County lines: Government clampdown comes amid drug deaths in Wales at 'highest ever levels'

According to a new report by Public Health Wales, Welsh drug deaths are at their highest ever levels. Credit: PA

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has vowed to “come down hard” on gangsters peddling unlawful narcotics as part of a new Government crackdown plan.

Class A drugs are “bad for society”, the PM, amid the highest number of drug-related deaths in Wales.

Speaking ahead of the unveiling of the Government’s 10-year drugs strategy in England and Wales, Boris Johnson said the Government was “absolutely determined to fight drugs”.

“I take the view that it is a long time really since you heard a government say that drugs – Class A drugs – are bad and bad for society, bad for opportunity, bad for kids growing up in this country,” he told broadcasters in Merseyside.

As part of the Government’s plan, police will carry out 6,400 “disruptions” against the activities of organised criminals. Credit: PA

“That’s my view, and I think it is something we can tackle, something we can deal with.”

Is there a drug problem in Wales?

According to a new report by Public Health Wales, Welsh drug deaths are at their highest ever levels.

The report also highlights that drug deaths may be increasingly occurring in people using drugs on a recreational basis, with a rise in deaths involving cocaine, amphetamine and MDMA collectively accounting for 14% of drug misuse deaths.  

These deaths tended to occurred amongst younger people in their twenties.

Ministers are set to announce a police clampdown to cut off the supply of class A drugs by city-based crime rings to the surrounding county areas – known as county lines operations.

An aggressive campaign is set to be aimed at drug gangs, with a commitment to dismantle more than 2,000 county lines over the next three years, involving thousands more arrests.

Pat Hudson's son Kevin died two days after his 32nd birthday, after a heroine overdose in a locked toilet in Carmarthen’s Marks and Spencer.

When asked about the latest Government announcement, she said: "I welcome the new emphasis from the government upon a public health rather than a criminalisation approach for those experiencing problematic drug use.

"Responsibility for tackling the drugs crisis should be moved away from the Home Office to the NHS and funded in a corresponding way. The amount of money that is to be set aside from the new drugs policy sounds great but much will depend upon exactly where and how it is spent."

Ms Hudson also added that she would like to see overdose prevention centres set up "which have saved so many lives in other countries."

"I would like to see heroin assisted treatment as standard, rather than opioid substitute treatment as it has a much better record of success in saving lives and cutting crime.

"And I would like to see saving lives and giving people choices about their recovery from dependence rather than abstinence as the main goal of treatment."

Kevin Lane was a very skilled tree surgeon and a talented artist. Credit: Pat Hudson

Kevin, who was a skilled tree surgeon and talented artist, was adopted from Liverpool social services at 16 months old and had been in five different parenting situations, in addition to being hospitalised with suspected non accidental injury.

"He had certainly suffered childhood trauma which is one of the strong correlates with later drug dependency (along with social deprivation and ADHD). He had mental health problems and drugs were a form of self medication for him from teenage cannabis onwards."

Ms Hudson said she is "disgusted" that opiate treatment "may be withdrawn from the prison population as Raab has suggested.

"I am concerned that much of the funding for the new Drugs policy will go on policing and on cracking down on drug gangs. It has been shown that such crackdowns do not work.

"There are always other gangs ready to step into the place of any that are arrested because illicit drug dealing is such a lucrative business.

"The only real solution there is for drug supply to be made legal but highly regulated which would pull the rug from under the illegal drugs trade. It would also mean that users with problems could seek help earlier without fear of censure or getting a criminal record."

Earlier this year (May 2021), police forces around Britain took part in a County Lines Intensification Week.

Tarian, the Regional Organised Crime Unit for south Wales, worked with partners including South Wales, Dyfed Powys and Gwent Police as well as British Transport Police to take extensive action against suspected county lines activity in south Wales.

Results throughout the week included:​

  • 32 arrests

  • Four drug lines taken out

  • Over £179,000 worth of drugs seized, including 1.5kg of heroin

  • Over £23,000 cash seized

  • A number of people vulnerable to exploitation visited, spoken to and signposted to support

When approached about the Government’s crackdown plan, a Welsh Government spokesperson said: “Every death is a tragedy but it is encouraging that our drug related deaths decreased from last year and were lowest rate of drug misuse deaths recorded in Wales since 2014, this is unlike the upward trend elsewhere in the UK.

“In Wales we already see substance misuse as a health issue and take a harm reduction approach to supporting those who most need it.

“Treatment, including medication, was delivered to people who had to shield and outreach was provided for the most vulnerable including the homeless. Online consultations and psychological support services continued to be available to those who needed it.”

Clive Wolfendale, former Chief Executive of CAIS and Chair of their Board, said that the charity, which among other things helps people who are having problems with addictions, welcomes the governments announcement to tackle the criminality associated with substance misuse.

"There is no doubt that the Covid pandemic has led to increases in abuse of both drugs and alcohol, as people have retreated to their homes. Wales has performed better than many European nations in tackling substance misuse, but more investment is still required, particularly in residential rehabilitation.

"The key to success will not be the strategy, but the determination with which it is implemented. Drug abuse remains one of society’s principal challenges."

WEDINOS, launched in 2013 and funded by Welsh Government, is part of Public Health Wales and the only laboratory in the UK where users can anonymously submit their drugs for testing.

The WEDINOS laboratory in Cardiff Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

The WEDINOS project has seen a substantial increase in non-prescribed ‘prescription’ medications being submitted to the drug testing service in Wales.

Their Annual Report for 2020-21, published by Public Health Wales, also identifies a decrease in the submission of substances including cocaine and other stimulants, due to the closure of night time economy venues (NTE) due to the pandemic restrictions, say experts.

Although, increases in stimulant submissions were observed at times when lockdowns were relaxed over the year.

Josie Smith, Head of Substance Misuse for Public Health Wales and Programme Lead for WEDINOS, said: “Whilst this last year has been extraordinary in so many ways, the work of WEDINOS has continued unabated.

"2020-21 has seen an increase in the proportion of benzodiazepine samples and, due to closure of pubs, bars and night clubs as part of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, a relative decrease in the submission of community samples of drugs including cocaine and otherstimulants.

"We are however increasingly aware of the high number of substitutions within benzodiazepines.

"These products may contain varying amounts of active ingredient, substituted drugs with different onset and duration times, different strengths or combinations of substances making it hard for individuals to know what they are taking and to reduce potentialharms associated with use.

"This is a real threat to an individual’s health including risks of the overdose and development of dependency.

"We would encourage anyone with concerns regarding use of non- prescribed benzodiazepines to seek information and support."