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Tuesday, 25 January, 2000, 23:27 GMT
Pure lethal: transcript

This is the full transcript of Frontline Scotland's Pure Lethal programme, broadcast on 25 January.

Presenter Shelley Jofre: A lorry, supposedly packed with furniture, arrives in London from the Continent.

The load has travelled from Switzerland to the Netherlands and across the North Sea.

But this is no ordinary consignment. Inside each box - no furniture - just drugs. Drugs with a street value of over £2m.

The police intercept two shipments, but 10 more like this one make it through to their final destination - Clydebank.

These drugs are not heroin or cocaine, they are legally manufactured. The demand for them in the west of Scotland is huge, and so too are the rewards for the smugglers.

But the true cost of this trade is counted in lives.

Tonight we investigate the return of a killer drug the authorities hoped had gone forever.

A memorial service in Glasgow for friends and family of those who've died through drugs.

It is an annual event, one Brian and Margaret Donnatello never imagined they'd attend.

Their daughter died five months ago. Another grim statistic in a death toll that was cruelly high last year. A record 148 people, ranging in age from 15 to 54, killed through drug abuse.

Margaret Donnatello: She was our only child, and when she used to go and stay with friends a lot of people couldn't believe she was an only child because she was that unspoilt. They'd say: "We cannae believe she's just an only child," because I think they expected a wee brat. She was just kind, loved all her family, just loved her family.

Brian Donnatello: We were quite proud of the way she was. And we always knew that whenever she went out she knew to keep away from certain things, and she always did that.

Margaret: When she started going to the dancing she would phone and tell you: "I'm going to be late, I'm going to a party, but I'll give you the phone number, this is where I'll be, phone me in the morning." And then, well obviously it changed when she turned about nineteen.

Presenter: Pauline confided in her mum that she was using drugs. She tried to stop. But in August of last year she overdosed and died. She was 21 years old.

Brian: They say that when she died she wouldn't have went through any pain. She just overdosed - what they do is they just fall asleep.

Margaret: She didn't waken up again.

Brian: And what happens is the medics - if the medics get there in time - they can revive them. But I don't know, her pal there fell asleep as well.

Margaret: Two of them fell asleep.

Brian: Two of them fell asleep, and her pal, her other pal that she was with woke up. But she'd woke up and found out that Pauline hadn't come round she phoned the ambulance, but by the time they got there it was too late, by that time she was dead. The police told us that it would take about three or four months to compile a dossier on the case, and they would let us know whether that would tell us anything then, I don't know. But up to now it was just a case of we think it's a drug-related death, and the autopsy was just to confirm it.

Presenter: Sadly, Pauline Donnatello's story is all too familiar in Strathclyde, where it's estimated there are now twelve thousand injecting drug users. There have always been casualties from heroin abuse. But last year pathologists here at the city mortuary saw around fifty more victims than in the previous year. Tonight, we investigate why there's been such a dramatic increase in drugs deaths.

One reason put forward by the police for the unusually high death toll was the availability of high purity heroin on the streets.

BBC News, 22 September 1999: In the past we have recognised that pure heroin has ranged between 15 and 30%. But the in more recent times the analysis has proved that the heroin purity on the street is reaching, in some cases, almost 60%"

Presenter: The addicts we've spoken to though don't believe that high purity heroin is widely available, or that it's responsible for the high number of deaths.

Drug addict: I can easy say in the last 10 years I've never known there to be any high purity heroin on the streets, and I've been all over Glasgow scoring heroin. I've never found any.

Presenter: What do you think of the argument that it's the high purity of heroin on the streets at the moment that's causing all the deaths?

Drug Addict: That's a lot of shite, it's a joke, what the polis or whatever the record, whatever they're putting it down as, it's a lot of crap. The heroin that's going about in Glasgow is total rubbish, you know. It's not even worth buying. If I never had the habit I wouldnae buy it.

Presenter: Can you be sure that it's not high purity?

Drug addict: Oh definitely, I buy enough of it, I'm around enough dealers.

Presenter: This dealer sells heroin to a hundred people a week. He's injected the drug himself for seventeen years.

Drug dealer: They've come out with that again as a sort of scare tactic, there's a lot of poison stuff, it's all very strong. I mean I personally know for a fact that's pure rubbish.

Presenter: Obviously though you can't analyse the heroin that you're getting. How can you tell what the purity is?

Drud dealer: Trial and error. You've got to try it, you've got to take a wee bit instead of just taking your normal bit.

Presenter: Would it make commercial sense for you to be selling the same amounts of high purity heroin as the ordinary stuff you normally sell though?

Drug dealer: No, of course not, that would be madness.

Presenter: Over the past year do you think you've sold high purity heroin to anyone?

Drug dealer: If I got any decent stuff I'd keep it for myself, know what I mean.

Presenter: Local GP Tom Gilhooley works in Glasgow's east end. He's been dealing with heroin users on a daily basis for the past ten years.

Dr Tom Gilhooly (Parkhead Health Centre): Most heroin users in Glasgow are taking three or four times a day they're taking a reasonable dose. The fluctuation in the purity will make very little difference to them. You can give most of these patients pharmaceutical heroin, diamorphine, which is a hundred per cent pure, and they wouldn't die because they've got such strong tolerance. In fact when someone goes into hospital and is a heroin user it's very difficult to control their pain because using hundred per cent pure diamorphine on them doesn't have much effect because they are so tolerant to the drug. So I think fluctuations in the heroin doses make very little difference to the deaths.

Presenter: This view is shared by Andrew Horne of the Glasgow Drugs Crisis Centre. The staff there see nine hundred addicts a week. So if there's a change in drug use they know about it.

Andrew Horne (Glasgow Drugs Crisis Centre): Heroin purity always fluctuates, from data to date from street to street. And so there's never been a change in that. From 1994 to 1999 there's not been a change in fluctuation. But yet there has been a change in deaths. So it doesn't make sense. Even when I ask "service" users about it, and say the data is out there the press are saying, and the police are saying "it's heroin". They always say well where is it, you know, we can't find any of this super pure heroin. So it doesn't seem to make sense to them either.

Presenter: Last year Strathclyde Police seized heroin with a street value of thirty-three million pounds. The purity of some of this heroin was tested in their forensic lab.

Det. Supt. Barry Dougall (Strathclyde Police Drug Co-ordinator): We are told that the street level purity has increased by some three-fold. Now that must surely have an effect on a user, particularly is they're using the drug in combination with other drugs. It must increase the danger.

Presenter: I understand that you've seized drugs that have a higher purity level than you've found in the past. But there is no evidence that directly shows that this causing more deaths.

Det Supt Dougall: We believe it to be a factor. There is no direct evidence to show that that is the case, but we believe it is a factor.

Presenter: The toxicologist we spoke to though said he has no way of telling how pure the heroin is in the systems of the people who have died through the drugs deaths. So is there any way that you are able to tell perhaps by analysing drugs found at the scene how pure the heroin was that they took before they died?

Det. Supt Dougall: If drugs are found at the scene then they are analysed. It is very seldom that we recover drugs at the scene for various reasons. But it is very seldom that we do recover drugs at the scene.

Presenter: There's no conclusive evidence then to prove that high purity heroin was to blame for the record death toll last year.

Blood samples from each of the victims are sent here to Glasgow University's Forensic Department where scientists analyse them for their drugs content. The reason people overdose is because they take more of a drug than their body can handle - in other words, they go beyond their tolerance.

Dr John Oliver (Forensic Toxicologist Glasgow University): We measure the level of the drug in the individual who has in fact died. That individual has his own personal tolerance to the actual drug itself. A person will die because of their own personal tolerance to that particular drug.

Presenter: Across the city heroin addicts are injecting drugs often four times a day. Many have an extremely high tolerance level. But if their steady drugs supply is interrupted - during a prison sentence for example - the results can be fatal.

Dr Oliver: A shocking example of this is the situation where someone has been tolerant to a particular drug. And through a period of abstinence - possibly through imprisonment - has lost their tolerance, and then come out, resumed their old habits at the levels that they have become accustomed to, and that can in fact have an instant disastrous effect.

Presenter: Doctor Oliver found that last year at least three prisoners a month suffered a fatal overdose following their release. A time when they were at their most vulnerable.

Drug addict: I've overdosed twice, but that's when I came out of prison after doing remand. When you don't get it for a certain time your tolerance goes away down, and you maybe take the same amount and inject the same amount and that's when you OD, you overdose, and if you overdose that's obviously when you die, so you really need to watch.

Presenter: Quite a high proportion of last year's drugs deaths have involved people who've just been released from prison. What's your own experience of that?

Drug addict: Well I've done a few prison sentences, and I know quite a few people that have died that way, some very close friend, know what I mean. I've been working with them in prison, and then liberated and then three nights later they're dead. I would say there's an awful lot of that, an awful lot of people come out of prison and overdosing.

Presenter: Why do you think that's so common?

Drug addict: Because they're in prison, you can get drugs in prison, but never enough to like, keep a habit going, and your tolerance goes away down and you get out.

Presenter: Only one in six drugs deaths last year involved heroin alone. In the rest, a cocktail of drugs was used. Frontline has discovered that one drug, implicated in dozens of drugs deaths in the early nineties, was present in a third of last year's deaths. Better known as a sleeping pill, temazepam has again become the drug of choice to inject along with heroin.

Drug addict: The main reason for using temazepam alongside it is you use a lot less heroin, and when you do use it the heroin's a lot stronger. I use a ten pound bag if you had temazepam inside your blood, inside your system, it would be like using a thirty pound bag. That's why people use temazepam and heroin together.

Drug addict: Taking temazepam with it strengthens it a lot. Half the time you don't even know what you're doing, it totally blanks you out. I remember coming in the night before and that's been it until I've woken up, sometimes it's on the kitchen floor where I've maybe injected myself the night before. I've woken up in the same spot.

Presenter: The Glasgow drug users' love affair with jellies is long standing. In 1995 Frontline revealed the extent of temazepam abuse in Glasgow. It was legally produced and prescribed in huge quantities. But drug addicts also used jel from the capsules to mix with heroin. The results were horrific. The jel often clogged users' veins and led to amputations. The drug deaths in that year soared. Months after the programme was broadcast temazepam was re-classified as a controlled drug. The jel capsules were banned from sale in the UK. It's now only legally available here in tablet form. The problem was supposed to go away, and for a short time Glasgow's drug deaths dropped dramatically.

But Frontline has discovered that temazepam is back in huge quantities. Smuggled into Britain from the Continent it's as popular as ever.

Drug addict: At the moment it's pretty difficult, but generally if you know where to go you'll get it. You know, it might take you a couple of hours, but generally if you ask about you'll find out where to get them.

Presenter: How many temazepam do you usually take?

Drug addict: It varies. As many as you can get I suppose. Greed gets the better of you. If you've got loads of money you'll spend what you've got on it. Anything up to maybe thirty, forty¿. I know people that take double that a day, double that at the one time.

Presenter: What sort of quantities do you normally take them in?

Drug addict: Well when I was swallowing them, I was swallowing fifty to sixty at a time when I wasn't using the heroin. But once I started to inject I was injecting heroin, taking temazepam and I was doing that nine, 10 times a day. So I'd say roughly about 40 a day, or injecting them with heroin.

Presenter: When do you do when temazepam is around when you know you can get hold of it?

Drug addict: I'd say when I've got the money I usually try and buy them in quantity, and keep them by for myself. Just try and like, save them, cos I know for a fact that they're not going to stay on the streets long because they've been out that many times, and they've just went off the streets that quick. Because when they came out, there's that many drug users out there that are taking temazepam just now that word gets about fast once they're out. So it's my point of view. I try and get enough money to buy myself them in bulk to put by and make sure I've got my own.

Presenter: What sort of bulk are you talking about?

Drug addict: Well, in the hundreds probably.

Presenter: Do you think you would take more if there was more around?

Drug addict: Definitely, aye.

Presenter: Does the erratic availability of temazepam then concern you because users have told us that bingeing is exactly what they're doing at the moment when they get temazepam?

Dr Oliver: It would concern me because effectively if you're not using a thing, a drug on a regular basis, you're not building up a tolerance to that particular drug. And therefore for erratic usage of a drug puts you every time you use it in a very dangerous situation.

Presenter: But taking drugs with a low tolerance has always been dangerous. That alone can't explain the huge rise in drugs deaths last year. Neither is there any firm evidence that heroin purity is to blame. One thing is clear though - when temazepam is available on the streets of Glasgow the drugs rise.

Dr Oliver: Well certainly during the 1990s with the increase in the number of drug deaths, this has certainly been mirrored in the actual finding of temazepam within these deaths. We've seen a year on year increase until 1994. And with the re-classification of temazepam we saw the start of the decline in the instance of temazepam found in these deaths. Down until 1996 we actually have the lowest death figure we'd had for a number of years. Thereafter, however, this level has been increasing.

Presenter: Last year we saw the highest ever number of drugs deaths in Glasgow. How many of these deaths involved temazepam?

Dr Oliver: Approximately a third of all deaths involved temazepam. And of the actual deaths themselves at least 20%, one in five, had temazepam as a significant, a very significant contributor to the cause of death.

Presenter: It's illegal now for drugs companies in Britain to produce the injectable form of temazepam. But jellies are still manufactured on the Continent, and smuggled into the UK. So Strathclyde Police has enlisted the help of Interpol, based here in Lyon to identify the drugs traffickers and curb the international trade in temazepam.

Robert Hauschild (Interpol): We visited several manufacturers of temazepam in Europe, and I must state here that they do whatever they can to avoid diversion from their company. They have special security, they have special surveillance for the manufacturing process. They do everything to avoid illegal diversion.

Presenter: If they do as much as you say then the criminal must be very ingenious in how they manage to get hold of this legally-produced temazepam.

Mr Hauschild: Indeed they are, and they are setting up front companies and they are involved in legitimate companies, and this makes it very, very difficult to detect them, and so there is a high criminal energy behind this. And this is because of the huge profit they make with it. The production cost of one capsule of temazepam, for example in Switzerland, or in Italy, is 2p a capsule and it is sold in Glasgow on the streets for £1.5 or even £2.

Presenter: In 1998 the Dutch police uncovered a major smuggling operation. They intercepted two shipments of temazepam concealed in boxes as furniture bound for Clydebank. This is what they found inside - a total of a million and a half temazepam capsules with a street value of three million pounds. They believe many more consignments reached Clydebank unhindered.

Mr Hauschild: The arrested suspect was an unemployed person and didn't he have any income, and in a three months period he sent twelve different shipments to the Clydebank area and every shipment was declared as furniture, and we didn't find any reason why an unemployed person without any financial background, and any income, could afford to ship just furniture to Scotland. So we must believe that twelve million capsules have been diverted.

Presenter: It sounds like an extremely profitable trade.

Mr Hauschild: It is very profitable, especially when you're seeing that one million capsules has a value of two million British pounds in the Glasgow streets. And the cost for every load is approximately eighteen thousand British pounds. So it is a hundred times profit for the traffickers.

Presenter: A Dutchman was convicted for the crime. He was sentenced to just six months community service. No one at the Scottish end of the operation was ever charged.

In another case last year a consignment of four hundred thousand temazepam capsules was seized. The drugs were bound for London from Holland. Interpol believe the final destination of the temazepam, once again, was Clydebank.

Mr Hauschild: We have to believe that much more has been diverted because we, during this investigation, we found out that a company who imported legally fourteen million temazepam capsules has sold at least 9.5 million of these capsules to a company. We believe that some criminals are involved in this company, and that they have diverted 9.5 million capsules. It a huge problem. And we know that in other parts of the world temazepam is also abused, but not on this scale like in Glasgow.

Presenter: Interpol estimate that twenty-five million temazepam capsules have been smuggled into the UK over three years. Yet, Customs and Excise failed to seize any last year. And Strathclyde Police fared little better.

How many seizures were there of temazepam in the past year?

Det Supt Dougall: We had seventy-four thousand capsules seized last year.

Presenter: How much to you think that accounts for the amount of temazepam that's on the streets?

Det Supt Dougall: I think it's a very small proportion of the temazepam that's on the streets. But I still think it's insignificant. These capsules are not seized on their own, they are seized invariably with other substances, because the dealers don't just sell temazepam, they sell other substances too.

Presenter: The year before last Interpol seized one and a half million temazepam destined for Clydebank. Doesn't that suggest that you're only scratching the surface of the problem at the moment?

Det Supt Dougall: Well it's estimated that the enforcement agencies across the United Kingdom, in fact across the world, are fortunate if they are seizing ten per cent of the drugs market. You're got to remember that the drugs market represents eight per cent of world trade. That's the same size of business as the oil industry globally.

Presenter: Last year Strathclyde Police seized 74,000 temazepam capsules. Do you think that represents a large amount of temazepam?

Mr Hauschild: To our mind here in Lyon, and especially with the investigations carried out by several law enforcement agencies, it is much less than five per cent what they have seized in Glasgow. There must be much more temazepam on the market because, for us, there seems to be a huge demand of temazepam, otherwise the temazepam wouldn't be diverted.

Presenter: There's no sign that the huge demand for temazepam here in Glasgow is going to go away. The users we've spoken to say they use as much as they can whenever they can, and they're well aware of the gamble they take every time they shoot up.

Drug addict I've seen it happening myself. I've seen me hitting temazepam and heroin and I've seen me conking out, waking up two, three hours later with the syringe still sticking out my groin, knowing that I could have OD'd, that I have OD'd and I've came back round myself. So, it's happening to me. I know I've got such a high tolerance, it can happen to anybody.

I mean, like a 99% chance of overdosing mixing them than what you have just taking them on their own.

Presenter: Do you know of people who have overdosed when they've mixed temazepam and heroin?

Drug addict: Yeh. My friend, just three months ago, she was out at a rehab, two weeks, and she took a mix of heroin and temazepam, she was found dead after that.

Dr Gilhooly: My fear is that nothing will happen, and that the deaths will just continue at the rate they are just now, or possibly even higher because we do seem to have more people taking drugs than before. If we can do anything at all then we should do it, and I think temazepam is the one area, which has happened before, it's not as if we're without precedent, it has happened before, that we've seen a halving of the deaths, more than halving of the deaths in Glasgow. If we can interrupt the temazepam supplies then we will see less young people die. I'm quite confident about that. And if we don't do that, if we continue to talk about heroin purity, and we continue to ring our hands every time someone dies, and every time we hit another target like 50 or 100 deaths, that's just pathetic, and we can't do that, we just can't wait and see how many young people are going to die before this eventually stops. It won't stop.

Drug addict: It's a chance you take. I don't think you ever really believe it's going to happen to you. OK, it happens to your pal next door, and the friend you were with last night. But I don't think it ever really sinks in that it's going to be you next.

I suffer from fits now through taking it. They believe that there's a small bubble in my brain through taking them because when I didn't have them when they first dried up, after a couple of days I started fitting. And the doctors have now worked out that it's every time I've came off the jellies for a couple of days, that's when I'm taking the fits. And it just seems to be when I haven't got them that I'm fitting.

Presenter: That sounds quite serious. Has that not made you think about not using temazepam?

Drug addict: It does at the time when you're taking the fits, because I've had them anywhere and everywhere. But when there's people selling them and you're there you just take them, I cannae help it, I like them too much.

Presenter: Pauline Donnatello's parents have discovered that she, like so many of the other drugs victims, had taken a fatal hit of heroin with temazepam - the killer drug that was supposed to be off the streets for good.

Brian Donnatello: It's the sudden end to her life that I can't come to terms with. Just that sudden stop. Sometimes you're up, sometimes you're down. She's still alive inside us.

Margaret Donnatello:As my mammy keeps saying - part of you is in her.

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