STREET VALIUM - THE HIDDEN KILLER OF WALES' DRUG USERS; Growing numbers are dying as a result of taking the drug. ESTEL FARELL-ROIG talks to users and those trying to help them.
FOR Anthony Davies, heroin was no longer enough. Some days, the heroin he would get his hands on wouldn't be of a very good quality. Other days, he just wouldn't have enough money to get it.
That's when Valium became a big part of his life. Used to treat anxiety, Valium is a prescription drug which is the brand name for diazepam.
It is a type of benzodiazepine or, as they are known on the streets, "benzos". Usually sold in a tablet or capsule form, benzodiazepines have a calming effect and have long been known for their addictiveness, with significant numbers of dependency involving the drug being reported as early as the 1970s.
For Mr Davies, Valium - which was prescribed to him by his doctor when he was 24 due to his poor mental health - gave him confidence and helped him forget about everything going on with his life.
"Valium was a bit like heroin, it gives you confidence," he continued. "It gives you a false sense of security and, because I was going to commit crime to fund my habit, at the time it gives you that bit of confidence that means you don't care. "I used to take heroin to help me forget all the other stuff in my life."
It also helped him with heroin withdrawals and would help him relax and ease the pains all over his body, which was craving heroin.
Eventually, the 41-year-old was using Valium and heroin together - he would swallow the Valium and, as soon as he felt the effects kicking in, he would take the heroin. At one point, he was taking up to 150 tablets a day with his partner, paying PS15 or PS20 for a bag.
After his Valium prescription was cut because he was abusing it, Mr Davies, originally from the Gorseinon area of Swansea, was forced to buy the drug on the streets.
"There was no guarantee of what you were having - they were black market, so you didn't know what you were getting," he continued.
Benzodiazepines are not a drug that often makes the headlines but they are being linked to an increasing number of deaths in Wales, especially among people who also use opiates such as heroin.
Across Wales, there were 42 deaths in 2017 where any benzodiazepine was mentioned on the death certificate, down from 50 in 2016, according to information published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). However, the general trend is upwards as, in 1993, there were only seven deaths registered that mentioned a benzodiazepine on the death certificate and, in 2001, there were 23.
Benzos - a class C drug - usually appear in death certificates with opiates and, in 2017, out of a total of 42 deaths from drug poisoning mentioning benzodiazepines, 38 death certificates mentioned opiates as well. In 2016, out of 50 deaths across Wales, 46 mentioned both opiates and benzodiazepines.
Swansea seems to be hit harder by Valium than anywhere in Wales and, in 2017, it was the area in the country with the highest number of deaths involving benzodiazepines, with 13. In comparison, there were only two deaths in Cardiff and three in Newport.
In fact, Swansea was the place where Mr Davies' drug use got worse. Born in the Welsh city, he moved to Bristol at the age of 11 but came back at 19. In his mind, it was the worst thing he could have done as, according to him, "Valium was everywhere in Swansea".
Mr Davies first tried heroin at the age of 15 after a friend gave it to him, having done party drugs such as acid or Ecstasy before then, as well as cannabis.
At first, he didn't know it was heroin he was taking as everyone called it "gear" or "brown" and it wasn't until further down the line when he was addicted that he "put two and two together".
"The first time I tried heroin, I felt quite sick so I kept trying it to understand why everyone was fussing over it," he said. "Before I knew it, I was addicted at the age of 16.
"We were going to illegal raves and all my friends were using heroin to come down from the Ecstasy. I kept trying and trying until one day I woke up feeling sick, like I had the flu.
"My friend said to have a couple of lines [of heroin] and within half an hour I was feeling much better.
"And then I carried on using to stop myself feeling sick. It spiralled out of control."
At first, he was using other drugs as well as heroin, especially cannabis, which meant it wasn't until he cut down on the other drugs that he properly felt the effects.
"Heroin warms you up from the inside," he said.
"I didn't start injecting until I was 23 or 24, because I wasn't getting the same effects I used to when I smoked it," he continued. "It helped me forget about things. Before you realise it, things get out of control."
Having had periods of not using drugs, he would always end up going back to them. Mr Davies was committing crime to fund his habit, and sometimes his partner's as well, and has been in prison four times - twice on remand and twice on sentence. Offences included dangerous driving, theft and attempted robbery.
"It was a vicious circle," he said. "I was using drugs to self-medicate my mental health. My life was far from perfect - I was not in a good place physically or mentally so I would block out everything else in my life."
Mr Davies stopped using drugs when he was 39, back in 2016, when he was jailed for attempted robbery. However, having injected heroin for 15 years, it had already had a big impact on his life and his body.
But things are now much better for him and he has been working for Cyfle Cymru peer mentoring service for eight months, and lives in the Somerton area of Newport with his partner. It is his first job since 2005.
"Now I feel brilliant - this is the best my life has been in a very long time," said Mr Davies, who started to volunteer in the Voice Hub, part of Kaleidoscope, while he was in Prescoed in 2017. "I am proper content with my life.
"I am grateful to Kaleidoscope for giving me the chance. With my criminal record, I never thought anyone would employ me. I never thought I was capable of helping other people because I couldn't help myself.
"The job helps keep me levelled and it is rewarding. I just wish I had done it 20 years ago."
of Voice Hub, Clark, service Cyfle Cymru " But others are still trapped in that vicious circle, such as Marc (not his real name), a heroin user in Swa-s e a who takes Valium most days because "it blocks all the problems".
Originally from Birchgrove, he has been homeless for a long time - more than 10 years, he says, and has been to prison five times for theft offences.
As we speak in a small alleyway in the city centre, he is wiping his bleeding fingers with a wipe we have given him. But he doesn't seem too worried about the blood, which is getting mixed with all the dirt in his fingers. The cuts and the blood, the dirt on his hands, it is all a result of searching through rubbish.
Marc buys Valium on the streets and says he pays a pound for two Valium or PS10 for four Xanax, another type of benzodiazepine.
Putting it bluntly, the 36-year-old says that Valium is a cheaper way to get your fix.
"I have been taking heroin since I was 15," he added. "I started taking Valium straight away - drugs make me feel better, normal.
"I have tried to stop using before and been stable, but after all the hard times it [drugs] block it all up."
Jamie Harris, Swansea service manager for drug support service Barod, said that benzos have been a problem for many years but that the problem is now worse as, while it used to be medical grade prescription drugs that had been rediverted into circulation on the streets, now it is counterfeit drugs that are being sold.
So-called street Valium, the illegal version of prescription tranquillisers, is a growing problem across the UK and, in Glasgow, it has been linked to an "unprece-dented" spike in the number of deaths of homeless people.
In Swansea, Mr Harris said this is playing a factor in overdoses in the area. He added: "There has been a decrease in prescription drugs being sold on the streets.
"However, counterfeit medication is now being found and is supplement to the shortfall in these diverted medications.
"Risks are heightened then due to the contents may not be what the users may have initially thought it was. This can cause many issues, from an unwanted response from the user right through to overdose."
Mr Harris said benzodiazepines are sometimes used in conjunction with heroin - because of the class A's forever fluctuating purity levels - but it can also be used in isolation, by people who may have a dependency on alcohol and people with undiagnosed mental health needs.
"We have seen an increase of people presenting with matters around anxiety who cannot be prescribed this sort of medication, so these people then become self-medicators," he added.
Substance substitution is also a growing worry for Welsh drug testing service WEDINOS and, in their 2017/2018 report, they found that, of the 108 samples submitted in the belief they were diazepam, 45% were found to contain a different substance or no active compound.
However, speaking about "street Valium", Detective Inspector Sion Parker of South Wales Police said, while examination of substances recovered by officers is revealing above the norm strengths and purities, hospitalisations are very rare.
In recent months, there have been several inquests in Swansea that have mentioned the drug. In October, an inquest heard Shane Jenkins, a young man struggling to deal with the aftermath of a childhood bicycle accident, died after taking a cocktail of painkillers. The 28-year-old was found dead on the living room floor of a friend's house in Port Talbot on April 18, 2018, and a post-mortem examination found he had morphine in his system and traces of tramadol and siazepam.
In November, an inquest heard Jay Daniel Clement died "after taking Valium" and arguing with his girlfriend shortly after being released from prison. He was described as appearing to be under the influence of Valium, the inquest heard, but samples of his blood were destroyed following his death, so it was unable to ascertain what drugs, if any, had been in his system.
Then, in December, another inquest heard Wayne James Farrell, who was found collapsed on a Swansea street, died of a heart attack most likely brought on by drug abuse.
An inquest into his death heard the dad-of-one "got involved with people who were a bad influence" in his teenage years and fell into Valium and heroin abuse.
Anthony, of Voice Hub, with Emma Clark, service lead for Cyfle Cymru
Anthony Davies, a former heroin and Valium user, is now working at Voice Hub, Newport RICHARD SWINGLER
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|Publication:||Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Feb 24, 2019|
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