CHILDREN as young as 10 and 11 are being treated for addiction to heroin and crack cocaine in Liverpool's drug clinics.
There are at least 50 children under 16 being treated for addiction to drugs in Merseyside and Cheshire. In parts of the Wirral, under-16s now form 10% of new clients.
These shocking statistics are revealed in a new study into the region's drug users which looks at abuse over the past decade and takes a snapshot of the situation in 2001.
It has been compiled by university academics working at the centre for public health at John Moores university.
Academics looked at 9,000 addicts in treatment in the region, but it is estimated the real number of addicts may be twice this number - and their addiction costs them around £370 a week.
The picture of the Merseyside drug scene painted in this study reveals the staggering growth of crack cocaine and people using drugs at younger and younger ages.
The average age of heroin use in Wirral now is just 19.8 years.
Since 1990, the average age of people arrested by Merseyside police for drugs offences has dropped from 25 to 23.
Last week, police seized the largest haul of crack ever found in Britain during raids in Crosby.
And drug clinics in Liverpool now report that half their heroin addicts are also addicted to crack.
Wirral has the highest proportion of drug addicts per 1,000 population, with 14 people in treatment per 1,000, closely followed by Liverpool with 11, Sefton with eight and Knowsley with seven.
It is the first time that drug data in the region has been provided at a primary healthcare trust level.
Other findings reached by the John Moores studies include:
* Crack cocaine use is firmly established in central Merseyside and speading to the rest of Merseyside and Cheshire .
* Heroin use was an earlier epidemic in central Merseyside which has gradually spread across the rest of Merseyside.
* The majority of treatment clients who use cocaine and more than a quarter of those who use crack cocaine first used the substances after first contact with drug treatment services.
* This suggests that contact with structured treatment is not preventing individuals, particularly heroin users, from adopting use of new drugs.
* The proportion of people reported in 1990, who are seen in subsequent years, does not appear to be falling, suggesting a population of drug users locked long term into treatment.
* 14% of clients reporting to services in 1990 were still addicted to drugs in 2001
* Between 1997 and 2000, there were large increases in the percentage of arrests for both possession and trafficking that involve both heroin and crack cocaine.
* Crack cocaine and heroin accounted for half of drugs arrests for possession and 60% of trafficking arrests in 1997, compared with 25% and 30%, respectively, in 1997.
'The kids have more money' >>>
'The kids have more money'
JOHN, 32, from Kirkdale, who now works with drug addicts at the Bosco centre in Bootle, got hooked on heroin when he was 13 and later moved on to crack.
He has overdosed three times and served seven years in jail for theft to feed his habit.
He said: "The price of crack and heroin has just fallen and is more readily available than ever.
"What has really changed is that dealers today now sell both heroin and crack. And people use heroin to come down after taking crack.
"I wanted to be like the older boys in my neighbourhood, who seemed cool.
"When I was 13, you didn't see whole families whose lives have been destroyed by drugs, like you do now.
"I became an addict for 15 years.
"Younger kids now have more money and do risky things more easily."
STEVE, 37, from Crosby has been addicted to heroin for more than 20 years and is still being prescribed methadone to kick his habit.
He said: "I started taking drugs at school when I was 14 or 15.
"I hung around with a gang of around 10 mates and we all got into it together.
"By the time I was 18, I was addicted to heroin. I didn't realise at first I was smoking heroin – people kept calling it smack and I thought it was a lesser form of drug.
"At first, you take it once or twice a week, mainly on weekends, as a form of entertainment. Then you begin to get withdrawal symptoms.
"You get stomach and leg cramps, it feels like you have really bad flu.
"I was shoplifting to find the £30 a day I needed.
"I am 37 and I am still addicted. I wanted a career as a joiner but that has gone now. Of those 10 friends, around five of us ended up hooked."
Crack is now much more readily available >>>
Crack is now much more readily available
JIM McVeigh, who compiled the report, said: "Some individuals begin using heroin and methadone aged 11 and cocaine and crack aged 10.
"The falling rate of cocaine and increased availability in recent years may be resulting in the earlier use of this drug.
"We are seeing many more people coming in with addictions to both heroin and crack, whereas in 1990 it was far more common for people to simply have addiction to heroin.
"This may be because a generation of dealers have been offering heroin addicts free crack and cocaine to get them addicted.
"Crack is now more readily available and individuals starting drug use now may begin using it earlier."
Sue Neely of Liverpool's drug action team said: "Our aim in drug strategy is to get as many people from that hidden population into treatment, and into the care of their GPs.
"The criminal justice intervention programme is aiming to identify problematic drug users coming through the justice system. We want to reduce the harm they are doing themselves and to reduce the crime associated with feeding their habit.
"We're investing a great deal in improving treatment services, so they're more accessible."
Professor John Ashton, regional director of public health, said: "Drug misuse patterns are constantly changing in the kind of drugs people take and the age at which they start taking them.
"There is evidence the age at which people begin using drugs is going down.
"This is challenging us in finding a way to engage youngsters.
"We have cheap alcohol and cheap cocaine and we must address the supply side as well as the demand side of the chain.
"In the 1980s there were real social problems such as unemployment and the demoralisation of communities.
"Those may have improved.
"But now we have role models who don't encourage decent behaviour - footballers and pop stars who take drugs.
"But it is not just people taking drugs at an early age.
"We have a generation of people hitting retirement still addicted to drugs."