WILLIE KEALY, LARA BRADLEY, DON LAVERY A GOVERNMENT minister has described the increased use of cocaine in Ireland as a "ticking time bomb" now endemic among all age groups and in every every community across the country.
Tom Parlon, a rural TD who is Minister of State in the Department of Finance, told the Sunday Independent that the country had to face up the problem of so-called recreational drug abuse.
Cocaine use, he said, had become the "elephant in the room of middle class Ireland".
Mr Parlon's comments come as gardai report cocaine seizures worth ?5.5m in the past week alone and just days after British supermodel Kate Moss was dumped by fashion labels Chanel, H&M and Burberry after her cocaine abuse was exposed. The 31-year-old was photographed snorting the drug, which propelled its widespread abuse into the spotlight.
The model admitted she had "let down" her family and friends and was now battling to sort out "various personal issues".
The scale of cocaine use in Ireland is reported by experts to be far greater than generally thought. Ireland now ranks third out of 30 European countries for cocaine use, according to new research by the United Nations, and is one of 14 countries where use of the drug is rising.
Yesterday, Mr Parlon said: "We have known for a long time that we have a drink
problem, but I think it is time we faced up to the reality that we have an insidious drug problem as well.
"High fliers and household names are regular users of cocaine. And they are aped by young professionals and other children of the Celtic Tiger who believe they are following a creed of 'work hard, play hard'. They seem to think that their relative affluence will insulate them from the slippery slope to drug hell. But the fact is they are nothing more than functioning drug addicts already."
Experts say the proliferation of cocaine is so great that the drug is becoming 'passe' in some circles. Worryingly, crack cocaine could be set to replace it as the fashionable high for Irish drug users.
Dr Eamon Keenan of the Drugs Treatment Centre Board said: "There has been a significant increase in the number of people abusing cocaine." A consultant psychiatrist in drug misuse, he fears a failure to address Ireland's current cocaine problem is stacking up serious problems for the future.
Alarmingly, addiction specialist Christina Reihill, who treats an increasing number of cocaine users in her private psychotherapy practice in Monkstown, Dublin, says she is now encountering clients who have dabbled with crack.
Crack is made by heating cocaine powder in a solution of baking soda until the water has evaporated and small rocks of pure cocaine are formed.
"The body starts to build up an immunity to cocaine and the costs build up so some people are now looking for the harder, cheaper, more aggressive hit of crack . . . crack is creeping in to Ireland and the danger is that it could shake off its sordid image and become more socially acceptable," she said.
Last week the Gardai made just two seizures of crack, but seized cocaine worth ?5.5m in the same period. Also last week, Gardai made one of their biggest cocaine "busts" when detectives seized ?4m worth of the drug and mixing agents in an apartment in Glasnevin, Dublin. Cocaine is currently worth ?70,000 a kilo on the streets.
In an unrelated development, on Friday, Gardai were questioning a man after they found cocaine worth ?70,000 in a car they had stopped in Santry, Co Dublin. Other recent cocaine seizures by Gardai included ?1.4m worth in Cork city in May and a ?1m seizure in August in two separate operations in Co Meath. Another large haul was seized in October, 1999 when 15 kilos worth ?5m was found in luggage belonging to two women at Dublin Airport.
Yesterday, the PD Minister said: "I am not talking about unfortunate junkies lying in the gutter with needles sticking out of their arms. I am talking about the fact that drugs like cocaine are now in danger of becoming socially acceptable and are viewed by otherwise responsible people as somehow no more harmful that a few pints of beer. Cocaine has become the elephant in the room of middle class Ireland.
"Everyone knows it is being consumed regularly and in quantities but nobody acknowledges the extent of the problem. It is not so long ago that a leading personality complained that it was hard to get good cocaine in Ireland, and hardly an eyebrow was raised.
"Taking cocaine is not the harmless recreational pastime that it is often portrayed as. It is a Class A drug which, apart from being illegal, is addictive, costly and personally and socially destructive.
"The insidious effect on society of this type of casual drug-taking is demonstrated by the fact that fashionable personalities seem to think it is cool to regularly consume it or supply their friends as proof of their generosity.
"And for as long as they continue to function and for as long as they can afford it, they will go on believing that there is nothing wrong either in what they are doing or in the example they are giving.
"But every day they are doing damage to themselves and to those who depend on them and to those who look up to them. And no matter how plausible their day-to-day functioning may appear there is no doubt that they are steadily eroding their working effectiveness in their lives.
"If none of that matters to them, I wonder if these people realise that they are also contributing regularly and substantially to the coffers of the murderous organised criminals who manage the flow of illegal drugs into this country.
"These are the people who frequently shoot each other dead as they squabble over the money they can make from the cocaine generation. These are the people the gardai strive mightily against day and night to try to stem the flow of this filth into the country - with some success I am glad to say.
"These are the people who murdered Veronica Guerin."
Mr Parlon, who is currently preparing his party's initiative on youth and rural community problems, said the current RTE drama Pure Mule had upset a lot of people in his Laois-Offaly constituency where it is set by parodying and oversimplifying rural life.
"It does make for uncomfortable viewing especially for someone like me whose has lived all their life in ruralIreland. But let's not be naive here. I believe the programme has also performed a valuable service by highlighting in stark and uncomfortable terms the challenges facing rural Ireland today in particular increased drug use amongst our young population.
"There is still a widespread belief that the use of hard drugs is confined to the cities and big urban areas, that teenagers in rural communities are largely unaffected. Unless we accept that this is not the case, and we have a serious problem on our hands; we are unlikely to take the decisive action needed.
" Pure Mule has shown to all who watch it that young people in every corner of this country are experimenting with and using drugs on a large scale. Teenage sex and sexual promiscuity are other uncomfortable issues that are dealt with. It is fiction but it has also struck a raw nerve because it is telling an unpalatable truth. As a rural TD and as a parent, I believe what we are facing is a ticking time bomb in rural Ireland, where our young people feel increasingly dislocated from their community, where a lack of recreational and social outlets is fuelling the increase in drink and drug use. The last 20 years has brought unprecedented economic growth and social change across Ireland. What we must now do is face up to the social challenges," said Parlon.