A new survey paints a disturbing picture of drug use throughout the country - even in the most remote areas. Willie Dillon reports from one typical country town, where officials acknowledge the situation but say the biggest menace is really alcohol abuse
A major national survey on drugs, published this week, showed that nearly one in five of the country's adult population has used illegal drugs at some point in their lives. Three per cent of those surveyed had taken an illegal substance in the previous month.
The study, by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs, found that the typical illicit drug user is likely to be young, male and living in Dublin or near the east coast and his drug of choice is most likely to be cannabis. It far outweighs all others on the list of banned substances that are routinely used by a significant portion of the population.
Nearly 5,000 people in the Republic, between the ages of 15 and 64, were asked about their use of drugs. The sample is far higher than would be used in, for instance, a political opinion poll. As such, it gives us the most complete and statistically accurate picture ever of drug use in Ireland.
The survey also found smaller, but still significant, levels of illegal drug use in other parts of Ireland. It shows definitively that drugs are no longer exclusively a feature of life in big cities. Even predominantly rural areas now have a measureable level of drug use. Most provincial towns have a similar drug profile to the major urban centres; they are different only in terms of scale.
The other, and possibly more significant, fact to emerge is that illegal drug use continues to be totally overshadowed by the nation's love affair with alcohol. We drink at rates far beyond that of all drug consumption. This is a feature of both urban and rural life and across all age groups.
In a typical medium-sized provincial town such as Athlone, the usual range of illegal drugs is easily accessed and routinely used. It has to be pointed out that this is not in any way unique to Athlone, which is no different to other similar-sized towns throughout the country. The town and its hinterland have a population of some 25,000 people.
In Athlone, cannabis and ecstasy are used as recreational drugs of choice by a significant number of mainly young people. The town also has a small, fluctuating number of heroin users. Heroin has been available locally for the last five or six years. As in the bigger cities, the users are largely from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.
Most types of drugs can easily be sourced locally. However, heroin users have been known to travel to Dublin to get their supplies. The tragedy that accompanies inner-city drug use in the capital has also been mirrored in Athlone; drugs have claimed the lives of two young members of one local family - a brother and sister.
A methadone-maintenance centre run by the Midland Health Board in the town caters for 22 people and others are on the waiting list. Both the Garda and health authorities say it is difficult to know exactly how many heroin users are in Athlone, but there is general agreement that the figure may be three times the number currently catered for. An expansion of the methadone scheme is likely in the near future.
A new Garda divisional drugs unit, covering counties Westmeath and Longford, has made significant inroads into the overall drugs problem since being established some four years ago. The Garda work closely with local community groups, such as the Athlone Drugs Awareness Group. Its chairman, Frankie Keena, says the problem is a national one that has trickled down throughout the country from the large urban centres.
His group and the Garda agree that the drug that is most widely abused in Athlone, and indeed throughout Ireland, is alcohol. Mr Keena says parents are wrongly inclined to tolerate teenage drinking because they feel it is better than seeing their children using hard drugs.
Local gardai view the situation in even blunter terms. "If we could wave a magic wand," says one member of the force, "and get rid of something, we wouldn't be saying cannabis or ecstasy. We'd be saying alcohol because that's what causes most of the problems we have to deal with - public-order offences, family problems, teenagers. Drugs may be there in the background, but alcohol is the main problem. A huge percentage of the problems we see are down to drink.
"You might go along to a juvenile disco and see youngsters out the back blotto, not from drugs, but from drinking vodka out of bottles, which a lot of the time they have brought from home."
Because of its secretive nature, Mr Keena says it is hard to put a figure on the extent of illegal drug use in Athlone. His group doesn't have a role in documenting or treating the problem. It sees its job as raising awareness about drugs, giving advice to parents and warning young people about the dangers.
To this end, members give talks to local schools, residents associations and sporting groups. They also run a no-alcohol disco for local young people and they travel to meet similar groups in other midland towns.
The drug-awareness group was set up in 1996 in response to public concern at the rise in drug use in the greater Athlone area. Its members are from voluntary and community backgrounds, and it also has representatives from the health board and the Garda.
Mr Keena, a Fianna Fail member of Athlone Town Council, admits it is hard to know whether they have succeeded in reducing the level of drugs use locally. "I'd say it has helped anyway. But it's very hard to evaluate. The public is now definitely becoming more aware of the problem. Before we were set up, it was kind of swept under the carpet."
He stresses the crucial importance of awareness, acknowledgment and education. He emphasises that Athlone is no better or worse for drugs than any other town. "That has to be made very clear. It would be wrong to give the impression that this is only an Athlone problem."
But he also believes it is wrong for people to suggest that the area has nothing to worry about. He says the Garda drugs unit has been very successful, though it could do with more resources and more personnel.
"We need to identify the problem and seek to address it. If we sweep it under the carpet, it will only fester. There are youngsters in this town who need help."
Senior Midland Health Board official Bill Ebbitt says: "There is no doubt that there is a significant pocket of heroin abuse in the Athlone area, but we really don't have accurate figures."
A rough calculation of the extent of heroin use in the area can be made from the numbers coming forward for methadone treatment, those who come to the attention of the Garda, or those who are in the probation system. The board has commissioned the Athlone Institute of Technology to study the situation in both Athlone and Portlaoise.
That report, due in September, will greatly help in drawing up a drug action plan suited to the specific needs of the area. The plan is being compiled by the regional drugs task force in the midlands, of which Mr Ebbitt is interim coordinator. Similar bodies have been established in all health board areas under the national drugs strategy. The plan will address the issue of substance misuse under four headings: education and prevention, treatment, supply reduction and research.
Mr Ebbitt says the heroin problem in Athlone is located primarily in areas of social disadvantage. Looking at the wider drugs picture, he says there is considerable ecstasy use in the town, while there is "no shortage of cannabis in any part of the midlands". But while young people may experiment with ecstasy and cannabis, their primary drug of choice is alcohol.
The drugs message has got to be much more focused and specific. The old method of giving a general "drugs talk" to pupils or parents is no longer seen as the most effective way, he says.
Now the need is to work directly with at-risk or disadvantaged young people and to respond to what they are saying. If some are using drugs, they need to be aware of safety issues and minimising the risks involved. Parents are also encouraged to discuss the issue within the family.
However, Mr Ebbitt adds: "You must also remember that we have a large youth population who are not using drugs at all. Sometimes that's a message which we fail to get out. Yes there are those who do, but there are also those who don't, and we have to be fair to people and put it in context."