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DrugScope Street Drug Trends Survey 2009: Falling illegal drug purity 'accelerates trend' in users combining different drugs

11 September 2009

A downward trend in the quality of illegal drugs on the UK’s street drug market could be driving changes in patterns of drug use, with users increasingly interchanging or combining a range of low quality drugs, according to DrugScope’s 2009 Street Drug Trends Survey.

The survey compiles and analyses feedback from 70 drug services, police forces, drug action teams and service user groups in 20 towns and cities across the UK. It illuminates patterns in the use and supply of substances to give a snapshot view of current UK street drug trends [1]. The survey also compiles the national average prices of different drugs on the UK street drug market [2].

This year’s findings show a fall in the reported quality of illegal drugs available in most areas over the last year. Seventeen out of twenty areas reported a drop in the quality of powder and crack cocaine, echoing a growing body of evidence showing declining cocaine purities [3]. In one area, police reported seizing cocaine powder with purity levels as low as 2%. Twelve out of the twenty areas reported a decline in heroin quality, while the majority of areas also highlighted a fall in the MDMA content in ecstasy pills and a continuation of the long-term trend in poor quality amphetamine.

The fall in quality has also occurred in the illicit market in prescription tranquillisers, notably diazepam. While authentic 10mg pills diverted into the black market were being sold in most areas for £1, fake, low quality, versions reported to be from labs in China and South East Asia were available for half the price in some areas.

The survey found that the drop in the quality of drugs could be accelerating a longer term trend towards poly drug use – taking a variety of different substances in combination or at different times – as users look to ‘top up’ on low quality drugs or experiment with alternatives. In turn, some survey respondents suggested that the shift towards people using a more varied menu of drugs means users are less concerned about the quality of each individual substance.

In some areas older teens and younger adult recreational users are swapping or combining substances including cocaine, ketamine [4], GHB/GBL [5], ecstasy, cannabis and alcohol. Problem drug users in most areas are often using heroin and crack cocaine alongside cheap, strong alcohol, skunk-like cannabis, tranquillisers and, in some cases, ketamine.

Survey respondents expressed concerns that the low quality of stimulants such as cocaine, crack, speed and ecstasy pills could be contributing to a growing interest in other substances. Ketamine, the hallucinogenic anaesthetic, was reported as being used by a growing number of older teens and young adults in 18 out of 20 areas surveyed. For the first time in the survey’s five year history, some drug services raised concerns about the use of the so-called ‘legal highs’ GBL and mephedrone [6].

Responding to the survey findings, DrugScope chief executive Martin Barnes said:

“The shifting patterns of drug use identified in this year’s survey are a reminder of the challenges faced by drug treatment services and police forces across the country. While overall levels of drug use have remained relatively stable in recent years [7], the range of substances appearing on the radar of drug services and enforcement agencies appears to be increasing.

“There has been a long-standing trend towards people using a varied menu of drugs, but it could be increasing because of the low quality substances that appear to be dominating the UK street drug market. The fact that older teens and young adults are increasingly combining substances including ketamine, cocaine, cannabis and cheap high-strength alcohol is particularly concerning. It’s essential that adult and young people’s treatment services have the capacity to support people who develop problems with a range of substances, including emerging drugs like ketamine and GHB.

“Although still low on the radar, the survey suggests that the use of so called ‘legal highs’ could present a growing problem for prevention and treatment agencies. While still relatively small in number, the fact that some agencies have seen people experiencing problems with GBL and mephedrone challenges the perception that just because these substances are legal, they must be safe. Informing people about the risks attached to these drugs is crucial and we support the forthcoming FRANK campaign on ‘legal highs’.”

ENDS

For interviews and further information contact Andrew McNicoll in the DrugScope press office at andrewm@drugscope.org.uk or on 020 7520 7563 (07736 895563 out of hours).

DrugScope emphasises that the survey represents a snapshot view of the current UK drug trends and average UK drug prices.

DrugScope is a leading independent centre of expertise on drugs in the UK and the national membership organisation for the drugs field. Our aim is to inform policy development and reduce drug-related harms - to individuals, families and communities.

[1] How the survey was completed
The survey is carried out by DrugScope’s Druglink magazine. Druglink contacted 70 drug and alcohol services, drug action teams (DATs), police forces and service user groups in 20 UK towns and cities: Belfast, Birmingham, Blackpool, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Gloucester, Ipswich, Liverpool, London, Luton, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Nottingham, Penzance, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Torquay and York. The survey was carried out in July and August this year and has been carried out annually since 2004.

In 2006 the survey started to focus on drug trends rather than drug prices. Trends are a more reliable indicator of problems in specific areas as they develop over time and tend to be more sustained. In this way, in 2007 DrugScope highlighted the emergence of a two-tier market in cocaine powder and last year we highlighted the trend in class A users turning to benzodiazepines, particularly at times of local heroin shortages or drops in quality. These trends are still live in 2009.

[2] National average street drug prices

The 2009 survey also recorded national averages for the prices of individual street drugs. Overall prices were relatively stable in comparison to 2008. There were minor decreases in the price of cocaine – which fell from £42 per gram in 2008 to £39 per gram in 2009 and MDMA powder – which fell from £39 per gram in 2008 to £36 per gram in 2009.

Drug Type

2006

2007

2008

2009

Herbal cannabis (standard quality)

£70 per ounce

£87 per ounce

£89 per ounce

£31 per quarter ounce *

Herbal cannabis (good quality)

£121

£134

£131

£40 per quarter ounce*

Resin cannabis

£54

£55

£51

£21 per quarter ounce*

Cocaine per gram

£43

£43

£42

£39

Ecstasy pill

£3

£2

£2

£2

MDMA powder per gram

£40

£38

£39

£36

Amphetamine per gram

£10

£10

£9

£9

Ketamine per gram

£28

£25

£20

£22

Diazepam per 10mg tablet

£1

£1

*NOTE: For the 2009 survey, cannabis prices were recorded per quarter ounce for the first time as this is the most common amount dealt on the street drug market. The 2006-2008 surveys refer to prices for an ounce of cannabis so are not directly comparable.

As with the 2006, 2007 and 2008 surveys, Druglink found that most heroin was being sold by the bag and most crack cocaine was being sold by the rock. In 2009, the average bag of heroin weighed 0.15g and the average cost was £10. The average rock of crack cocaine weighed 0.15g and the average cost was £10. There was no significant change from the 2006, 2007 and 2008 figures.

[3] Forensic science service data on cocaine purity
As reported exclusively in the May/June 2009 issue of Druglink, the purity of cocaine powder dropped to its lowest level since current records began 25 years ago. Analysis by the Forensic Science Service (FSS) of 2,252 police seizures of cocaine between October and December 2008 found the average purity was 26.4 per cent. The data showed that one in five of cocaine samples tested were of very low quality – with purity levels of less than nine per cent. In 2005, the average purity was 45 per cent, while in 1984 it was 63 per cent.

[4] Information about Ketamine
Ketamine is a complex drug with an unusual combination of stimulant and hallucinogenic properties. It was made a Class C drug in 2006. The drug is used recreationally due to its ability to alter users’ perceptions, leaving them feeling detached from themselves and others around them. Ketamine, which can be snorted or swallowed in liquid form, is ‘dose specific’, meaning its effects are strongly linked to the amount used.

As well as its use as a horse tranquiliser, ketamine has legitimate use as a medical anaesthetic. The high doses typical of illegal ketamine use risk serious injury, unconsciousness and potential respiratory collapse or heart failure. Ketamine can be particularly dangerous when used alongside depressant drugs, including alcohol.

While ketamine is still used relatively rarely in comparison todrugs like ecstasy and cocaine powder, the latest official government statistics on levels of drug use in England and Wales showed that the percentage of 16 to 24 year olds reporting the use of ketamine in the last year, rose from 0.9% in 2007/08 to 1.9% in 2008/09.

[5] Information about GHB and GBL
Gammahydroxybutrate (GHB) and GBL (gammabutyrolactone) are closely related drugs with anaesthetic and sedative effects. GHB has been a Class C drug since 2003. GBL is not currently controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act but in August 2009 the government stated the drug would be made Class C by January 2010. Both substances are colourless, odourless liquids with a slightly salty taste. GBL converts into GHB when the substance is ingested.

GHB and GBL produce essentially the same effects. Both drugs are depressants which slow down body actions. Small doses will may feel like having a few drinks of alcohol. Inhibitions can be lowered and libido increased. At higher doses they may cause sleepiness, nausea, vomiting, muscle stiffness and confusion and can lead to convulsions, coma and respiratory collapse. Combining the drugs with alcohol can be fatal.

There is the potential for users to develop physical dependence on GHB and GBL. The July/August 2009 edition of Druglink magazine exclusively revealed that treatment services were seeing an increase in people coming forward for treatment for dependence on the drugs.

[6] Information about mephedrone
Mephedrone is a stimulant drug which has emerged on the so-called ‘legal highs’ market. The drug is not currently controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Early reports have suggested that it is a stimulant with some ecstasy-like effects. Mephedrone is often sold on the internet as a plant food or ‘research chemical’. A typical price is £15 per gram. Effects include euphoria, alertness, talkativeness and feelings of empathy. However, users can also become anxious or paranoid and the drug’s stimulant properties risk over-stimulation of the heart. The March/April 2009 edition of Druglink magazine was the first publication to highlight the emergence of mephedrone as a legal high.

[7] Overall levels of drug use
Official data on the overall levels of drug use in England and Wales comes from the Home Office’s Drug Misuse Declared: Findings from the 2008/09 British Crime Survey. The latest figures show that in terms of adult drug use, the 2008/09 British Crime Survey found that found that 10.1% of 16 to 59 year olds in England and Wales reported using any illicit drug in the last year, compared to 9.6% in 2007/08, 10% in 2006/07 and 10.5% in 2005/06.