The crack den next door
Published by The Guardian – Monday 21 April, 2003
Copyright: The Guardian
Police policy towards neighbourhood drug dealers is hopelessly inadequate and needs a complete overhaul
The oddest thing about living next door to a crack den is how boring it becomes. After a while, the screaming rows, the urine-soaked steps and abuse from users become predictable and depressing rather than disturbing. I was scared when addicts tried to enter my home and wept with frustration when I had to scrape human faeces away from my front door. But I was largely inured to these problems until I turned the corner of my road one morning and saw the Crimestoppers posters.
“Don’t let London suffer the side effects of crack,” the adverts thunder, urging us to shop dealers. At that point, anger took over.
Well, I have shopped and shopped and shopped, and so have most of my neighbours. We have shopped so enthusiastically we make Elton John look frugal. We have sung like a choir of canaries, offering times, dates and vehicle number plates.
Six months on, the crack house is thriving and pensioners are still scared to go out on their own. Hardly surprising, since crack dealing is associated with aggression, violence and theft. Users spend almost twice as much on their habit as heroin addicts – £478 a month, on average – which might explain why they are so keen to get into our homes.
For all these reasons, I welcome the Home Office’s new plans to tackle the problem. Bob Ainsworth, the drugs minister, has promised extra cash for 37 crack-ridden communities, including mine in London; overall, the government will beef up its anti-drugs budget by £500m to £1.5bn by 2005.
It has issued new guidelines for those fighting drugs and has promised to improve policing, tailor services for addicts and support vulnerable young people to stop them falling prey to the drug in the first place. Police forces are targeting markets and officers have closed down three dens in my neighbourhood alone.
All of this sounds terrific, and much of it might help. Perhaps, with luck, “our” crackhouse will be the next to go.
The good news is that crack can still be controlled; it is not (yet) an epidemic. According to last year’s British Crime Survey, only 0.2% of 16- to 59-year-olds had taken it in the last year.
Dealing is heavily concentrated in deprived areas like mine. But it is not an inevitable consequence of poverty and there are measures that can – and must – be taken while broader issues are addressed. The question is whether a 34-page plan will succeed where common sense has so far failed. The inadequacies of existing practice are blindingly obvious to anyone who has encountered crack use.
First, we need prompt action. We know that police resources are stretched, but crack must be a priority. I say that not just because it is in my back (or front) yard, but because the longer dealing is allowed to continue, the more entrenched it becomes.
Suppliers and their customers become increasingly brazen; dealers have time to find vulnerable people whose homes they can use when existing crack houses are closed. Worst of all, users become addicts.
Forget the myths. No one gets hooked on crack from a single hit. It takes time to de velop a habit, which is why we need to disrupt that process as soon as possible.
For the same reason, we need to target users as well as suppliers. Dealers are smart enough to sell crack in small quantities so that customers take it at once.
Police say there is no point in “attending” because the evidence has disappeared by the time they arrive. But that can hardly be the case when they are called in the middle of a large delivery.
Second, we need better coordination. Information is not filtering through organisations, never mind reaching other agencies. You can report an immediate problem to police, but that does not mean that their colleagues will know about it the next day or even the next week. They complain about a lack of help but squander what they are given.
Coordination also means thinking about long-term consequences, ensuring that users are rehoused in new areas and are not replaced by vulnerable people who are likely to fall prey to dealers.
Third, action must be sustained. At one point the police camped out on my street for four days, intercepting addicts on their way to the crackhouse. Glorious peace reigned… for four days; the morning after they left, the users returned.
Most of all, we need help for addicts. Users must be offered help at the first opportunity and must continue to be offered support even if – more probably when – they reject it or relapse.
Heroin addicts get methadone; crack users lack even that imperfect substitute, so need treatment such as therapy rather than a drug-based regime.
The government’s most important promise is to think creatively, and to ensure early appointments and low waiting times.
That crack addicts are among the drug users most reluctant to seek treatment is more, not less, reason to focus on helping them. My neighbour and his customers are not bad people. They are desperate. So are those of us who have to live with them.