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‘Cocaine crisis’ as more are turning to drugs to deal with job losses and mental health issues, experts say


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Ireland is facing a ‘cocaine crisis’ after the Covid-19 pandemic as health researchers and criminologists predict more people are turning to drugs to cope with unemployment and mental health issues.

Rehab centres have seen a surge in people seeking help for cocaine addiction during lockdown as concerns grow about the impact on local communities. James Leonard, a youth support officer with the Cork Education and Training Board, told the Irish Independent that cocaine use among young people is a ‘major issue’ at the moment.

“In terms of my own research, we went around and did area profiles in Cork to find out the different issues, and cocaine use among young people and parents was one of the biggest problems,” he said.

“In certain communities where the GAA or rugby team may be the pinnacle of the community, we found that cocaine use was very prevalent among sporting role models who young people there looked up to and this was having a big impact on drug use.”

Mr Leonard graduated from University College Cork last year with a Masters in Criminology and received widespread praise for speaking about his own previous battle with addiction on The Tommy Tiernan Show. He believes Ireland’s return to economic prosperity in the last few years is part of the reason cocaine use has increased during lockdown. "People had more disposable income again, and cocaine use started to rise, so what we’re left with now is the legacy of that creeping into the pandemic. They’ve developed the habit and it’s carried into the lockdown.”

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 proved to be a record year for cocaine smuggling both here and across Europe. Gardaí seized €14m worth of cocaine – double the amount recovered in 2019.

However, the overall figure is expected to be much higher as a Garda spokesperson said figures are currently not available across the entire organisation. This year, so far gardaí have seized €642,000 worth of cocaine. Suzi Lyons, a senior researcher with the Health Research Board, said Ireland undoubtedly has a cocaine problem and their data indicates more people are using the drug casually.

“Not everyone will develop a problem but clearly a proportion of them will and we have seen the number of cases presenting for treatment triple in recent years,” Ms Lyons said.

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“The amount of cocaine seized by gardaí is quite striking. Nearly one-third of people who presented for treatment in Ireland in 2019 were in paid employment and the median age was 30 years old.”

While data about cocaine addiction treatment for 2020 is not yet available, Ms Lyons believes the pandemic and spending more time at home may have helped more people realise they have a problem. “There are a couple of scenarios that may have arisen. People might have stopped using because they weren’t going out socialising, or they may have realised how much they were relying on it before, discovered they had a problem and sought treatment.”

Addiction treatment centres have seen more people presenting for help during the pandemic, the majority for cocaine use. Paddy Byrne, manager of the St James Camino Rehabilitation Network near Enfield, Co Meath, said there has been an “obvious rise” in people suffering from cocaine addiction in the last three years.

“Cocaine was always considered the rich man’s drug but it is accessible to all nowadays and it does just as much damage as heroin. It’s tearing families apart. Some people won’t even pay for electricity or buy food as they would rather spend it on cocaine,” he said.

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