Smack City tries to kick the habit

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The Independent Online
IT TOOK the death of a 13-year-old boy from heroin to arouse the people of Cranhill to reclaim the housing scheme's mean stairways and corridors from the drug dealers.

The trade in heroin, amphetamines and cannabis was quite open and often backed by violence. To youngsters here, picking their way past a hollow- eyed figure injecting heroin in a tower-block corridor was commonplace.

This week's Home Office survey warning of a heroin epidemic among teenagers was no shock to Cranhill, where for years parents have warned their children not to pick up needles or "sweeties" but felt powerless to fight back.

There is little glamour in the drugs culture of Cranhill or in the place itself - a collection of 2,400 homes in council tenements, 1960s maisonettes and three tower blocks by the M8 motorway on the outskirts of Glasgow. The only obviously historic building is Barlinnie Prison, known locally as "the big house".

As much as its neighbour, Easterhouse, Cranhill fits Billy Connolly's description of "a desert wi' windaes". A lot of the windows though, close to where 13-year-old, Allan Harper died and in October, three small children and their mother perished in a fire, are boarded up.

Allan was found dead from an overdose on 3 January in one of the maisonettes; his shoulder gnawed by the three bull terriers belonging to his mother's boyfriend. He may have bought the heroin from one of the ice cream vans that ply the housing schemes (estates).

As parish priest John Gannon observed, had Allan been three years older nobody would have bothered about the death. Indeed within a fortnight there was another drugs death in Cranhill but the victim was a 34-year old man; a run-of-the-mill case.

Allan's death first traumatised and then galvanised the families of Cranhill. Fr Gannon's message, that they were all, in a sense, to blame for the tragedy, struck home. A candle-lit procession attracted more than 400. Had only a few stalwarts turned out, the glimmer of hope for Cranhill would have been extinguished. "When you live in a community where drugs are rife you tend to keep your head down," said Gaille McCann, a councillor and a leading player in the newly formed Mothers Against Drugs group.

The dealers do not necessarily conform to a stereotype thug with loaded pockets. Housewives commonly deal from their homes, confident that there is little chance of being caught and virtually none of being sent to prison.

The mothers' group and Easterhouse police, who cover Cranhill, are bent on cracking that sense of invulnerability. Neighbours along the corridors or the open balconies know who is dealing. The change since Allan's death is in the readiness to pass information to the police or perhaps warn a housewife pusher to "chuck it" or else.

Superintendent Stuart Miller, head of Greater Easterhouse police, says there has been a 10-fold increase in responses to appeals for information since the group was set up.

For their part, in the first five months of this year, the police searched 191 homes and more than 1,000 people for drugs. About 230 people were charged with offences from dealing to possession. Seizures included pounds 500,000 of heroin and pounds 200,000 of amphetamine.

The raids continue. A fortnight ago officers simultaneously burst into 12 flats at Longstone Place, one of the three tower blocks. More than pounds 5,000 of heroin was seized and pounds 8,000 of stolen property recovered. Seven people were charged with dealing and four with possession.

One mother, Roseanne, struggling to bring up two children in the 17-storey block, said Longstone was emerging from a nightmare. The tower, with 102 flats, used to be known as "Smack City". In what today sounds an act of mind-boggling naivety, the former Glasgow district council earmarked it for under 25s only. Would-be dealers on the housing waiting list were desperate for a place in the "party-party flats" but life for ordinary families was hell.

The fight-back for Longstone began two years ago when residents got the council to drop the under 25s policy. Now, prospective tenants have to go before a committee.

A pusher-tenant can be evicted if convicted of dealing in drugs but not for the lesser offence of possession. So the savvy dealer only carries a modest amount and contacts a mate by mobile phone for more.

Even when charged with dealing, pushers can spend months out on bail before a case is heard and often plea bargaining ends with a conviction only for possession.The mothers would like the lawyers and judges to swap homes with them for a week to get in touch with the social realities of places like Cranhill.

"They just see what's on the charge sheet," said Sandra Gilchrist, chairperson of the group. "They don't know what we have to live with."

But the mums are getting heard. In June, Scottish Office minister Henry McLeish promised to take up the women's concerns with the judges. However, it will not just be about evictions and jail sentences. The group will call for prevention services in schools, a crisis centre and long- term help to overcome drug dependency. After all, as Mrs McCann, a mother of four, is keenly aware: "It could be one of my boys this time next week."