Crack cocaine use has “skyrocketed” as the drug has become “more acceptable” and even fashionable”, a government review has been told.
Professionals, students and clubbers were said to be part of a new “hidden cohort” of crack users that was flagged up to the Home Office and Public Health England (PHE) inquiry.
Officials were told sales of the drug rose by more than 8% in five years as it has become more prevalent among groups that had not previously used it.
There is said to be a “ready supply” from dealers who are increasingly operating around the clock, delivering the drugs “quicker than a pizza”.
Participants in the investigation linked the rise to a string of possible factors, including aggressive marketing of the drug and shrinking police presences on the streets.
Some participants reported that dealers held mobile phones with the numbers of all local heroin and crack users and sent blanket text messages with the latest “special offers”.
Officials carried out interviews and focus groups with people in treatment for crack problems, known as service users, as well as drug treatment workers and police officers in six areas of England.
Latest estimates show a “statistically significant” increase of 8.5% in the number of crack cocaine users in England between 2011/2012 and 2016/2017, from 166,640 to 180,748, according to the review.
One service user who took part in the study said crack use is “out of hand; it’s an epidemic. Use is skyrocketing”.
While feedback from all participants suggested that the increase has been seen mainly among existing heroin users, the study noted that “there have also been suggestions of a new, ‘hidden’ group of crack users who are not heroin users and who have not engaged with treatment services”.
Service users said that crack use was “beginning to become more acceptable, even fashionable among groups who would not previously have taken it”, the report said.
It added: “This included professionals, students and clubbers. In one area with a large university student population, there was a view that dealers were successfully infiltrating these groups.”
The inquiry said more research was needed to explore the characteristics of “hidden” crack users who are not in treatment.
Behind County Lines
Criminals are exploiting children as young as 12 to transport drugs between counties across the UK
Officials also heard claims that young people were starting to use crack, with one service user quoted as saying: “My daughter is 17 and her friends are using it at the parties she goes to.”
The investigation identified several factors which may have influenced the rise in crack-use, including increased availability and affordability of crack.
In three of the areas studied, there was evidence of “out of town” dealers from crime gangs based in cities such as London, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham infiltrating the local market.
One respondent said: “Gangs are sending people down from London to put them in hotels and get them grafting for a couple of weeks.”
In the other areas, police and treatment workers believed local criminal groups were too well established to allow so-called “county lines” gangs to gain a foothold.
Treatment workers and service users observed that there were generally fewer police on the streets, while some officers reported that their forces no longer had dedicated drugs squads.
The report said: “Participants in several areas said that deals were often carried out quite publicly, and some dealers made little effort to hide their activities.”
It was also suggested by some respondents that the stigma associated with using crack had declined, while the analysis noted that global production of cocaine has surged since 2013.
Rosanna O’Connor, director for drugs, alcohol, tobacco and justice at PHE, said: “This report will come as no surprise to those working on the front line, who will have seen first-hand this surge in crack use in their communities.”
She called for “more attractive” and tailored support to meet the specific needs of crack users, and improved links from the criminal justice system into treatment services.
Minister for crime, safeguarding and vulnerability Victoria Atkins said: “The Government is committed to tackling the illicit drugs trade, protecting the most vulnerable and helping those with a drug dependency to recover.”
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott described the report as “truly shocking” and claimed it “highlights the reprehensible cuts to treatment centres and policing made by the Tories”.