Paul Casey was sat with a submachine gun by Liverpool docks when he realised how much crime had changed. A decade earlier he had been bobby on the beat with a wooden truncheon for protection.

“I’d gone from having this little bit of wood, to being dressed up in SWAT team kit, armed to the teeth,” said Paul.

He needed his weapon. By the 1990s Liverpool gangsters – such as Sunday Times rich list member, Curtis Warren (pic) were dealing directly with Columbian drug suppliers and both were known to favour the heavily armed look.

The debate about drugs policy and decriminalisation has been going on for so long, and gang crime is now so commonplace, it’s easy to forget it wasn’t always this way. Heroin transformed us. And this year marks the 30th anniversary of a watershed period in the drugs war, as crime took on a whole new face.

In the 1970s there were vicious, hardened criminals around, running protection rackets in Liverpool nightclubs or robbing cash vans at the point of a shotgun. But coordinated drug crime was almost unknown, apart from the raid on the dangerous drugs cabinet at a chemist.

Stephen Smith, who retired in 1995 as a Chief Superintendent, flicks through a 1963 copy of Moriarty’s Police Law. From the 579 pages only two concern drugs.

“The only time I came across opium before the 1980s was amongst the older people of Chinatown. They would use it for things like stomach complaints,” he says.

Heroin had been around London’s bohemian community for decades but it only started to move into the country’s working class areas in 1979 and 1980, a change which researchers have linked to the spread of Iranian refugees after the country’s revolution.

By 1983, it had a grip on places like the Ford Estate (now Beechwood) on the Wirral and the Woodchurch (pic above), where nine per cent of 16-24 year olds were taking the drug. Research on users in the 1980s found they were 16 times more likely to die than the average person.

Council estates, devastated by unemployment, saw groups of young people inhaling heroin fumes until they were sick. The arrival of Britain’s first ever large scale hard drug epidemic made Liverpool a centre for organised crime, caused a national crime wave, and killed tens of thousands of people.

Barry Jones, who retired as a Superintendent in 2010, worked on the squad covering the area and said: “Burglaries went through the roof, as did shoplifting. Mugging increased. Theft from motor vehicles abounded, and the lazy ‘scouse’ stereotypes were born.

“It was like a plague, a pandemic. We had people coming to the Wirral from all over the country to buy their smack…

I saw families living in squalor, kids sitting on the floor in their own excrement and dog mess, children playing amidst used needles, and people turned into walking skeletons.”

At the time, many thought it was just another recreational drug, like cannabis or LSD. Police officer Paul Casey recalls: “We saw it mainly as an anti-social problem at first. Seven or eight users used to gather together, usually in the communal hallways of blocks of flats. You would get all the discarded paraphernalia, and the users’ vomit.”

“Glue sniffing used to be the major problem then heroin exploded almost overnight. You never encountered anyone on the streets with drugs and then in 12-18 months everyone had something. We went from the odd job to 4-5 drug arrests a day.”

But the naivety about the new threat posed by heroin did not last long. In 1983 the use of firearms in Merseyside robberies almost doubled. Burglary was up 20 per cent during the first three months of the year.

Keith Raybould, a drugs consultant who used to cover drugs enforcement for the whole of Merseyside, recalls: “At first, heroin was pretty unknown. It started as maybe a craze but people got quickly addicted. We noticed the major increase in burglaries before we noticed drugs.”

Thirty years down the line, he’s unequivocal about what he’s learned. “I never believed that we were ever winning the war on drugs, merely attempting to stem the tide.”

Many police officers admit that, at the time, they struggled to convince superiors the new drug was turning into a far greater problem, as retired Detective Chief Inspector Mike Mulloy, author of Chasing The Dragons, admits: “We really became aware of the real nature of the problem in 1983, late on. The crime rates rose astonishingly, in 1981 it was up 25 per cent, 1982 another 15 per cent, and in 1983 a further 12 per cent.

“Wirral truly was ‘Smack City’. No one had the problems we were facing. No one had ever encountered such a serious matter so there was no one to turn to for advice.

“The dealers were highly organised by a serious crime cartel from Liverpool. The Wirral had been syndicated and their rule was enforced by extreme violence and firearms.

“But the view of those in ‘Fantasy Island’ – HQ in Liverpool – was that it was just a local problem. The CID heads in particular initially refused to see the blatant fact that the acquisitive crime rate was fuelled by drug abuse.”

Looking back, Mulloy admits that a lot of his work wasn’t carried through in other areas. Mulloy went on to form the successful Wirral crime squad but that team could only tackle one area, and the dealers just moved on. Heroin started to embed itself into criminal culture when Liverpool then became not just a market for the drug, but a major import centre too.

“We turned the tide back to Liverpool in what is known as the jelly effect. If you squeeze a problem in one place it will simply go elsewhere.”

In April 1983, a Pakistani ship carrying £1million worth of heroin was seized in Ellesmere Port. Customs officers admitted to reporters they were losing control.

Graham Johnson, the investigative reporter who has chronicled the Liverpool gang scene, wrote in his book Cartel: “In 1983…. the conditions were right for the Cartel. The result was a heroin burst across Merseyside. The epidemic started on council estates in Croxteth…Croxteth was quickly dubbed ‘smack city’.”

Raybould adds: “The Port of Liverpool Police was under provisioned and not able to deal with the influx of drugs. Liverpool gangsters saw easy pickings – and the rest is history.”

The boom gave rise to infamous Liverpool figures like heroin dealer John Haase, whose last prison sentence was 22 years in 2008, and Curtis Warren, the cocaine dealer – and once Interpol’s ‘Target One’.

The new criminal generation went on to control much of the country’s drug trade, creating the violent gang culture that reverberates through parts of the city today. In 2007 it was revealed the Serious and Organised Crime Agency made more prosecutions against gangsters from Liverpool than anywhere apart from London.

But the heroin trade fuelled crime all around the country. Between 1955 and 1980, the number of indictable offences per thousand people rose by an average of around 1.6 a year. Between 1980 and 1990, the figure rose by 4.9 a year, hitting a record 109 indictable offences per thousand people. The Liverpool Echo website lists 25 fatal victims of gun crime since 2005 alone, including 11 year old Rhys Jones, shot and murdered amidst teenage gang violence, but you can trace the trajectory of that bullet all the way back to the early eighties.

Heroin might have gone out of fashion, but the changes it brought in its wake still scar the city.

Bill Stupples (pic in 1992), now a drugs awareness trainer and advisor, worked in the Merseyside gang crime task force, Matrix. “We prioritised the organised crime groups and families, but the guns and gangs side of the business always took priority,” he says. “The fact drugs underpin the violence seems to be forgotten, even though virtually every search warrant results in drugs and cash being seized. The force seems to have missed the point that you don’t buy a gun then become a drug dealer. You start dealing drugs, then you get a gun to protect or expand your business.”

And this cycle – of drug raids, overdoses, and local crime waves – continues around the country, even if the drug itself has fallen out of favour.

“The best advert for not using heroin is just look at a user. Even amongst other drug users, heroin is seen as a ‘dirty’ drug. Young people are not attracted to it. The number of users is slowly reducing. The heroin community is an ageing population,” Stupples adds.

Just before Christmas, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee became the latest body to doubt the wisdom of criminalising drugs with a report looking at breaking the cycle of dependency and crime.

The deaths, the violence and the squalor led many police officers, though not all, to the same conclusion.

“Even at the time I knew it was a hopeless task. We would have a better chance of emptying the Mersey with a sieve than stopping the use of drugs through the courts,” Barry Jones admits.

Paul Casey adds: “A lot of bobbies came to have this view, and still do. But politicians won’t decriminalise it because they are too scared to look at the bigger picture.”

Drug crime is now the meat and drink of today’s police work, from addicts shoplifting razor blades to massive surveillance operations against importers, but it wasn’t always the case.

Bob Coote retired as an inspector in 1999 after spending most of his career in the Merseyside Police dog unit: “We started off in the 1970s with one dog trained to sniff out cannabis. When I retired, we had about twenty four sniffing out heroin and cocaine. We were run of our feet assisting the drug squad,” he said.

The police officers who fought the heroin boom first hand remember their fight with a mixture of pride, frustration, and sadness at the human misery.

“I saw deaths, saw helpless addicts in the depths of despair, and families ruined,” Mike Mulloy adds.

“The cry of babies born addicted will stay with me forever.”

13 Responses to “Smack City: Thirty Years of Hurt”

  1. Chattypants

    Excellent feature. A couple of things struck me. First, it shows how the geopolitical events of the 1980s combined with the vicious domestic policies of Thatcher would combine to such devastating effect leaving a bleak legacy for Liverpool. Second, how can the present government ignore the views of experienced, weary, senior police officers who now nearly all acknowledge the failures of policing and drugs policies? Nothing has changed in that respect. Sadly.

    About 12 years ago I worked with a senior public health doctor who had completed her degree at Liverpool University in the early 1980s, loved the city, stayed on and wrote what was at the time a controversial paper, covering similar territory to this feature. In it she criticised the inadequate policy and policing response to the smack epidemic and said the effects would be tragic and last several generations. She was right. Also interesting to ponder just how economically active Liverpol was when many considered it to be a write off. It may have been the black economy but it was successful on its own terms. Shame that the entrepreneurial activity wasn’t recognised and harnessed to more positive effect.

  2. Heroin and addiction to opiates, have been around for far longer than 30 years. It is not Heroin that turned up in 1983, but America’s war on drugs, courtesy of Thatchers lover affair with Reagan. And there is now a whole industry built on it. That policeman pictured in his pretty uniform is a footsoldier in it. Until people get this straight, there is no chance of improvement.

  3. I thought Thatcher et al introduced heroin into Liverpool, Bristol, Manchester etc as a response to the riots of 1981, stupefying the youth into compliance, similar to what had previously happened in the USA.

  4. Woodchurch was originally a hamlet centred around Holy Cross church…picture postcard pretty, but a terrifying place to play hide-and-seek at night as a kid.

    In the post-war era it was decided to ship a large numbers of the residents of Birkenhead about 4 miles west, out to newly built public housing at Woodchurch, Noctorum and Ford, straddling what is now the M53. Until that point the low lying land at the foot of Noctorum ridge was, quite literally, all fields.

    My mum’s family moved to ‘The Woody’ from down town Birkenhead in 1958. My 91 year old nan still lives there, in the same house, about 100 yards from where the picture in this article was taken. My other nan’s family also moved from Birkenhead to The Woody, about 400 yards away to Ford Rd, facing what is now the Upton bypass.

    In between my nan’s houses a trio of tower blocks were built – Lymington, Lucerne and Lynmouth Gardens, or the ‘Three Ls’ as they became known. When my nan and grandad on my dad’s side divorced, my grandad moved into one of the Three Ls. The view from so high up was great. He was on about the 8th or 9th floor out of 13, I think.

    Until late ’81 we lived in Woodland Rd, at the ‘top end’ of The Woody as it was known. It was great, we loved it. We roamed the estate and Arrowe Park very freely and never got into any trouble. When you got to 14 you were old enough to get a paper round. I started off delivering morning and weekend papers to the posh houses on Ford Rd in Upton.

    I ‘progressed’ onto delivering the local free rag, the Wirral Globe. It was more money but it was also knackering and soul destroying. They dumped 600 of the buggers on your
    doorstep on a Wednesday morning, and they all had to be delivered by Friday evening. My round covered the Three Ls…and the lifts never worked. It also stank of piss and there was sick everywhere.

    Without realising what was going on around me, this was ’81 and smack was starting to exert its grip on The Woody, The Nocky and The Ford.

    On the way home from school in ’82 a few of us went to a mate’s big sister’s flat in the Three Ls. She was only 17 or 18 and lived there with her boyfriend. We had all gone to Arrowe Hill primary so I knew them well.

    Coming from quite a well-to-do family I couldn’t understand why she’d choose to go and live there. The fact that there was nothing – and I mean nothing – in the flat was a bit of a give-away that they were ‘on the gear’. Once again, it didn’t register. I just thought they
    were skint.

    In late ‘82/early ’83 several of us were offered ‘smack’ by a lad from The Overchurch estate (‘The Ovy’) at a house party in Upton. I had no idea what it was, politely declined and made do with my 3 or 4 cans of cheap lager. I knew ‘smack’ had to be bad because he said we needed to come up with £8 between us. Never mind ‘Just Say No’, simple economics saved the day for us.

    By the time my year finished our ‘O’ levels at Woody High in ’83 we well and truly knew what was going on around us. It seemed like everyone’s big brother or sister was a smackhead. They were the kids we remembered from primary school who were only a few years older. We knew kids in our year that had tried mushies or were into glue, but this was a whole different ball game.

    The kids that left Woody High school at 16 in the early and mid-80’s were decimated. Those of us that stayed on into 6th form to do ‘A’ levels and go onto college or uni were almost completely spared. Almost, but not quite. Those that moved away to find work should be thankful they ‘got on their bikes’.

    Leaving for Leeds university on ’85 was a welcome change. I was shocked to discover that not every shop had steel shutters. The epidemic of car radio thieving and burglaries to nick video recorders to sell for smack seemed noticeably absent in Leeds as well.

    My new mates at uni were mostly Mancs. Predictably they called me ‘Scouse’. Being a geography student I was obviously keen to correct such an inaccuracy. When I told them I was from Birkenhead they responded with ‘Ah, you’re from Smack City’. A few of them even knew about The Woody. Christ on a bike, we were famous.

    In my first year at Leeds my own GP was interviewed on the telly about how the local health services were coping with what was now Wirral’s full-on heroin epidemic. They
    used to give patients heroin-laced cigarettes that they had to smoke at the surgery. This soon gave way to methadone, which has done more harm than good in my opinion.

    My new uni mates came home with me in ’86, mainly to see what all the fuss was about at Quadrant Park. After a very long night ‘over the water’, I took them for a tour of The Woody before we all went back to Leeds.

    They were genuinely surprised. To them it didn’t look like a council estate, with all the green spaces and very wide avenue-style streets like Home Farm Rd. I think they were disappointed not to see half-dead smackheads shooting up in the road. Hey-ho.

    The Three Ls were demolished years ago. A lot of maisonettes on The Woody, along with large chunks of The Ford, were also demolished as they were simply beyond redemption.

    One of my best mates at school moved to London, then abroad, to escape the scene. The girl whose flat I had visited in the Three Ls ended up in jail twice for dealing to support her habit. A family member of mine ended up with a lengthy sentence for crimes committed under threats from his dealer to pay him for gear. His life is only just back in order. How he is still alive I’ll never know. What he’s been through I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

    As well as the wrecked lives through decades of dependency and deaths caused by overdoses, desperation-induced suicides and drug-related health issues are still taking their toll 30 years later.

    A girl I met at uni was from Oxton and went to Birkenhead School. As the pre-eminent local fee paying school this was only a few miles away, but world’s apart. She flatly rejected my description of where I grew up and went to school. How very wrong she was.

    Maybe I’ll point this out to her when we have a 25 year get together in Leeds this summer…but then again, you really had to be there.

  5. Opiates yes, but very limited heroin and almost none in the currently prevalent form (adulterated brown powder); restricted to white Far Eastern #4 and Pharmaceutical Diamorphine HCl, obtained through private doctors, corrupt professionals and chemist or doctor’s burglaries.

    The main opiates before 1983 were pharmaceuticals and most users scored through faking prescriptions, conning/bribing doctors into writing a real one, paying for a private script or taking a more direct route and just burgling chemists. The “frontlines” where drugs were traded on the street existed in a few large cities but were nothing like the ones seen when brown heroin and later crack became mainstream. Diconal, Pink dipipanone/cyclizine tablets, the most euphoric, well loved by hard-shell addicts and intravenous users but the cause of horrific damage and many deaths by thromboses as well as ODs; Palfium, Peach & white dextromoramide tablets, a better hit when taken orally but ultra-risky for injectors due to incidence of sudden acute hypotension; Physeptone, ampoules of liquid designed for injection, as well as tablets, suppositories and liquid- this is the same drug as the generic methadone dispensed today for the majority of addicts receiving substitution therapy except that only the liquid is available. A few people with private prescribers, >20 years addiction history or special circumstances continue to receive the other forms. Narphen, Dromoran, Fortral, Phensydyl, Codeine Linctus BP, Kaolin & Morphine, Sevredol, morphine ampoules, Pethidine (sometimes in ampoules with scopolamine or promethazine), and DF118 were the other opioid preparations available.

  6. Great article & some very interesting comments too (especially WoodyBoy & Triffid, an allegation I’ve heard over the years regarding smack & the NW). I grew up in a block of flats called Houghton Court (Houghton Rd, where that small colour picture above was taken) & went to Arrowe Hill. Both sets of grandparents lived there too (Big Meadow Rd & Home Farm Rd), as did an army of aunts & uncles. I wouldn’t say it was exactly an idyllic place to grow up, but I loved it.

    In the 70s, the worst thing you had to watch out for was a slap off the local skinheads (WEBB). But things definitely got more serious once Thatcher got into power. I was one of the lucky ones. Fortunately for me, my mum re-married in 1981 & we moved to Greasby, a mile in distance but a world away from what was happening on the estate. It was well on top & property crime went through the roof (or the back door). A lot of lads I’d known from Arrowe Hill got into skag & a couple of them never came back. This was the reality of the Tories ‘managed decline’, wreaking havoc upon my contemporaries.

    Houghton Court has long since vanished, as has the pub across the road, The Pelican (known locally as, of course, ‘The Peli’). Occasionally I drive through the estate & it looks a lot better these days. But it’ll never be free of that shadow in my eyes. There were too many bad memories & too many un-necessary deaths.

  7. Jonathan Kuperberg

    a relative in severe pain is on fentanyl & hydromorphone…that is the new top of the tree stuff for most where the diconal, palfium, and amps were 30 years back

  8. Sharon

    Hi everyone nice to see I wasent the only one that came from the woodchurch I lived in big meadow road too we lived in the middle block facing the square and then we moved to the ford estate rite by the one o’clock gun pub we even had a drug bust when we just moved on to the ford but it turned out it was the wrong house I think a mr John Carroll was the housing officer at that time that was a long time ago I was only young thanks for the memory’s xxx

  9. Steve Moore

    You can make that argument for criminality of any kind, vis a vis the amount of innovation and effort it requires, and I would say it is a damning indictment of society that people have the need to be criminal in the first place, and certainly the attitude now of the DWP etc is to drive people to extremes. Drugs do not make people criminal that is purely an economic force, it is coincident that drugs happen to create more pressing need for money and in just the same way it isn’t that drugs make people into junkie zombies, it is more relevant that the vulnerable will turn to drugs when society fails them, exacerbating their problems, mental illness is worsened by social conditions, heroin, alcohol and most narcotics are prevalent due to the medicinal effect they have (on the body and the mind), the problems become that of dependance in attempt to balance NOT addiction (implying the need to get ‘high’), which is what most people with negative affirmation bias, no personal experience and low intelligence believe.

  10. There was certainly a huge crime wave explosion circa 1981, which coincided with readily available heroin. I remember the scene in Birkenhead going from a good night out getting pissed having a dance and a laugh, not being too worried if you hadn’t locked your door- to something much more sinister and instinctively knowing that this wasn’t for me .I was lucky some good people had not so good instinct and lost it all. Economically and socially we were left to rot.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.