Tackling rural drug addiction: ‘People are buying boxes and boxes of codeine-based drugs’

Even young farmers are buying and using cocaine, says Nenagh-based counsellor

Donie Ryan, psychotherapist and head of counselling with Carmha, peer support workers Carmel Holland and Yvonne Moroney, and Carmha CEO Marie Oppeboen in Nenagh, Co Tipperary. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene

Yvonne Moroney sits in a chair tightly holding a cushion close to her stomach and starts to cry. The cushion, she says, helps to soothe away painful flashbacks of sexual abuse endured from age six until she was 14.

The abuse triggered anxiety, facial tics, hearing voices. “I couldn’t tell anyone, because back in those days you couldn’t. I was the youngest of nine,” Moroney, (48) tells The Irish Times.

In her mid-teens she became her mother’s carer after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Following her death, and that of a sibling, Moroney says her life “spiralled out of control on drink and drugs. I started taking Mam’s prescription medication. I knew what she took to relax.”

Quickly hooked on “benzos [benzodiazepines], Xanax, Valium and sleeping tablets”, she graduated to “street drugs” during her first pregnancy. Soon, she was addicted to “speed”, had lost six stone and was in a psychiatric unit.


Later, she was badly injured in a stabbing, and had to have surgery to remove a liver tumour. She nursed her father in his final days, and gave birth to three children while addicted to a slew of drugs, including cocaine. “I felt like my life was over,” she says now.

Several attempts to detox failed because "I could never get away from the memories in my head", says Moroney, who admits her violent behaviour fuelled by her drug-taking made her feared in Nenagh.

The town was afraid of me and now everyone is saluting me, so I suppose I have gained a lot of respect, and I have helped a lot of people

“Everybody knew me in town as a street fighter, I would have been arrested a lot and locked up, I was a nightmare. I was angry, I hated everybody, and people would cross the road to get away from me, without knowing me.”

Several stays in psychiatric units followed, but "more medication only made me worse", she says, before she applauds the help she received from the North Tipperary drugs charity Carmha (Connection and Recovery in Mental Health & Addiction).

Helping others

Today, she is qualifying as a peer support worker and is helping others. Her own experience helps. “While the whole town knows me for who I was, they now know me for who I really am now.

“The town was afraid of me and now everyone is saluting me, so I suppose I have gained a lot of respect, and I have helped a lot of people,” says Moroney, who admits the road to recovery was “horrific”.

“Myself and my children have a future now, I work here, I help people see they have a chance. I know I will never go backwards, I don’t have another recovery in me.”

Yvonne Moroney in Nenagh, Co Tipperary. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene

One of the founders of the charity, Donie Ryan, a Nenagh-based addiction counsellor and psychotherapist, has spent 25 years helping addicts. Nearly every year, the crisis has got worse.

“In pretty much every large town, small town and village, there’s drugs available in all of them. They all have their own dealers, the network is there,” Ryan says.

“There is hardly a place around in any of the villages in North Tipp that we haven’t heard of that people aren’t using drugs and dealing drugs,” he adds. Even young farmers, he says are buying, and using cocaine.

The help on offer from the State is “nuts”, he complains. Addiction and mental health must be treated “in parallel”, while society must move away from judging people who have “been cornered” by drugs, drink or gambling.

“If you have a drug problem and you show up at mental health, you’re told, ‘We will work with you, but you have to go to addiction services’, so you have to leave mental health and go to addiction services.

"Go to addiction services and you are told you have a mental health issue and we don't do mental health, so you're being ping-ponged all over the place," says Ryan, who set up the charity in 2019 along with consultant psychiatrist Marie Oppeboen.

‘Unmet needs’

The charity is “responding to unmet needs in a rural community by offering services” to those who are hurtling towards the brink or coming back from it.

People share their stories with fellow addicts, while addiction and mental health issues are treated together at the same time, in the same place, Ryan says.

“The vast majority of mental health issues and addiction issues have a common route and that is some sort of underlying level of trauma, pain, emotional struggle,” says Oppeboen.

They are seeing results, says Ryan. “We don’t judge, so if somebody comes up the street and they are off their head or come into us really intoxicated, we’ll still talk to them, and we find they will come back.

“Anybody can end up in trouble, people are struggling with different things, but the key thing is, they are actually people, and the drug dealers are people, and the people who are drinking wine at home on the couch are people.”

People are buying boxes and boxes of codeine-based drugs. They can 'chemist-shop' all day long, going from pharmacy to pharmacy, and no one is any the wiser

Others on the rural frontline, such as Julie McKenna of Novas, a voluntary organisation working with single adults, families and children who are disadvantaged and socially excluded, are concerned not just about illegal drugs, but about over-the-counter medicines such as painkillers and prescribed medicines too.

Across Limerick, Clare and North Tipperary last year, the charity dealt with 131 people addicted to over-the-counter codeine tablets, as well as benzodiazepines/prescription drugs.

“It is massive, we have seen an increase in people using ‘benzos’. Primarily, they are prescribed by a doctor and dispensed by a pharmacist, but they have a massive street value.


“There is a huge increase in people misusing Solpadeine and Nurofen Plus, stuff like that,” says McKenna, who is in charge of health and recovery services for Novas across the three counties.

“People are buying boxes and boxes of codeine-based drugs,” she says. Many travel to towns and cities to buy anonymously. “They can ‘chemist-shop’ all day long, going from pharmacy to pharmacy, and no one is any the wiser.

“I’ve had clients taking 24 tablets a day, 42 tablets a day, 70 tablets a day,” says McKenna, warning that people can go from taking a couple of tablets for a back injury to becoming addicted to tablets in a dangerously short time.

“For someone with back pain, they could take two tablets going to bed to help them get to sleep, but if you are doing that repeatedly your system becomes tolerant really quickly.

“Then, you find two tablets don’t work, so then you start taking four tablets, six, eight etc, so you’re upping your dose all the time and then you find yourself in dangerous territory.”

Sometimes, people are not even going to the chemist’s , but instead opt to buy from unregulated platforms online. “No one is any the wiser,” she says.