Addiction and drug debts wreak havoc on community

In better-off neighbourhoods it’s a health issue, but in working-class areas ‘it often becomes about money and violence’, says local activist

Seán Reinhardt has lost count of the number of times he has been approached over drug debts in Waterford city and the addictions flowing from them.

Well known in the area thanks to community work and his chairmanship of the Naomh Pól GAA club he co-founded 20 years ago, Reinhardt tells The Irish Times that the “lucky” ones are those caught early.

For a teenager with few hundred euro to pay, “it’s massive to the young fella, but it’s something the family can deal with and they can rally around and get it sorted”, he says.

“That’s where you can say [to the enforcer]: ‘This is finishing here lads, take the money and leave him alone.’ Remember, the fella who’s looking for that money isn’t going to be big time either.”


The hardest cases are where someone is “trapped” in addiction and debt, a situation he is coming across more frequently.

“The people we’re talking about are the ones who have racked up debts of 20 grand. That’s the level it got to before they realised there was a problem.

“A family can’t get that money together – the only way he’s getting out of that debt is to do a deal somewhere else to make up the money in the same game.”

If the money cannot be secured, then threats, assaults and even maiming is used against the victim and their families.

Bin through the window

He recalls one man in his 40s who had a long-term heroin addiction. The dealers could not locate him so they went after his mother.

“He had a debt and a bin came through the window where his mother lived. She was living there on her own. That was the last known address they had for him and that’s where they kept targeting.” It eventually resulted in the woman moving out of the area.

“The woman couldn’t comprehend the situation. She came up in an area where there could have been alcohol problems but not drugs.”

Speaking between rain showers on a walk through Lisduggan, he struggles to think of a case where the dispute did not come down to money. “Some of them can’t pay it off so the young fella gets offside and leaves the country or moves a couple of hundred miles away.”

Gardaí are rarely an option, he says. “If you’re being threatened by a drug dealer, you’re not going to the cops. I wouldn’t say it’s a lack of trust, I just think it’s fear of being a rat.”

Reinhardt, who spent eight years as an Independent city councillor until 2019, was a proponent of drug injection centres for heroin users during his time as mayor of the Waterford metropolitan area. He supports decriminalising use and possession of minor drugs, and treating the problem through health policies.

Approaches also come from families in affluent parts of the city, seeking help for a loved one who has an addiction, but debts are rarely an issue. “Someone is able to pay for it. It’s really hard and the person is sick but they can treat it as a health issue. For a working-class area, it often becomes about money and violence.”

He adds that he doesn’t want to get political but feels the housing crisis has a part to play. “People have less money, less money to pay the rent, to pay the mortgage. That feeds into it.”

More cocaine

A change in tastes is noticeable on the ground, with cocaine perceived as “cleaner” than heroin, he adds. This is borne out by a recent report from the Health Research Board showing people aged 15-24 were drinking less but taking significantly more cocaine, with the number presenting for problem cocaine use rising 171 per cent between 2011 and 2019.

In Waterford, Lisa Robson, substance misuse services co-ordinator for HSE/South East Community Healthcare, says it has collected rough figures which suggest that presentations related to cocaine have risen over three-fold in Waterford since 2018. It is working with different community organisations in a bid to educate, which includes presentations with GAA clubs.

Alcohol and cocaine “go hand in hand”, Robson points out.

Reinhardt says many of the drug debts start with a teenager, almost always male, being offered a substance – often cannabis but sometimes pills or cocaine. They are then pressured for payment by an older and more violent man and this can quickly lead to extortion.

One local woman whose son wound up with a small debt to a dealer found she was “paying €50 every couple of weeks so my windows didn’t get broken in”. She told The Irish Times she “lost €1,400 over two weeks” to a man who was threatening her family.

Another person said they had decided against buying drugs in their area as “getting stuff on tick for €50 in Waterford means you find yourself owing €250 to about five different fellas”.

Reflecting on his work with the GAA, Reinhardt says it is hard to get young people to be open about the issue, or to spot the early warning signs. It is only “when their life is messed up, that’s when they might start moving to go sober. While they’re on that journey, nobody recognises themselves as being part of that group.”