Cocaine use has become ‘almost like having a packet of Tayto with a pint’
Waterford publicans gather to tackle the increasing problem of drugs use on premises
Donal O’Brien, general manager of the Reg, Waterford, says cocaine contributes to a more violent atmosphere in the city. Photograph: Patrick Browne
“A gram costs about €50-€80. The average purity is 15-20 per cent, which is the highest it has been for the past 15-20 years,” says Sgt Gavin Sheahan.
It is Tuesday evening and some 30 publicans have gathered in a co-working space in Waterford for a masterclass on drugs. Which are most popular? How can they minimise use on their premises? What should they do in the event of an overdose?
Figures published earlier this week show that the most significant increases in recorded drug crime nationally are occurring outside Dublin, leading to warnings that the country is undergoing a drugs boom, most of it centred on regional towns and cities.
Towns in Co Waterford are no exception. Central Statistics Office (CSO) data shows increases in controlled drug offences in Dungarvan, where the number of offences was up 142 per cent between 2015 and last year, and Tramore, where it was up by 144 per cent in that period. Drug crime in the city only increased slightly, from 247 incidents in 2015 to 252 last year.
Ecstasy and MDMA remain 'the biggest among students', while Ketamine is also huge among that cohort
Sgt Sheahan, of the Divisional Drugs Unit, tells the publicans that cocaine – also known as “charlie or coke” or “gear, sugar cubes, bumblebees” – is “one of the most popular” .
“It is not just in big towns now. It’s everywhere, unfortunately. We’re never going to eradicate it, but if we can just try and confine it,” he says.
Crack cocaine is a more recent arrival into the city, he says. “Unfortunately people think it’s just in Dublin and Cork. It’s not.”
Speed is “very much around unfortunately. Anything they can get a quick buzz off they will take”.
And ecstasy and MDMA remain “the biggest among students”, while Ketamine is also huge among that cohort.
“It’s a veterinary medicine for horses. They don’t care. It gives them that sudden euphoric high they’re after,” Sgt Sheahan says.
So-called head shop drugs such as herbal ecstasy are still in circulation via the dark web, he explains.
Marijuana, he says, is “by far the most popular” drug, but it has evolved from what some of those present might have encountered as students.
“Hashish was the drug 20 years ago, [but] you’d never see resin, that brown or black substance, anymore.” It almost always comes as “a leafy material . . . it looks like dried parsley”.
He says Rohypnol – or “roofies”, the so-called “date rape drug” – “is taking a pop back into the system”.
And then, he says, there’s heroin, “the dirtiest drug of the whole lot”.
At the meeting, run as part of the Waterford City Safe and Purple Flag initiatives, Sgt Sheahan goes through the signs there are drugs or dealers on the premises - sweet wrappers (Kit Kat foil is popular, apparently) are used to transport pills, and torn and folded beer mats and cigarette packets, used as tips for joints, are the signs of marijuana use. Likewise, he says, “foam stuffing pulled out of seats” is also used to hide drugs.
He says coins being left in the toilet area or on the side of the wash basin are a signal to potential customers that there’s a dealer on the premises.
Publicans should watch out for someone coming back from the toilet with “sudden and severe cold symptoms,” Sgt Sheahan says, or a ring of white powder around their nose.
“You’d be surprised how often that happens. When I was in uniform down the town, a lad would come up with a ring of white powder around his nose, ‘Guard, can you tell me where the nearest taxi is?’ It just goes to show how much they’re actually taking.”
One of the publicans suggests putting a coating of WD40 on the cistern of the toilet to prevent it being used a flat surface to snort cocaine
Sgt Sheahan says you cannot tell who is using cocaine by looking at them.
“It is being used by top professionals, down to the fella on the street,” he says.
After the meeting finishes, he says that a “typical drug user can be anything from a 17-year-old up as far as a 50-year-old. Unfortunately kids are taking them younger than they ever were”.
Teenagers are buying drugs on social media and messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and two of the newer apps, Telegram and Wickr, making it difficult for parents and gardaí to track.
One of the publicans suggests putting a coating of WD40 on the cistern of the toilet to prevent it being used a flat surface to snort cocaine.
This method of deterring drug use is also favoured by Jim “Flash” Gordon, the host of tonight’s event, and owner of a number of pubs and restaurants in the city.
Despite having extensive CCTV footage and floor staff trained to look for the signs, “every two weeks” or so he’ll find evidence someone has been trying to snort cocaine off the toilet cistern, and been stymied by the WD40.
He tells the meeting that drug dealers are sitting on the street near bars and nightclubs, pretending to be beggars.
Event manager Neill Kelly says cocaine has become so socially acceptable that some people don’t bother going to the toilet to take it anymore.
He says there are “husbands and wives in their 50s on a night out together in some of our venues, we’ve caught them doing cocaine. Literally in open areas in the pubs . . . It’s not limited to people who can afford it, like in the old days. It’s everywhere.”
Sgt Sheahan agrees. “They’re not even going to the toilet anymore.”
Festivals are even more challenging, says Kelly. At the Techworks festival he runs in Cork, "we have an anaesthetist, a doctor, and an emergency paramedic all on site. We have three ambulances. We build a full hospital. And at any one time, we could have 30 in the hospital. We deal with it in-house. Trying to stop it is an impossibility."
Searching people at the gate or on the door of a pub can be problematic because of the potential for civil claims, Sheahan warns publicans.
Kelly says the most successful preventative measure employed to date was “a dog at the front gate”.
Drugs are seen as a cheaper alternative to alcohol: 'About two years ago, there was a drug called the pink lady and it was very cheap, around €5'
“It wasn’t a search dog,” he laughs. “But everybody dumped everything anyway.”
Kelly says a worry for venue owners is that people have often taken drugs before they arrive, and management are left to deal with the consequences.
John Fortune, head of the students’ union at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) says “a lot of [drug taking by students] would be before they go out”.
Drugs are seen as a cheaper alternative to alcohol, he says. “About two years ago, there was a drug called the pink lady and it was very cheap, around €5.” Nobody seemed to know what was in it, but they took it anyway.
Donal O’Brien, the owner of the Reg bar and restaurant in the city, says despite operating a zero tolerance policy for drugs, “in the last 12 months, we’ve seen a huge increase in all drugs, particularly cocaine”.
“It’s across all age brackets – from our youngest customers who are 18 or 19, right up to their 50s. The level of cocaine use is horrific. The boom is back.
“You’d see guys working hard all week, and then they have a few drinks on Friday afternoon, and they might get a bit of coke to get them going.”
And then, O’Brien says, there are “fellas who would take it at 2pm on Sunday afternoon because they’d want to be up for the match at 4pm”. He shakes his head. “I take naps. I don’t take cocaine.”
He says cocaine contributes to a more violent atmosphere in the city – “even things like people getting glassed – that’s generally not from people getting drunk. Cocaine gives them an adrenaline rush that alcohol wouldn’t do alone”.
Sgt Sheahan describes this as the “superman syndrome”.
O’Brien adds: “It’s horrific. The worst situation I had to deal with was having to see a fella on the ground with his eye falling out of his head, all down to cocaine.”
Eddie Mulligan, a Fianna Fáil councillor and member of the area’s joint policing initiative, says an increased garda presence on the streets and high levels of engagement between the force, the community, public representatives and business owners is crucial to tackling the issue.
He cites a number of high-profile drug seizures in the city, and one recent dealing operation close to schools that was shut down as a result of that kind of collaboration.
“The guards have been hitting the dealers and hitting the distributors. We are winning. We’re winning through collaboration between the guards and the community.”
Gordon agrees that "pubs in Waterford are very well organised. We have constant meetings with An Garda Síochána, the city council and the HSE", which is keeping the problem under control, but it is an ongoing issue.
“It is a problem in the city, but it’s a problem in every city.”
Mulligan has photographs of evidence of drug use he has seen in Waterford city over the past 12 months. The photos include a man collapsed on a bench in the People’s Park being helped by a paramedic as two children on scooters watch on; and a photo of needles and pill wrappers scattered on the ground in another city park, New Street Gardens, which was recently closed to the public.
Gerry Carroll, addiction services manager at Waterford’s Aiséirí Céim Eile rehabilitation centre, says cocaine is “the primary, number one drug we’re seeing”.
He says taking it has become “almost like having a packet of Tayto with a pint. It may have been seen as the party drug of middle class people in the past, but now, it’s everywhere, everybody is doing it, and it’s out in the open”.
'Generally either they start dealing to pay for their own habit, or they end up having to go on to other behaviours, like theft or fraud'
What’s different now to 2006 and 2007, he says, is the “the level of intimidation we’re seeing” over drug debts such as “threats, people’s houses being firebombed”.
The centre in Ballybeg has treated people as young as 16 with serious cocaine dependency. By the time they come into addiction services, he says, whether through the HSE or private insurance, they’re frequently in debt and either they or their families have been threatened.
Some, Carroll says, will have been spending up to €1,000 a week on their cocaine habit.
“And these aren’t people who have it. So generally either they start dealing to pay for their own habit, or they end up having to go on to other behaviours, like theft or fraud,” he says.
On top of that, Carroll adds “they’d be emaciated. Their teeth, their eyes, their heart would be damaged. They would have huge cognitive distortion”.
People across all walks of life are developing cocaine dependency, he says.
“We had a female client recently who had done everything society would have expected of her. She had finished secondary school, gone to college, got a job in IT, did exceptionally well at that, started socially using cocaine one night a week. Before she knew it, she was in full-scale addiction.” By the time she ended up in treatment, she had “lost her job and her home”.
Do people taking cocaine socially make the link between their habit and the crime issue at national level?
Absolutely not, he says. “There’s zero link [in their minds] between having a couple of lines on a Friday night, and the kind of criminal activity that is financing the national drugs problem and criminal gangs.”
The issue in Waterford is not significantly worse than other towns and cities in the southeast.
“Kilkenny is the same. Tipperary is the same. Wexford is the same. Because Waterford has been economically disadvantaged, the drugs problem may be a little bit greater.”
His fear now, he says, is that “the gang culture that we previously saw in Limerick is spreading throughout the southeast”.