are going to come face to face with a drug abuser; serious as this situation is, chaotic disintegration of that young person's life is not an inevitable result.
Myths tend to exaggerate and dramatise the drug scene. Accurate information is difficult to obtain, but it would seem that over the last five years the government has provided approximately £20 million to tackle the problem and yet resources are both inadequate and patchy; the seventeen health authorities operate different policies, based on varying priorities, no centralised data exists and there is no single umbrella organisation to coordinate funds, treatment or research.
The fear of AIDS has inevitably increased concern. Some drug users do inject and some share needles; AIDS is known to be transmitted through infected blood. The 12 pilot schemes, whereby new needles are exchanged for old, have recently been introduced by the government but will take some considerable time to evaluate.
Furthermore some of the young women and girls who inject obtain money for their habit through prostitution; it is through this group that AIDS will, indeed most probably already has, spread to the heterosexual population.
No one disputes the dramatic rise of known drug users from around 1000 in 1975 to around 12000 in 1984. Crops of coca (basis of cocaine), from South America and blue and white poppies (heroin) from Asia are being grown in ever increasing quantities — quantities too great for the traditional US market to absorb and so the drug barons are targeting the UK.
Prices of heroin and other drugs have halved since 1978, and although seizures of illicit drugs have also increased, this has had little effect on availability or price. A recent conviction proves that the mafia are now entrenched in the illicit drugs market in this country and the government's response of harsher sentences and stripping assets appears to be ineffective.
While the risk of detection remains low, the profits continue to soar. An outlay of £3,000 in a Pakistani market on heroin will net £1 million by the time the drug reaches the London streets. It is claimed that the Bolivian dealers have all the enforcement agents in their pockets and even the London Met move their undercover teams every three years since it is preferable to break valuable contacts than to expose officers to seeminly irresistible corruption.
According to a recent Panorama BBC1 investigation, drugs are endemic in British prisons and have replaced tobacco as coinage. There is little doubt that the IRA, the Afghan guerrillas and the various rival groups in the Lebanon rely on the profits from illegal trafficking for the purchase of arms.
Attempts to prohibit peasants in Columbia or Burma from cultivating coca or poppies have failed because none of the First World governments have been prepared to fund an alternative source of income.
A topic embracing the mafia, terrorism, AIDS and prostitution is tempting material for journalists locked into a battle for increased circulation, but if the drug issue encourages irresponsible, not to say voyeuristic reporting, there is a corresponding need to treat the problem seriously and to set it in a social and historical context.
The use of herbal or fermented substances as a protection from unacceptable reality would appear to be as old as humankind. Traces of opium have been found in a Bronze Age Cyprian vase. Noah (Gen 9.21) lay drunk and naked in his tent and in eighteenth century London oblivion could be obtained from a pennyworth of gin. As it happens contemporary mortality figues indicate that of the three killers — smoking, alcohol and drugs, the latter is in a class of its own. Research indicates that in a 12 ,month period approximately 100,000 premature deaths will result from cigarette smoking, 9000 or so from alcohol and only hundreds, (as far as can be known) from drugs and solvents (glue sniffing). Yet so perverse are social mores that excessive smoking or drinking is, in the main, acceptable; the habitual use of tranquilisers (valium and librium are the most common brands) is encouraged by medical prescription, while the comparatively small number of drug users are universally condemned and they are at the end of every queue when it comes to treatment and resources. Little wonder that drug users complain of dual standards and hypocrisy.
In dealing with drug abusers it is important to distinguish between youthful curiosity, the temptation to hurt or shock, the attraction of a secret and forbidden sub-culture on the edge of the law and the out and out abuser. "Once hooked you're never straight. You're either stoned or you're ill. I'd say 60 per cent of the time you're sick, 20 per cent of the time you're racing around trying to get the stuff, and the last 20 per cent you're asleep . . ." is a comment containing a vivid and disturbing ring of truth.
Yet use does not necessarily lead to abuse, the difficulties of reducing or even "coming off" are generally exagerrated and it is not unknown for regular users to survive happily and productively into old age.
Yet even when the myths have been exposed, drug abuse remains a serious and growing problem. All trends point to increasing and cheaper supplies and this has led to the general agreement that the main thrust of intervention should be in the direction of reducing the demand for drugs. How can this be achieved?
Next: The Solution?