Abuse of the drug is so easy and widespread we need a health campaign, rather than a drug war, says a top psychiatrist
Contacting a drug dealer in the digital age is very different from the hackneyed imagine of an addict covertly scoring narcotics on a street corner in a bad neighbourhood. Once contact is made with a dealer online, your phone number or social media profile is on their radar and you can become a target for unsolicited contact — videos, menus and messages letting you know when a new batch of high-quality drugs is available to buy.
If you are trying to get clean, this is all very unhelpful, explains Professor Colin O’Gara, consultant psychiatrist and head of addiction services at St John of God Hospital in Dublin.
“At the moment, availability of cocaine is the major issue. It is just everywhere. But the internet has also changed how drug dealers do business. They send you menus of their various drugs for sale, videos showing you the quality and purity when a new batch arrives. Once they have your number or track your social media presence, they will find you and target you.”
Last week, a report outlined in stark terms the extent of Ireland’s cocaine problem — not that a reminder was needed. It told us what addiction experts and gardaí have been signalling for years: the country is awash with cocaine.
That was the underlying message from the Health Research Board’s latest research. The new study on substance abuse found there was a 170pc increase in the number of young people treated for cocaine use over a nine-year period (2011-2019).
Part of the problem is that cocaine use has become normalised, according to one informed security source with a background in drug enforcement.
“The worst thing that the politicians and the media ever did in relation to cocaine was describe it as a recreational drug,” he explained.
“The message is ‘Heroin is bad, it’s for junkies, but coke is OK, rich people do it’. People seem to have forgotten entirely that they are both class-A highly addictive drugs. From what I’ve seen policing, cocaine is doing more damage than heroin ever did.”
There are over 14,500 sworn Garda members across the force. And they are not immune to the attraction of the white powder, as evidenced in a small number of criminal cases which have seen gardaí prosecuted and sacked after being detected using, buying and even selling cocaine.
Informed sources say there are current cases involving members of An Garda Síochána who are being blackmailed after being videoed snorting lines of cocaine on a night out.
One well-placed source said: “Gardaí are not immune to the cocaine problem. With over 14,000 members, of course we mirror what is happening in society. Members have ended up back at house parties and then are filmed doing coke, because everyone has a smartphone. Then they are blackmailed by criminals who use them to get garda intelligence about planned raids, their rivals — you name it, they are demanding it.
“It is a serious problem. There are live instances of this happening right now. A small number of gardaí are being corrupted because they made a bad decision, or have an addiction, and someone caught them on their phone. It is a growing problem in the force that cannot be denied.”
These anecdotal reports from informed security sources come against a backdrop of Garda HQ seeking legal powers to run undercover investigations to test gardaí for corruption. The organisation wants the Garda Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) to have stronger powers but needs clear laws to authorise it.
It said so-called integrity testing would enable the ACU to launch “simulated corruption opportunities” that would be designed “to provoke a response” from a targeted garda to see if they would commit a criminal or disciplinary offence.
Garda bosses said integrity testing can be “random” and not just based on
The request was contained in a submission by An Garda Síochána to the Oireachtas justice committee, which last week published its summary report on the General Scheme of the Policing Security and Community Safety Bill.
“That seems over-complicated,” is the view of one officer with decades of experience in drug enforcement on the proposed new powers. “What should have happened 15 odd years ago — when coke became a major problem in this country — is that laws should have been brought in for random drug-testing of gardaí. It has long been proposed but constantly delayed over legal issues. But it is simple and would have a big impact in terms of rooting out gardaí who do use coke or forcing those who dabble to stop altogether.”
But trying to kick a drug addiction, regardless of your profession, can be easier said than done, Prof O’Gara said. “Often, the only option for my patients is to change their phone number to avoid being contacted and triggered by their dealers when they are trying to stay clean. Because cocaine use is so widespread, it can be difficult for people when they are out socialising, because there is a steady stream of people in and out of the bathrooms doing coke.”
The specialist, who is also clinical professor of psychiatry at UCD, said some of his patients feel pressurised if they are not doing coke with their friends on a night out because it has become so commonplace.
“Young people can feel out of place if they not doing it; that how bad this situation has become. Alcohol is the gateway drug for cocaine. People will drink eight or nine pints and then order cocaine simply so they can stay out and keep drinking. That is the situation we are in. It is madness,” he said.
The Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau (DOCB) is the national garda unit tasked with the unenviable job of trying to keep a lid on drug trafficking into and around the country.
Over the past three years in particular, its seizures have soared. But gardaí privately acknowledge it only intercepts the “tip of the iceberg”. The Kinahan cartel, which the DOCB is in the throes of trying to dismantle with international police assistance, still controls the majority of drug importation to Ireland.
“The cartel very much still control the drugs game in Ireland. They have not been put out of operation, despite being under Garda pressure right now. A senior lieutenant for the cartel has recently come back from Dubai and is running the show for the cartel,” a source said. “But let’s be honest. The war on drugs? It’s a joke.”
Prof O’Gara agrees. “The horse has bolted in terms of supply and demand. Despite the best efforts of gardaí, we cannot keep cocaine out of this country. What we can do now is a proper, sophisticated education campaign.
"People need to know the physical and mental health impact taking cocaine has on their body and mind. Because right now, there are far too many people who consider it a safe, recreational drug, almost the same as having a couple of pints. It is not.”