A judge claimed heroin use in the town was at ‘epidemic levels’ – here’s what people at the heart of the town’s drug problem think
Anthony Thomas has been a drug addict since he started using as a teenager.
He’s 45 now and amphetamines have left him with no teeth. He had been living on the streets for five weeks when we met him in Llanelli. His hands were filthy and he admitted he smelled.
“I’m an addict, I’m addicted to amphetamines,” he said from under his blue check hat.
“I started bothering with the wrong crew when I was 18 when I was learning to drive. I just wanted to drive and ended up driving my friends around when I was off my face.”
He had arrived in Llanelli from Neath to get help at the town’s Choose Life drop-in centre.
The town hit the headlines last month after Judge Geraint Walters claimed heroin use there was at “epidemic levels” when he jailed dealers Samuel Thorne, Philip Williams, Debbie Louise Wood, Darren Polverino and David Williams.
The judge said there was a “large group of people who are engaged in the use and distribution” of heroin in the town, and that they were damaging the wider community.
Was the judge right? Is heroin use at “epidemic levels” in Llanelli? Is it a bigger problem there than in other Welsh towns of a similar size?
Anthony – who is not a heroin user – said: “There are worse towns than Llanelli for heroin.”
A quick Google search reveals scores of stories about Llanelli and drugs. But you’d get the same for any town that size.
In 2013 the custody suite at the town’s police station became the first to trial Naloxone – an antidote for opiates.
Some 17 people were arrested during Operation Panther last summer – the five jailed last month were caught as part of that.
During proceedings at Swansea Crown Court, Judge Walters heard undercover officers were asked by a man at Choose Life to drive him to a Burry Port flat. The investigators gave him £30 for heroin, and David Williams arrived 10 minutes later with drugs. Williams, of Station Road, Burry Port, was sentenced to 40 months in prison.
Choose Life was founded by ex-heroin addict Alan Andrews. Between the ages of 13 and 29 he spent his life in and out of detention centres.
He claimed the dealers locked up were “low level”.
“We do need to get drugs off the street but those targeted by the police were low-level drug users and there were people caught up who were not even taking heroin, but ended up going to score for undercover officers.
“That’s wrong. But in their world they were doing them a favour because the officers were pretending to be going cold turkey. Then they have gone to score and given it the officer.
“I think they need to go to prison because you can’t do that, but they were still victims of drugs. We need to deal with the reasons why people take drugs. We need to stop being so judgemental in our attitude to drug users.”
Mr Andrews said many addicts (he claimed the figure was “99.9%”) had experienced “childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, verbal abuse, neglect or divorce”.
“One girl I met, her opening line to me was ‘My grandfather is my father’,” he said.
“And that was the best part of her story. At the end of it I told her I could not blame her for taking drugs.
“When you’re addicted you’re a slave and a slave has to do what the master says. And if the slave does not there is punishment. That punishment with the addict is that the addict has to face what he is hiding from.
“And that is the last thing he wants to do. They are on a treadmill.”
Because of their habits users were the “most manipulating, conniving people on the planet”, he said, but he added that users should not be dumped “in a cell with a TV” and should be rehabilitated instead.
And he insisted that Llanelli was not in the grip of an epidemic.
“If there was a flu epidemic half the town would have flu and that is not the case with heroin,” he said.
“If you walk around Llanelli you don’t see drug users injecting on the streets but in other towns and cities you do.”
But the numbers aren’t going down, according to West Wales Drug Aid director, Ifor Glyn, who said heroin use was “widespread.”
“I would not say that we are seeing a reduction in the number of people using heroin,” he said.
“Last year there were statistics saying that for the first time in five years the statistics for drug-related deaths had gone up.
“We are working with the Welsh Government to address drug-related deaths.
“One of the things that came out of a recent report was showing that a lot of people who died in the previous years tended to be older people and not in touch with any services – by older I mean up to about 50.”
He insisted Llanelli was “no worse” than similar towns and advocated addicts being given Naloxone kits.
“There are drug issues but Judge Walters did not do Llanelli any favours by saying there is an epidemic,” Mr Glyn said.
“There is not an epidemic.”
He advocated “fix rooms” to allow users to take drugs under medical supervision, adding: “They are not going to address the drug problem or sort it out. They need to be part of a wider spectrum of services.”
But opiates are not the only thing for sale.
“Amphetamines are the drug of choice for me and I’ve been addicted to them for all my life,” Anthony said.
“A day in my life is basically chasing after a gram. It’s £10 for a gram. I’ll get up, if I’ve got no amphetamine. If I’ve got some I will not have been to sleep.”
His habit is funded through his benefit payments.
“I go without food,” he said, adding that Choose Life “comes in handy because they give me a meal a day”.
“I have seen so many deaths (from heroin). You get close to heroin addicts and the next thing they’re gone. I’ve seen quite a few die. I’m talking two or three hundred who have died through heroin, it’s a bad drug.”
Anthony has “not been to the doctor in years”.
“It’s made me look a bit under the weather though,” he said of his habit.
“I’ve got no teeth, though, because of the amphetamine. Once one falls out, the rest go too.
“I manage to eat all my food by sucking it. Having no teeth makes me sad because I cannot get a dentist.”
Anthony, who is originally from Aberdare, has not had any drugs today and said he would “love to be drug free one day.”
“I want to see my granddaughter,” he said.
“She is one, but I’ve never met her. That’s one of the reasons for me being here now. It was my choice not to see her until I’m clean. It’s a little girl.
“I’ve seen photos of her and she is stunning. I’m all proud, I can’t wait to go and meet her.
“I think I will get off drugs. I’m 45 now and I have had enough.”
Choose Life is on Llanelli’s Copperworks Road. Around the corner, on Station Road, business owners had less sympathy with drug users.
Mustafa Hakman is the 54-year-old owner of The Willow Cafe.
“I’ve been here for 11 years and it is getting better but all the same people are here, they are all druggies and alcoholics,” the dad-of-four said.
“They get their methadone from the chemist but they are also drinking and we are paying through our taxes.”
He said drop-in centres in the area led to people “coming together”.
He pointed over the road to the former townhouses that have been broken up into flats. “To Let” signs poked from the side of the scruffy buildings.
“I don’t recommend coming anywhere near here after six,” he said.
Outside a man shouted from the pavement to someone in a top floor flat. A set of keys in a sock dropped from the window.
“I’ve seen a minimum of 12 [drug users] today,” Mustafa said.
“Walking up and down every day from the morning until the evening.
“They do it in the back lane. Last week I saw a woman with a syringe hanging out of her armpit. It’s disgusting.”
There is foil on the floor in the lane. And Mustafa has a number on his fridge to call in case he found needles.
“I don’t bother calling now,” he said.
“I just pick them up and chuck them in the bin.
“I don’t want my kids to play in the back yard because every morning I have to check it to see whether it is safe.”
He said when addicts go into his cafe they “ruin my business.”
“If I handle it myself then I’m committing a crime, although every time I do need to call the police they are here in about five minutes,” he said.
“I’ve barred all of them, would you want to sit next to a druggie? I’ve chained up the tips box on the counter now. I used to have boxes for Marie Curie and the Poppy Appeal but they were nicking them so I don’t have the charity boxes anymore.
“I’m going at the end of the year. I’m leaving the country and going to Thailand.”
Adam Ozmen runs Llanelli Kebab Shop next door. He said his business had been burgled twice by thieves who took everything from cash to pizza cheese.
“There are a lot of people on heroin here, that and cocaine,” he said.
“It’s not good. At night time, when I work, it’s a lot more dangerous than during the day.
“One young girl walking down Station Road, someone came out of one of the flats and just stuck a glass in her face – that was a few months ago.”
“Some of these people are taking Spice, or whatever you call it,” Adam claimed, referring to the synthetic cannabis-like substance that can see users frozen in slumped-over positions that sees them compared to “zombies.”
Outside his shop a man in a hooded top paced up and down the street. He covered the same 100-yard stretch for the best part of an hour.
“You see people who smoke hash and they are no trouble but you’ve got people on heroin, spice and whatever else,” Adam said.
“On the weekend cocaine is the rage and between that and the alcohol you’ve got a problem. It’s an impossible situation.”
Agata, who did not want to give her surname, runs Sezam Polish shop.
“There is lots of drugs and drink here,” she said, saying the police were regular visitors and the area was “impossible to change.”
“It’s the same in Poland, we have areas like this too,” she added.
No one else on the street wanted to be named for fear of reprisals but one businessperson said there was often “fighting, screaming, taking drugs outside”.
“I would like to see them moved or at least not all put together,” they said.
“Why are they all together here in one spot?”
The trader thought things had become worse over the years.
“We pay for our bins to be taken away but when we look in them they are filled with needles,” they said.
“You have to have someone remove them because they won’t take the bins if they are full of needles.”
But another shopkeeper insisted they “did not see a lot” of trouble now, though they did refer to people “like walking zombies at one time.”
“There have not been any burglaries here or anything,” he said. “There is a good community here.”
Sitting in the car I watched two men leave a flat. One of them tried the handle on the derelict property next door.
A few minutes later a third man arrived at the flat the men had left. He talked into a mobile phone. A few minutes later he was let in.
Llanelli councillor Jeff Owen’s ward covers Station Road, where the problems are mainly at one end of the street – “the lower end” near the train tracks – but “tarnished the whole area”.
“There is certainly a problem there, what with the amount of deaths there last year,” he said.
“Over the last 20 years the area has become tremendously run down. The problem on Station Road, in fact the whole Tyisha ward, is the amount of private lets.
“Builders are buying up family homes and they are turning them into flats.”
He wanted to change the ward and move in more families.
“There is a selective housing policy in my ward which means that anyone with anti-social behaviour problems cannot go into social housing on the ward,” he said, adding that regeneration was “a long-term thing”.
“It’s a complex problem and there are lots of things we are trying to do.”
“There are too many people with drug problems on Station Road,” he said. “How are they going to get off drugs if they are all congregating there?
“If anyone comes to Station Road and wants to get off drugs it is going to be difficult to do so with the people who are still on it and a lot of them don’t want to get off drugs.”
Carmarthenshire Commander Superintendent Gary Mills also said drug use in Llanelli could not be said to be worse than in other similar places.
He said Dyfed-Powys Police was “committed to tackling the supply and misuse of drugs in our communities”.
“It is well documented that controlled drugs are available and being used at all levels of society, and there is no evidence to indicate that drugs are being supplied and used more in the Llanelli area than any other similar areas in the country,” he said.
“However one drug dealer on our streets is one too many. Drugs cause misery to the individuals, their families and communities as a whole and therefore we will continue to cause as much disruption to the drug market as possible through education, prevention and prosecution.
“An ongoing successful operation is Operation Panther which is centred on the illegal drug activities of people in the Llanelli area with a strong focus on identifying, arresting and prosecuting those involved in the sourcing, storage, preparation and supply of harmful controlled drugs, specifically heroin.
“This enforcement is complemented by a multi-agency intervention strategy supported by partner agencies including the Dyfed Drug and Alcohol Service that signpost drug users, some of the most vulnerable members in our community, to support and advice so that their cycle of addiction can be broken and deter them from criminality.
“This proactive activity indicates our commitment to focus our activities on those people who are involved in trafficking dangerous drugs to our communities, not only in the Llanelli area but across other parts of the Dyfed-Powys Police area and we will continue with this positive action.
He said he wanted to see young people educated about the dangers of drugs and for parents to be able to spot the signs.
“There is help available and if you are concerned that a family member or friend is being affected by drug misuse, or you yourself would like advice on drug misuse, please contact us and we will be able to put you in touch with someone who can help,” he said.
“We would like to send a clear message to those who deal in drugs that we will use every legal and tactical option to bring them to justice.
“We would also like to send a message to members of our community who find themselves trapped in the spiral of drug addiction that there is help for them from treatment and support agencies who are there for them.
“Their focus is on taking them away from the evils of dangerous controlled drugs.”