Sunday 15 September 2019

'I was spending €200 on a weekend on cocaine, then €500, and then €1,000' - How the boom is back for the party drug of the Celtic Tiger

Cocaine was the party drug of the Celtic Tiger era. Now it is back in fashion, and this time ­snorting the expensive white powder has become ­prevalent among the middle classes. As the gardaí strike a major blow against Dublin's drug criminals, Kim Bielenberg reports on a mounting crisis

Pure facts: Journalist Kim Bielenberg with bags of the suspected drug. Photo: Mark Condren
Pure facts: Journalist Kim Bielenberg with bags of the suspected drug. Photo: Mark Condren
Team leader Hugh Coyle in the state forensics lab in Garda Headquarters, Dublin where the seized drug is tested. Photo: Mark Condren
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

At the annual convention of Cocaine Anonymous in a West Dublin hotel, up to one hundred recovering addicts gather in a circle, and hold hands together.

I join in the proceedings as we are asked by a friendly woman at the rostrum to say the "serenity prayer":

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

Team leader Hugh Coyle in the state forensics lab in Garda Headquarters, Dublin where the seized drug is tested. Photo: Mark Condren
Team leader Hugh Coyle in the state forensics lab in Garda Headquarters, Dublin where the seized drug is tested. Photo: Mark Condren

and wisdom to know the difference."

The religious entreaty seems a far cry from snorting white powder in the back rooms of nightclubs and in the toilets of city bars.

But many of these individuals have been to the brink of self-destruction and back.

The one-time coke addicts are hard to pigeon hole in this crowd, covering as they do a broad section of society - they could be computer engineers, business executives, tradespeople or factory workers.

Dressed casually on a Saturday morning, they all blend in as part of the "fellowship". There are now regular Cocaine Anonymous meetings in Dublin, Kildare and Tipperary, as more drug users seek urgent help.

Cocaine is frequently portrayed as the socialite party drug of the Celtic Tiger era. It was famously linked with the deaths of the model Katy French in 2007, and RTÉ's Gerry Ryan three years later.

Now it is making a comeback - and drug treatment specialists see its renewed upsurge as an alarming side effect of the economic upturn. According to the Health Research Board's most recent figures, up to 10pc of drug users now going for treatment cite cocaine as their main problem drug.

Dr Eamon Keenan, clinical lead for addiction services at the HSE, tells Review: "The figures from 2015 for cocaine use were the highest since 2009."

At a cost of around €80 for just one gram, cocaine used to be a pastime of a tiny rarefied minority, most frequently portrayed in the movies as going up the noses of high-flying stockbrokers and entertainment moguls.

'Socially acceptable'

At the start of the century, Health Research Board figures showed that only 3pc of the population aged 15-64 had ever had the experience of taking cocaine.

Whether it is in nightclub toilets, on bar counters or at house parties, the taboos over drugs have broken down. The proportion of the population that has experimented with the white powder has shot up to 8pc.

Among young people, the figures are a lot higher at 11pc - and the sight of conspicuous after-midnight sniffings at parties are almost commonplace.

Austin Prior, addiction counsellor at the Rutland Centre in Dublin, says: "Taking drugs used to be associated with the lower strata of society, but increasingly it is common among the middle classes as well.

"The frightening thing for me is that taking cocaine is now seen as socially acceptable. I work in private practice and I see a growth among professional people and the self-employed.

"They could be plumbers or electricians, solicitors and people with senior business jobs in high-profile companies.

"There seems to be a tacit acceptance that they are just party people - they are doing their jobs, and at the weekends they take cocaine."

The counsellor says there is a common myth out there that cocaine is not addictive, but that is far from being the truth.

Unmanageable lives

To the members of Cocaine Anonymous, this illusion has been well and truly shattered as they embark on Twelve Steps to Recovery.

Step One is: "We admitted we were powerless over cocaine and all other mind-altering substances - that our lives had become unmanageable." Life had certainly become unmanageable for Steve, an executive in a family property development company in the south of the country.

There was no shortage of money in his family, and that was a major part of his problem.

Steve, who is in his mid-thirties, tells Review: "By the time I gave up taking cocaine, I was robbing €1,000 off my parents every weekend just to feed my habit.

"If my family didn't have money, I would have had to rob it from someone else. Cocaine is so readily available in Dublin. The way it is now is that if you look, you get."

Steve says he started out as a social addict, progressing from heavy consumption of alcohol to cocaine.

He would snort it in the toilets in city bars, and he says his habit started out from a feeling of social insecurity.

"I always needed something to help me be in the company of other people.

"It gave me the comfort and confidence to talk to people, but I took things to extremes.

"I started out with small bags, but then became more and more addicted to it. I was spending €200 on a weekend, then €500, and then €1,000."

Steve may have used cocaine as a social crutch, but his short-term feelings of confidence quickly gave way to horrendous paranoia.

"After a few hours, you start looking at people and just thinking they are looking at you, and talking about you. It had a damaging psychological effect on me and my family. I was burned out by the end."

He agreed to go into rehab after he almost burned all his bridges with his friends and family.

Steve says he had no intention of giving up, but just wanted to be seen to be doing it.

"I never thought I was an addict. My idea of an addict was someone with a needle stuck in his arm. It was only when I went to Cocaine Anonymous that I made a breakthrough."

After his massive consumption of cocaine, Steve was lucky to escape with his life.

Playing Russian roulette

At the State's forensics laboratory next to Garda Headquarters, the drug team leader Hugh Coyle says anyone who takes drugs such as cocaine in Ireland is playing a game of Russian roulette. "You can never know how potent it is, and what is in it," says Dr Coyle. Coyle is in charge of analysing the contents of drugs seized by gardaí and customs, and sees wild variations in the purity of cocaine.

He shows me two big bags containing a total of four kilos of white powder, suspected to be cocaine. If this haul is indeed the drug, it would have street value of over €30,000.

Samples from hauls such as this are dissolved in a tiny bottle of methanol and analysed through a computerised process known as GC/MS, producing a result in just a quarter of an hour.

Coyle finds that cocaine coming into the country can be almost pure, but by the time it is being sold on the street or in clubs it has been heavily cut with adulterants in order to boost its value.

"One of the most common adulterants is lignocaine, which is normally used by dentists to numb your jaw."

Another common drug added into the cocaine mix is Levamisole, a veterinary drug used to treat parasitic worm infections in cattle.

Typical cocaine cocktails examined in the State lab contain 20-25pc cocaine.

The State lab analysed one seizure that was found to be cut with fentanyl, the lethal opioid that has been implicated in thousands of overdose deaths in America and elsewhere. "It was lucky that this seizure was made, because it could have had scary consequences," says Coyle.

He shows me tiny packs sold at street level. There are nine little packs which were held in a plastic Kinder egg container - the sort of deals handed out in clubs and bars.

Typical users may believe that they can struggle on at work, but increasingly traces of cocaine are being picked up in random workplace drug tests, putting jobs at risk.

Randox Testing Service carries out thousands of tests for Irish employers every year. Many of the tests are carried out in areas such as transport and construction, where a drug-taking employee could pose risks.

"We are getting more cases of cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy in tests," says Randox executive David O'Regan.

"They took a dip during the recession, but they have picked up again."

Austin Prior of the Rutland Centre says certain professions make people more vulnerable to cocaine addiction.

"It can be quite common among people who have ready access to cash. It could be someone in a retail or property business - and they hide their habit from their family."

Chris Luke, emergency consultant at Cork University Hospital, says cocaine is increasingly common again among patients admitted to emergency wards. He is concerned at the purity of some cocaine found on the Irish market. This makes it more potent.

"It puts people at risk of heart attacks and strokes, and also prone to aggression."

The inquest into the death of broadcaster Gerry Ryan in 2010 found he died of heart failure with cocaine as a probable trigger factor.

Dr Garrett McGovern, an addiction specialist and GP, says cocaine addicts come from across the social spectrum, and a high number of young people are now reporting chest pains at his clinic.

"Using cocaine affects the rhythm of the heart, and can cause blocked arteries. The blood vessels start vibrating, and the blood can't get through."

Dr McGovern says the drug also causes the breakdown of the lining of the nose - the nasal mucosa - and can cause bleeding.

"One of the problems is that some people are self-medicating with cocaine, even when they are working.

"They use it as an anti-depressant, but it is the worst anti-depressant you could possibly find. The depression that they get when they come down off binges is horrendous, and can lead people to the brink of suicide."

For the Dublin property executive Steve, life has turned around since joining Cocaine Anonymous, and he has found solace in helping others to give up.

"While I was in rehab, I had time to think. I gathered in my own thoughts and finally decided that I really had to sort my life out. The only thing that would happen if I didn't was that I would be dead."

@KimBielenberg

I turned up at work high, ­thinking that ­nobody knew

Olivia A mother in her mid-forties who works in IT

'I started drinking and taking drugs when I was in my teens.

I experimented with a lot of different drugs - including MDMA, ecstasy, and amphetamines - and I found that cocaine suited me the best.

It made me feel confident and indestructible. It made me think that I knew better than anyone else. Cocaine inflated my ego.

I took cocaine at the weekends, and I would drink during the week. When I was younger I could handle it. I had just a couple of Red Bulls in the morning before work, and I'd be fine.

I convinced myself that cocaine was not addictive. I tried to stop on my own but my willpower was not enough. As I got older, it got harder and I started missing work.

I was not a daily user of cocaine but I was a binger. When I started, I could not stop. Even when I was not using it I was constantly thinking about it. My mind was obsessed and I was manic.

Just getting that bag in my hand made me feel at peace. I barricaded myself into my room at home and sometimes I would binge for a full week. It affected my relationships with other people. I moved away from people who got their lives together, because it created in me a sense of jealousy. So I stuck with people who used drugs and alcohol like me. I felt that the world was against me.

It affected my finances. My pay would come in and I would pay off what I owed for drugs, and get more cocaine on tick. I had the bare minimum at home to put food on the table. I maxed out on my credit cards, took out loans and went through my inheritance.

The fact that I had to buy from criminals did not put me off. I thought it was exciting to be part of that world shown in movies like The Godfather and Scarface - even though I can see the destruction that I caused to myself and the world around me.

The reality of cocaine is not glamorous at all, and I eventually reached rock bottom. I was a shell of a person. I was angry, disturbed and miserable. I was nearly fired from my work, because I missed so many days. I also turned up at work high, thinking that nobody knew.

I did not know what to do with myself. I did not want to kill myself but I was waiting to die. I was hoping that taking one more line would give me a heart attack. I was ready to pack in my job and stay in my room for the rest of my time. It wasn't a life, it was just an existence.

I was blessed that a friend of mine came to me and told me I had a problem and needed to find a solution. I have a child, and that in some ways held me together. I never used cocaine in front of him, but he saw me when I was high.

I have been to many types of counselling and I always did it for someone else, but when I went for help for my cocaine addiction this time, I did it for myself. I didn't want to leave my son with someone else.

I went to a psychotherapist for an assessment for my own childhood trauma, and actually put in words that I was an addict. I went to a meeting of Cocaine Anonymous in Dublin. After a couple of weeks of hesitation and awkwardness, I felt comfortable and at home.

Only another addict could really understand what I had been through.

When I was on cocaine I tended to be self-centred and self-pitying. Cocaine Anonymous helped me to realise that it is not all about me. What really helps you is helping other people."

In conversation with Kim Bielenberg

Names have been changed to preserve anonymity. For more information on Cocaine Anonymous in Ireland, see Caireland.info

Indo Review

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News