THE number of drug dealers convicted in Darlington has more than doubled in just five years, latest figures have revealed.

A Northern Echo investigation has uncovered the shocking extent of the town's drug problem, especially the highly-addictive and potentially fatal heroin.

Police admit heroin use is on the increase in Darlington and say many crimes committed in the town are carried out by addicts trying to fund their habit.

One addict told The Northern Echo that, since he began taking the drug more than ten years ago, the use and supply of the drug had spiralled out of control.

The man, who did not wish to be named, said: "There used to be a very small number of users, maybe only between ten and 20 people in the town.

"You couldn't even buy the drug here then, we had to go to London, Liverpool or Newcastle to get it. We all worked together to get the drug into Darlington, and shared it out.

"Now it's different. People come here to buy the drug. I know of at least 20 or 30 dealers operating in Darlington, but there are probably many more, and as for the users, you couldn't begin to count them."

Five years ago, there were 164 people convicted of drug off-ences in the town, 44 of them for dealing.

Last year, there were 287 arrests for drug offences, 101 of them for dealing.

David Cliff, coordinator of the Drug Action Team for Durham and Darlington, said: "In real terms the use of heroin has gone up massively. We cannot label Darlington as a hotspot, but it does have a fairly high level of heroin misuse.

"There are several hundred seriously problematic users in the south Durham area."

He said that more than 300 people have registered as having a drug problem in the past year in south Durham.

Detective Inspector Ian Phillips, of Darlington police, said: "Heroin is not a cheap drug - it is expensive. For those who get addicted, the amount of money they need to find increases. Many turn to stealing property to fund their habit.

"About 90 per cent of people who find their houses, sheds and cars broken into and property stolen will find that their property has gone to buy drugs.

"We are very aware of the problem and are taking steps to combat it."

Darlington's problems are by no means unique.

Cleveland Police reported in 1998/99 that there were a reported 1,120 drug-related offences in the force area.

In North Yorkshire, police dealt with 184 drug-trafficking offences last year. However, this showed a decrease from 277 during the previous year.

A spokesman said: "Even rural North Yorkshire is not immune to the attentions of heroin dealers. Though limited, heroin use has been growing steadily for several years."

Northumbria Police said that in 1998-1999 there had been 3,934 drugs offences reported.