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4 August 1999 Edition

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Drug addiction as widespread as ever

Greater government commitment required



By Michael Pierse

     
In Ballymun, statistics show you are ten times more likely to use heroin than reach third level education
Open drug dealing across Dublin is making a comeback while anti-drugs activists are saying that the overall drugs situation is looking worse than last year. Despite the dissipation of drug marches and the lack of general attention being paid to the issue, drug addiction is at least as widespread as ever.

Though heroin and methadone are abused by a greater number of people in working-class communities, benzodiazepines were implicated in more deaths last year. ``Benzowhats?'' you might say. Despite the general public's lack of familiarity with them, benzodaizepines, more commonly known as `benzos', were implicated in 68.6% of drug-related deaths in 1998. Categorised as `uppers', benzos can be obtained legally on prescription - then sold illegally on the black market - making prosecutions more difficult and unlikely.

     
There appears to have been a lot more open dealing across Dublin over the past few months and a general increase in availability
This revelation of benzo deaths was contained in a report by the Dublin City Coroner. Of the 520 inquests conducted by the coroner last year, 80 deaths were identified as being drug related. Only seven of these were attributed to the abuse of a single drug, while the remaining 73 resulted from lethal multidrug cocktails. One person was found to have five separate drugs in his/her system: 13 people were positive for four, 25 for three and another 24 for two. Benzo abuse was implicated in 48 of these deaths, methadone in 37 and heroin in 36. Alcohol was a factor in a further 30. Some of the other drugs abused were cocaine, paracetemol and ecstacy.

The drug used in the treatment of an addiction was apparently at least twice as likely to be implicated in the death of an addict than the drug of addiction
 
Though not implicated in the report, crack cocaine is now on the streets but is expensive. According to Dublin's coroner, Ray Byrne: ``The combination of benzodiazepines, opiates and alcohol appears to be the most dangerous.'' Since two of these three drugs are legal, it seems that merely legalistic responses are completely obscured by the report. Another statistic uncovered by Byrne adds weight to this: ``The drug used in the treatment of an addiction was apparently at least twice as likely to be implicated in the death of an addict as the drug of addiction.'' So much for the conveyor-belt dispatching of methadone carried out by Eastern Health Board clinics.

Byrne goes further in criticising methadone maintenance programmes by saying that ``urinalysis detection of non-prescribed drugs (including alcohol) should have serious consequences for the client.

``Otherwise, the Clinic/Programme is inadvertently complicit in placing the lives of these young people at risk.''

It seems that the proliferation of drugs, and the fatalities incurred by them are as rampant as ever. But, with legal drugs being implicated in most deaths (and let's not forget road deaths, amongst others, caused by alcohol), law and order clampdowns, in isolation, seem increasingly futile.

``The causes of drug addiction are still there'', Dublin Sinn Féin Southeast inner city representative Daithí Doolan told An Phoblacht. He believes the issue has been relegated by the new problem sating media appetites - the housing crisis. Doolan's works as a drugs strategy development worker in Ballymun, north Dublin. He also lives in Pearse Street, in Dublin's south east inner city, leaving him commuting between two distinct, yet equally disadvantaged communities.

A wide variety of social trends, he says, tend to be universally identifiable with drug abuse in such areas. The fact that ``in Ballymun statistics show you are ten times more likely to use heroin than reach third level education'', he explains, ``reveals the deprivation to which young people are subjected and the sheer scale of wasted talent''.

A low level of education is one of the main causes of drug addiction - despite a burgeoning economy, Ireland has been shown in recent surveys to have a functionally illiterate population of 23%. Doolan points to five other causes. International surveys suggest that single parenting, unemployment, local authority housing, dependancy on welfare, and narcotics supply are major factors in turning young people to addiction. ``The level of government resources provided for the Young Person's Facility Fund is a disgrace,'' he fumes. Comprising a total of 13 Task Forces, 12 in Dublin and one in Cork, the Youth Fund was afforded a £21 million sum over three years. This money is supposed to deal with children and young adults between the ages of 10 and 25. ``They are a positive development,'' Doolan assures, ``but they need to be guaranteed substantial long-term funding and allowed the necessary financial room for manoeuver''.

One of the services which has benefitted from the funding is the Inner City Organisations Network's (ICON) Community Drugs Support Service. ICON works in one of the most deprived areas of Dublin - with figures exemplifying the underlying problems cited by Daithí Doolan. In the last four years, there have been an estimated 300 deaths in the area as a result of drugs. In 1996, a report entitled Estimating the Prevalence of Opiate Use in Dublin, approximated the number of drug addicts in the area at 6.4 percent of the population. The incidence of lone parent families is three and a half times the national average, at 49.8 percent of all family units. 57.1 per cent of households live in flats or bedsits - eight times the national average - with unemployment levels doubling the corresponding national figure. Of the population aged 15 or over, 45.9 percent had left education by the age of 15. Since the early 1980s the area's social problems have allowed a fertile drugs trade to flourish.

The back room of 51 Amien's Street houses the modest Drugs Support Service office. Chinks of light shine through a barred roof window where community worker, Joe Dowling, has provided hope and comfort for many of those who feel caged by their addiction and the circumstances which led them to it. One wall is adorned with snap shot memories of his clients and friends. Facing it is an antiquated computer on which their individual files are kept. He eyes, with a twinge of regret, the pale, emaciated face of one young man: ``Ah, he gave me awful trouble...he wasn't ready.'' This, he believes, is a fundamental necessity - the personal will of an addict to recover. However, relapses are common when real opportunities are not available. ``I can't see it down this end'', he says of the benefits of a buoyant economy, ``Temple Bar and places like that maybe''. Dealing, he believes, has become more elusive, though drugs are getting to prospective addicts regardless.

The service is, essentially, Joe Dowling. Following a long period of voluntary work he has now been provided with a wage, though there is no governmental funding for location expenses besides. A Community Employment Scheme worker collates the information from Joe's service on a computer - which allows for a detailed analysis of findings. Since its inception in June 1996, 350 clients have made use of the ICON service, with many using it once or twice. Nearly 90 percent of these were drug users, with a further 7 per cent being parents. Some have come from as far away as Wicklow, though the majority were from the inner city area. 77 per cent of clients were aged between 16 and 25, with half those under 20. Though only having one staff member, the service has dealt with over a quarter of the numbers facilitated (though often not very successfully) by the statutory City Clinic across the road. The City Clinic, though more heavily resourced, has an overflow of applicants while, Joe claims, its bureaucratic system fails to attend to the complex emotional difficulties suffered by addicts and those close to them. Joe says that a holistic, compassionate and more integrated approach is the way forward - he also believes that anti-drugs marches, though they achieved much in the past, have outlived their usefulness.

An objective Evaluation Report, reviewing the ICON service, was released last month, specifying the the lack of adequate financial support - ``The service has only remained sustainable at this level of funding due to the commitment and work rate of the staff. It is unfair to both the staff and the clients to run the risk of losing this service by maintaining it at its current level of funding and resources.''

Cecil Johnston, of the Coalition Of Communities Against Drugs (COCAD), which has the highest public profile of any anti-drugs group, told An Phoblacht that the situation with drugs has become worse in the last year. Unlike Joe Dowling, he believes that a new wave of marches is necessary. ``There seems to have been a lot more open dealing across Dublin over the past few months and a general increase in availability.''

Though COCAD is the largest of the anti-drugs groups, the only funding they receive is for a solitary policy development worker. Despite this, they have expanded in the last year, forming seven new groups in Cork and one in Wicklow, while the organisation has also been approached by residents in other areas of the country. This, Johnston believes, proves that drugs, including heroin, are spreading throughout Ireland.

Johnston also rejects the notion that drugs marches have failed to apportion blame at the feet of the government - instead concentrating only on the role of dealers. He points to the fact that the first major drugs march was held when an EU drugs conference was picketed at Dublin Castle in 1996. He also rejects the claim that the organisation has concentrated on the legalistic aspect of drug abuse, at the expense of highlighting class marginalisation. ``COCAD certainly isn't just about stemming the supply of drugs,'' he says.

It remains to be seen how COCAD will manage to again mobilise communities who have become weary of march after march, sometimes achieving only short-term effects. While their indomitable enthusiasm is to be commended, new, imaginative, longer term strategies will have to be adopted, and that requires a greater commitment from the state. Fine words and expressions of concern need to be converted into currency and hope.
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An Phoblacht
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Ireland
 

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