mode of operation... Open markets tend to be transformed into closed
ones by policing operations, or else are relocated. Where the police
are successful in arresting sellers, this often results in
substitution, where often someone who previously worked at a lower
level in the process replaces the seller. In other words, policing can
create promotion opportunities.'

Crack houses are already changing the way they operate as a result of
greater use of the new legislation. They generally carry far less
stock than before (the last raid on the Woodberry Down estate resulted
in only a single rock being seized) and are supplied regularly by
drivers who patrol the streets, holding sufficient stock for dozens of
houses. The Met plans to target these vehicles with a new squad later
in the year.

In the meantime, the focus remains on treatment. A spokesman for
Turning Point, the national charity dealing with drug, alcohol and
mental health problems, said it believed crack use was spreading

'One of the problems is that users of crack cocaine tend to see
treatment services as being suitable for heroin users but not for
them. After all, there is no substitute drug like methadone that can
be offered to them so they feel they have little to gain. We are
developing new strategies to roll out across the country to try to
encourage crack users to come in and use our services.'

Attracting crack users to treatment centres is one thing; ensuring the
facilities are there for them is quite another.

Last month a criminal justice think-tank published a report which
found that a shortage of residential drug treatment centres is leaving
thousands of addicts without vital rehabilitation and undermining
efforts to cut crime. The Rethinking Crime and Punishment group found
there were up to half a million 'problem' drug users in England and
Wales, but fewer than 2,000 places in residential treatment centres.
Many addicts faced long waits for places at the centres, with some
waiting up to eight months. Many were deterred from seeking help and
were continuing to commit crimes, often ending up in prison.

Others support a more radical view. John Messiter, who runs the
crackcocaine site, agrees there has been a dramatic
improvement in King's Cross since the use of antisocial behaviour
legislation to close houses but says big problems remain elsewhere.

'Long term, we need a thorough and bold review of our drugs laws. Much
of the harm from drug abuse comes from the criminality associated with
it - the violence of dealers, the acquisitive crime of users, and the
hazards of a product of unknown quality and purity.

'I don't accept that legalisation would be the cure-all solution that
some claim. But then, I don't believe an easy answer exists. For me,
it is a question of finding the least worst alternative, and I don't
think that's what we have currently.'



There are an estimated 200,000 regular users of crack cocaine in the
UK. A further 475,000 are believed to be addicted to powder cocaine.

The vast majority of drug users in the UK are white, but some studies
say African-Caribbean communities use crack at the same level or
slightly above that of white and Asian communities.

Deaths from cocaine-related overdoses have doubled in the past five
years and are now at record levels. Deaths rose from 96 in 2001 to 139
in 2002, the biggest year-on-year rise for five years.

The effects of crack are similar to those of cocaine, although the
'hit' is more intense, does not last as long and is far harder to
control. As well as losing their appetite, users often experience a
feeling of well-being and confidence, as well as an indifference to
pain and fatigue.

While heroin users can be given methadone to control their cravings,
no such substitute exists for crack cocaine.



Mike Trace Former deputy drug tsar. Now chief executive of the
Rehabilitation of Addicted Prisoners Trust

'Crack cocaine is here to stay. My advice to policy-makers is not to
concentrate on eradication. They should focus on the impact and harm
the drugs have on our communities. That means responding to concerns
about antisocial behaviour and offering accessible and effective
treatment to those who become addicted.'

Maureen Lynch
Mothers Against Guns

'There's a strong connection between the increase in crack cocaine and
the increased use of guns. Many of the killings are all about
protecting turf and territory. No one group can solve this problem on
their own. The police, the parents, the population and the politicians
have to work together. We have to protect the vulnerable ones who get
hooked and then find themselves being controlled by the drugs barons.
The big guns rarely touch the drugs; they just take the money.'

Megan Jones Head of community safety and drugs at Camden

'In Camden we have a team who go out on to the streets to work with
addicts. However, people with addictive drug problems and compulsive
behaviour are generally unwilling to take up treatment so enforcement
measures such as the anti-social behaviour order can help. In the long
term, an important solution must be to reduce the social exclusion.'

Danny Kushlick
Director, Transform Drug Policy Foundation

'Crack is a product of prohibition. In the illegal market place,
concentrated high-potency versions of drugs are easier to traffic and
provide dealers with the highest levels of profit. Paradoxically,
policing can make things worse - creating instability among drug
gangs, leading to turf wars and raising the price so users commit more
acquisitive crime. The long-term solution is to legalise coca-based
products and make them available through regulated outlets.'

Ian Blair Deputy Metropolitan Police commissioner

'Disrupting the supply of class A drugs such as crack is a priority.
Partnership is the key to success and a London-wide strategy will be
an effective tool in the fight to end the misery caused by class A
drug supply and addiction.'

Peter Stoker
Director, National Drug Prevention Alliance

'Social factors may have kick-started crack but it is now spreading.
The increase is almost entirely due to the lack of a proper preventive
approach. We seem to be content to pick someone up when they have
fallen over but less keen to prevent them falling over in the first
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