Thursday, June 4, 2009

A white recession

A feature published by the Irish Independent on June 02 about how the recession is affecting the use of cocaine in Ireland (or not, as the case may be)...

COCAINE: 'The largest threat to civic society that we face'
By Susan Daly

Of all the decadence associated with the Celtic Tiger, cocaine was the most insidious. A relatively expensive drug five years ago, when it cost about three times' the price of heroin, its use was largely associated with the middle classes. It was seen as a sociable drug, one to be snorted from immaculate glass dining tables in wood-floored apartments, washed down with champagne.

Now that the party is over, has time also been called on the use and abuse of cocaine for young professionals?

A quick -- and admittedly unscientific -- anecdotal survey among acquaintances suggests that it is still popular.

"I know a solicitor who says it is still rife among her graduating class even though they're all finding it hard to find jobs," one 26-year-old told me. A 32-year-old estate agent says that it's no longer an "every weekend" drug, but that he saves it for "special occasions". Such as? "Birthdays, New Year's Eve, that kind of thing".

Gerry Cooney is an addiction counsellor at the Rutland Centre, one of Ireland's largest private drug and alcohol rehab centres.

It is based in the south Dublin suburb of Templeogue, and treats patients from the age of 18 up.

"There seems to be no huge change in patterns of people coming to us," says Cooney. "Typically it is a lot of professional people, for whom it is the drug of choice."

The attraction to cocaine as a so-called recreational drug are obvious, says Cooney.

"We don't see the vast majority of people who take it here because they take it on a Friday and still manage to work on Monday.

"When we get to see people is when their weekends start happening on a Thursday, then a few nights a week -- and then they start taking it in the morning before going to work."

But surely the recession, and the shrinking reserves of disposable cash, have put a kibosh on cocaine use? "Rationality doesn't come into it," says Cooney. "People think that they are not addicted because cocaine is not as physically addictive as heroin, for example. But cocaine has strong psychological dependence -- I think people are starting to discover that actually they can't give it up when they are made redundant and need to cut back. It's no longer a choice."

Cooney also believes that cocaine has retained its image as a clean, party drug. "Recreational drug use, as it's called, is a misnomer. I don't like it -- it makes cocaine sound very seductive and possible and manageable."

This is the image that a €650,000 advertising campaign by the HSE aimed to deconstruct last autumn.

Just over 70pc of under-35s said the poster ads would make them think differently about using cocaine, while 93pc said the radio ads taught them about the dangers of mixing cocaine and alcohol.

Dr Chris Luke, a consultant in emergency medicine in Mercy Hospital, Cork, is dubious. "There's no evidence that education about drugs works," he says.

"Saying that, we have to keep trying. I'm interested in educating parents and target groups to get the message home. I am trying to ventilate what we, the staff on the frontline, see when we treat 1.2 million people passing through our emergency departments every year."

And what Dr Luke sees convinces him that cocaine is as big a problem across the board as ever.

"We used to see a pattern where Paddy would come in drunk at midnight, flail about the place, be stitched up and asleep by 3am, and come in and apologise the next day.

"Now he is awake with cocaine all night, the violence goes on and on. I have seen eight ambulance men and policemen all sweating, trying to restrain such a guy, even though he might be handcuffed."

Beyond "dinner-party bores", he also notices a link between cocaine, the drug that is perceived to be less devastating to the community, and a horrendous spate of violence.

"My concern with cocaine is that I see it as the largest threat to civic society that we face. Guns are coming in on the same crates as this stimulant for violence -- it's a recipe for Mexican-style anarchy."

He says that he has quipped previously that the recession "might be the cure for cocaine use" in the country.

He does think that there is a levelling off of usage among the middle classes, but that cocaine is becoming more widespread among teens and criminals.

"Gangsterism is a recession-proof industry -- these guys have access to loads of cash."

Tom Brady in this newspaper reported on an EU-wide survey this year which showed that 4pc of the Irish population over the age of 15 are regular coke users, taking two grammes a week.

A survey published by researchers from Queen's University Belfast this month identified the rise of cocaine use among school-goers aged 13 to 16 years in 43 schools across Belfast, Ballymena and Downpatrick.

Up to 7.5pc of students in the schools were using cocaine by the time they were in their final year.

It seems astonishing that students can buy a drug that up to recently only high-earning professionals saw as affordable.

A garda source tells me that while the Garda Drugs Squad is currently officially pricing the street value of cocaine at €70 a gramme, it can be bought in reality for around €50 a gramme. If a buyer takes 10g -- as often happens when a group of friends club together -- the price can drop to as little as €30 to €40 a gramme.

Essentially, a weekend's cocaine supply for the price of two decent bottles of wine.

The perception of coke as a drug of choice has now filtered down to the extent that its use has become normalised among a new generation, many of whom come from deprived areas.

The Tallaght Local Drugs Task Force Strategic Plan 2008-2013 highlighted the growing prevalence of cocaine use among children and the blasé practice of 'speedballing' -- mixing cocaine and alcohol, or taking cocaine before heroin.

The problems highlighted in the report were not unique to Tallaght, but were countrywide, the authors said.

And yet Government support for drug schemes in these areas is being drastically cut. Stuart Fraser, co-ordinator of the Chrysalis Community Drug Project in north Dublin's inner city, says their funding has been hit by 30pc.

"It is the disenfranchised who are suffering in these public sector cuts," he says.

Yet the myth of glamour persists about cocaine, possibly because the middle classes still view it as a little luxury. Dr Chris Luke sees it as symptomatic of a society that still has its head in the sand about all our drug problems.

He says wearily: "I joke that working in the emergency department has given me two perspectives on drugs -- one is bleak, and one is apocalyptic."

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