Howard Parker, professor of social work at Manchester University, said those likely to take heroin are either socially excluded or very experienced recreational drug users. "They are from the wrong estate or the wrong end of town much more than from the affluent suburbs," he said. This fits with the "cocooning" effect of the depressant drug. Many use heroin as an escape from lives of poverty and deprivation.
However, the Home Office Police Research Group report, released last week, finds that a steady supply in recent years has lead to a price drop. New, younger users have been attracted by the marketing of heroin as "brown", in pound;5 and pound;10 deals.
The report warns that Britain has between 18 months and two years before a second heroin epidemic strikes.
After the last major outbreak of heroin use in the mid-1980s, the drug had been shunned by the majority of youth as a highly addictive drug used only by "junkies", as portrayed in the film Trainspotting. But signs as early as 1996 that heroin was making a comeback led to the Government commissioning the report last summer.
Professor Parker said there was an unfortunate combination in Britain of a lot of cheap heroin, a susceptible youth population that is used to taking drugs such as amphetamines (and not getting addicted), a motorway system that allows for fast distribution by dealers, and a growing awareness of the money that can be made by selling drugs.
The consequences of a heroin outbreak include an increase in crime, added pressure on health services and the public purse, disruption of families, overdoses and accidents. "We should be moving very quickly to nip the whole thing in the bud," Professor Parker warns.
He believes it is possible to do so in towns that have not yet been targeted by heroin dealers. The report says that outbreaks are occurring in North-east and South-west England, Yorkshire, West Midlands and Avon in particular: "Heroin use is now occurring in completely new areas with no heroin history and the spread pattern suggests many communities will see its arrival during this and next year."
It continues: "Young people in these areas initially have only limited understanding of heroin's potency and dependency potential."
Despite this, Professor Parker says that only two or three out of every 100 will ever try heroin. "Even if there was widespread heroin use in their town that figure will never get past four or five. The vast majority of young people will never try heroin," he says.
His research team has worked with schools that realise there are heroin users and triers, albeit in very small numbers, but Professor Parker does not believe that schools want to know who they are: "The only time they want to identify them is when they are forced to, when there is a drugs incident."
The report recommends that the 112 Drug Action Teams in England and Wales review the services for young people and consider whether they are sufficient and appropriate.
New heroin outbreaks amongst young people in England and Wales, Police Research Group Crime Detection and Prevention Series Paper 92, by Howard Parker, Catherine Bury and Roy Egginton, can be ordered by faxing 0171 273 4001