'Persisting deprivation': inside Dundee's drugs crisis 3

‘Persisting deprivation’: inside Dundee’s drugs crisis

Atop the Law Hill on a blustery day, Ewan Gurr looks down over Dundee and talks about austerity and the city’s drug crisis. A former drug user who became clean and established Dundee’s first food bank, Gurr is now a writer, researcher and social commentator who understands both addiction and poverty.

“I’ve had the misfortune of spending time with women who’ve had to give up breastfeeding after six weeks due to malnutrition, because they’re getting so few calories they’re not able to produce breast milk. I’ve had the misfortune of sitting with a father of four who attempted to take his life twice within a period of 18 months because of a 14 per cent deduction to his housing benefit, because of a spare bedroom. I mean, that is how brutal it gets,” says Gurr holding on to a bunnet he’s wearing so it doesn’t blow away.

We’d driven up to The Law, known locally as Dundee’s volcano, after a whistle stop tour of the city. Driving through working class schemes such as Fintry, Whitfield and Kirkton, he talked about the inherent contradictions of Dundee which has seen the city attract international headlines recently for both the right and wrong reasons.

This is #JustSurviving. A collaboration between The Ferret and HuffPost UK looking at the impact of the government’s austerity policy in Scotland.


The city is renowned for jute, jam and journalism and, since the opening of a museum called the V&A Dundee in 2018, international recognition has arrived in spades. The building, designed by Kengo Kuma, made Time magazine’s list of the world’s greatest places this year, and in April Dundee was named Scotland’s best place to live. But while it has shrugged off the ‘armpit of Scotland’ slur in recent years, and has much to be proud of, the city of around 150,000 people has an endemic drug problem.

Dundee has been dubbed the drug death capital of Europe. The city is awash with heroin, cocaine, methadone, ecstasy and fake valium, among other substances. Haunting images of dead youths are regularly splashed on front pages by the local press, alongside bodies slumped in doorways and syringes. More than 400 people have died from drugs in Dundee over the past decade. In 2018 there were 1,187 drug-related deaths in Scotland and Dundee recorded the highest number with 53. The situation has been called a public health emergency.

There are a myriad of reasons why people use crack and heroin but it’s widely acknowledged that deprivation is linked to drug use. Gurr certainly thinks so. “I think anybody who has taken drugs, or been prone to substance misuse in any way shape or form, would always say there is a connection,” he says.

“We’ve been caught between these two narratives of austerity and prosperity. You’ve got a massive commercial and cultural renaissance that’s going on in Dundee. But yet you’ve got this persisting deprivation and poverty that is what Dundee is known for historically. So while you’re getting described as the coolest little city in Britain, and you’re one of the top ten hot destinations according to The Wall Street Journal, it feels kind of bizarre to people in Dundee living in schemes, living in working class communities.”

Gurr adds that Dundee has always had a close relationship between de-industrialisation and deprivation since the jute mills closed in the 1970s. Since then big industry has come and gone including major employers such as Timex, NCR and now the French tyre firm Michelin, which opened in 1971 but is set to close next year. Eight-hundred and forty jobs will be lost, plus the knock-on effect which will potentially affect several thousand more people. “Michelin is symbolic of Dundee’s history of de-industrialisation and de-industrial decline, which again has a direct impact on the levels of deprivation,” he says.

Having set up food banks as far north as Shetland, and all the way down to Stranraer in south west Scotland, Gurr says the levels of poverty in Dundee are higher than elsewhere in Scotland, and austerity will impact the city for another decade due to a projected £78.1 million budget shortfall for Dundee City Council. This follows £9m of savings having been made this year.

Welfare reforms under austerity have increased deprivation, Gurr argues. “I personally believe that universal credit as the single most brutal reform to welfare that has ever been implemented in my life time, and probably even my own father’s lifetime.

“I mean you have to wait a minimum of five weeks at least to receive your benefits but, you know, I met a woman last week who had to wait 11 weeks for her first payment. She’s then in arrears to her landlord. She’s then in debt to her electricity company. I mean, this is crazy. She’s unable to put food on the table for her and her two kids.”

Gurr has spent much of his life helping people in poverty. He set up Dundee’s first food bank in 2005 and led the Trussell Trust for seven years. He helped to establish 118 food banks in 28 out of 32 of Scotland’s council areas. Over the past 12 months these food banks have given food parcels to 210,605 men, women and children.

In 2012, 1406 people used food banks in Dundee but this more than doubled to 3371 in 2014. A report last week from Trussell Trust said that between April 1 and September 30 this year in Dundee, there were 6,453 three-day emergency food supplies given to people including 2,204 for children.

The sharp spike between 2012 and 2014 was largely driven by the so-called bedroom tax, Gurr claims, a Tory policy under austerity whereby people had a deduction to their housing benefit if they had a spare bedroom. Others reliant on benefits were left penniless for weeks, sometimes months, after being sanctioned by the Department of Work and Pensions for turning up “two minutes late to the job centre”.

The grim situation has been compounded by the introduction of Universal Credit, Gurr argues, which leaves people without money for at least five weeks. “What we saw in Scotland was people who were on a very fine, very restricted low income, immediately tipped over into needing to use a food bank.

“Dundee Food Bank, the main food bank in Dundee, which as I say, is the busiest in Scotland, reaches in excess of 12,000 people per year. So if you imagine Tannadice Stadium (the ground of Dundee United Football Club) sold out, you would begin to get a picture of the number of people in Dundee that use a food bank,” Gurr says.

In August this year a report by the Dundee Drugs Commission said that poverty was one of the root causes of Dundee’s drug crisis. The independent body was established as a response to the emergency and its report demanded urgent action on deprivation and a radical cultural change within treatment services.

The report, using research by Dundee University’s Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science revealed that 66 percent of people dying from drugs lived in one of the 20 percent most deprived areas of the city, compared to 52 percent in the rest of Scotland. Methadone, antidepressants, phenazepam, etizolam, gabapentin and pregabalin were more prevalent in Dundee deaths compared to the rest of Scotland. It also found that the opioid substitute methadone was implicated in 42 percent of deaths in Dundee, compared to 29 percent for the rest of Scotland.

The reliance on methadone to ‘treat’ drug users is an approach Sharon Brand has fiercely criticised. A former heroin user, she is co-founder of Recovery Dundee, a group she describes as a “self-reliant independent recovery community” which supports people into treatment, with the aim of keeping them off drugs completely.

Brand went from heroin to methadone and has been clean for seven years. “My fiancé committed suicide three days after Christmas…five years ago,” she explains. “And I’d been on methadone at that point, probably for two years, and I decided I needed to get better for the kids. I had to get better for them yeah. And myself obviously. But they were what kept me going and made it easier,” Brand explains.

A respected anti-drug campaigner, Brand has given evidence to the Scottish Government and the Scottish Home Affairs Committee at Westminster. She was also invited to give a lecture to students recently by Abertay University in Dundee. Brand agrees that there is definitely a link between poverty and addiction in Dundee.

“One hundred per cent,” she says. “I see it as a ripple effect from the 80s. I think there’s now three generations of families that have been unemployed. So you’ve got three generations of people that have been addicted, and then their grandchildren and children are now becoming addicted. I think that the impact of what happened 30 years ago is now showing and manifesting in so many different ways in communities like mine especially.”

Austerity under the Tories has made the situation worse, Brand says. In July this year, it emerged that funding to Alcohol and Drug Partnerships in Tayside has been cut by more than 22 per cent since 2015, which prompted the Scottish Affairs Committee to accuse the Scottish Government this month of adding to the crisis in Dundee by cutting funding.

Insight: Dundee’s drugs crisis and those left behind

The Scottish Government told The Ferret it would consider the Scottish Affairs Committee’s recommendations, adding it is taking action to address the crisis including setting up a dedicated drug deaths taskforce.

“We have invested almost £800 million to tackle problem alcohol and drug use since 2008. Our 2018 alcohol and drug strategy explains how the additional £20 million per annum is being used to improve local prevention, treatment, and recovery services in areas all across Scotland, including Tayside. The Programme for Government also commits a further £20 million over the next two years to support local ADP services,” a Scottish Government spokesperson added.

Brand says there should be more options for treatment. “Methadone has been the one and only option in Dundee for a long, long time,” she says. “I think that the NHS needs to also work with communities in some shape or form, to make the transition between treatment and going back to the community, and then going into your life, much smoother. Because big changes can trigger somebody into using again. So, more options for treatment, better options for treatment, and not just medicate it, I think would make things a lot better.”

Brand has also warned that Dundee is now facing a crack cocaine epidemic. Her claim was backed by Police Scotland this month which stated that organised crime gangs from Essex, Manchester and London are targeting the city. Every person Brand previously used drugs with is on crack, she says, adding that Recovery Dundee has already helped someone coming off the drug. She fears drug deaths will rocket.

Liam Honeyman says that heroin is easier to buy in Dundee than cannabis. Standing on the north bank of the River Tay outside the V&A museum, the 31 year old explains he began taking drugs aged 14 years old. “I had a couple bottles of Buckfast because when you’re young you like to have a wee drink. So I drank two bottles of Buckfast, went in a house and I fell asleep, and a guy injected me with heroin. Probably trying to get me hooked so that I could stay with him and do all his deals for him,” he says.

Honeyman has been in prison nine times. He’s done time in Perth Prison, Saughton Prison and both Glenochil and Polmont Young Offenders Institutions. His longest sentence was three years, of which he did 18 months. He explains how easy it is to buy drugs in Dundee. “You can walk up and down the high street and people offer you them. I’ve walked up and down that high street this morning, and I’ve been offered valium four times,” he says.

“Dundee’s bad for Valium and crack the now. Crack cocaine is ruining people. I know a guy that used to do a one-armed pull up, right? And he was massive, right, one armed pull-up. Six month later, he’s skin and bone, can’t even do a pull-up.”

It costs £50 for a rock of “prop,” he says, explaining this means that the crack is “not cut with shite”. A “blast” lasts just 20 minutes then users want more. Honeyman has never taken crack and he stopped taking methadone 45 days ago. He decided to lock himself in his home and get clean on his own, as he kept missing appointments with counsellors, due to his chaotic life.

His biggest challenge is keeping busy, he says, but he’s being supported by Brand and others in recovery. They meet for coffee in a city centre cafe used by Recovery Dundee and he attends an open mic session once a month. Honeyman feels positive today and says he’s ready to work. “I want to work now. I’ve done things, bits and bobs, side jobs, roofing, painting and I’ve painted and decorated when I left school. So I have good, I’ve got my CSCS card so I’m looking to the future now. Whereas when I was on drugs I never looked to the future. I lived day by day, I lived like I lived in the jail, day by day, day by day.”

Others being helped by Recovery Dundee include mothers whose children suffered drug-related deaths. They include Leanne Nicolson, a 43-year-old mum who lives in Fintry, a housing scheme in north Dundee. She’s in recovery after using heroin for around six years. She was on methadone until February this year but is now on Subutex (buprenorphine), a drug used to treat dependence to opioids.

“I’ve taken drugs from an early age but it was recreational drugs,” she explains.

“And then after my boyfriend was murdered in 2010, in front of me and my son, I started up heroin, hitting heroin up. I was able to talk more about things after I had heroin. I just couldn’t speak about it. But it just made it calmer. It just blocks out your bad memories. For a little while. Then it comes back.”

Dundee’s drug culture is much worse than it was 15 years ago, Nicolson claims, explaining that teenagers don’t know what they’re taking these days. “It’s just dancing with the devil,” she says.

Nicholson has three sons – Sean, Lee and Jamie Jay. She had another son, Jack, who she describes as “so perfect”. But Jack died in of a heart attack in 2017 after taking a drug doing the rounds in Dundee called Red Levis.

“The cause of death was MDMA. He had a cardiac arrest. His heart had been beating too fast,” Nicolson says. “His friends took him back to his dad, and his Dad was just thinking he was smashed and so just gave him a glass of water, and he went to his bed. When he got up at 7.20am, Jack was dead. He had blood and foam coming out of his mouth and was already dead.”

Nicolson cries at the memory and explains that she stopped taking drugs in memory her son who was only 17 years old when he died. “I’m feeling alright now. It took 43 days to get asleep, for a decent sleep. And I’m feeling all right now but I still feel like I’m relying on someone. I don’t want that. I want to be…I really got clean in Jack’s name,” she adds.

Samantha Fern was another one of the 400 drug related deaths in Dundee over the past 10 years. She was found dead after an overdose on 23rd November, 2017. The post-mortem revealed she had taken etizolam, pregabalin, and methadone. Samantha was aged 36 years old and left behind a daughter called Ellie who was seven years old.

Ellie is now cared for by Liz Johnston who says her daughter Samantha was a “wild child” when young. She was also both “funny and happy” and “strong-natured” and wanted to do things her way. “And she always thought she was right, obviously,” Johnston says. “So yeah, there was a lot of to-and-fro between me and her. But, no, we had a close relationship.”

As a teenager, Samantha didn’t stay out late at nights. She was an avid reader and had been “very clever” at school. But she got in with the wrong crowd and her drug problem escalated after she met a boy who Johnston describes as “vicious” and “very controlling”. Her daughter was with him for seven years before he committed suicide in prison.

“And then she come off the drugs. For a long time. And then, I don’t know what happened,” she adds. “She was quite, I don’t know how you would put it. A lost soul. She had no self-worth. Though she was very loving. When she had Ellie, my god. She was so loving.”

Johnston lives in Douglas, a housing scheme in East Dundee. The area has its full quota of social ills and drugs are a curse. Nicholson says her home city is getting worse. There are no decent jobs for young people, she claims.

“I can’t remember it being as bad as what it is now. You were able to go into one job and go to the next job. You can’t do that now. If you go for a job, there’s about fifty people behind you. Unbelievable. So your chances of getting it are very slim. I think eventually Dundee will become like a ghost town as there’s not enough industry here – the young ones are going to have go elsewhere.” she says.

She is outraged that some kids are so poor in Dundee they go to breakfast clubs. “They shouldn’t ever in this country. That’s ridiculous. In this country, children are living in poverty. Why would you have to have breakfast club? And it’s a big myth that people all want to live on benefits,” she says.

Samantha’s daughter, Ellie, is nine years old now. Johnston thinks Ellie needs counselling but says that professional help is hard to find. There was nobody there to offer her support after Samantha died. Johnston went back to work too early and couldn’t cope and in January this year she suffered a breakdown.

Losing a child is one of the worst things anyone could endure, Johnson says. “I don’t think there’s anything else I could go through in life that would be worse than that. Because that is somebody I brought into this world. She was part of me for nine months, in my body. That’s like somebody’s ripped something out of me, and it’s gone. I know I’ve got other children and I love them just the same. But, until you bury a child, you don’t know what that’s like.”

The Austerity Era

Almost ten years ago the Conservative government introduced a policy of austerity – a sustained reduction in public spending, welfare reform and tax rises – in response to the 2008 economic crash. Between 2010 and 2019 cuts of more than £30 billion have been made to welfare, housing and social services, according to the United Nations. Cuts have been made to budgets from policing to health.

Poverty has risen dramatically over the decade. Almost one in five people in Scotland now live in poverty, and for children the situation is worse, with one in four in poverty. The use of food banks doubles when Universal Credit is rolled out, homelessness increased, crime rates are up, as well as hospital waiting lists.

The UK government says austerity is now over. It expects to lift the freeze on working age benefits in April 2020 in line with inflation and says public spending increased this year by 4.1 per cent.

A spokesperson said: “The UK government spends over £95 billion a year on welfare, and we have simplified the benefits system through universal credit – making it easier for people to access support, including care leavers. Under personal independence payments, a higher proportion of disabled claimants are receiving the top rate of support.”



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