The number of people seeking treatment for addiction to crack cocaine in Ireland has surged by 400% in recent years, according to the latest national figures released by the Health Research Board (HRB).
More women than men are seeking treatment for addiction to the drug. The figures are included in the latest report from the National Drug Treatment Reporting System, which covers the seven-year period from 2014 to 2020.
The release of the data coincides with a special investigation on the crack cocaine epidemic from RTÉ Investigates and Prime Time.
The investigation, which exposes the scale of open drug dealing in parks and housing estates in Ballymun, involved the secret filming of drug dealers selling drugs in a housing complex on Balbutcher Lane in Ballymun.
In one four-hour period, RTÉ Investigates observed more than 40 potential drug deals.
The HRB has described the crack cocaine issue in Ballymun as "acute".
Dr Anne Marie Carew, from the HRB, said that "crack cocaine users tend to be in large urban cities and they tend to have a more socially disadvantaged background".
"The number started at a very low base, approximately 84 cases. By last year, this was over four hundred and equates to about a 400% increase," Dr Carew said.
"What's different in terms of Ballymun is the rate of crack cocaine in the treatment figures. So approximately one in three cases that are coming to treatment for cocaine use are using crack. And this rate is high. What this is telling us is that the problem in Ballymun is acute."
Crack cocaine, or rock as it is commonly called, is highly addictive and is attributed to a rise in the number of people begging in areas where the drug is being sold.
It differs to a lot of drugs, and it has become an increasing issue.
"One of the things which distinguishes crack cocaine from cocaine is that crack cocaine is smoked so it goes much quicker into your brain," Dermot King, from the Ballymun Youth Action Project, told RTÉ Investigates.
"So it has a much more immediate effect, another distinguishing piece about it is that a lot of other substances they have an automatic stop so if you take a certain amount of heroin you go asleep, you go unconscious, if you take a certain amount of alcohol you go unconscious, whereas crack cocaine doesn’t have a shut down whereas other drugs do have that so it's different in that way as well."
Crack users commonly smoke heroin in conjunction with it. The heroin brings them down from an intense high, to experience the next hit of crack better.
This means that people are becoming poly drug users, which makes recovery even more complex.
Tonight's Prime Time will feature footage from one user who was filmed using the drug explaining their heroin use.
"If you're smoking pipe after pipe, you're not going to get the same high," they said. "So that's why it's good as well to do a line or two to bring you down a little bit, wait a few minutes and then you'll enjoy your next pipe even better."
Another user told RTÉ Investigates about chasing a high from crack cocaine.
"You have no morals. All you care about is drugs, you don't care about your family or anything. You won't look after yourself. You're that far in the depths of depression and shame," they said.
"The minute you have a bit of money in your pocket, your kids come second place. It disgusts you what you'll do."
The statistics published today reveal that, for the first time, cocaine is the most common drug among new cases entering treatment, which would support the overall trend of increasing use of the drug.
During Covid, the numbers entering drug treatment did fall, and cocaine was the only substance that saw an increase in people seeking treatment.
Worryingly, the number of women entering treatment for addiction to crack cocaine has increased by almost 80% in the last two years.
"When we look at gender differences within cocaine treatment, the rate of male cases entering treatment for crack cocaine has remained stable year-on-year," Dr Carew said.
"However, the number of women reporting problem use of crack cocaine has increased by almost 80% since 2018."
Watch RTÉ Investigates: Crack and the Community tonight on Prime Time at 9.35pm on RTÉ One and RTÉ Player.