Jim O'Brien: 'The man or woman with the 'dusty nose' can be found at the wheel of a John Deere'
The mention of drugs conjures up the picture of an urban world, teenagers in hoodies and dealers in sleek cars.
Not any more: things have changed a lot in the recreational drug scene. The man or woman with the 'dusty nose' can be found at the wheel of a John Deere, setting on the benches at the mart, driving the mud-caked people carrier to the local school or speeding along lonely rural roads in a souped-up Subaru.
The anecdotal evidence that recreational drug use is a major part of the socialising habits of rural dwellers is more than convincing. Illicit drugs share the space with alcohol in rural towns where people gather to socialise at weekends, and it is part of the story when local teams, from across games and codes, gather to celebrate victory or anaesthetise defeat.
I was recently chatting to a rural publican about the challenges of sustaining the country pub. He said that, while he is always happy to have a crowd in, he dreads the celebrations around sporting events. The place might be full of ecstatic customers, but he is not sure what his customers are full of.
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After one such occasion last year his car park was littered with empty plastic bags. Evidence that ample amounts of the white stuff had been consumed was everywhere to be seen.
Concern for the levels of drug use across the country is growing, and in a unique development all nine former drugs ministers from different parties came together recently to call on the Government to take action on the drugs crisis.
In a joint statement issued last week they called for confidence in the National Drugs Strategy to be restored and for funding to be brought back to pre-2009 levels for the 20 drugs and alcohol task forces spread across the country.
Some rural drug and alcohol services will have to close next year for want of resources.
Figures from the RSA and CSO show a steady rise in drug offences throughout the country in terms of possession and driving under the influence.
Numbers of rural drink and drug driving detections are now being evenly divided between cocaine and alcohol.
While much of the awareness-raising, education and prevention work in relation to drug use is targeted at deprived urban areas and at younger people, the cocaine problem in the 25 to 45 age-group across all social strata and across the regions needs to be recognised and named.
In rural areas where not long ago 'the pint and the small one' reigned supreme, the line of shots has been joined by the line of coke as the mood-altering drug of choice.
I was told that a maternity unit at a hospital in one of the bigger towns had to remove the baby changing facilities from the public toilets, the cocaine residue on the units was posing a health risk to infants.
The increasing use of cocaine is not just having an impact on health and social habits, it is having a distinct impact on personal and family finances.
Taking the 'white stuff' is one thing, paying for it is another.
Where once families might have had to dip into their meagre reserves to 'clear the slate' at the local hostelry, some parents are now having to dip into their savings to pay off the drug debts of their adult children.
The predominant age profile of those indulging is not your teenager or college student, it is working younger adults with jobs and young families.
These are people with mortgages and car-loans and knife-edge finances that are thrown into disarray by a drug debt that can range from €2,000 to €20,000.
Those looking for payment are not very patient. Threats of broken windows are at the lower end of the scale. Panic sets in when the dealer informs the debtor he knows where the kids are in crèche.
I know of cases where parents of adult children living in very rural areas have had to hand over wads of cash to dealers at agreed collecting points.
While rural cocaine use may not have reached epidemic levels, we need to at least start talking about it and acknowledge its existence.
These things have a habit of sneaking up on societies like the opioid crisis ravaging rural America.
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