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Finding a Fix: Lives ruined as drugs epidemic grips Dundee

New STV News documentary tells the personal stories in city where one dies a week from drugs.

Heroin is at the centre of Dundee's drugs problem. Spencer Platt/Getty

Dundee is the drugs death capital of Europe, a city where the situation is so desperate it has been described as a public health emergency.

The Tayside Drug Death Review Group records around one fatality every week at an average age of just 38.

A special commission has been set up to help reduce the number of lives lost and is due to publish its findings soon – promising brave and bold action.

STV News has examined the toll taken by drugs in the city for a new documentary series beginning on Tuesday night.

Scotland Stories: Finding a Fix tells some of the personal accounts behind the drugs epidemic.

We spoke to an emotional father-of-three whose wife was brutally murdered in a row over drugs and the bereft mother of a heroin-addicted daughter.

But there is hope too, in the form of a reformed addict who is a light in the lives of others blighted by addiction.

Forrest Alexander’s life was devastated by drugs when his wife and mother of three children Holly was murdered for “a handful of pills and a small bag of heroin”.

Holly died in December 2016, a year after the couple left Florida for his home city, where they set up a pizzeria.

“I never ever thought I would bring Holly back to Scotland and Holly would die on the streets of Dundee,” he said.

“She was beautiful; Holly was gorgeous, 5ft 6in, blonde hair, brown eyes. She had the greatest nature, she would never hurt a fly.

“Holly was a homebody, she liked to cook. Anything to do with children or activities for them, she loved being a mother.”

Holly’s addiction started with valium and quickly spiralled into heroin.

“It’s like her soul was stolen, like she sold her soul, she just wasn’t there any more. It was like a different person,” explained Alexander.

“Holly was no longer Holly. She took so much pride in herself, make-up, her hair, getting her nails done, the clothes that she bought, just all that went from a ten to a one, not even a one.

“She just didn’t care. She didn’t care about anything, well she did care about something. She cared about getting high.”

Holly left the family home to live with a drug dealer and weeks later they were both found dead.

“She was murdered by a desperate person doing a desperate act to feed his addiction,” Forrest said.

“They were both murdered for a tiny bit of powder and a handful of pills, the bottom line. She was murdered over drugs.”

Carol Evans never stops worrying about her daughter.

Kelsey Harper, 27, had her first taste of heroin ten years ago after suffering a series of personal tragedies.

In the years that followed, Kelsey would steal from her family and shops, and ended up in prison.

“It wasn’t long after her dad died and three weeks later her dog, we had to put him down, and then my granny died not long after that and then she fell out with her boyfriend,” said Evans.

“I couldn’t believe Kelsey took heroin. It wasn’t in her character at all. I was really shocked and before I knew it she was down that slippery slope, stealing to feed her habit.

“She would steal out of shops, things like cheese and coffee, and sell them to people standing outside pubs.

“Numerous occasions I went home and my television was gone or every television was gone. She’d gone to one of the pawnbrokers, and then at the end of the month I would go and buy it back.

“When she got the jail one time, it broke my heart.

“I’m really worried about Kelsey. I wait on that phone call, that knock on the door to say that she’s no longer here.”

Evans is well aware of the wider drugs problem in Dundee, and has tried everything to put a shield between the culture and her daughter.

“I’ve had people offering her drugs and when I’ve approached them to say ‘don’t offer my daughter drugs’, had an argument with one of the dealers in the street,” she said.

“She went to hit me. She had a needle, a dirty needle, between her fingers and saying she was going to put this in my eye.

“I just feel like I can’t fix her. I’m her mum, I can’t fix her. I’ll keep trying though.”

Kelsey is now on a methadone programme and is determined to come off drugs, and secure work or a college place.

“What’s really worrying is the amount of deaths that’s going on in Dundee,” she said. “I’ve actually lost count to be honest. I couldn’t put a number on it, there’s that many.”

Asked what she wants to achieve, Kelsey added: “Hopefully get a job and be clean and make my mum proud for the first time.”

Kelsey is being helped on the road to recovery by former heroin addict Sharon Brand who now supports others fighting back from addiction.

The 41-year-old co-founded support group Recovery Dundee, which holds open mic nights, art and music classes and gym sessions to build their confidence.

“It helps them showcase the talents that they’ve got,” she said. “There’s the connection to the community, also it’s an opportunity if they need to speak to somebody or they’re feeling a bit lonely or isolated.

“It sort of breaks up the week or at least connects you with people that are going through the same things.”

She believes drug services in Dundee require an overhaul.

“When somebody goes for support, right at that very moment they ask is the moment you need to be there to support them,” she said.

Sharon Brand is working to help addicts battle back. STV

“Whether it’s to sit with them and speak until four o’clock in the morning or to help them connect with their family again, or help them build the confidence to go into a drug service – that moment is very shortlived.”

The mother of two believes methadone has a place in a person’s recovery, but too many are left languishing on the daily treatment for years and, in some case, decades.

“You’re giving somebody a very addictive substance for a long period of time,” she said. “You’re not treating the reason why they became addicted in the first place because you’re masking that.

“You’re trying to recover from at least a decade’s worth of drug use and emotional trauma from childhood before that so you can’t medicate somebody for that long and expect them to work through the issues they had before.”

She is anxiously awaiting the findings of the Dundee Drugs Commission and is hopeful of a bold approach.

“If that doesn’t happen then we’re going to be sitting back in another ten years and god knows how many more people would have died by then.”

Danny Kelly works at a needle exchange centre in the city – and compares the number of drugs deaths to those killed in road crashes.

“If those figures were the other way around, we wouldn’t be getting into a car at night and driving home,” he said.

He works for the Cairn Centre, run by Gowrie Care, which sees 300 drug addicts – mainly heroin users – every month.

He believes the main reason people are dying in Dundee is because there is cheap, readily available drugs that are easy to access.

“The main drug we are seeing on a daily basis is heroin,” he said. “This is used alongside street valium or diazepam.

“When these drugs are used in combination these are ultimately what’s killing people.”

He hopes the Dundee Drugs Commission will recommend so-called ‘fix rooms’, where drug users can consume with clean equipment under the supervision of medics.

He said: “I think with the V&A and all the limelight that’s been on Dundee. I think people do want to see to see something different.

“I think there’s great pressure on the drugs commission to come up with some kind of answers, something new something different.”

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