- Video report by ITV News National Editor Allegra Stratton
Chrissy appeared a sad character.
Over several nights my producer Nathan Lee, cameramen Tony Mewse and Tony Bennison and I followed the 38 year old homeless drug addict on his night time movements around Middlesborough – retrieving his sleeping bags from their hiding places; assembling his bed in a concrete corner of a carpark with just three wheelie bins for shelter; tucking himself up as a slug slowly climbed across the wall above his head.
One morning we brought him a McDonald’s breakfast including his favourite: hot chocolate. But he wasn’t there. He’d been attacked in the early hours while he slept and had had to make a run for it.
But Chrissy will make history.
Next Monday at 10am he’ll be the first addict in the country through the door of the UK’s pioneering Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT) room.
He’ll get publicly funded heroin.
Chrissy’s been selected to be one of just 15 of Middlesborough’s hundred or so heroin addicts to get this treatment in a national first – they will be given pharmaceutical heroin on the strict condition they truly try to give up illegal street heroin.
Cleveland’s police and crime commissioner Barry Coppinger has got the first license from the Home Office and so is trailblazing – reaching for the most radical solutions as the entire country battles with record high drug deaths.
His 12 month pilot will be watched by many forces around the UK.
Medical grade diamorphine, imported from Switzerland, will cost £12,000 each addict.
The maths isn’t hard. It works out at about £35 a day. The most recent day we were with Chrissy this week we saw him buy some drugs – he told us he had spent £25.
Obviously the authorities are spending more but it’s a facile comparison. It has to be powerful to work. The methadone so many of them currently receive is weak and many of those I interview simply do it as well as street heroin – making something of a mockery of the system.
From Monday, twice daily they will get medical grade diamorphine, in exchange for intensive health and social work to get them back on their feet and eventually off the drug.
The whole scheme costs just over £200,000 but Coppinger’s team ask critics to set this against the some £800,000 that addicts cost the area.
Chrissy needs it. He has been using heroin since he was 14 and in care. So frequently does he inject into his groin that he has made in himself one of the more unusual things I have ever seen: a deep black hole to the side of his groin.
He only showed me one of them – the one on his left is his preferred one, but he has made them on both sides of his pelvis. It is not a gaping oozing wound but a healed pit or groove that allows him to inject easily. He calls it his “little helper”.
Yesterday we saw him use it. He took us to his preferred place to shoot up round the back of a derelict house with an overgrown creeper for some kind of discretion as he assembled his mini chemistry kit. On the floor already were other people’s discarded needles and syringes.
He was also re-using his needle from yesterday. I told him this wasn’t healthy – he said he had been careful to keep it clean by keeping its nozzle on, but when I pushed the point that he lived outside and there was a slim chance he had managed to, he conceded that I was right. That he kept this needle in his pocket and that yes, it was a danger.
He took these drugs in what is called a ‘snowball’. First, he injected cocaine into the hole in his groin. The effect was clear and immediate. He grinned like a child: “Lovely… it blows your head off.”
Maybe, but the effect of that tenner of cocaine lasted perhaps a minute. It was incredible for us all to watch just how short.
Quickly he was visibly shaking and needed the heroin. As he tried to ignite a lighter he held the needle syringe in his mouth so he could use both hands. He hasn’t washed in a while. Many addicts die from infections, and this kind of behaviour is why.
Heroin addicts in Middlesborough have, in the words of the HAT lead clinician Daniel Ahmed, a "medieval life expectancy".
They die on average at aged 38. Chrissy’s age.
He is one of the 15, out of perhaps 100 heroin users in the area, because his profile is perfect: he causes the most crime and is one of the most vulnerable.
His daily life can include beatings from drug dealers. He is currently in trouble with the police for stealing an electric toothbrush.
And the area needs it. As the police and crime commissioner says: in Middlesborough you are more likely to die of a heroin overdose than a car crash.
On the HAT scheme, they will go into a white clinical room where they will get brand new sterile needles. In exchange, there will be help with housing, mental health and social care.
At the clinic, there will be random spot checks to see whether they have street drugs in their system – they have managed to find a pharmaceutical test to differentiate between diamorphine and street heroin.
If they do – while it is unlikely they will be thrown off the scheme, that will trigger a more muscular intervention from the clinicians. If the problem persists and they believe the individual is not serious about getting better, they may well decide to move that person off the scheme.
Critically, it isn’t a drug consumption room or overdose prevention units. This is something many would like to see licensed by the Home Office – allowing people to bring street drugs in and consume in safer more sterile environments – but the Home Office remains set against this since it would do nothing to undercut the violent organised crime groups that supply these drugs around the country.
Most drug users take a cocktail of illegal street drugs. As we saw, Chrissy did cocaine before heroin.
In fact, in Middlesborough he thought more people took cocaine than heroin.
This scheme will aim to help people who use many drugs not just one, but I will be looking to see how well this can work in reality when it is directly targeting heroin.
People have already criticised it as a bad use of public money – why spend money on people who have made bad decisions to break the law when public services in the area need all the investment they can get?
On social media last night when our film went out many asked whether the government would be handing out free cigarettes or alcohol to people addicted to them.
It's a point both facile and fair: smokers and drinkers cost the taxpayer too so the logic does work.
The local Conservative mayor Ben Houchen has criticised it in recent weeks but when we were in Middlesborough he was unavailable for interview.
It is, however, a scheme licensed by Conservative crime minister Victoria Atkins so there is clearly a debate within the Conservative party on the best way to deal with Britain’s heroin deaths.
Because the UK numbers are terrible. One in 3 of all European drug deaths happen in the UK.
The Cleveland organisers don’t believe it is a “silver bullet”.
There may be people who do not want to come off street drugs; there may be people who are too chaotic to manage to turn their lives around.
But when you spend any time with someone like Chrissy, you realise it’s worth a try.