South-East Correspondent Damien Tiernan put his ear to the ground and heard some chilling stories about Ireland's growing drug problem.

On Thursday 14 February, I visited Wexford town to report on the shocking situation regarding the high levels of addiction and drugs misuse in that county (click here to watch that report). I've been covering the South East of the country for 11 years now and there are times when drugs stories come and go like the seasons. But what is happening in Wexford is frightening - and something which I predict will be happening (if it isn't already) all over the country unless urgent, thorough and comprehensive action is taken by the Government, the Health Service Executive and people aged 16 to 40.

This week, there was another funeral in Wexford. The man who was buried, a father in his 40s, had been a drugs user. Until toxicology results are available, it won't be clear how the man died but it's reckoned his taking of drugs such as heroin contributed to his death.

He is the third drugs user in Co Wexford to be buried in the past 10 days. And that is just Wexford. Another man died in Waterford last weekend of suspected cocaine abuse. And a man I met at a petrol station in Wexford (while I was on the way to cover the story there) was preparing to go to Co Offaly to a funeral of another man who died of suspected drug overdose. That's 5 deaths in 10 days that has come to my attention. And I don't even know how many others have died in the past 10 days in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and other places because of the decrepit march of the drugs demon around the country.

If these people were dying at one time in one place (such as a shooting at a University) there would be a national outcry. But the information I have is that people are dying now every week from drugs overdoses all across Ireland. This, to me, is a crisis. But what Government minister has said the same thing? Not one. Even the opposition politicians don't seem to have their finger on the extent of this disaster - and it is a disaster.

When most people think of heroin, they think of users injecting themselves. But what is happening now is that the vast majority of people taking heroin now are smoking it on a Saturday night outside pubs. Some people on a night out are having their drinks, going out for a cigarette, taking some cocaine or moving round the corner and lighting up heroin and smoking it. They think it's only 'recreational' but the story which 'Sinead' tells in my RTÉ news report from Thursday evening shows that one fix of heroin and you can be addicted. And it's only a matter of time before somebody suggests you get a better kick from injecting it.

'Sinead' never thought she would or could become a drug addict. She is off hard drugs now for four years and has a beautiful daughter and is expecting another child. I wish her the very best. I cried interviewing her as I listened to her story of being made unemployed, going on drugs, wasting away to six stone, and fighting the addiction (with the help of her family and the Cornmarket addiction services in Wexford town). There are now 53 recognised active herion users in Co Wexford - but these are only the ones who have so far sought treatment. Counsellors estimate that is only 15% of the number of people in the county on the stuff. It takes around 5 years for organised crime to embed itself in communities once heroin gets establised - what horrors await the people of Wexford and other counties in the coming years.

Heroin comes from the opium plant, and the biggest exporter of it is Afghanistan. International experts say one of the reasons heroin is so available is what is happening in that country. Remember, the US and Britain have armies over there. What are they doing about it? Wexford is a long way from Kabul but what happens over there has a direct effect on the number of dealers who get the train up and down between Dublin and Wexford to supply people with the drug. I was travelling on the Dublin/Waterford train recently and I saw three young lads whom I'm convinced were carrying drugs get off at Carlow to deliver their stash. In other countries, they have transport police. In Ireland, we don't have the politicians with enough courage to take practical steps to deal with drug misuse.

Questions:

Why are drug dealers allowed and able to use the national public transport system?

Why is there no methadone clinic in Wexford?

Why is the HSE warning people about using dirty needles in Wexford when there is no needle exchange system in the county?

Is the Government ban on recruitment at certain levels of the HSE preventing the setting up of a methadone clinic in the county?

Why is the Government not highlighting the link between Afghanistan and drugs in Ireland?

Why is the Government not warning people of the link between cocaine use and heroin use?

Why is there not more education in the schools and communities about this crisis?

Why is there not more money - a lot more money - put into helping people with addiction?

When somebody takes their own life because of deep depression caused by misuse of hard drugs, should that not be recorded as a death from drugs?

When factories close down, what is the government doing about offering those sacked workers counselling to stop those with a drugs problem from getting deeper into trouble?

When is the Government going to realise that this is a crisis?

The main reason, I think, why not enough is being done is that those who hold the reigns of power are not directly affected by hard drugs; their sons and daughters are brought up well, in good schools, in nice areas, and generally have enough positive things in their lives that they do not suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It will take passion to fight this problem. At present, most of those in power are personally immune to the crisis (they don't know drug addicts, the friends they have over for dinner parties don't know drug addicts) and they don't really care as long as it doesn't impinge on their lives. And a lot of people are lazy. It's too much hassle to tackle the drugs problem properly with educational initiatives and community projects. That takes work, hard work. And passion. Something which is sorely lacking by those who make decisions for others in Ireland in 2008. The prediction? Hundreds more will die from drugs misuse over the next year, maybe even more then will die on our roads. We just don't know the figure, we may never know. What I do know is that we are not doing enough.

The question is - which train will we chose on the journey ahead?

- Damien Tiernan, 15 February 2008

 

Below is the HSE statement regarding drugs in Wexford, dated 13 February 2008

HSE Urges Caution amongst Drugs Community in Wexford

The HSE is urging caution amongst the drug using population in Wexford following the deaths of two people in the area in recent weeks.

Whilst the causes of death have not been determined (dependent on coroner), the two deaths, which have occurred during the past three weeks, have prompted the HSE to reiterate their concerns about people's use of heroin and the inherent dangers in doing so.

HSE drugs prevention/education workers continue to liaise with agencies who work directly with drug users including community based drug initiatives, outreach workers, the Cornmarket Project as well as An Garda Siochana to ensure a drugs 'harm reduction' message is delivered to those most at risk.

Tony Barden, Regional Drug Co-ordinator, HSE South said, "street drugs often contain other substances, that if injected, will damage the body i.e. cause blood clots, abscesses, gangrene or death. There is a significant risk of overdose and that risk is heightened after a period of abstinence, when heroin is mixed with other pain killing drugs or if people are new to using heroin. We would urge people to be mindful of this when using this very lethal drug."

The HSE employs regional drug education officer's whose role it is to deliver drug awareness and 'harm prevention' programmes to community, voluntary and statutory groups. The key messages from the HSE's is 'Say No to Drugs'. However, for those that are using there are a number of harm reduction messages including:

Don’t use heroin while alone because if you suffer ill effects and need medical attention you’ll need someone to be able to Contact emergency services

Be aware that the strength of heroin varies and its impact is unpredictable particularly when mixed with other drugs

Buy only from a dealer you know

Use clean needles and syringes

Don’t use drugs during pregnancy

Further information on drug awareness or 'harm reduction' programmes can be obtained from the local Substance Misuse Office in Wexford. Tel: 051 426600 or on the Health Service Executive's Information Line: 1850 24 1850. Also text Drugs to 51900 or log onto www.drugs.ie

Click here to read responses to Damien's piece