Illicit trade in prescription drugs a growing problem for Dublin’s north inner city

Prescription drugs have changed the inner-city Dublin drugs scene in the past two years. Dealing in these semi-legal products is low risk and takes place in full public view, yet their effects on addicts are no less severe than other drugs with more fearsome reputations

'You know what kills me?" says Joe Dowling. "Seeing them dealing at the monument."

Dowling is a senior project worker with Hope (Hands On Peer Education) in Buckingham Street in Dublin’s inner city, an organisation originally founded by locals to help local people tackle their addictions. Dowling brings me outside to point out a large group of drug customers as they pass by the office. “God love them,” he says.

"The monument" is the gilded bronze flame which stands across the road from Dowling's office and was created by Leo Higgins as a memorial to those who had died as a result of the heroin epidemic. Part of it was constructed from rings, trinkets and mementos of those who died.

There's a picture on the wall of Hope's office of Joe putting the mementos into a furnace. "No names were ever put on it because we knew the drug deaths were never going to stop," says Dowling's colleague, Hope manager Irene Crawley. "People were dying every week."


“I go crazy when I see people deal there,” says Dowling. “We fought hard to get that monument. People lost their lives over that monument. And when you see them dealing outside your door,” he pauses, searching for a word – “desecrating it, it’s just terrible”.

Dowling and Crawley go through the history of drug use in the area. They tell me about the shock of the heroin epidemic in the 1980s, the anti-drugs marches in the 1990s, the introduction of methadone programmes and Hope's own preference for 12-step assisted abstinence programmes (Crawley is disappointed at the small number of detox beds available in Ireland relative to the number of people on methadone maintenance programmes).

“Looking at it now, it’s not heroin that’s the problem,” says Dowling. “It’s the tablets.”

Yellows, blueys and zimmos

Prescription drug-dealing happens openly in this part of the inner city. Over the past few decades the historical heroin problem has given way to a poly-drug-use problem, with methadone-prescribed heroin users and others frequently topping up their drug use with alcohol, increasingly strong strains of cannabis and black market prescription tablets. The most popular tablet at the moment is Zopiclone, sleeping tablets known colloquially as “zimmos”.

This drug has become a big part of the economy in the inner city. I can see the activity from my bus into town. If you walk around the area you'll see people wander in threes and fours through Summerhill and Sheriff Street talking to each other and down phone lines about the price of "yellows" and "blueys" (different forms of Benzodiazepine) and "zimmos". You can see them gather into big groups on Rutland Street right outside the school and creche. Young men and children appear on foot and on bikes. They distribute blister packets of drugs and take in money. It's done very openly.

“It’s all done with phones and bikes,” says Mel Mac Giobúin of the North Inner City Drugs Task Force. “Word goes out to be on this corner in 15 minutes and everybody congregates. It’s almost like a flash mob.”

"I counted 80 people there on a Monday a few weeks ago," says Marie Metcalfe of the Community Policing Forum. "Not in all my years doing this job, even back when the drug marches were on, did I see that . . . We're drowning in it."

“You walk around here sometimes and with all the blister packets on the ground it’s like walking along a beach with seashells crackling under your feet,” says Crawley.

Mac Giobúin shows me a little collection of these packets. He has an interest in “drug litter” he says, because it can tell you a lot about what drugs people are taking. He recently came across 60 or 70 empty boxes of tablets floating in the canal while walking his dog. He has a particular interest in these “z drugs” because they “represent a change in the pattern of street dealing. The supply of those drugs in this area is feeding the rest of the city”.

He shows me packets representing a few different varieties of the same basic drug – some have brand names such as Zimovane and Imovane, though the most common is a generic that’s just labelled “Zopiclone”. He first encountered such tablet packets on the street six years ago but says the problem has become a lot worse in the past two years.

What drives the trade? “They can be sold with relative impunity,” he says. “They are not in the same class as cannabis or cocaine or heroin in terms of the status of legality within the Misuse of Drugs Act. They are a scheduled drug but not sufficiently scheduled that if you’re caught with them you can be punished and have a criminal charge brought against you. And it’s also quite difficult to prosecute for the sale of them.”

Marie Metcalfe tells me that she has heard of some dealers even asking gardaí for their tablets back after confiscation.

“The reason Zopiclone is being sold so widely is because of the lack of appropriate legislation to deal with it,” a spokesperson from Store Street’s drug unit confirms. “Right now it would be a better seller than heroin, cocaine, cannabis – all those old-fashioned common drugs. People on the street who are selling them know they are not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act.”

They are instead, he explains, under the purview of the Health Product Regulatory Authority "[which] was set up to deal with rogue pharmaceutical companies, rogue doctors and rogue dentists supplying prescription drugs without prescription, not street dealers in Summerhill and Sheriff Street".

Opportunistic drug gangs have taken advantage of this. Once upon a time, says Crawley, such drugs came from "little old ladies getting their Valium scripts and making money on the side". Now, the gardaí say, the drugs are probably coming in from the UK. Crawley says she's heard that some of them are knock-offs made in China.

As a result of all this, the north inner city, with its great transport links, has become a hub for Zopiclone. People come from as far as Wicklow and Drogheda ("You see them walk up from Connolly," says Dowling) to openly buy tablets.

"It's so easy to get them," says Carol, who is on methadone but who only started using tablets since becoming homeless last July. She has a sense of humour, a quick smile and a wrist full of charm bracelets featuring symbols of hope. I meet her at the Peter McVerry Trust's Youth Cafe on Blessington Street. "You come in [to the area] and buy €50 worth – six trays of 10," she explains.

“You walk in and see them, ask for some tablets and they literally cross the road and kick a can and pick [the drugs] up off the ground beneath the can and walk back to you. It’s like ‘Where’s Wally?’ in the book. If you took a photo of the street you could pick out 10 different spots where they are hidden.”

Alan, a one-time dealer of Zopiclone, confirms this. “There’d be tablets all over the street,” he says. “Hidden in lights, under car wheels. We’d hide them everywhere.”

What if there’s no one around when punters are looking for drugs? “They come around soon enough,” says Carol . “If the guards are parked at the end of the road, they’d say, ‘Walk down to that pole and we’ll send someone down’. Five minutes later a seven year old might come up on a push bike and give you the drugs and take your money.”

Sleeping while still standing up

Carol had issues with heroin in the past but had been clean for many years, during which she bought a house and had a family. She never took tablets until she was homeless. Most of the people using tablets are homeless, she says (One man, recently housed, tells me he woke up that morning without tablets in his system for the first time in two years). Tablets are cheap and, like many heroin addicts on methadone, Carol uses them to get the feeling she used to get from heroin, but which is cancelled out by the methadone.

She used to see people nodding off while standing on the street and would wonder “Why would you want to be in that state?” “Now I see why. It’s so horrible being homeless because you’ve so many hours of the day to kill. You’ll do anything to make those hours go. So if someone told you you’d be out of your head and the day would be gone like that [she snaps her fingers] for €20 of course you’d take it.”

What do they do? “Zimmos make the day go by without you noticing it. They make you forget. Things you did on them come back to you the next day like deja vu, but you’ve no recollection of it.” It can be mortifying, she says. She hasn’t taken tablets in five weeks because she “got a fright”. She and her partner got some tablets, but they looked different. “They were double the width,” she says. They took them anyway.

What happened? "My partner was missing for five days and he turned up, lying asleep in a puddle in Ballybough. He had no recollection of where he was or where he slept." Meanwhile, on the same pills, Carol turned up at the Merchants Quay homeless services "in my pyjama bottoms with two odd shoes . . . I remember looking at them and going 'what's wrong with my feet?' I was very disorientated. I thought I was the doctor and that I couldn't leave until I'd seen all the patients." She laughs, but she's upset – she knows it's not funny. "They were really concerned about me."

Alan was a dealer before he was a user: “I used to pop one or two tablets out and just take them to relax when I was standing on the street.” Soon he was up to two or three trays a day.

Why did he start dealing? “It was great money,” he says. “Over 10,000 tablets a day at a tenner a tray. Fourteen in a tray for zimmos and 10 for blueys. Everyone just loves the Zopiclone tablets. They all know where to go. They just flock in. Twenty or 30 at a time. If you wait more than half an hour it builds and there are loads around. Some would buy 20 trays . . . whatever they think they could handle during the week. You’re just taking in money. It’s the biggest seller out there and the easiest to make money with.” He looks sad. “But the area is destroyed with it.”

He's well-aware of the drug's complicated legal status. "There was a time you couldn't get charged on them. I was caught loads of times and they'd just take them off me and throw me out of the station . . . I had to ask 'Why amn't I getting charged?'" He knows why now. He's the first person who tells me the difference between the Misuse of Drugs Act and the Irish Medicines Board Act.

Why did he stop? “I was up in a heap. At the end you don’t get a buzz, you just take them so you don’t get sick.” He went off them last year, he says. It was horrible. “You’re feeling sick. You’re getting cramps in your stomach, your legs. I was never on heroin but I was strung out off my head on tablets and they say the sickness is worse than coming off gear.”

Dangers of having a fit when you stop

Fr Peter McVerry, who drops in every Wednesday to have breakfast with the clients, tells me that the huge rise in poly-drug use and tablet use is hugely problematic for addiction services. “You can go into fits if you stop taking them, and in the extreme case you can die if you’re coming off them.” A lot of the treatment centres, he says, “will not take you in if you’re on tablets because of the danger of the fits. So basically you’re on your own.”

Mel Mac Giobúin echoes this concern. “It’s a very complex drug and withdrawal needs to be a supervised process.”

He also understands the appeal of dealing to young men like Alan. “This area has been absolutely devastated as a consequence of the economic recession,” he says.

“It’s a well-known area for high unemployment and low educational achievement but considerable success had been made by a lot of programmes and schemes during the boom. The level of unemployment dropped below 10 per cent which was phenomenal. People got educations, got on with their lives. But [there have been] cuts of 40-60 per cent for community-based services and the local economy has completely collapsed . . .

“With these drugs it’s been suggested that there were young people making €1,000 a week. That’s a big incentive for a young person . . . €1,000 a week and the worst that can happen is the tablets are taken off you? It does create problems with young people who aren’t involved at all. If there were 50 street dealers here making €1,000 a week, that’s €50,000 a week. That’s €2.6 million per annum. That’s a local economy.”

He appreciates the difficulties the gardaí face and the efforts they’ve made to address the problem. He also observes that some of their operations have the effect of moving the issue from one area to another.

“The very intense Garda operations on O’Connell Street and the Boardwalk displaced the dealing and it goes to more residential areas around the inner city . . . It’s closer to home and more difficult to police.”

Locals are very worried about the effect this visible dealing is having on children. Carina O’Brien from Icon (Inner City Organisations Network) tells me that one group of residents organised an anti-bullying programme for Easter week, specifically to stop kids from being pressured into being lookouts and couriers while off school.

In recent weeks there has also been a bit of a Zopiclone drought, partly brought on by an increased Garda presence in the area. Zopiclone now costs €20 a tray, one user tells me. The dealing goes on, but a little more surreptitiously. I have watched selling temporarily subside while gardaí pass and then resume as soon as they’re out of sight. Most people acknowledge that the gardaí are doing their best.

“They’re under-resourced and their hands are tied behind their back,” says Marie Metcalfe. The Garda spokesman says that, ideally, illicitly sold prescription tablets would come under the Misuse of Drugs Act “so that we could deal with the problem created by tablets in the same way as heroin or cocaine or cannabis”.

There is, I'm told, legislation sitting on a desk somewhere designed to do just this (TD Maureen O'Sullivan is praised by several people I speak to for pursuing the issue). It's been delayed for reasons nobody can explain. In its absence, the gardaí are working with the Health Products Regulatory Authority and the Director of Public Prosecutions. With the legislation they have, there have been successful prosecutions of dealers in the recent past and there are a number of test cases in the pipeline.

For Joe Dowling and Irene Crawley, it’s clear that neglected areas stripped of resources will always struggle with issues of addiction.

“It’s tablets now,” says Crawley. “In five years, it will be something else unless the root causes are addressed.”