‘One young lad said he was on a mission to die’ – An investigation into the scourge of heroin in Dumfries, from The Herald. The issue of the opiate and the criminal activity surrounding it rightly generates significant press attention every other day. However, the official statistics tell only one side of the story. I spent some time in the south-west of Scotland to explore the grim, ironic reality of Scotland’s efforts to rid itself of the drug.
MARK McKeand was only a boy when he was startled awake by the sound of gunfire. It was around half-past one on a Saturday morning when the figure in a black woolly hat ran into the front garden of his family home and stood there for 30 seconds, unloading round after round from an Uzi machine gun. The house, in a quiet cul-de-sac of Dumfries, was raked by bullets, leaving holes in the masonry, the front door, windows, and even some of the living-room furniture. One shot ripped apart a gas supply pipe, forcing police to evacuate nearby streets. Upstairs, the 15-year-old cowered in a bedroom alongside his nine-yearold brother, Gary, and their mother, Jackie. The intended target was not a mother and her young children, but the father, Maurice, who was out at the time. A bricklayer by trade, he had become involved in drug dealing. The failed shooting was an act of retribution from a spurned rival – and, for Mark, a terrifying introduction to the chemical underworld in the south-west of Scotland.
A decade on, he was to find an even darker conclusion. Last weekend, the 25-year-old was discovered dead in a small hostel in a picturesque street of the rural town. While a trickle of people passed along Academy Street’s quaint row of cycle shops, florists and cafes below, Mark was alone in his room, injecting heroin. There was no gunfire or screaming – only silence as his body slumped forward, his face burying into a duvet as the life drained out of it. It was not the first overdose death in recent times. Just six months before, McKeand’s father, Maurice, succumbed to his own heroin problem.
The tragedy which hard-drug addiction brought to the lives of the McKeands is felt widely throughout many families in Dumfries and Galloway. Official figures put the number of addicts in the region at 1,800, but that only covers those who have approached counsellors or treatment services for help. The true figure, police sources and frontline services suggest, stands nearer to 3,500. Last year, a Scottish Executive report showed that while drug misuse has dropped throughout Scotland’s main cities, the problem has risen sharply across the nation’s rural swaths. With the urban markets reaching saturation point, researchers have suggested growing numbers of dealers are relocating to towns such as Dumfries, which witnessed a 52 per cent increase in reported incidences of drug misuse in the three years between 2000 and 2003. Indeed, despite being ranked eleventh out of the country’s 32 local authority areas in terms of population, it boasts the unwanted title of the fourth worst region for problem drug use.
Sources working one-to-one with problem drug users in the south-west indicate that Mark McKeand fell victim to a particularly powerful strain of heroin that has been circulating throughout the town’s network of addicts. Like many users in the region, his habit had been disrupted by two severe heroin droughts over the summer, leaving his tolerance level dangerously vulnerable to purer batches. At least six users have recently testified to one frontline support service about the virulent strain, three of whom themselves suffered near-fatal overdoses. One former associate of several major drug dealers in the area, some of whom are still trading, told The Herald that the heroin is around 70 per cent pure and is coming from the Strathclyde area. Dealers there are trying to entice urban customers who use cocaine. For those forced to go cold turkey in the south-west, it is too strong.
It is, however, not only the powerful batch that poses a risk. Existing dealers in Dumfries, keen to meet demand, have been cutting the drug with potentially fatal fillers, or “bash” as it is known on the street, which can lead to thrombosis. The main agent used is diazepam, but other substances being used include codeine, brick dust and, in one gruesome instance which saw a young woman developing blocked veins, Polyfilla. Some users, fearful of taking a chance, have sought to substitute the drug with large quantities of diazepam, or ‘squiggly G’s’. Imported cheaply from India and Pakistan, and available for just a couple of pounds, a handful will act as a long-lasting stopgap. There has, however, been an increase in fake diazepam, which in some instances has turned out to be horse tranquilizers. The drug can also lead to paranoia and violence; combined with heroin, it can lead to overdoses. The already-damaged drugs community is now further wracked by the fear that every hit could be the last. “It doesn’t just feel like a normal charge you’re getting, ” one gaunt 19-year-old heroin user told me. “It’s the relief that’s the real high ? knowing you’re still okay. That’s as good as the drug.”
The scourge of problem drug use has been the focus of concerted efforts on the part of Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary. Despite its limited resources, the rural force last week disclosed details of an ongoing operation which has successfully wiped out several major arms of the class-A supply network in the region. Operation Round-Up, which began in the spring of 2003, has so far resulted in the imprisonment of upwards of 100 dealers, along with the seizure of drugs with a street value of more than £300,000, and over £300,000 in cash. In all, those waves of dealers targeted are serving a collective prison sentence of more than 70 years. Chief among the operation’s successes has been putting an end to two significant cartels. By initially focusing on low-level dealers who sell to feed their own habits, the police worked their way up the chain, identifying those criminals with a greater profile and the select few described as “crime kingpins”.
One such individual was Scott Ritchie. Last December, police raided 16 properties throughout Dumfries, culminating in the arrest of a dozen people. The raid found heroin worth £1,650, along with £330,000 in cash and £23,000 in jewellery scattered across disparate addresses. Ritchie, his girlfriend Martine Dickson and his long-term associate John Nicholson were reported for numerous offences related to dealing. They were imprisoned in May, receiving 10 years, four and a half years and three and a half years respectively. Like many high-profile dealers, Ritchie’s network of associates was extensive. It encompassed 12 people; the 41-year-old and Nicholson oversaw the operation. Two money holders helped launder the proceeds through a used-car business, while below them were two tiers of pushers; four runners, or “bullies” as they were known; and four street dealers. Throughout it all, Ritchie would know who was dealing for him in and around Dumfries, though he never met low-level dealers face to face. He was, sources claim, savvy in terms of running his empire like a business, but far from bright – upon his arrest, he was found to have drugs on his person. After he was removed from the streets, Ritchie’s place was taken by Robert Beauly, who, like Ritchie, did not use drugs himself. His operation was far less clinical, and more hands-on. Working in a close-knit, four-strong gang, Beauly was known to enforce his patch with violence, and was not slow to assert his power. In April, however, Beauly was apprehended with £27,000 worth of heroin. Following a search of other premises, a further £27,000 in cash was discovered. Last month, the 40-year-old, who had 53 previous criminal convictions, was sentenced to 10 years, having pled guilty to being concerned in the supply of heroin worth £140,000 in Dumfries between last December and April.
The networks of Ritchie and Beauly represented a significant supply filter of heroin in the area. That they have been severed is rightly seen by all as cause to congratulate the police. It is, however, a bitter irony that the success of Operation Round-Up has, in the eyes of some, proved a catalyst for the influx of extra-pure and cut heroin – as opposed to eradicating it. Police officers on the street have reported anecdotal evidence that increasing numbers of addicts are embarking on a “cleaning up” process. Certainly, while many users are sceptical of methadone programmes, compared to the cocktail of heroin available it is regarded as the lesser of two evils. Indeed, there can be little doubt that the force now views the problem of tackling drug-dealing as one that requires a holistic, multi-agency approach. Operation Emperor, which targeted dealers in the area, predominantly in Stranraer, represented the force’s first major commitment to tackling dealers. Over 2002 and 2003 it led to the imprisonment of four major drug barons and 64 dealers. Among those captured was John Ringland, who ran a £1.9m heroin network stretching from Liverpool to Glasgow. A feared figure in Stranraer, he showed little remorse for one user who ran up debts, setting him alight and throwing him from a bridge. Ringland was jailed for eight years, as was Andrew McCreadie, who was another notorious figure in the community.
What the police did not take into account, however, was that simply taking away the supply did not remove the demand. Detective Inspector Brian Anderson, a pivotal figure in Operation Round-Up, says: “With Emperor, we didn’t anticipate the impact taking out the dealers would have on users. It was a huge opportunity missed at the time. We thought operational success meant us showing the press a huge bag of drugs, but we learned from that for Round-Up. Now we’re engaging with the drug-action team and other service providers. We’re more mindful of users’ health. Once the doors are kicked in, we’re in contact with all the agencies involved, getting them in earlier and earlier.” The problem, however, is that once again demand outstrips supply. Shopfront services in Dumfries, predominantly the first port of call for users and their families seeking help, say excessive waiting times for treatment services are preventing many people from escaping the cycle of criminality and addiction.
Mark Frankland, education manager of the First Base Agency, a small charity in the centre of the town which offers support services for users, says that people face a minimum wait of three months before they are even assessed, let alone offered treatment. Indeed, the latest figures from the National Waiting Times Information Framework Report, which details how long it takes for clients of drug treatment services to receive support, highlights the problem in the southwest. In some instances, users were forced to wait more than a year from the point of referral before they were assessed. Even at that stage, they had yet to receive prescribed drug treatments or rehabilitation. In Glasgow, the time between referral and assessment is around a week. “I think the police have been unusually successful with Operation Round-Up, ” reasons Frankland, whose average client is just 18 years old. “Sadly, we wouldn’t agree with them that it’s leading to a cleaningup process. What we’ve seen over the past three years is a cycle. With every major arrest of a dealer at the head of a supply network, there’s been a drought of heroin in the area for a month or two. The problem is, in terms of sheer professionalism, the police are simply miles ahead of (the) treatment services. It’s one of the most successful forces in Scotland, and deserves to be congratulated, but it doesn’t mean addicts are coming off heroin. We get people coming in distraught looking to be put on a methadone programme, but there’s a three-month waiting list, minimum. By the time an assessment for them becomes available, another dealer has filled the gap, and they’re back on it.”
One difficulty with the existing referral system, Frankland suggests, is that the waiting lists are operated through individual doctors’ surgeries which are “not remotely transparent.” While some of the lists move swiftly, others are painfully slow. In one instance, a young user reached number two on his GP’s list, yet it took a further seven months for him to receive an assessment. “It’s often the case that sons and daughters are told by their parents that unless they seek help for their problem, they’ll be cut off, ” Frankland says. “And many do go looking for treatment, but they’re in limbo, waiting for an assessment for months. Their families think they’re lying, but it’s not their fault – it’s the system.”
Jim Parker, lead substance-misuse officer with the Dumfries and Galloway Alcohol and Drug Action team, says the area is on target to bring overall waiting times for heroin users down to four weeks by the end of this year, and down further to a fortnight by the close of 2007. “We have a large number of intravenous injectors and a steady number of referrals to treatment services. But now we’ve learned from Operation Emperor of how a police operation can have wider knock-on effects and we’re making sure all the agencies are aware of what’s happening, ” he says. The police do run an established arrest referral scheme, which offers users help at their first point of contact with police and the criminal justice system. It sees 30 to 40 people assisted from custody at Dumfries and Stranraer each month. According to PC Ian Marshall, a substance-misuse officer, the scheme offers the chance to help people at the lowest point of their cycle as they are kept in police custody. Taking it to its natural conclusion, the force is even planning to advertise the signposting programme on the ceilings of holding cells.
Gradually, though, the gaps in the market left by Ritchie and Beauly are being filled. One reformed addict, still in contact with several major dealers in the area, told The Herald that heroin networks, both established and new, are in operation in Dumfries. Speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, he said: “Ritchie and Beauly might have gone, but there are dealers who’ve already stepped into their shoes – about four or five big guys and lots of smaller fish. I know one guy that’s just out of prison who’s made strong contacts with suppliers in Glasgow, and there are people still dealing ecstasy, smack and coke . . . people known to the police who’ve been left alone for years. It might be the case they’re informing, I don’t know. As well as [users in Dumfries] there’s still a run of users who come from Stranraer to Dumfries to get their fix, and it’s inflated the market here. If you’re looking to become a serious dealer putting out about 10 grams a day, Dumfries is an attractive place to come.”
Increasingly, the scourge is taking grip of a younger demographic. Last year, an eight-year-old – understood to have been born to a drug-addicted mother – and a nine-year-old from the region were two out of three Scots children under the age of 10 who entered drug rehabilitation. Those working regularly with addicts are also aware of several dens known as “open flats” operating in the area. They are owned by young single mothers, 18 or 19 years old, who happily invite youngsters seven or eight years their junior to come and play PlayStation and watch DVDs. With a few pounds in their pocket, they are offered diazepam, an ecstasy tablet or a half-line of speed, for cut price. Heroin, though, is free. Among the area’s 15 to 25 age group, some seven per cent are users. Regular visitors soon become part of the operation and, using mountain bikes, become couriers. Some 15-year-olds have been known to travel around town with as much as two or three kilos of heroin. At a quick £50 for delivery, it is easier than a paper round.
Indeed, for teenagers the trade offers a quick, disposable income. Seven children under the age of 16 were reported for dealing drugs last year. One 17-year-old in the area was known to have traded diazepam in vast quantities. Importing the fixes from India over the internet at 50 pence a time, he then sold them for double that price. Most days he would make around £400 profit, selling an astonishing 800 tablets. For all involved, the fight against drugs will continue. Detective Inspector Anderson, while pointing out that there have been increasing droughts of heroin along with increased self-referrals, knows people are still able to get hold of a fix. “We’re not naive enough to discount the fact that some people will be going outside the area to other dealers, or getting heroin that’s not as pure, ” he says.
Operation Round-Up is ongoing. Last week, police searched a house which they believe is linked to a dealer looking to move in to the area. “If there are no heavy-duty dealers, then vulnerable people have more choice to seek help, ” he added. “These dealers are very violent individuals who exert pressure on people and give them sample bags.” Mark Frankland, meanwhile, has little doubt about how to prevent yet another generation being lost to heroin in Dumfries. When First Base started three years ago, he says, the town was in denial about its heroin problem. Now, he increasingly has to comfort users and their families frustrated at the waiting lists. “There’s a whole variety of projects which are receiving a lot of public funding, and they’re helpful, but they don’t have the immediate impact of frontline treatment services, ” he says. “Even the police’s arrest referral scheme, which is a good initiative, does little good – people may be directed towards treatment, but they’re still waiting months to get it. Families of users feel like they’re banging their head against a brick wall all the time. I met one young lad who sat in front of me and told me he was on a mission to die. His father had died from an overdose, and he seemed hell-bent on going the same way. It’s torturous to see.”
It is a bitter anecdote, which could be about the short life of Mark McKeand. But the sad truth is that it is a story which many people – too many people in Dumfries – can imbue with their own sorrowful details of a life consumed by addiction.