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Cocaine use in Ireland: 'In work I'll pretend I had a quiet weekend - but I'd feel like a corpse'

With cocaine use now at Celtic Tiger levels in Ireland, Donal Lynch spoke to some people who use the drug, and others whose lives have been affected by it

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Cocaine use. Stock picture

Cocaine use. Stock picture

Cocaine use. Stock picture

Mark (34), an accountant from Dublin, vividly remembers the first line of coke he ever took.

"Actually it was more of a bump - a smaller amount," he explains. "A friend gave it to me in the toilet at a party from the tip of a key and I can recall the surge of confidence that came with it. It was like seeing the world through different eyes. I much preferred it to drink - that clear, sharp feeling - but it also went well with drink, it seemed to sober me up a bit," he explains. "I was already working at that stage and I began a pattern of sometimes, on special occasions, about once every three weeks, I would take coke. But I wouldn't have considered myself an addict any more than someone who likes a few glasses of wine at the weekend would consider themselves an alcoholic."

Casual coke use is growing faster in Ireland than in most other European countries, according to a recent study by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. The level of use now surpasses the level seen during the Celtic Tiger, according to Prof Colin O'Gara, a psychiatrist at St John Of God Hospital in Dublin, who has done research into cocaine dependence.

"It is by far the most common drug we deal with now," he says. "When the economy crashed, we saw cocaine being swapped for head shop drugs until legislation was tightened up and the prevalence of those drugs receded. But as the economy recovered, cocaine use went up again. It's about availability - it is so widely available that it's inevitable that it will be widely used.

"It's available in pubs, clubs, sporting venues, you have new peer groups who wouldn't have been exposed to cocaine before, now using it. We know that when it's combined with alcohol it creates a pharmacologically distinct third substance. Sometimes the person who has drunk eight pints sees himself as having the prospect of becoming even more intoxicated or taking cocaine which makes them feel more alert again."

The perception that cocaine is relatively safe is false he says. "You have people who suffer a stroke or a heart attack with very little use", he says. "It all depends on the individual. Many presentations at A&E would involve cocaine use."

In recent years, social media and taxi apps have led to what has been termed an 'uberisation' of the cocaine trade in Ireland.

"Chatting apps are handy because you feel a bit more anonymous," Mark explains. "I would truly hate to add up all the midnight cash withdrawals I've made, the time spent making dodgy deals late at night in the backs of cars with men you don't really want to bump into after dark. Friday night to Sunday afternoon can pass in the blink of an eye. On Monday, I go into work and pretend I've had a quiet weekend. But I feel like a corpse."

The expense of cocaine has given it an image as the drug of choice for high achievers. The comedian Robin Williams famously said that it was 'God's way of telling you you are earning too much money'.

"Coke is expensive, so in a sense you need to be quite high-functioning to get a lot of it; you need to be able to pay for it," Mark explains. "It doesn't leave you a wreck for days like ecstasy, or sap your motivation like weed. I think that's why you see a lot of coke in the area I work in - finance - people think they can do it and go to work the next day."

Eamon Dunphy once said that there was too much bad coke in Dublin. In recent years, however, the purity has increased - The European Agency for Drug Monitoring and Addiction recently found that across the continent the level is the highest it's been in a decade.

"I am pretty good at telling when it's good and because I'm a good customer my dealer gives me his best stuff," Mark explains. "I try not to think of the gangs and the trail of blood that brought it to me. It's like meat - if you thought about where it really came from, you'd never do it."

The widespread use of cocaine has had an impact on those who run venues in our towns and cities. In 2017, Councillor Alan O'Farrell of Fianna Fail told the joint policing committee in Co Clare that "it is frightening" how people seem to have no problem "snorting cocaine off their phones or passports. They seem to be doing it the same as they would go out to have a fag nowadays," he added.

Sean (44) works as a security man for several bars and events in the Dublin area. "You have middle-aged people, husbands and wives, taking it on nights out and in many cases they don't even go to the toilet any more, or pretend that they are going one-by-one instead of in pairs," he explains.

"Drugs are seen as a cheaper alternative to buying drinks. That's why students love them. We have to be very careful about what we accuse people of. We've been advised that we can't search people on the door of a venue here because of the potential of being sued."

He says that in his experience the association between cocaine and belligerent behaviour is very well founded. "I would say it's involved in a fair proportion of the rows. Rows over very silly things. People getting glassed - that's often cocaine."

Festival organisers are better prepared than pub owners to deal with the consequences of drugs, Sean explains. "They're realistic about the fact that people are going to take drugs when they go to a festival, and they don't want the guards involved unless it's absolutely necessary. I have worked at festivals where they have ambulances, paramedics, a whole field hospital, basically. They deal with it all in-house."

He says that cocaine use is rife in the industry. "You see a lot of staff taking coke as well. In this industry you're staying up until all hours of the morning, it's a lot more stressful than people think. Coke helps you to keep going and you're in that whole environment where it is being sold and taken, although most staff are very discreet with their use. I've had colleagues with serious problems. I think having that experience with it makes me a bit more compassionate about people's use, however. If I find someone with drugs I will throw them out, but I won't humiliate them."

How to raise the issue of a loved one's cocaine use is a difficult proposition for most people. Mary (61), from Waterford, has dealt with drug use in her family. "I knew for sure my son was taking drugs when I found a packet of white powder in his jeans. But, in hindsight, there were many other signs. He had been moody for months. He had been borrowing money and disappearing from the house in the middle of the night. He got into trouble with work and lost his job. His partner threatened to leave him and she got through to him in a way that I never was able to. He went to residential rehab and it seemed to do him a lot of good. When we visited halfway through, his colour had returned to his face.

"The therapists there encouraged us to take part in family therapy with him, where he had to listen to me talk about what it was like living with him. In one way that was helpful. When you deal with that amount of lying and deception from someone you love, there has to be a bit of a healing process."

One of the things she learned was about co-addiction, the idea that the drug-user in your life is enabled by you in certain ways. "I certainly did some of that. I bailed him out financially, made excuses for him, forgave him every time. I did this because he's my son and I love him, but also because I was confused as to what the right thing to do was."

Mary says that it's important that not just drug users, but those around them, get the right help. "Drugs don't just affect one person. They affect everyone around that person."

A number of rickshaw drivers operating in Dublin City Centre are selling class A drugs while they work, Independent.ie can exclusively reveal.

Sunday Independent