Detective Inspector Grant Johnson has worked the full range of the drugs spectrum, from arresting dealers and users on the streets to identifying those involved in the worldwide distribution of drugs.
Drug barons stand to make huge profits from just a single operation. A haul of 50 kg (110 lb) of cocaine can be worth £500,000 before it is cut and sold on the street.
Mr Johnson said that the British criminals bringing in the drugs would have been bank robbers in the 1970s and 1980s but have swapped specialisms, as the risk with drugs is less: “They don’t have to be at the front end of the action, they can direct the whole shipment from Colombia to England without ever seeing the drugs or coming into contact with anyone handling them.
“All they do is send someone to pick up the money when the drugs are delivered. The financial rewards are huge for them and it does not matter if two of their four shipments get taken out, the money they make on the other two is more than enough.
“But they should not forget that if they get caught there is a very good chance they will be spending the best part of the rest of their life in jail.”
Naheem Nazir led a ruthless gang of drug dealers who ruled Blackburn’s streets with violence and fear.
Nazir, 39, made sure that his “Nez” gang defended their turf and their £1.6 million cocaine, cannabis and crack business. Police feared that innocent members of the public would be caught up in the growing street battles.
A seven-month operation, codenamed Tobago, found that the gang was a sophisticated and organised network of layers. A team of “custodians”, who stored the drugs, reported to Nazir. Ordinary gang members cut and bagged the drugs and sold them to the street dealers.
Surveillance showed that the gang was hiding large quantities of drugs in hedgerows bordering seldom-used roads and tracks. They also found 3kg of cocaine inside a safe used by one of the gang. The company that supplied the safe confirmed that it had sold it to Nazir and it had been delivered to one of his “runners”. Another important piece of the prosecution case was telephone evidence. Experts analysed more than 90,000 telephone calls made over a year to prove the identity of the gang members and their connection to each other.
During one house raid, officers searched a ceiling rose and found three telephone Sim cards. DNA evidence proved that they belonged to Nazir.
Fingernail clippings were also taken from the defendants. Although this happens regularly in sex crimes, it was an unusual move for a drugs case. Many of the clippings tested positive for cocaine.
At the end of a trial in November, Nazir and 16 members of his gang were jailed.
Zahir (not his real name) was 14 years old when he first bought drugs. Now 34, he is battling against a heroin addiction.
“Like most of my friends, I started on weed,” he said. “By the time I was 17 I had started taking E (Ecstasy) and coke. But it wasn’t until I started heroin that things got out of hand.”
He held a string of jobs with irregular hours that allowed him time to scour local parks for a deal. Eventually it became impossible to hold down a job. “To get the money I started stealing off my family – taking my sister’s jewellery and selling it on.
“I’d get up at about midday and by the afternoon I’d be off to a park to score or else to hostels where I knew there’d be other users.”
The ready availability of heroin hastened Zahir’s descent to addiction. At its worst he was spending more than £50 a day. “It’s a 24-hour thing – it’s just spread so quickly. In Birmingham, the drugs scene and the trafficking was taken over by the Pakistani and Kashmiri gangs. Heroin has become very cheap and very easy to get on the ground.
“Each ethnic group will stick to its own circles and have its own dealers.”
Mike Trace oversees treatment programmes at the charity RAPt, which specialises in intensive therapy for ex-offender addicts.
“I am an optimist. I think the investment that has been made in treatment is paying off in terms of a reduction in the crimes addicts commit, and twice as many people are in treatment compared with seven years ago. But there are still big problems.”
Half of all prisoners are assessed as being in need of drug treatment and there is no problem in engaging them in therapy while they are behind bars, Mr Trace said. About 50,000 get some sort of detox medication and 11,000 get “structured intervention”, which includes talking therapies. But all too often, the treatment available is less than rigorous.
“Because of the numbers involved it is often low-threshold treatment on offer such as short-term counselling, or a few sessions with health workers. That is unlikely to help many long-term drug users turn their lives around,” he said.
Mr Trace is even more concerned about treatment after prison. “The biggest weakness is when people come out of prison. It is crucial to get this right and people should leave prison with a clear treatment plan, but most don’t and many simply take their discharge grant and go and score. Only a minority go into second stage treatment when they leave. All the gains made in prison can therefore be lost.”
Addicts who have not had a run-in with the law face even fewer options. They have to operate under their own motivation and face a postcode lottery in services, with some receiving intensive treatment programmes and others little at all.