'They still use heroin, but polydrugs are the big thing now'


Drug use has become more public as consumption patterns have changed. Nowhere is this more visible than in Dublin city centre, where users often behave in an antisocial and uninhibited manner

NO MATTER how streetwise a Dublin dweller is, it can still be disconcerting to witness people visibly affected by drugs on city centre streets. To walk down Talbot Street, or alongside the Luas line on Lower and Middle Abbey Street, or past the boardwalk that runs between O’Connell Bridge and Butt Bridge, is to inevitably encounter clusters of dazed men and women who are in a chaotic state of distress.

For anyone walking to work, shopping or browsing in Dublin’s city centre, witnessing people strung out on drugs is an unavoidable reminder of darker elements of urban life. Yet statistics show that drug-related crime is down. So why is it that the heightened visibility of drug use suggests otherwise?

“When I started working in the drugs services 20 years ago, drug use was secret,” reports Gary Broderick, director of the Saol project, which works with female drug users in the north inner city. “It was mostly heroin. Now it’s mostly polydrugs. People use ‘snow blow’ [mephedrone], benadryl, diazepam, and a whole range of tablets, often mixed with alcohol. These can give you lots of confidence and bravado, and make people less careful about hiding their drug use in public.”

Tony Geoghegan is the director of the Merchants Quay project, a drugs and homelessness service. In previous years, this centre had 200 people daily for needle exchange. It’s now down to 70.

“People are still using heroin, but polydrugs are the big thing now,” Geoghegan emphasises. “It’s mainly benadryl, diazepam, valium, antidepressants, sleeping tablets. There’s a big black market for them; pills are about €1 each. To support a smallish heroin addiction is about €40 a day.”

He explains that with polydrugs people behave in an uninhibited manner, which is part of the reason drug use now seems to be much more in the public eye. “A lot of the antisocial behaviour we see is related to these drugs; people behaving like they’re out of their heads. People also often aren’t sure how many tablets they’ve taken, or what they’ve taken. They can become paranoid or hallucinate. I include alcohol with polydrug use. If you’re drinking a few cans with tablets, there’s really a lethal mix going on there. That’s when people start ‘goofing out’ – acting like they’re stoned.”

While the public may fear being targeted by drug addicts, the reality is that female drug addicts are much more likely to be victims of physical and psychological violence.

On condition of anonymity, a number of women who had been drug users, and who live in inner city Dublin, spoke of being threatened, controlled, beaten and bullied by male drug users; men who were almost always their partners. According to Tony Geoghegan, drugs services in Dublin tend to be accessed by a ratio of four men to every woman, and this group of women explained some of the reasons why.

“Their partners don’t want them to go to methadone clinics. It’s a way of controlling them,” says Norma.

According to Sue: “Some men think women don’t need methadone the way they do. They just say, ‘sure you’ll be fine. You’re a woman, you can cope’.”

Teresa’s former partner attended a methadone clinic, but would not allow her to attend also, although she wanted to. Instead, he gave her varying amounts of the methadone he received, when he felt like it. “He became very controlling. I was depending on him for my methadone. He was telling me, you only need this much, and then making me feel guilty telling me he could be making money selling on what I was using, that I was ruining his profits.”

Rúaidhrí McAuliffe is the co-ordinator of Uisce, an inner-city lobby group for drug users, with 15 years’ experience working in the area of drugs services. “It’s very unusual to find a relationship where one partner is an active drug user and the other isn’t,” he says.

The patterns that emerge from the stories these women tell confirm this. They agree that it is all but impossible to be in a relationship when one partner is not using drugs.

One partner, almost always the man, accesses drugs services and is also usually the person who buys the drugs. The woman of the couple funds the deals by various means, ranging from shoplifting to prostitution.

“Men make women believe that if the woman got caught shoplifting, they’d just get a slap on the hands, but if a man was caught, he’d go to prison. They are very controlling,” Sandra says.

“Men don’t like women going to the clinics. They’d be afraid ‘the bird’ would get her head together and then she wouldn’t want to be going out shoplifting any more,” says Melissa.

Several of the women reported being forced to shoplift by partners, mainly perfume and clothes. “It’s horrible waking up in the morning and knowing you have to go out robbing,” Melissa says.

Teresa talks about two friends, both drug users, who lost their jobs when the recession started. The man then persuaded the woman to start working as a prostitute to earn money for drugs, first to their friends and then to others. “He’s basically pimping her out all the time now.”

They also spoke of arranged marriages with male foreign nationals for fees of €5,000. “Sometimes you get half the money going in, and half coming out. And sometimes you get cheated and get nothing, like two friends of mine,” Emma reports.

As regards their own protection against street crime, these women routinely carry their money in their bras, only bring out the cash needed for the day, and never carry purses or anything valuable in their bags.

Do they consider night to be a more dangerous time to be on the streets of Dublin in terms of petty crime? They laugh.

“Morning is definitely the worst time. That’s when people wake up and need to make money for the next hit,” says Melissa. “That’s when you need to be watching out the most for things like your bag.”

Tell that to your readers,” Sue urges.

“Tell them to be aware. To be vigilant.”