THERE are 230 heroin addicts living in the Ballymena area - that's a staggering 70% of the province's heroin users.
The startling statistics emerged at the latest meeting in public of the District Policing Partnership (DPP) which met in the Ballymena North Centre last Thursday afternoon.
While Area Commander, Chief Inspector Wendy Middleton reported that Ballymena PSNI were meeting Policing Plan targets on drug related crime, SDLP Councillor PJ McAvoy said that the high level of addicts coupled with the sustained level of availability on the streets of the borough required more action.
"Seventy per cent of all heroin users in Northern Ireland are in the greater Ballymena area - that's what I heard from a television programme some three years ago," said Councillor McAvoy.
"It's shocking - it's astonishing that nearly three-quarters of heroin consumers are here - that tells you that there is a lot of dealing going on".
Mr McAvoy said while a particular drug problem was known to exist in Dunclug and the wider north end of the town, people living there were reluctant to come forward with information which could help police stamp it out.
"It's very hard for ordinary people trying to live their lives to do that without living in fear," he said.
"Community policing is there but it has to be done on a bigger and a more rigorous scale. Police have to go in and hit these houses and flats regardless of whether there is anything there or not.
"People feel there is nothing being done on the ground as a deterrent. It's going on, and going on and going on," said Councillor McAvoy.
"In a year's time I don't want to be standing here repeating this. How many more people will have died in the Dunclug area as a result of this poison in Ballymena?" he said.
Responding, Area Commander Wendy Middleton pointed out that heroin only accounts for between one and five per cent of all drugs in Northern Ireland.
"It's small but it is significant," she said.
The Chief Inspector said there remained a perception that heroin is being brought into Ballymena in brick-sized pieces - a perception which she refuted.
And to illustrate the most common quantities in circulation, she displayed 'mock' pieces of heroin including one the size of a squashed golf ball which had a value of around 3,000 and others the size of ear plugs which, she said, sold for around 20 each.
"We are searching for drugs consistently but that little bit (ear plug size) is what we are talking about," she told the meeting.
"People in the north of Ballymena have come forward to the poblice and provide evidence and I would urge the community to report to me, don't take the law into your own hands and let the police deal with it!"
Mrs Gill Burns, head of addiction services for the Northern Health and Social Care Trust also said that while Ballymena had 230 known heroin users, it was a small number in the scale of things UK-wide.
She said that there were towns in England with a similar sized population to Ballymena that had upwards of 10,000 heroin addicts and pointed out also that alcohol abuse was, in fact, a greater problem here than heroin with 13,000 problem drinkers in the Northern Board area alone.
Councillor McAvoy, however, failed to be calmed on the issue.
"Regardless of how little heroin there is, four years ago six people died in one year of drugs in Dunclug," he stated.
"We had two deaths in the last month - we don't want two more in the month after that, we want to remove the chances of that happening," he said.
He was assured once more by the Area Commander that the police were working hard on the issue.
"A quarter of a million pounds worth have been seized this year alone, we had 13 arrests last year for supply, three arrests yesterday (Wednesday) and one more this morning (Thursday). We keep going, we keep going, we keep going.
"But 'A' - we need public support, providing us with information and 'B' - if people are not calling to do that then they need to be patient because the court process without then takes longer," said the Area Commander.