Few places are more ironically named than Hope Street, in Stoke-on-Trent.
Once a busy shopping thoroughfare, it has become the haunt of down-and-outs who doss around outside a hostel for the homeless, littering the pavement with the detritus of their drug addiction.
When I went there, at 10am on Wednesday, there was a depressing ‘morning-after’ scene.
Half a dozen dazed-looking users milled aimlessly about, oblivious to the comatose man lying in their midst, with a cigarette paper still stuck between his fingers and his jeans undone.
From the police officers who had led me to this squalid enclave, I already knew the likely cause of their zombie-like state.
But confirmation came from a long-haired woman who was probably only 40 but looked 20 years older.
Self-confessed addict (left): the woman David Jones met in Hope Street, in Stoke-on-Trent
Small, clear plastic bags the size of a postage stamp are used to contain the yellowish powder
Flashing a broken-toothed grin, she took me aside and unclasped her fist to show a clear plastic bag the size of a postage stamp, containing yellowish powder.
‘This is the dust,’ she whispered reverentially. ‘I was on heroin for 26 years but this is far cheaper and more powerful, physically and mentally. It can send you into orbit. I’ve seen thunderbolts raining from the sky.’
How did she get it? She chuckled at my apparent naivety. ‘Five dealers have been round here already this morning,’ she said in her rasping Stoke brogue.
In bygone times, when the porcelain industry was booming, the scourge of the Potteries was ceramic dust — a fine powder inhaled by kiln workers, causing fatal diseases such as silicosis and emphysema, collectively known as ‘Potters’ Rot’.
Today, a new type of dust is sweeping through this city of 270,000 people, with similarly devastating effect. It is a terrifying drug called Monkey Dust.
Besides making users unpredictable, it makes them feel invincible, strong and so impervious to pain that one police officer has likened the task of restraining them to ‘tackling the Incredible Hulk’.
Paramedics and police have to deal with people who have taken the drug. Pictured is PC Shaun Hewitt and paramedics with a collapsed Monkey Dust user
Dust-takers have scaled buildings, leapt off roofs and run naked through the streets, believing — in their paranoia — that they are being chased by demons (or, in one recent case, by ‘paedophiles’).
They have also attacked innocent bystanders, stabbed people, smashed down doors with their hands and, in at least two cases, committed rapes. One dust user dragged his girlfriend through the streets by her hair.
Several have died. Anthony Pepper, 54, was found by his girlfriend, having collapsed in their house with packets of Monkey Dust in his hand.
His death prompted a coroner to express ‘great concern’ at the drug’s rapidly increasing prevalence and volatility.
John Rigby, above, walked out in front of a lorry on the busy A50 after taking Monkey Dust powder
Yet perhaps the most tragic case was that of John Rigby, 35, a decent but troubled young man from Meir Park, a respectable middle-class neighbourhood of Stoke.
After taking Monkey Dust, he wandered off to the busy A50, scrambled over a safety barrier and tried to weave through oncoming evening traffic. He was hit by a lorry.
Given that Staffordshire Police have been swamped by 950 Monkey Dust-related calls in the past three months — an average of ten every day — and senior officers say its use has reached ‘epidemic’ proportions in their area, Mr Rigby is unlikely to be the last person to die in such a senseless manner.
This week, I saw at first hand what the emergency services are up against. During a 12-hour shift at Stoke ambulance hub, paramedics were called to assist a would-be garage thief — middle-aged and slightly built — whose Monkey Dust hit impelled him to scale drain-pipes and leap off roofs, with barely a scratch, as he was chased through an industrial estate.
His only wounds were inflicted by three burly men who, with difficulty, managed to wrestle him down and detain him.
Meanwhile, outside a petrol station, another dust user stripped off his clothes and danced around in just his socks and shoes, waving his arms wildly, like a crazed chimpanzee.
He discharged himself from hospital only to return eight hours later, collapsing to the floor and groaning loudly.
Paramedics also helped a first-time dust user in his teens who was paralysed with anxiety.
West Midlands Ambulance Service has received more than 500 Monkey Dust calls in the past two years, a quarter of which have come in the past three months
As West Midlands Ambulance Service has received more than 500 Monkey Dust calls in the past two years, a quarter of which have come in the past three months, almost every staff member has a story about the perils of dealing with deranged users.
Paramedic Lisa Bithell, 43, is anxiously awaiting the result of an HIV test after a deranged user spat in her eye.
‘You have to be careful because they can be so unpredictable,’ one of her colleagues, Debbie Darle, told me. ‘One man was lying on the floor, and appeared to be unconscious. But then he suddenly jumped up and started behaving as if he was superhuman.
‘There were three of us and two were men, but he threw us around like rag dolls. We pressed the panic button and the police came, but it was like holding down a raging bull. [Dust users] are just not of this world.
‘This sort of thing is happening daily and it’s getting worse. I’ve been in this job 15 years and I’ve seen every type of drug.
‘But this is totally different. There is no appealing to reason. When you are shut in the back of the ambulance with them it’s really scary.’
The next day, accompanying young police constables Tara Field and Shaun Hewitt on patrol in Hanley, where Monkey Dust is so easily available that it seems to blow through the rundown terrace streets, I saw what she meant.
Reports came in that, within an hour of showing me her £2 packet of dust, the previously docile female addict I had encountered in Hope Street had got embroiled in an ugly fight with another woman down a back alley.
By the time the officers arrived, her rival had vanished. But, veering between tearful self-pity and menacing rage, she admitted ‘dust’ had been the cause of the scrap. Now she felt ‘suicidal’.
For the officers, who defused the incident empathetically but firmly, it was a routine affair.
Minutes later, the ‘dust squad’ were racing towards another potential crisis.
This summer, Monkey Dust headlines have appeared in the Stoke Sentinel newspaper almost every week
A young man had clambered on to the roof of a house — and since dust-takers are given to performing reckless climbing feats (one was recently jailed after arming himself with knives and staging a 17-hour rooftop siege during which he hurled slates at people below), it seemed possible it might have caused his behaviour. As it turned out, it was unrelated to the drug.
The most poignant call-out came when residents on a housing estate alerted the officers to the plight of a dishevelled man sprawled on the grass.
He wore a leg-brace, his shoes were off, and he appeared to be asleep or unconscious. Roused by the officers, he was reluctant to reveal much about himself. Later, however, he told me he was a 40-year-old father of two sons.
In his youth he had been a promising sportsman, representing his county at cricket.
However, the premature deaths of his parents, when he was in his teens, had driven him off the rails and he started using heroin. Then, last year, after being thrown out of the house by his partner, he had succumbed to ‘the dust’.
He had smoked a bag (Monkey Dust can also be injected, snorted or swallowed) the previous night. ‘I’ve fried my brain with it,’ he mumbled. ‘I take it to block everything out but it doesn’t do that any more — it sends me crazy. Sometimes I think everyone is after me. I hate the stuff. It’s ruining people.’
Pointing to his swollen feet, he added: ‘I broke both my ankles and the bones in my feet by jumping from the second-floor window of a flat. I’d been locked in by a paranoid woman I was staying with. She was on dust.’
So why did he continue to take it? He gazed at me blankly and shrugged. ‘It’s five times cheaper than heroin — that costs £10 — and I could get you a bag in five minutes. It’s everywhere in this city.’
This was no exaggeration. And since Monkey Dust remains less common in other British towns and cities — even nearby Liverpool and Manchester, which have similar social problems and areas of equal poverty and deprivation — it raises one obvious question.
That is what the city’s overstretched police are desperately trying to find out — but as yet there is no obvious answer.
The head of CID, Detective Chief Supt Javid Oomer, points out that synthetic drugs derived from the natural stimulant khat — widely used in East African countries — and with an almost identical chemical make-up to Monkey Dust have been on Britain’s streets since 2013.
However, MDPHP (Monkey Dust), a variant of such drugs that at the moment appears to be unique to Stoke and causes a state of ‘excited delirium’, surfaced more recently.
In America, sensational — and perhaps apocryphal — stories of people biting their victim’s faces while high on Monkey Dust began appearing several years ago.
Yet in Britain its use first emerged in 2015 when three court cases were reported in quick succession, all in Stoke. The first concerned a man who raided a bookmaker while high on Monkey Dust.
Soon afterwards, Vladimir Conka, a 38-year-old Czech immigrant, was jailed for 20 years for torturing and raping a pregnant woman who subsequently lost her baby. He, too, was said to be out of his mind on Monkey Dust.
The third case concerned Shaukat Ali, 35, who smashed his way out of hospital after police stunned him with a Taser, and hijacked a pregnant woman’s car. The court heard he was in a ‘self-induced psychosis’ caused by dust.
999 crews are reeling from an epidemic that police are at a loss to explain. Above: PCs Tara Field and Shaun Hewitt, and a paramedic attend a Monkey Dust user in the street
There was then a lull. But this summer, Monkey Dust headlines have appeared in the Stoke Sentinel newspaper almost every week.
Mr Oomer says the police and local agencies have launched a joint effort to tackle the crisis. ‘Some of our work is understanding where it’s coming from and whether it’s so localised because there’s a group here that’s just supplying this area,’ he told me.
But although police had made 45 seizures of the drug (one on Tuesday, when PC Field and a colleague stopped a stolen vehicle stashed with dust), he said arrests alone were unlikely to halt the supply.
The police’s strategy also involved educating people about the perils of taking a drug so dangerously unpredictable that using it was ‘like crossing the road blindfolded’.
Could some Staffordshire-based ‘Monkey Dust Mr Big’ be driving the market, either by importing huge quantities of the drug or having it made in a backstreet lab, then flooding the streets of Britain’s 14th most deprived local authority area with cheap, highly addictive powder?
Pictured are discarded snap bags in which monkey dust is sold in Stoke-on-Trent
Mr Oomer refused to speculate. Others have their own ideas.
Commander Simon Bray, the national police lead on drugs, believes news about the drug’s availability might be spread on social media.
Professor David Nutt, a former government drugs adviser, thinks it may be coming from China, where synthetic drugs can be made very cheaply from chemicals intended for medicines.
He says the prevalence in Stoke ‘suggests a local person is the funnel for the drug’.
Harry Sumnall, Professor of Substance Use at Liverpool’s John Moores University, agrees, saying the source is likely to be clandestine Chinese labs selling the drug, via Dark Web internet sites, to ‘well-organised, fragmented’ Staffordshire criminal networks.
However, at a Stoke homeless centre run by former Manchester United footballer Lou Macari (who identified 19 of the 30 people sleeping there this week as past or present dust users), one addict had a different view.
He claimed it was being brought to the city ‘in bucketloads’ by Liverpool-based dealers, who oddly seem to not sell it on their own patch.
Perhaps Liverpudlians, enjoying an economic revival in their own city, are too affluent these days to get cheap kicks from the drug world’s equivalent of Poundland.
Whatever the truth, there are all too many grim pockets of Britain where being transformed into the Incredible Hulk for a few hours might have its attractions, however appalling the risks.
And unless Monkey Dust is quickly eradicated, it can only be a matter of time before this hellishly destructive powder blows far beyond the Potteries.