The downward spiral of indebted drug addicts

Violence and sexual abuse – misery of drug debt hits users and families across country

Sadie Grace of the Family Support Network at their office on Gardiner Row, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Sadie Grace of the Family Support Network at their office on Gardiner Row, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times


Six years ago, a report from the Family Support Network made for chilling reading, with tales of indebted drug addicts being beaten, forced to drink dangerous chemicals or sexually threatened by the dealers who came looking for debts to be settled.

One person owed €60,000. A few were chased for as little as €100.

“The issues are the same, the way that people are being intimidated is the same. The only thing that has changed since we published that report is that there is much more of it – it used to be mainly in Dublin but now it has spread right across the country,” the network’s Sadie Grace said.

The message given to the addict forced to drink chemicals was simple, Grace said: “You won’t talk again. The drug user was warned that when he came out of hospital, they would get him and if he didn’t come home, then they would get his family.”

Combination of threats

Every member of one family faced threats and intimidation over the debts of one of their relatives. Most families reported being subjected to a combination of threats – 78 per cent of families revealed they had been subjected to verbal threats, 68 per cent reported physical violence and 66 per cent reported damage to property. Seven families experienced sexual violence or the threat of same.

Shots were fired through windows, not infrequently. In one incident, a gun was placed in a father’s mouth as a warning over his son’s drug debt. Mothers and siblings were also threatened.

The threats of sexual violence were no less terrifying. The home of one young couple had been used by local dealers as “a crack house”. The woman was forced to “do favours for the dealer and his friends whenever they feel like it. Drug users and their partners were forced into prostitution in order to protect their family from violence. In two cases, minors of less than 18 years of age were forced into prostitution as a result of a debt owed. One dealer threatened to rape the daughter of a drug user,” she added.

Forced to smuggle

In the past, debtors or their families could be forced to carry drugs. In an effort to combat that, the Government introduced legislation, requiring a 10-year sentence for anyone caught with more than €13,000 worth of drugs, which it was hoped would deter people from getting into drug dealing.

“But unfortunately what is happening now is that the majority of people who are caught moving or storing drugs are people who are in drug debt – with the economic downturn people found it difficult to get cash so people were being forced to move or store drugs to repay their debt,” she said.

Each year, the Merchant Quay Project in Dublin tries to help 8,500 addicts.

“Intimidation and threats would be a regular feature of our encounters with families who find themselves confronted with a demand for several thousand euro – people have had their cars burned out and I’ve heard of one instance where somebody had their house burned down,” said Merchant Quay’s Mark Kennedy.

“You hear of parents and grandparents maybe having to cash in their pension scheme or having to sell off some of their assets or get a credit union loan in order to pay a debt – they can’t afford to do it but they want to save their son or daughter. It’s a nightmare position for any parent.”

Grace knows of two cases where addicts were shot dead over unpaid debts. Even more shockingly, one addict was ordered to kill to repay his debt. For many, such stories could only mean heroin.

However, Grace has increasing experience of addicts running into serious trouble over their cannabis use. Her organisation will never tell a family whether to pay a drug debt or not.

Instead, they make all the information available to the family to make an informed choice. In the end, the decision can only be for the addict and their family to make.

But if most of the trends since 2009 have been negative, there has been one positive development – the establishment of a reporting system where someone threatened over a drug debt can contact an inspector in every Garda division designated to deal with victims of intimidation.

“We now have a reporting system in place where a family member can go to any Garda station and meet a nominated inspector who deals with intimidation issues in a supportive way for the family – it doesn’t have to be a formal complaint so that’s a positive development,” Grace said.

Nationwide plague

In Cork city, this role falls to Insp Gary McPolin, who says the plague of drug debts is no longer a Dublin-only phenomenon.

“Our role is to support and advise. We would ask the drug user if they have a dependency and put them in touch with the addiction services such as Arbour House and Tabor Lodge. And we would also put them in contact with someone like the Family Support Network who can provide great support.

“We don’t judge and we don’t expect people to become touts,” he said, adding that the advice to them is that “no cash should be handed over”.

People tend to follow the advice given, he says, but they should be aware these gangs are “ruthless and we even have had cases here where the person who had the debt died and the gang still threatened the family for the money.

“We would be very conscious of some juvenile who has built up a debt and the risk of them becoming a mule for the dealer to pay off the debt or perhaps feeling so hopeless that they would take their own life. We can help these people if they come to us.”

The Family Support Network is at 5 Gardiner Row in Dublin. Tel 01-8980148 or visit