Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1345 - 1359)




  1345. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. This is one of the final public sessions of our inquiry into the Government's drug policy and we thought it would be wrong of us were we to conclude without hearing from representatives of the families of people who have suffered in one way or another from drugs. So, that is the purpose of this morning's session. If I may, what I will do is ask each of you to tell us about your personal circumstances and what made you interested in this area, and then we will go on to discuss some of the issues with you. What we are particularly interested to hear from you—and we will come to this later—is the quality of the services available at local level for those addicts who want to get off drugs. Perhaps I can start with Mr Gillespie. Can you tell us a little about your personal circumstances, what got you interested and the effect it has had on your family.

  (Mr Gillespie) Thank you, Chairman. Could I just say briefly that I am very grateful for this opportunity to be able to come and speak to such an important Committee because very often parents are the last people who get an opportunity to actually talk to the decision makers. So, thank you for that. The other thing I would like to say is that anything I do say about drugs, I am in no way condoning their use and I am not an advocate for their use. I do not represent anybody or any organisation. I represent only myself. To answer your question directly, when my son became involved with hard drugs, I could not really find anywhere that would be prepared to deal with his particular case because there did not seem to be any structure whereby a young person who was involved with hard drugs was particularly welcomed into the system. I gained the impression, particularly within the NHS, that they wanted somebody they could fix quickly and get rid of. I do not mean that pejoratively, but just somebody they could get pushed through. My son died two years ago, a month short of his 34th birthday. He had been involved with hard drugs for about three or four years before that. He was introduced to drugs at school, strangely enough by a doctor's son who had stolen some stuff from his father's surgery. To cut a long story short, despite our best efforts and the school's best efforts and other parents who had other children in the same situation, he progressed steadily through the chain, if you like, and finished up on heroin. I cannot pinpoint any particular reason he out of our five children should have chosen this route to take. Apart from it being a decimating experience for the family, it was particularly hard for his brothers and sisters who had tried very hard to wean him off this and persuade him to take a different direction. Unlike my other children, he was an extremely sensitive boy. One of the first things that hit him particularly hard was the Falklands War which he could not see the point of; he was very phlegmatic and diffident as an individual. Any kind of cruelty to animals affected him badly. He was beside himself with the last Kosovo conflicts. I am not making excuses but possibly a reason for his drug use was his inability to confront real life and exigencies of that. He is clearly not alone because I have made it my business to get close to the circles in which he moved and I have found very similar situations with these people. None of them were vindictive or nasty; they would not go round attacking old ladies; they were very peaceable individuals who just seemed to need an alternative to the existence that we all have if you like, and there does not seem to be any way of persuading them that there are other ways to run your life. I do not want to go on at great length but I can assure you, Chairman, that there are very few things in life that concentrate the mind more than losing a child. So, I had to think about this very, very firmly. Until my son became involved in drugs, I have to confess that I was one of those people who thought, build more prisons, get more police and, if they want to kill themselves, that is fine, chuck away the key. I had to think about it really hard and I eventually came to the conclusion that the only way I could see—and I speak entirely personally and I do not expect people to agree with this—would be to legalise all drugs.

  1346. Can I stop you there, Mr Gillespie because we will come to that in a moment. At the moment, what I want to get from each of you is your personal experience which you have very articulately described. May I just ask how your son funded his habit.
  (Mr Gillespie) By stealing.

  1347. So that presumably brought him into contact with the criminal justice system?
  (Mr Gillespie) I am convinced that he is dead because of the law. He was arrested—ironically, it was not him; I am not defending him, it just happened that he was not because he was freed—and spent five weeks on remand. In a remand wing, there are no drugs available. Apparently, drugs are available in the long term areas of prisons but they are not in the remand wings because the throughput is so quick. When he was released from there, I picked him up from the station. I noticed the sheen on his face; I could recognise the signs. He had obviously been to get more stuff because he had been without for five weeks. I think you will see from the statement that I made to you that the Coroner's view was that he had been a long time without, he then took his normal dose but it was adulterated, it was toxic, and he died—he slept away, he did not wake up.

  1348. For how long was he addicted to heroin?
  (Mr Gillespie) I do not know exactly but I would say, prior to his death three to four years.

  1349. Was he living at home during that time?
  (Mr Gillespie) No, he was not, he was living in Ipswich. He had a flat in Ipswich, he came back to live in my village and then moved back to Ipswich to see a friend and he died in their flat.

  1350. What was the impact of his addiction on the family over those three or four years?
  (Mr Gillespie) Just awful really. Everybody tried to help him. As I say, I feel the sorriest for his brothers and sisters. It is one thing to lose a child, which was my loss; their loss was a brother and a much loved brother because he was actually a very nice bloke; he was very laid back, easy-going, extremely pleasant and a great favourite in the family.

  1351. Thank you very much. We will come back to you in a moment if we may. Could I turn now to Mr Sims of ADFAM. Perhaps you could start by explaining what ADFAM is and why it was set up.
  (Mr Sims) ADFAM was started in 1984 by the mother of somebody using heroin because, as is still the experience and was commonly the experience then, she could not find any help for her own needs or in fact for the child who was using at that point. In 1989, we started a help line for families affected by alcohol and drugs and we now get about 12,000 calls a year from family members who could be grandparents, siblings, parents, anybody really. As an organisation, we define the family very broadly. We also have a quite sizeable prisons project which works face-to-face with family members in London prisons' visitor centres and it advises other prison regions around the country about how to handle the issue of families. We also provide community development support to family groups around the country. I bring a background from the United States where I worked in the prisons, drugs and HIV sectors and the last year since I joined has been spent touring different parts of the UK although not all parts of the UK—I am looking at Mrs Humphreys and Ms Williams because I have not been to their parts of the UK—to find out from families themselves what their true needs are and to try and address that through our contacts with Government, for example.

  1352. How do you fund your existence?
  (Mr Sims) Partly through Government grants from the Department of Health and from the Prison Service to work with the prison population, through private donations and through sizeable contributions from foundations and trusts.

  1353. How did you come to this work?
  (Mr Sims) I was running a hospice in Los Angeles which was a hospice for people who had come out of the prison system in the United States and were dying of AIDS. We had about 25 residents, 90 per cent of whom were using something, anything usually to self-medicate or to deal with what was happening to them. In LA, the particular epidemics at the moment are crack cocaine, although that is on the decline, and crystal amphetamine. We had a resident called Daniel who was about 23 and had been hooked on crystal meth for some years. A hospice is not a prison, people can come and visit and go out and visit the community, so he was able to keep his habit supplied. Every time that he was coming down from a two or three day bout of use of crystal meth, he was desperate to get treatment, but we could never find it for him, which is a common enough story there as here. In the end, as he was so violent and so disruptive, he was discharged again to the street where he died. To me, that was the most memorable of many experiences where not only were people who were using treated with disregard in my experience but, also when they were on the lookout for treatment or support or some kind of intervention, they often could not find it. I suppose that led me to become more involved in the work when I returned to the UK.

  1354. Mrs Humphreys?
  (Mrs Humphreys) I am also one of those parents who was very ignorant about drugs and the whole thing until it happened to us. My son was a student and what I have learnt since is that lots of students smoke cannabis and they also quite like to go clubbing and take ecstasy. Most of them do not have any problems with drugs, they just have a problem with the law. When my son was caught, he told the truth, that he was taking a turn to get them for his friends. Ecstasy is a Class A drug, that is supply of a Class A drug and you have to go to prison. It was just out of the blue. We have three really great sons. He was at university; the other two are graduates. We had no worries and our son did not have a drug problem. There was nothing we could do; he told the truth and we had to wait. He went along eight months later, was sentenced and went to prison for two-and-a-half years. The university was mavellous, they kept his place and he went back and got his degree and went on to a masters, but it was a shattering experience for all of us. We had to learn so much about what children do and the fact that we cannot really control them. You can try everything and they are decent kids, not bad people, just people who are using drugs, and they are not even all that foolish. A lot of them certainly know a lot more than parents and more than most people. They have made a considered decision and they know what they are doing and we let them buy contaminated drugs on the streets and, to my mind, that is why most of the accidents happen.

  1355. When you say that your son took a considered decision, there are those who would say that he knew what the consequences were.
  (Mrs Humphreys) I know. You can always say that people know the consequences but they do not really. People still smoke, people still do things, and somebody has made this law and has decided that some drugs are legal and some are not and it is so haphazard. Some are much more dangerous that are legal and they are all controlled. Yes, he knew he was breaking the law but they all must know that and they still do it and hope they will not get caught. What we have learnt is that you must never tell the truth if you get caught because you will be in serious trouble. If he had kept quiet, he would not have gone to prison. As a parent who has brought up my child to tell the truth, I think it is terrible that it was the truth that got him into so much trouble.

  1356. Thank you. We will come back to that in a moment. Ms Williams?
  (Ms Williams) My name is Tina Williams and I am from a little town in the north-east called Stockton. About five years ago, I found out that my son was using heroin. He did not live at home at the time, he lived with his girlfriend a few streets away. That is when my nightmare began. I tried to access services for him but there were no services and not only were there no services but there was the "shame and blame" culture where they said to him that, if he could not manage on 20 mls of methadone after he had waited six months, then it was his fault, not theirs. Then, it would be my fault because I was not tough enough, that I should chuck him out onto the streets, that I should refuse him a bath. This was the kind of support that we got from our local services and they still continue to peddle that type of information. That is why we set up PANIC which is a group of parents and users. Let us face it, I am not going to be well until he is well. He is part of my family and I cannot give up on him. Just to carry on with my story, he eventually returned home and kept saying, "Mam, mam, I need help, I cannot cope." I watched him go through withdrawal after withdrawal and he has cried and he has been rolling in agony on the floor. I have gone to doctors who have said, "Give him some Milk of Magnesia." We would not let animals suffer the effects of a withdrawal but we let human beings go through it. In the end, it came down to a moral dilemma for me because he did not have anyone. I did not want him to stay but I was not going to chuck him out onto the streets either because what good does that do? Some parents could not cope because the kids have stolen everything in the house, and then the parents have had to go and see their kids laid in coffins. So, I kept him at home and I was put in that moral dilemma that I did not want him to stay. I did not want him to hurt anybody in the community. I love my community; it is a lovely little community and we all try and pull together there because we are all part of the community. I have had to fund his habit and, in the end, I went to Mo Mowlam—she was a local MP—and I begged her for help because I had tried everything else. I had been to the health authority; I had tried the lot and got nowhere. In the end, we were able to access some residential rehabilitation. Methadone did not work for him. He has no veins left in his body; all his neck veins went; all his groin veins went. However, it did not make any difference, there was still a five month waiting list. There is no such thing as an emergency. That was it. He could not take methadone; it used to give his nightmares; he used to feel sick; his stomach was cramped all the time. We have got him into a rehab now but this is a number of years down the line and I do not know what quality of life he has. I am pleased to say that he is in a rehab and he is fine. I just wish that help could have been there sooner because he has thrombosis in his legs and he has a lot of nerve damage and vein damage, but at least he is alive. I am here really to ask that we do not let people suffer like that any more. It is an illness. He said to me, "Mam, it takes all the control away, it controls you." You can see in someone's eyes if they need a fix because they are not themselves any more, their eyes look straight past you. There are times when he has stolen the telly and things in the house and he has cried afterwards because, as soon as he has had his fix, he is full of remorse and has said how sorry he is. He has said, "Mam, phone the police. I do not blame you. Get the police. Get me put away." I have wondered what the point of that would be because most of them come out and they will use again and, like you say, they can get drugs in there. I just hoped and hoped and we have tried to fight this together and it is your worst nightmare. If you speak to the family, everybody is affected: my grandson is affected as are his brothers and sisters. There have been no holidays for five years. The home has just really stood there, it has stood still because time has stood still for me. Just like any parent, if you have a child and that child is sick, you drop everything to try and pick that child up. That is why I feel so sad for people who have lost their children and for people who are still dying. In this country, three people die a day from addiction and I think it can all be avoided. If the services were in place, then death could be avoided. Like you have heard, my son is a kind, kind lad. There is not a nicer kid going. He is very, very kind. That is what we find when we work with them, that they are most grateful for anything that you can give them and any help they can get.

  1357. You were saying that PANIC is an advice service for families.
  (Ms Williams) It is an advice service, it is a support service; it takes them to hospital; it will do anything. It will do anything to try and get them back onto the right road, get them help and make them well. We will do whatever it takes to get them the right services that they need.

  1358. How is that funded?
  (Ms Williams) All we have is £20,000; we got that from the local council who supports us very well. It is not a lot of money. We have premises to run from that and we had to get the premises put together, and we run a 24 hour help line. A lot of it is done by volunteers. Just last week we got a new GP service in our town, it is a specialist drug service, and they had given PANIC all the appointments and we ran all day and picked them all up from the homes and took them into that service and they were running after the car saying, "Please take me, please take me." In our town, we have at least 2,000 heroin users and it is only a small town.

  1359. When you say "our town", are you talking about Stockton or Teesside in general?
  (Ms Williams) I am talking about Stockton. We have a population of 170,000 and there are at least 2,000 heroin users. That is a conservative estimate, there are probably more.

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