A CARLISLE charity for people battling addiction wants a crackdown on street dealers after figures showed soaring levels of drug deaths - with nearly 400 fatalities in Cumbria since 2014.

Disturbing new figures confirm a sharp rise in drug-related tragedies across Cumbria in recent years, with 142 lives lost in the two years to the end of 2018. There are now 2,396 people in Cumbria aged between 15 and 64 in the grip of addiction to crack cocaine or opiate drugs, say experts.

Staff at the Carlisle-based Cumbria Gateway charity, which supports people recovering from drug and alcohol problems, say the human cost is devastating.

Despite high-profile police successes which have targeted criminal gangs running “county lines” operations, importing drugs such as cocaine and heroin into north Cumbria from outside the county, the charity wants to see tougher action against street dealers.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Val Ferguson, a project manager with the Cumbria Gateway charity, which gives accommodation and support to addicts.

“The police do a fantastic job with the numbers they have; but it’s escalating out of control in the local area - with drugs such as heroin, cocaine, street valium, and a whole mixture of different types of drugs being sold.

“The figures [about deaths] don’t surprise me at all. This absolutely destroys lives.

“The police have targeted people higher up the chain; who import drugs up the motorway from places like Manchester, Liverpool and London but they’re not doing enough on the streets. We’ve got to the point in Carlisle where I’ve had a support worker walking down the street with a client who is then waylaid by a dealer.

“The dealer jumps in and openly tries to get the client to buy stuff. They’re openly peddling drugs on the street.”

Ruthless, violent, and highly organised, the drug barons even use schoolchildren on bikes to ferry drugs around, said Val. They deploy slick mass-marketing techniques - so-called “textbomb” drug adverts, sent directly the mobiles of local addicts.

Police regularly arrest dealers, with many facing prosecution and jail. But hard drugs - including street valium - are still openly sold in Carlisle, claimed Val.

However effective the current police approach, the latest drug death figures paint a depressing picture. The number of fatalities in Cumbria has risen steadily since 2013, when the two-year death toll was 87.

In the 2016 to 2018 period, worst hit was Carlisle, with 39 deaths, then Barrow where 30 died. There were 23 deaths in Allerdale, and 21 in Copeland. In South Lakeland and Eden there were 19 and 10 deaths respectively.

Public Health England says there are almost 50,000 crack and opiate addicts in the north west. “It affects people from all kinds of backgrounds,” said Val.

“We’ve worked with benefit claimants, but also people in managerial roles who have addictions. It’s easy for a dealer to offer somebody a drug, saying there’s no charge.

“Once people are addicted, it’s so powerful the ones who can’t afford it resort to theft and petty crime to pay for it. It’s very easy for people to be drawn in to what they think is a happy lifestyle. But once addiction sets in it goes downhill from there. They carry on because they’re focused on feeding their addiction.”

The charity works with those who are ready to tackle their addiction, giving them stable accommodation and support. They are advised to change their mobile phone numbers, severing any links with dealers.

“We try to find out what’s in the heart of that person,” said Val. “We look at the issues in their lives; the things that have gone wrong; and the things they feel are positive.

“You have to get them at the right time.

“There are a whole raft of reasons why people get involved; we certainly don’t preach to them. By the time they come to us, they’ve usually lost everything: their family, their self-esteem, even their home.

“But we do have successes.”

CUMBRIA Police have urged the public to report any drugs offences - reminding residents they are the force’s “eyes and ears”.
Detective Inspector Andrew Donnelly explained: “We take the issue of drug dealing and street dealing extremely seriously.
“In north Cumbria we have a dedicated drugs team that works to dismantle and disrupt supply chains, from the major players at the top through to those dealing on the streets.
“In recent months we have had major sentences handed out at court in cases linked to street dealing that show the priority this has in the constabulary: this summer we had 15 members of a drugs gang jailed for a total of nearly 90 years.
“This stretched from the head of the group through to those at the bottom of the chain.
“This saw a judge offer high praise for the officers who carried out the investigation.
“Earlier this month three people were jailed for more than 10 years at Carlisle Crown Court. This again was part of an operation in which addicts were targeted by people further up the chain.
“These operations disrupt the organised crime groups and therefore hit the supply of drugs to addicts.
“These sentences should be seen as a warning and the inevitable consequence for anyone getting involved in drugs in north Cumbria.
“Our officers work daily in partnership with other agencies to tackle this issue. We welcome any thoughts from agencies involved in working with drug users.
“We would also stress we need people to report incidents when they see them and to act as our eyes and ears to help us gather evidence and tackle drugs crime.” Call police on 101.