Smack City: Thirty Years Of Hurt On Merseyside

One anniversary the city won't be celebrating is the fact that, thirty years ago, heroin changed us, and Merseyside, for good. I talked to those on the front line back in 1983.
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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…

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.

“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.

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“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.”

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