Judge warns of drug 'anarchy' in Portlaoise


Levels of heroin abuse and its associated crimes have risen considerably in Portlaoise since the start of the year, leading a judge to say that the lack of overall support services could lead to "anarchy" in the town in a few years.

Judge Mary Martin is reported to have recently told Portlaoise District Court: "What worries me the most is the amount of young people on heroin. There are no treatment centres, no support systems, no probation officers and no social workers in Portlaoise. There are not enough gardaí in the town."

A senior Garda source said the judge's comments were "way overdue". There were currently at least 50 addicts in the town, the vast majority of whom were smoking heroin, he said. Portlaoise has a population of about 9,500, according to 1996 figures.

Three or four addicts travelled daily to Dublin to buy the drugs, which they distributed among the other addicts in Portlaoise, said the Garda source. He said no one was yet making money in the town from heroin.

Heroin abuse had spread from urban centres such as Dublin into most towns in the midlands and elsewhere around the State. Birr, for example, and Carlow has had a heroin problem for the past two years.

Mr Philip Meagher, of Rollestons solicitors' firm in Portlaoise, said crime had increased significantly since January, most of it shoplifting and breaking into cars. Goods stolen in these crimes could be easily translated into cash.

He said the price of heroin had dropped considerably since Christmas, with addicts now able to feed their habit for €100 a day, a figure considerably lower than this time last year.

At the moment, the crime was of a low level, burglaries and larceny, but "give it time," said the senior Garda source.

A year ago there was no heroin in the town, say gardaí. The drug problem in the town centred on ecstasy, speed and cannabis. Sources say the heroin problem currently concerns a relatively small pool in certain, poorer areas of the town.

Judge Martin made her comments during a case in which three men, understood to be aged 17, 18, and 19, were jailed for 24 months for going on a crime spree in the town to feed their heroin habit.

Mr Meagher said: "I can see, on a personal level, people who are addicted have become very, very unhealthy. You can see they have deteriorated very quickly."

Many of those now addicted to heroin would have been known to the courts, but, he said, many were making an effort to get straight".

Worrying, too, said Mr Meagher was that young people of a vulnerable age were getting hooked without realising what was happening.

Judge Martin also said: "There is a wonderful probation team in Portlaoise who cannot work any more. They have worked very hard and done their best, but simply don't have the resources or enough people to make reports".

The Midland Health Board (MHB) said in a statement: "The health service cannot 'solve' the problem of substance misuse for communities. It must be done with communities.

It also said: "The MHB schools team is involved in the delivery of in-service training on drugs health education in schools. They also support the implementation of the Walk Tall Programme which has been designed specifically to enable children to remain drug-free.

A number of initiatives will be conducted by the MHB in 2002, including a six-week training programme with youthreach centres around lifestyle and substance misuse, said the statement.

It will also be involved in a five-week drugs education programme in Portlaoise. The MHB said it would also develop an easy-to-use guide to its services in relation to substance misuse and a practical guide for parents relating to issues associated with substance misuse to be published in April, 2002

The recent death of an 18-year-old in Portlaoise has been attributed by people in the area to a heroin overdose, sources say, but gardaí say there are no toxicology reports yet on the death.