The number of young adults needing treatment for heroin or crack in England has plummeted to its lowest ever level with a 23% drop in the last year, according to the latest figures from the National Treatment Agency.
The over-40s are now the only age group whose numbers going into drug treatment are still going up and they now account for almost a third of the 197,000 adults in the programme in England and Wales.
Paul Hayes, the NTA chief executive, said they were mainly people in their 40s and 50s who had been using heroin and crack since the epidemics of the 1980s and 1990s and whose health was now seriously deteriorating. This has been reflected in a sharp rise in drug-related deaths among over-40s over the past decade from 504 in 2001 to 802 last year.
The annual drug treatment figures show that the number of young adults going into treatment for heroin fell last year from 5,532 to 4,268, a drop of 23%, and nearly two-thirds lower than the 11,306 who entered treatment in 2005/06. This compares with 16,187 over-40s who went into treatment last year.
Heroin remains the biggest problem for those in treatment with 96,343 out of 197,110 adults in the programme getting help for heroin dependency and a further 63,199 getting help for heroin and crack. A total of 15,194 are getting help for cannabis and 9,640 for powder cocaine.
Hayes also said the figures showed that record numbers of drug addicts in England were recovering from addiction with nearly 30,000 successfully completing their treatment in 2011/2012. He added that nearly one-third of users in the past seven years had successfully completed their treatment and did not return.
Hayes said one factor behind the decline in young adults going into treatment was the existence of a “savvier generation of young people who seem to know what heroin and crack is going to do to you”.
The NTA chief executive said: “The original pool of heroin and crack addicts is shrinking and because fewer people are using heroin or crack, it’s not being topped up.
“Less positively, there’s an increasing challenge from older drug users, many of whom are still in the system and others who began using in the 1980s and 1990s are now beginning to access treatment as their health deteriorates.”
He said there were risks ahead, especially in an age of austerity: “No one could have predicted in the 1980s that one of the consequences of the recession would have been mass heroin use. It came from nowhere.
“Whilst this recession has not produced the same levels of youth unemployment that the 1980s did, youth unemployment, hopelessness among young people, provides fertile territory for the next drugs threat to take hold.”
He also warned that the current levels of investment in drug treatment could not be guaranteed in the current financial climate. The NTA is being abolished next year and will become part of the new public health service, and treatment budgets are being transferred to “squeezed” local authorities. This could put support services for drug users in long-term recovery at risk.
Martin Barnes of the drugs information charity Drugscope said the decline in heroin use and dependency, especially among young people, was a sign that drug treatment had been turning the tide of the heroin epidemic of the 1980s.
“Despite encouraging trends in declining drug use, drug and alcohol dependency continue to blight the lives of many, with harms and costs for individuals, families and communities,” he said.