Last week, police in South Wales uncovered and destroyed what's been described as a "real-life drug den". Camouflaged with branches, the woodland structure in Bridgend boasted a tarpaulin roof and, according to police, a "dealing table", which looks a lot more like a bench carved into the trunk of a fallen tree. This, apparently, was proof enough that the little wooden hut had been a base for local degenerates looking to buy, sell or smoke a bit of weed.
However, because the real-life drug den looked more like a Famous Five hangout than a Maryhill shooting gallery, police didn't get quite the reaction they might have expected. The story was greeted with cynicism by most locals on South Wales Police's Facebook page; some accused officers of doing nothing more than ruining a children's den, while dog walkers mourned the fact they'd no longer have somewhere to smoke a quick fag in the rain.
Since the dawn of prohibition, from opium dens and reefer-fuelled jazz dives to today's crack and meth houses, the "drug den" has always been portrayed as a sort of private member's club for the sewage of society; peeling walls flecked red with syringe-squirts of blood, someone with a massive gun standing over a guy with a needle jutting out of his arm, a shit flat bearing significantly heavier doors than your average shit flat – Guy Ritchie's vision of a crack house.
But nowadays, because there are fewer empty properties in urban areas, your standard "drug den" is more likely to be a "cuckoo" flat, the homes of vulnerable tenants taken over by dealers in order to sell drugs. Or, for that matter, just the home of a particularly accommodating user.
Peter's one bedroom flat in a North East London low-rise is one of the more easy-going crack houses around. There are two huge black mastiffs taking up half the space and barking more than anyone wants them to, but it nevertheless operates as a secure, mildly cosy place for a group of crack and heroin users from the local area to gather and buy and take drugs.
Peter is 46 and has been using class A drugs for 24 years. He's missing an eye and has a big scar on his cheek. Tonight, there are five people sitting on sofas smoking crack, two of whom later head to the bedroom to inject heroin.
"I like this place because it's more settled than the street – it's easier to get caught out there," says Elvis, 21, who has been injecting heroin and crack since he was 14. He spent some of his youth in Russia, where he once had a job cleaning up bits of human skin from the floor of a krokodil den. Two years ago he was thrown into a dumpster in East London after overdosing at a stranger's crack house.
His girlfriend, Catherine, is also 21. She says she was born addicted to heroin because her mother was a dependent user while pregnant. "I wouldn't do this around people I don't trust," she tells me. "I use drugs here because I don't want to be judged and it's safe." Catherine's lost count of the amount of ODs she's seen, while Peter says there's only been four in his house in seven years.
From what I can see, Peter looks after everyone and they share cash, drugs and food. He cooks "ready, steady, cook" dinners from the bags of supplies Catherine and Elvis sometimes bring back from shoplifting trips.
"It's out of sight of the public. That's important to me," says Peter as he takes a lung-full on his pipe. "I don't like it when kids see people taking drugs. It's not right. And it's a safe place to take drugs for us. If there's an overdose, I'll call the ambulance; I won't chuck someone in a bush."
Ten years ago, crack houses like Bristol's infamous Black and White café – a front for one of Britain's most prolific and violent drug dens – received much more press than they do these days. They were the cannabis farms of the early-2000s, one after another being busted by police, the cops' photos plastered through the press the following day.
While drug dens are still being raided regularly, they don't tend to make the press all that much, unless they're somehow linked to a government adviser and his alleged crack smoking (allegations he wouldn't comment on). But professionalised places run by gangsters – the spots with entry buzzers and metal shutters where visitors are frisked and can buy large amounts for wider distribution – do still exist.
"Two years ago I went to one in Shepherd's Bush because my dealer told me they had good gear," says Elvis. "He said, 'Be careful what you say or do, otherwise you might not come out.' They forced me to use some of the heroin and crack on the spot in case I was a cop. The floor was covered with plastic sheeting so they could easily get rid of blood from stabbings and wrap people up and dump them if they overdosed."
Catherine had a bad experience at a similar place. "People were looking at me, thinking I was some kind of crack whore, like they could buy me," she says. "I was shaking after I came out."
Earlier this month, Bradford Crown Court heard how heroin user Krysia Truskawecka was locked in one of these fortified crack houses and forced to sell drugs through a metal hatch in order to pay off her debt to dealers. Unsurprisingly, these places also tend to look pretty grim; according those I speak to at Peter's, there are even "extreme cleaning" companies that specialise in clearing them up.
On the gentler end of the drugs scale, underground cannabis dens have operated under the radar in various guises since the 1960s, long before crack arrived in Britain. Commonly found behind unmarked doors in industrial units, under the guise of "social clubs" – or, in some cases, selling from under the counter in busy high street shops – their MO is to keep things quiet and attract customers by word of mouth. Most are fly-by-night operations that end up rumbled after six months by police, or robbed of their cash and stash. However, some have been serving up weed for years.
Lynval's place, behind a heavily-bolted door in a small north London trading unit, has been selling imported Jamaican weed since 2008. When I arrive, there are about 12 people milling around – mainly Africans and Jamaicans, but also a few Poles. Some are watching football on the TV; two Jamaicans in their mid-fifties, like Lynval, are playing pool; and a group of younger men are queuing in the kitchen, the buying and selling zone.
I ask Lynval why no one is smoking weed, because the last time I was here the place smelled like the Monday of Notting Hill Carnival. He says he's banned it for now because of a bit of heat from the police, who've been sniffing around after noise complaints from a business next door. Even so, Lynval still gets a steady 200-plus buying off him every week.
His walls are covered in Rastafarian imagery and murals, mainly of the Lion of Judah and Haile Selassie. There is a photo of which he's very proud, of the Emperor meeting the Queen, and a large panel showing prominent Africans in history.
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"People invite their friends, but if their vibe is no good, or if they are a cantankerous person, we tell them no way," says Lynval, sitting in his office, which has a monitor showing the CCTV feed from every room. "But this place has always been about bringing people together and selling good herb. We don't sell skunk that makes you go crazy; we sell herb that gives you more consciousness. As Bob Marley sang: 'Excuse me while I light my spliff / Good god, I gotta take a lift / From reality I just can't drift.'"
Lynval, a committed Rastafarian, says most customers are men in their thirties, although he has one group of women who are regulars. It's also a gathering place for Africans in London, he says, who have arrived from Ethiopia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. "For some people it's the closest thing they have to a family. Most of the community centres are closed, and here people talk about family matters, music, Jeremy Corbyn – whatever they want. We have solved many problems here."
If drugs are banned, it follows that people who take them will try to find secretive places to get high, out of sight of the law.
What this means in a wider sense is less straightforward. Weed's not such a worry (though the government are potentially losing out on billions by not opening their own shops), but the harder drugs are. From a harm reduction viewpoint, it makes sense that if you're going to take something that could make you overdose, you're surrounded by people who would try to ensure you don't die, rather than literally throw you away. So, context very much taken into account, surely places like Peter's are a good thing.
In a more progressive world, however, things could conceivably be taken one step further. In 2012, Danish officials opened five "fixing rooms" – places where users could inject themselves with clean needles under the supervision of trained medical personnel – in Copenhagen. Earlier this year, figures from Denmark's Health Ministry revealed that there wasn't a single death from any one of the 301 overdoses onsite; that more users have sought help breaking their addiction than in previous years; and that the volume of used needles lying around in the district of Vesterbro, where the fixing rooms are located, has fallen 80 percent since they opened. A similar facility in Sydney, opened 15 years ago, has seen the same kind of success.
In a drug underworld that by its very nature must operate in the shadows, what's happening in Copenhagen appears to demonstrate pretty convincingly that bad things are more likely to happen if drugs are kept behind closed doors.
The latest relevant figures from the British government revealed that there were more drug-related deaths last year in the UK than any other year since records began. Coincidentally, our current drug policy remains the same as it always has: stubbornly regressive and wildly ineffective. If the Home Office wants to see fewer people dying, perhaps it's time they offer addicts an alternative to the covert, sometimes actively harmful, environments they've had to resort to.
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