‘COUNTY lines’ gangs, savvy marketing and cheap drugs may be contributing to the North-East having the highest rate of crack cocaine and opiate use in the UK, according to new research.

Use of the deadly substances has trebled in North Yorkshire in recent years, while Middlesbrough and Hartlepool have among the highest rates of users in the country.

Affordability, aggressive dealers and a lack of police focus are among factors contributing to a nationwide growth in crack cocaine use, according to a new Government report.

But experts say stark findings for the North-East arise from a culture linked to deprivation and from people self-medicating their way through mental health issues and societal hurdles.

There were an estimated 18,983 people using crack or opiates in the region during 2016/17 – about 11 in every 1,000 people. In North Yorkshire, it was 10 in every thousand.

An ageing population of heroin users means use is continuing to grow for older people but it is in decline for most other age groups.

In Middlesbrough, 30 in 1,000 people aged 35-64 were using crack or opiates, giving the town the highest rate of use in the country for the age group, and for those aged 25-34. Along with Hartlepool, the town also has the biggest proportion of users under 25 outside of London.

A joint investigation between the Home Office and Public Health England suggested crack sales were boosted by pushy dealers, with their special offers and ‘3 for 2’ deals – “two white and one brown” – compounding the problem.

However, Zoe Davison of North-East charity Addaction said: “Savvy marketing in an illicit drug market is nothing new – dealers will always find a way of selling their product.

“But there is now more awareness of these behaviours and there are more ways to market. There’s never a shortage of someone to take the place of a dealer if they get locked up – if a gang sees an opportunity in a particular town, they will target it.

“Nobody has the answer to this problem but it’s about working in partnership in a holistic way to help people change their behaviours and way that they think.

“It’s not a rosy picture, but hope is not lost – services are there for users who are willing to walk through the door.”

Recovering addict Simon Stephens, of Addictions NE, said less focus on drug trends and more on why people turn to them could have a positive impact nationally.

He said: “Self-medicating to find your way in life is a terrible way of doing things, I learned that to my own cost.

“But I’ve been in recovery for 19 years. I take it one day at a time but I want people to know that it is possible.”