The reality is, we're not winning war on drugs
Brian O'Donovan found ruthless dealers and their victims everywhere in his research for a shocking new documentary
Sunday June 15 2008
This was Dublin on a sunny summer morning, but it was no Noel Purcell song. Far from it. I was there to buy heroin, and it took just 30 minutes.
For the past three months I've been working as both reporter and producer on the TV3 documentary, Undercover Ireland: The Drugs Trade, which airs tomorrow night. One of the purposes of the programme is to show just how easy it is to buy drugs.
A week ago, I walked the streets around the Christ- church area of Dublin, looking for heroin. It was 11 o'clock on a Sunday morning. I was carrying a hidden camera. After about 15 minutes, I came across Steve, a drug user who stopped and asked me for a cigarette. I asked him for heroin. He told me he would get it for me if I "looked after him", by which he meant I would also have to pay for his fix. I agreed and I handed over €50 -- €25 for my bag of heroin and €25 for his.
In a remarkable display of honesty, he then handed me a large lump of hash and told me to hold on to it until the deal was done, so I would not worry about him running off with my money.
As we walked, he told me about how he had been in jail recently and about how he had overdosed the night before. He described how a girl had given him a shot of adrenaline to revive him.
He said: "She used an adrenaline pump, injected me into the chest -- the dozy whore, how dare she take my buzz away!"
He chose to ignore the fact that she probably also saved his life.
He took me to an alley behind St Patrick's Cathedral. We met Steve's dealer and a girl. They asked me to keep a lookout for gardai while they prepared my bag of heroin.
As he handed over the tiny bundle wrapped in paper, Steve warned me, "Just take half of this first and then the other half 10 minutes later -- it's very strong gear."
As I left the alleyway, confident that I had got away with my undercover operation, the drug dealer called after me, "Hey you, you're not a copper are ya?"
I laughed nervously as I quickened my pace and returned to the car to make sure that the preceding events had been recorded. They had. Having examined my camera, I then turned to the little bundle. I carefully unwrapped the white paper to reveal a small pile of pale brown powder. On the advice of gardai I handed the drugs to a forensic officer in Tallaght Garda Station, from where it was sent for destruction.
A quarter of all adults in Ireland have used illegal drugs, and there has been a massive increase in the number of people seeking help for addiction. Drug seizures and arrests are on the rise. Our documentary goes behind the facts and figures to reveal just how easy it is to buy drugs in Ireland today.
It took just 30 minutes to buy heroin. Cocaine took even less time. My production team and I targeted a Dublin city- centre "early house". Two of the team brought our hidden camera into the women's bathroom. They had been about to go into the bar to find cocaine, but cocaine found them. A man walked straight into the ladies' bathroom and offered them coke. He asked the women to come back to his home for a party. They refused, but said they would like to buy some cocaine.
He left. Within minutes his girlfriend arrived in the bathroom. She produced a large bag of coke which had been hidden in her bra. She passed it around a group of strangers that had now gathered in the bathroom. This impromptu cocaine party went on for several minutes with the door unlocked. It was about 7.30 in the morning. The women took the cocaine using a variety of methods -- some snorting it off €2 coins, others rubbing it into their gums, and some using the more traditional method of snorting it through a rolled-up bank note. They mused about the drug as they stood around in a circle.
One woman said: "I didn't care about taking this stuff before, but I have a daughter now and I'm terrified that something will happen to me."
Her concern was ignored while other members of the group compared the quality of the two different bags of cocaine that were now being shared.
Next we brought our hidden cameras to Tralee, where it took about 20 minutes to find a man who was willing to sell us cannabis. We met him in a bar in the centre of the town. We had to go back to his apartment to get it. When the drugs arrived, we started to record the events using our hidden camera -- which was concealed in the strap of a backpack -- but the dealer became very suspicious of our bag. He squeezed the part of the strap where the camera was concealed and then moved the bag to another room. At that point we decided it was time to leave.
Having established how easy it was to buy drugs in Ireland today, we looked at the supply routes used by smugglers. We spent several days with the Customs service.
Our first outing was to the An Post parcel depot in Portlaoise, where sniffer dogs
search thousands of packages every week. There has been a massive increase in the amount of drugs being sent through the post. In the short space of time we were there, Alfie the sniffer dog detected a suspicious package that had been sent from South Africa. It contained a kilo of herbal cannabis, worth €10,000.
Next we spent a day with the Customs service on board The Cutter, a boat used to patrol the coast. The south coast is extremely popular with drug smugglers, a fact highlighted last year with the seizure of more than one-and-a-half tonnes of cocaine off Dunlough Bay in west Cork. Smugglers target the south coast because it offers plenty of isolated landing points that are not overlooked but that can be accessed by road.
While we were out with the Customs service, officer Tony O'Riordan let us in on some of the things they look out for when trying to track boats that contain drugs. He said: "You can usually tell a drug smuggler because they'll be standing on the marina next to their boat and they won't even know how to tie a knot!"
Our final day with Customs was spent in Dublin Airport, one of the country's busiest points of entry for drugs. While we were there, a man who had arrived on a flight from Lisbon was detained after one of the sniffer dogs detected the scent of cocaine. The man was upset enough about being searched by Customs officers, let alone being filmed by us.
Airport sniffer dogs aren't just trained to detect drugs; they can also find cash. While we were recording, one dog found €10,000 contained in luggage. It was the second cash seizure of the day; that morning, a man carrying €14,500 had been detained.
The head of Drug Enforcement at the Customs service, Michael Colgan, explained, "Illicit cash movements are the lifeblood of organised crime. If we can detect criminal cash, it really disrupts these gangs."
Away from the sniffer dogs, drug dealers and seizures is the cold, sad reality of drug use -- addiction. We spoke to one recovering drug user, Anne Marie. She became hooked on cocaine and ecstasy at the age of 15 before moving on to crack cocaine and prescription pills.
She told us that drugs nearly killed her as a result of overdoses and a suicide attempt. Her addiction turned her into a person she hated. She shoplifted and picked people's pockets to get money for drugs.
She said: "If I go back using again, I'll probably die. In fact, I know I'll die!"
We travelled to Tullow in Co Carlow, where the Merchant's Quay Project runs St Francis Farm. It's a rehabilitation centre where recovering drug users work on the farm as part of their therapy. Feeding pigs or tending to crops are activities a million miles away from using drugs.
We met Michael, one of the recovering drug users who is receiving treatment on the farm. He told us that he started using hash and ecstasy at a young age before moving on to cocaine and heroin. He said he was not from a farming background and that working the land was the perfect way to get his mind off his addiction.
In Blanchardstown in west Dublin, we were invited to a service to commemorate the lives of people who had died due to drug addiction. It was an emotional ceremony.
There we met Philip Keegan, whose own son was once a heroin user but is now clean. Philip helps families who are trying to come to terms with addiction. He told us that he'd met many people who had had to remortgage their homes to pay off drug dealers who had threatened their lives. "It's a vicious world out there," he said. "Things were bad when my son was using, but it's much worse now. You have to contend with stabbings, shootings and even pipe bombs."
Legalisation is proposed by some as a way of combating the drug problem. We brought our cameras to a Legalise Cannabis Rally which was recently held in Dublin city centre. We filmed several people rolling and smoking joints in public, despite the heavy garda presence. It was ironic: while campaigners demanded the right to be allowed to smoke cannabis, they weren't shy about doing it in public.
We asked one of the rally organisers, Eoin Lawless, why cannabis should be legalised. "The reason it's sometimes seen as a gateway drug is because users of cannabis have to go to dealers who are selling other, harder drugs," he said. "If it was sold legally, users wouldn't have to go down that route and wouldn't be exposed to other drugs."
Grainne Kenny of Europe Against Drugs has strong views on legalising cannabis. She told us: "If you legalise it, who will police it and who will pick up the pieces?"
As well as being opposed to drug legalisation, she's also against drug paraphernalia being sold in "head shops". These premises sell legal forms of ecstasy known as party pills, as well as cannabis alternatives.
"Head shops don't serve any useful purpose and should be banned," she said.
Paddy Grant, from the Nirvana Head Shop on Dublin's Capel Street, defended his business, saying: "We offer people a chance to get high legally, keeping money out of the hands of organised crime."
Minister with Responsibility for Drug Strategy, John Curran, said he had no plans to target head shops, but that a stimulant known as BZP sold in these shops would be banned in the near future.
Legalisation is unlikely to happen here any time soon, and it's seen only by a few as a way of winning the war on drugs. Ireland may have been transformed by years of prosperity, but we've been left with a country where addiction still devastates lives, where dealers run their businesses with unprecedented violence and where drugs have never been easier to buy.
If you don't believe me, come and meet me in Dublin on a sunny summer morning.
'Undercover Ireland: The Drugs Trade', TV3, 10pm tomorrow
Brian O'Donovan is a senior correspondent with TV3