Saturday, 24 September 2005

The cocaine Kates of rural Ireland

Saturday September 24 2005
There isn't a village in the country that has escaped the scourge of hard drugs... last week a 15-year-old Carlow boy was the latest tragic victim. Gemma O'Doherty reports

Being Good

by Jobber Ryan (aged 14)

I used to be bad, very, very bad.

I used to drive everyone mad.

I thought at the time it was very good

When I didn't do what I should.

But it has made everyone so cross and snappy

Even I became unhappy.

I lay awake in bed last night,

And decided in future to do things right.

Today I've been good for so long,

They're asking me now

Is there anything wrong?

Last summer, James "Jobber" Ryan made a promise to be good. He put his pledge into poetry and wanted to show the world. He had been bad for too long. It was time to start again.

But Jobber didn't find the will to change his ways. Drugs had taken a grip on his body and mind, and dragged him into the gutter.

Last Saturday night, neighbours saw his young life draw to a close as he wandered the streets of his hometown, Carlow, violently ill. He was rushed to hospital in convulsions, and died in the early hours from a suspected cocaine overdose, just one week short of his 16th birthday.

The news of his death has sent waves of revulsion across Ireland's second smallest county. Not surprise. Everyone knew Jobber played with fire and that one day he would get burnt. But locals feel a stomach-turning sickness over the fact that young boys like him are now easy prey for ruthless drug-dealers.

Jobber "has been taken out of evil now," said Fr Tom Little, PP of Askea, Carlow, at the teenager's funeral this week. Pleading with the community to be vigilant and "get rid of the people trying to exploit children and young people", he sent a warning to those who were indirectly responsible for the teenager's death.

"These people need to know they are not welcome in our community when all they bring is death and misery," he said.

Amid the loathing on the streets of Carlow, there is hope that some good might come out of Jobber's death. That it might serve as a wake-up call to the country that cocaine is no longer a dangerous recreational pastime of the Dublin jet-set but is seeping into the towns and villages of rural Ireland, ruining families and destroying young lives.

A recent survey undertaken by the Health Research Board, one of the most intensive yet on Ireland's illicit drug culture, is concrete proof that rural areas no longer lag behind Dublin when it comes to drug use.

While the capital city still reports the highest numbers for treatment of drug abuse, the use of cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine is found to have dramatically risen in the rest of the country in recent years.

Last year, Carlow's growing drug problem was highlighted when it became the county with the highest increase in incidents of heroin abuse outside Dublin. It is estimated more than 100 heroin addicts live in the town, feeding habits of more than €700 a week. There is also a thriving market for cocaine, which comes at a street value of between €70 to €100 a line.

Recent surveys show that 18% of children between 12 and 18 in Carlow have used drugs, cannabis being their drug of choice, followed by speed and solvents.

New road networks between Dublin and towns and villages in surrounding counties are part of the explanation for the rise in rural drug use. Improved transport links have allowed distributors of drugs greater ease of movement and addicts greater freedom to travel. Athlone, Portlaoise, Gorey, Wicklow and Bray are among a group of towns whose drug problems are believed to be spiralling out of control.

"Drug users are leaving Dublin and coming to rural towns," says Dr Stephen Bowe, a GP in Wexford town, where an average of 42 people are treated every month for illegal drug and alcohol-related problems in the town's General Hospital.

"They may have defaulted on a debt or cut in on someone else's patch and they have to get away. They drift out to the rural areas where they feel they won't be under any threat and bring their habit with them. Then they make contact with locals and the stuff is disseminated. It's not that local people suddenly decide to make contact with some druggie in Dublin. It just filters down.

"More and more people are taking drugs. I see the effects every day in my surgery but this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is total denial about the problem in rural Ireland. Most people wouldn't even know there is a problem. Unless you are a victim of crime, a mugging or a bag snatch say, you're not brought into contact with drugs."

As drugs become more widely available in rural areas, privately Gardai admit they have been taken aback by the surge in demand for cocaine in smaller towns and villages.

'Drugs are all about marketing - that's why cocaine is so popular," says one senior member of the force. "It's more marketable than heroin. Heroin is seen as a dirty drug used by down-and-outs, but cocaine is used by people from all walks of life because they see it as a cool thing to do. It's used by the likes of Kate Moss, by people who seem to have everything. It is purely recreational initially until it becomes a problem.

"The availability of coke is growing in smaller towns because the profits are huge. Very rarely would we come across a drug search now of even minor significance where somebody doesn't have €1,000 or €2,000 cash in their back pocket or bedroom. You can buy a kilo of cocaine abroad for €20,000, bring it back here and sell it on to one of the big gangs for €40,000 a kilo. Then they sell it on the street for €70,000.

"The people who have money in well-paid jobs have the money to get the coke they need, but eventually they start borrowing and upping their credit card limit. But how does a 20-year-old living in rural Ireland who has a job worth €300 a week sustain a coke habit? Sooner or later, they will probably turn to crime to support their habit."

Patrick Gallagher, a recovering addict who is now a drug worker in the south-east, says the rise of cocaine in rural areas has been dramatic.

"Heroin and cocaine these days go hand in hand. People do a thing called a speedball which is mixing both drugs in a syringe. In the last five years, chaps who would have started out on ecstasy and party drugs have all progressed onto either smoking or injecting heroin. You have different types of people using heroin now from the homeless through to bankers and doctors.

"The influx of cocaine has been incredible. I am approached every day of the week because of the way I look. The situation is worse than ever but people just put their head in the sand when it comes to drugs. They don't want to know."

His opinion is shared by staff at one of the handful of rural residential drug treatment centres, where pleas for funding continue to go unheard.

"We have Kate Moss's coming through the doors every day, young people from rural backgrounds whose brains are fried with drugs," says Anne Cuffe, CEO of the Aiseiri Addiction Treatment Centre, which runs residential services in Cahir, Co Tipperary and Wexford town, and a rehabilitation centre in Waterford.

"I think it's fair to say now that there isn't a village in Ireland that isn't touched by drugs. Our clients certainly have no problem getting anything they want, but there is a huge denial on the part of government that rural Ireland even has a drug problem. The focus is still on Dublin.

"More than €100m has been spent on drugs services in Dublin over the last five years but hardly anything in the regions. We have 12 beds in Cahir and 12 in Wexford and they are full all the time. In rural Ireland we feel we are unheard."

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