This Is How Austerity Is Exacerbating Dundee's Drugs Crisis

Scotland's 'best place to live' is also the drug death capital of Europe.

Samantha Fern was 36 when she was found dead after an overdose.

She had been “funny and happy” and “very clever” at school, her mother said, but got in with the wrong crowd. When her “vicious and controlling” long-term boyfriend committed suicide in prison, Samantha’s life took a darker turn.

She was quite, I don’t know how you would put it. A lost soul. She had no self-worth,” her mother Liz Johnston says.

Samantha’s post-mortem revealed she had taken etizolam, pregabalin, and methadone. She left behind a seven-year-old daughter, Ellie. And she also became another one of the 400 drug related deaths in Dundee over the past decade.

This report is part of #JustSurviving – a collaboration between HuffPost UK and investigative journalism platform The Ferret looking at the impact of the government’s austerity policy in Scotland.

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.

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.

<strong>Samantha Fern was 'funny and happy' as a teenager.</strong>
Samantha Fern was 'funny and happy' as a teenager.
HuffPost UK

“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,” says Ewan Gurr, a former drug user who became clean and established the city’s first food bank.

“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 percent deduction to his housing benefit, because of a spare bedroom. I mean, that is how brutal it gets,” he says.

Gurr is a writer, researcher and social commentator who understands both addiction and poverty.

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 agrees.“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,” he says. The city was named Scotland’s best place to live in April, while its V&A museum made Time magazine’s list of the world’s greatest places this year.

“But yet you’ve got this persisting deprivation and poverty that is what Dundee is known for historically. So while you’re one of the top 10 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.”

<strong>Ewan Gurr says Dundee is caught between a narrative of austerity and prosperity.</strong>
Ewan Gurr says Dundee is caught between a narrative of austerity and prosperity.
HuffPost UK

“I personally believe that Universal Credit as the single most brutal reform to welfare that has ever been implemented in my lifetime, and probably even my own father’s lifetime.”

He 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. Some 840 jobs will be lost, plus the knock-on effect which will potentially affect several thousand more people.

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 £78.1m budget shortfall for Dundee City Council. This follows £9m of savings having been made this year.

<strong>Dundee . is awash with heroin, cocaine, methadone, ecstasy and fake valium.</strong>
Dundee . is awash with heroin, cocaine, methadone, ecstasy and fake valium.
FotoMaximum via Getty Images

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 lifetime, 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, who set up Dundee’s first food bank in 2005 and led the Trussell Trust for seven years, helped 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.

Between 2012 and the introduction of The Welfare Reform Act in 2013, food bank use in Scotland rose by more than 400 per cent, he says. In 2012, 1,406 people used food banks in Dundee but this total more than doubled to 3,371 in 2014. A report last week from Trussell Trust and 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. Gurr claims the sharp spike was largely driven by the so-called bedroom tax, whereby people had a deduction to their housing benefit if they had a spare bedroom. Others have gone without after facing sanctions from the Department of Work and Pensions.

In August a report by the Dundee Drugs Commission said that poverty was one of the root causes of the city’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.

A few weeks later, in October, academics from the University of Dundee 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. Drugs such as methadone, antidepressants, phenazepam, etizolam, gabapentin and pregabalin were more prevalent in Dundee deaths compared to the rest of Scotland, the study added. 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.

<strong>Sharon Brand says austerity has made the city's drugs problem worse.</strong>
Sharon Brand says austerity has made the city's drugs problem worse.
HuffPost UK

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”.

She has given evidence to the Scottish government and the Scottish Home Affairs Committee at Westminster, and says the link between poverty and addiction is “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 percent 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.

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

“We have invested almost £800m to tackle problem alcohol and drug use since 2008. Our 2018 alcohol and drug strategy explains how the additional £20m 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 £20m over the next two years to support local ADP services,” a Scottish government spokesperson added.

Brand has also warned that Dundee is now facing a crack cocaine epidemic, a claim backed by Police Scotland who said this month 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, and fears drug deaths will rocket.

<strong>Liam Honeyman locked himself in his home to get clean.</strong>
Liam Honeyman locked himself in his home to get clean.
HuffPost UK

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. “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 [drug] deals for him,” he says.

Honeyman, who has been in prison nine times, says it’s shockingly easy to buy drugs in Dundee. “I’ve walked up and down that high street this morning, and I’ve been offered valium four times,” he says.

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. 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. 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 such as 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.

<strong>Leanne Nicolson stopped taking drugs in memory of her son.</strong>
Leanne Nicolson stopped taking drugs in memory of her son.
HuffPost UK

“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 called Red Levis.

“He had a cardiac arrest,” 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.”

Nicolson stopped taking drugs in memory of her son, who was only 17 when he died. “I really got clean in Jack’s name,” she says.

But she says her home city is getting worse and there are no decent jobs for young people. “I can’t remember it being as bad as what it is now. If you go for a job, there’s about 50 people behind you.”

In Douglas, a housing scheme in East Dundee, Samantha Fern’s daughter, Ellie, who is now nine, is now cared for by Samantha’s mother Liz Johnston.

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. In January this year she suffered a breakdown.

Losing a child is one of the worst things anyone could endure, Johnston 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-led 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 £30bn 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.”