We've seen children aged 9 taking cocaine and heroin at 11, drugs worker reveals
Children as young as nine are using cocaine, an experienced drugs worker has said.
Gemma Collins is the manager at the Crinan Youth Project in Dublin's north inner city, which provides day services to drug users aged between 14 and 21.
She said she has encountered children as young as nine who have used hard drugs, including cocaine.
"It can be devastating to assess a 14-year-old and realise that the first time that they took something they were nine and it was a sleeping tablet in their house or it was cocaine with some older boys," she said.
"If you know a child that age, developmentally they're not even in a place to understand what they're doing."
In another instance, Ms Collins said a young person she encountered had first used heroin aged 11.
"Often people's first drug is cannabis and they would use that first between 11 and 14 in a lot of cases," she said.
"But people do need to wake up and realise that it is happening and they are getting younger and younger."
Drugs Minister Aodhan O Riordain last night told the Herald he is well aware of the nature of the drug problem in Ireland.
"A lot of drug projects tell me similar things.
"I have met many people in recovery who started experimenting at a young age with alcohol, cannabis and other substances," he said.
The Crinan Youth project will celebrate 20 years working in the north inner city this year.
The project accepts clients with various substance abuse problems and tailors a rehabilitation programme to their needs.
It was originally set up as a community response to the heroin epidemic in the area.
"It meant that young people could access methadone without attending a clinic environment.
"There would be older people who would be much more well-versed in street stuff there," Ms Collins explained.
"It's the equivalent of putting a child into an adult prison. Why would you do that? They could learn things that they don't need to know and also they could be at risk."
Now the centre, which can accommodate up to 30 young drug users at a time, is dealing with new waves of drugs.
"Cannabis has been massive, probably 98pc or 99pc of the people that are coming are smoking cannabis. Some problematically and some don't believe it's a problem.
"Benzodiazepines, alcohol and cocaine would be the main ones now. It would be rare to come across a young person now who is coming to our project that is using heroin.
"There's lots of reasons [for the decline in heroin use]. It's a very different experience taking cocaine and alcohol.
"It's a much higher, powerful, confidence-boosting experience, while heroin is a sedative type of experience and kids don't want that today."
Ms Collins said that the problem with so-called "benzos" in the city centre is "chronic".
"People are buying them off the internet, they don't even know what they're buying, the streets are flooded," she said.
Mr O Riordain said that within the new National Drugs Strategy, a steering group is examining various options.
"Education and empowerment of young people is central to that.
"We have to listen to what young people are saying. Drug habits and fashions change regularly. A message that may connect with them this year, may not connect with them next year.
"I think we need to fundamentally change the way we connect with this whole issue.
"Criminal sanctions are not working for people that are using.
"We need to use the health, education and counselling spheres, and use the resources of the criminal justice system to tackle the pushers," he said.