Trainspotting is a good film but the reality of Edinburgh's heroin problem was very different – Tom Wood

Twenty-five years after its premiere, Trainspotting has been hailed as the best Scottish film ever. Personally I would have voted for Local Hero but fair enough.

Monday, 15th March 2021, 1:01 pm
Renton and Spud are chased by security guards in a scene from Trainspotting (Picture: Liam Longman/Figment/Noel Gay/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Trainspotting follows a group of cheeky working class lads as they ricochet around Edinburgh, one step ahead of the law. Set in the 1980s, after the first wave of heroin struck north Edinburgh in the mid-70s, a fine script and cast makes for a great watch.

But, as new generations of film fans discover this classic, beware. Enjoy the film, just don’t think it’s close to the truth.

As a policeman working in North Edinburgh for most of the 70s, I remember the time very differently. Heroin arrived by stealth in the mid-70s. Of course, there had always been drugs in Edinburgh, ‘purple hearts’ and cannabis, but this was different.

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We first noticed that crimes like housebreaking were increasing fast. Crime always fluctuates but this was off the scale. Then we saw one or two of our local criminals showing signs of unexplained prosperity. One second-rate thug turned up with a brand new ‘E’ type Jag.

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The house-breakings were the worst, doors kicked in, not once but time and again, until there was nothing left to steal. Some left their doors unlocked to minimise the damage. Pensioners flats were particularly vulnerable.

Many old folk were frightened to go out, or if they did, were frightened to return home for fear of what they might find.

It was heart-breaking, irreplaceable family treasures stolen, a wedding ring or their dead husband’s watch. But worse than that, their personal space had been desecrated and with it their self confidence.

The relentless reality of heroin economics drove crime through the roof. Even then a £100-a-day habit was common and there were few ways to get that kind of cash. Assuming you were not of independent means or in a highly paid job, there were three options: sell yourself, steal or deal.

To earn a £100 a day from theft, you had to steal £1,000-worth of goods – every day. Pretty soon the law of diminishing returns kicked in, when everyone in the pub had a car stereo and a portable TV.

Then there were the principal victims, the decent young people sucked into addiction and their families, helpless in the face of the plague casting its deadly spell over their kids.

To compound the tragedy, the habit of injecting the drug took hold in Edinburgh. Needle sharing was to bring its own calamity. Pretty soon overdose deaths rose and, as the 70s gave way to the 80s, blood-borne viruses began to take their toll, with HIV/Aids making its appearance.

Because the problem first emerged as a driver of crime, drugs were not recognised as the complex social problem they are. And so began the long war on drugs that could never be won by law enforcement.

And it goes on still, heroin has waxed and waned but never left. Most of the original Trainspotting generation of drug users are long gone but new generations are still dying, part of the ongoing catastrophe that is our drug death toll.

Trainspotting may be the best film ever made in Scotland but you may understand why I will always prefer Local Hero.

Tom Wood is writer and former Deputy Chief Constable

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