WHEN I last saw her, it was as a schoolgirl, more than 20 years ago now.

She was fierce, strong and vibrant, never without an entourage and never a teacher’s favourite. She was trouble, expelled repeatedly, the hard lass, the one you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. She was excellent at sport, tall and athletic, so conventionally pretty she would later model.

When I saw her last week, she was unconscious on a pavement in central Middlesbrough, surrounded by needles and clutching a torn plastic bag with a sharps bin inside. I didn’t realise she was the girl I’d once known. I didn’t recognise her as a woman.

Her teeth were broken, skin covered in sores and she wore bundles of men’s clothes. On the streets, women sometimes hide their femininity. It’s safer.

I told the ambulance crews, after I’d put her in the recovery position, that a man had collapsed. It will not have been their first, or last, overdose of the day. The paramedics arrived quickly and she was out of my life again. I cried when I got home - for her and what she’d become, but mostly because people walked past, stepped over and around and on with their day.

She was face up, flat on her back, possessions strewn around her and obviously unconscious. But they walked by as though she was a bag of rubbish, as though she was not quite as human as they. Demonization and desensitisation conspired to make it so that this girl, once so full of promise as we all begin, could have died cold and alone on hard pavement, like many before her.

Last year, I attended the inquest of another old schoolmate, who died in similar squalor, in a hostel, surrounded by the hallmarks of addiction. I’ve heard stories about others I knew. Addictions driving criminality, underpinning cycles of exploitation. Kids I once shared a classroom with taken under by the Class A drugs awash on our streets, by the dealers implicit in the deterioration of my town, of so many towns like it.

I’m angry but angrier with those who profit from this, than I ever could be with those who fall – for myriad reasons - into their trap, who are preyed upon by the criminals benefiting from an unregulated black market that kills.

And I’m angry with the recreational users who never give a thought to how their drugs were sourced, to what their money is funding, what else their dealer is peddling along the destructive chain that ended in their brief enjoyment of a couple of lines on a night out, a pill at a gig.

I’m not anti-drugs or anti-drug users but I’m determinedly against the kind of exploitative criminality that is destroying communities in more ways than I can count.

This week, addiction had a face I recognised, hers a stark reminder captured in one late evening moment, of the lives irredeemably changed by substance misuse.

Politicians speak incessantly, pointlessly, of a war on drugs that has long since been lost, the shrapnel from it lying ignored and slumped on cold street corners across Britain, reflected in crime statistics and mortality rates. We will never rid society of addiction, nor of drugs, but more must be - and could be - done to cushion its impact, to take power and profit from the criminals – the calls for legalisation, education and proper regulation are growing louder by the day.