Rural Ireland engulfed in hidden epidemic of psychoactive drugs
Dealers are targeting young school children and will even make home deliveries within a few minutes, writes Claire Mc Cormack
A hidden epidemic is lurking in school playgrounds and street corners throughout rural Ireland as a new wave of psychoactive drug abuse sweeps up risk-taking teenagers, the Sunday Independent can reveal.
Over the past 18 months, counsellors at drug treatment centres in Cavan and Monaghan, and some midland towns, have become increasingly alarmed by the number of young men and women, some aged just 15 years, presenting with "chaotic addiction" to 'New Psychoactive Substances' (NPS) - chemically produced narcotics that have a profound effect on the brain.
Synthetic cannabis, sold as 'K2 Spice', 'Blueberry Mix' and 'Clockwork Orange,' among others, is a major concern.
Community workers describe the substances as "more problematic" and "more dangerous" than the real thing. They say people are mainly buying their drugs online.
Although the Government banned all substances with psychoactive effects in 2010, drug workers say "it's easier than ever" to source former 'head shop' highs.
They believe the rise in NPS use is "directly linked" with the demise of rural Ireland and the scourge of youth unemployment over the last five years.
Driving through the main streets of Cavan town on a sunny Friday afternoon, all appears well. The shopping areas are busy, traffic is bumper-to-bumper and helpful locals are happy to offer directions with a smile.
But behind those eyes, behind the scenes, and behind many closed doors, fears are growing over the widespread, rampant use of new mind-altering narcotics.
Young people from both disadvantaged and comfortable backgrounds are entwined in the disturbing phenomenon.
Tim Murphy, community supervisor at the Cavan and Monaghan Drugs and Alcohol Service, says there is a misconception that drugs are a problem only in Dublin.
"Rural Ireland isn't fully acknowledging the extent of the drug problem on the ground. Cavan and Monaghan have a very much indigenous drug problem," he said.
"Parents and schools are seeing children as young as 12 years of age showing interest in NPS," he said.
Mr Murphy claims serious problems have persisted in the area since the back end of Ireland's heroin epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s.
"When you see drug problems take a foothold, it's often on the back of social deprivation and unemployment," he said.
"A lot of young people are out of work and I would have grave concerns about a new generation being caught out. I'm worried that history may to some extent be repeating itself," he said.
Mr Murphy said he is aware of local cases where pupils have been caught in possession of NPS on school grounds. However, he stresses that appropriate action has been taken by the school.
"We've been out to most of the local schools in partnership with the gardai over the last six months to get the message out and educate people about these new drugs and the dangers, but unfortunately a lot of parents just assume 'not my kids'. But these new substances are changing the playing field with comparatively unknown long-term consequences," he said.
Although the latest official figures from the Health Research Board, the lead agency in Ireland supporting and funding health research, recorded just 44 cases of treatment for psychoactive substances nationwide in 2013, a new EU Drug Markets Report, published by Europol, reveals that Irish teenagers and young adults are the biggest users of illegal psychoactive drugs in the EU.
The UK government is being urged to put off a ban on so-called legal highs among concerns that the Irish model isn't working.
The drugs and alcohol service in Cavan and Monaghan alone has had approximately 50 new psychoactive substance referrals since 2014.
It is receiving up to 10 referrals every week in connection with poly drug use.
Cavan also has a significant heroin problem, with around 75 individuals coming to see the methadone-prescribing GPs on a weekly basis.
"Our treatment numbers have doubled in five years. We have up to a dozen still waiting to access this treatment and they are frequently waiting 12 weeks or more to get into treatment," he said.
"When people ask for help with addiction, they present in crisis and we need to respond right there and then, otherwise we will lose them.
"The new Government needs to recognise the scale of the problem. The longer we leave these new drugs without a correct response, the worse it is going to get," he said.
"These products are coming from faceless manufacturers in foreign countries where there is no quality control, so we have no idea what is coming in. The packaging is very shiny and very well turned out and clearly targets young people with a professional perception of quality control," he said.
Liam [not his real name], a 20-year-old from Cavan town, told the Sunday Independent he started smoking 'Clockwork Orange' when he was 17.
"It was so easy to get and you get more for your money than normal weed. I got it from my friend, we all smoked it together at a mate's house. At first I thought it was great, I was like a zombie. Then after about a year I started getting sweats, vomiting up yellow stuff. I lost about three stone," he said.
"I was smoking it every hour of the day. I started saying silly things, I thought I was seeing stuff. I thought creatures were coming out of the telly when I was on the Playstation. I became threatening and abusive towards my parents and my brothers," he said.
Liam's family eventually intervened and he ended up in the psychiatric unit of Cavan General Hospital to get the drug out of his system.
"It's so easy for young people to get it over the internet or around the town, you've no idea. I just want to tell them to stay away from it. It destroys your insides, it leaves your head really, really messed up," said Liam, who has been in treatment for the last 10 months.
"I've just brought my circle closer and stay around my family. I can see a future now but I couldn't even imagine that I had one a year ago," he said.
Tony Geoghegan, CEO of Merchants Quay Ireland, a nationwide voluntary organisation providing a wide range of services to the homeless and drug users, said about 150 young people have presented at its drop-in centre in Athlone last year.
"There is no doubt about it, there is a serious drug problem in the midlands, particularly in the main urban centres of Athlone, Portlaoise, Mullingar and Longford town," he said.
"It's a fair mix of drugs but outside Dublin you see a lot more use of psychoactive substances. How they are getting onto the streets is the million-dollar question, whether they are made in labs or whether they are being bought over the internet - it is difficult to know," he said.
Drugs that mimic heroin and benzodiazepines are very popular in the midlands region - these include 'Mephedrone', 'Snow Blow', and 'D-10'. Tablets such as Valium, Roche and Dalmane are also rampant.
Although the HSE has had success in establishing treatment clinics in the problem areas through the Midland Regional Drugs Task Force, some people are still forced to travel to access help.
Counties Longford and Offaly are particularly under-resourced.
"We had about 300 people on outreach in Westmeath and Longford last year, but it's only the tip of the iceberg. Many people who are using recreationally wouldn't identify themselves as problem drug users, it's only if you're living at home and your family becomes aware that it starts to become an issue," said Mr Geoghegan.
Alan [not his real name] thought the best way to escape his drug problem in the midlands was to move to Cavan town five years ago.
"It was the worst move ever. I ended up relapsing. I left the midlands to avoid the situation but it's worse here. Synthetic weed is just seconds away at any time.
"It's terrible, it's destroying young people's lives around the town," he said.
"I think Cavan is one of the worst I have ever seen for drugs. People talk about Dublin but it's actually more rampant in the countryside, but it's all very hush-hush," he said.
"I got my first pull of the new stuff last September and I liked it. I thought it was really different but when you haven't got it, that's when the problem kicks in. The side-effects of it are worse than heroin. It's all you can think about, it's a mad, intense feeling, you have to have it, you'll do anything to get it. It made me goof off like heroin, it was crazy," he said.
"The situation in Cavan today is 10 times worse than it was when I arrived, and once a young person gets caught in the trap, it's almost impossible to get out," said Alan, who was forced to wait eight months on a waiting list for treatment - during this period he overdosed twice.
Fr Jason Murphy, chaplain at Breifne College, Cavan, recently spoke out at the funeral of a young person. "Numerous parents have contacted me, frightened out of their wits about the situation," he said.
"There is a very angry community out there. We feel that we are held hostage by these people. Despite all the good work and efforts by our community and county we are battling against dark forces," he told a local radio station.
"I am disgusted at the people who are selling this on the street to vulnerable young people, who are being targeted not just to buy it but also to sell it on to others. The people who are passing it on are just like you and me - it's not some big, bad man who is selling it," he said.
Barry, a recovering heroin addict, tried to escape his drug demons in the UK by moving to rural Ireland in late 2014.
"I thought Cavan would be perfect, a sleepy little rural town. I thought it would be the best place to go to get clean but I relapsed at Christmas," he said.
"I was shocked by the availability of street drugs. The town I come from in England is five times the size of Cavan and there might be one or two numbers you can ring but you'll still have to travel for half-an-hour. Whereas here I could call about six people and have it delivered to my door in 10 minutes," he said, adding: "Heroin is more available here."
The Cavan-Monaghan Drug and Alcohol Service desperately needs more resources to deal with the growing epidemic - currently there are just four staff dealing with the issue across both counties. The centre receives annual HSE funding of €213,000.
"It's not enough. We need to recruit at least two full-time case managers and rehab coordinators. We also need a full-time young persons counsellor and prevention education worker so that we can build on our work with the schools and other young persons projects," said Tim Murphy.