independent

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Where drugs cross the religious divide

In Ballymena, the biggest cross-community initiative is heroin, says Declan LawnTHE town of Ballymena has been forced to grow up quickly. At the...

In Ballymena, the biggest cross-community initiative is heroin, says Declan Lawn

THE town of Ballymena has been forced to grow up quickly. At the beginning of the Nineties, the then DUP-dominated local council banned a concert by ELO on the grounds that such music would attract ``the four Ds Drink, Drugs, Devil and Debauchery''. At the time most residents of the mid-Antrim market town saw the decision as laughably censorious. Today, they might look back on those days with a certain degree of nostalgia.

Three years ago, the same council who had once recoiled at the thought of the Electric Light Orchestra pressurised the RUC into establishing a Ballymena sub-division of the Drugs Squad. In the second half of 1998 until April 1999, the Ballymena drugs squad sub-division seized 57 grams of heroin. From April to September 1999, they seized 325 grams, 70 per cent of the total seized in Northern Ireland during that period. During the troubles, Ballymena was thought to be a place where business transcended sectarian politics. Today, for those addicted and those who work against it, heroin is the biggest cross-community initiative in town. And for a society long renowned as being snobby and acutely class-conscious, one of the biggest difficulties has been coming to terms with a drugs problem as prevalent in the middle-class avenues as it is on the working-class estates.

Jenny (not her real name) is an ex-addict and ex-dealer who has been clean for five months. She quit heroin while in prison for attempting to smuggle the drug into Northern Ireland. She is from a middle-class area of the town, and before she became addicted to heroin owned her own house and car and had a lucrative job.

``I started smoking heroin with a group of friends. We all had good jobs, and money was never a problem. We started smoking it at weekends, and then it became two or three nights a week. I was addicted for ages before I realised it. One day I went to the sun beds with my friend, and I felt like I was getting a terrible flu. She felt exactly the same way. We didn't even realise that it was withdrawal symptoms.'' ``It's very hard to get through to people what's happening,'' says Davy Warwick, a drugs worker with the Together project in Ballymena, ``because as a community we're very proud of ourselves. When there's plenty of money and a church-going ethos, it's difficult to imagine it coming to your door.''

UNTIL September 1998, the Northern Drugs Co-Ordinating Team was aware of 106 registered heroin addicts in Ballymena. Today, sources involved in treatment in the town estimate that the figure is at least double that, for registered addicts alone. Jenny says that in her days as a heroin addict in Ballymena, she knew three unregistered addicts for every one registered. After going to prison she took a HIV test and tested negative. She says she does not know of one other Ballymena addict, in the five years she was using, who ever took a test. Since there is no needle exchange programme in the town, most needles are shared.

``I know of one addict personally who regularly shares needles and yet he has three children to three different girls in the town,'' says Davy Warwick. ``Antrim hospital maternity ward is already dealing with babies addicted to heroin, so what's next?''

Nor does Ballymena, or Northern Ireland as a whole, have any dedicated drug treatment centre. The only option is to join a 24-to-36-week waiting list for a bed in Holywell hospital, where addicts share wards with patients who suffer from acute mental problems. The ward is not secure, meaning that drugs can be smuggled in or hidden, and a recovering addict can leave at any time. Most last a couple of days, and the maximum allowed is two weeks.

Davy Warwick is appalled at the programme: ``Two weeks? What is that to a heroin addict? In my opinion they need months off it in a controlled place before they even have a chance.'' Geraldine Mulholland is the newly appointed drugs information worker on the Dunclug estate, generally perceived to be the epicentre of dealing in Ballymena.

She is quick to point out that working alone she will never be able to help the users. ``I'll be running an information clinic, offering counselling to those affected by drugs in any way, organising a needle exchange, and doing street-work around the estate, but without resources none of this will make much of a difference to the users in terms of getting them off drugs. We need a detox centre.''

While the North's politicians bicker over old wars that heroin addicts in Ballymena have long transcended; as Davy Warwick puts it, ``I've never seen a syringe that was orange or green.''

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