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The latest national figures on heroin use won't be out until November, but in Victoria, where fatal overdose figures slumped from 359 to 49 between 1999 and 2001, deaths last year crept back up to 100. So could heroin make a comeback? Many argue it never really went away. Andrew Murray, executive director of Victoria's Youth Substance Abuse Service, which provides treatment, housing and support to about 2,000 young people each year, says heroin abuse remains common among young people with histories of abuse and violence, who use the drug to numb their emotions. When there was a glut of the drug, Murray says, far more people than usual were able to find and try it. Now, he says, "you have to know where to go and who to talk to." That means little has changed for the service: "Our kids have always been able to get it when they want it."
Tregear, who works with Open Family, a street-based service for children, young people and their families in Footscray, has been helping the disadvantaged in Melbourne's western suburbs for more than two decades. The heroin supply recovered quickly there, he says, but purity - an indicator of supply levels, because dealers dilute with other substances when supply falls - has never returned to the "wild levels" of the late 1990s. He believes fewer overdose deaths and the record numbers of users entering treatment have taken the heroin problem off the front pages. "People think it's all O.K., but that's not the case." A few steps from his office, behind a main street crammed with busy restaurants and small retailers, two chairs have been put in a grim but secluded dead-end alley. The spot is a favorite with local addicts, whose used syringes litter the ground. Tregear and his colleagues help some of them into treatment, despite long waiting lists, and then back to school or work. In the past six months, the outreach team has counted about 70 new users in the area. Tregear agrees with predictions that overdose deaths in Victoria will rise again this year, perhaps to 150.
That number of heroin deaths was last seen in Victoria in 1995, and Paul Dietze, head of the epidemiology unit at Turning Point, one of Australia's leading drug and alcohol agencies, says it's difficult to know where heroin use is heading: "We might be just in the trough of a cycle at the moment." Pina Bampi could easily have been one of those statistics, and many of the 33-year-old's friends still use the drug every day. Bampi used heroin for seven years, during which time she traveled to Israel for rapid detoxification. Three years ago, when she became pregnant, she joined the methadone program. But she says her user friends have no trouble getting drugs. She dismisses claims of a shortage: "It hasn't slowed down, and it hasn't gone away."