An insight into the latest drugs crisis in Belfast…

I attended a community meeting called to address the local “Drug Crisis”. My invitation to join the panel was at short notice but I accepted; I am the local pharmacist and I am a concerned citizen. The last time this problem got out of hand I ended up with the point of a Bowie knife up my nose. The stimulus for the meeting was the weekend deaths of two local young men from drug overdose. A 27 year old was found dead on Sunday morning and an 18 year old, found unconscious the same day, had his life support machine turned off on Wednesday. The community were shocked everyone was horrified. Something needed to be done. Where are these drug dealers selling drugs to our children? We need a meeting!

That was two years ago. That was Drug Crisis 2015. My brief then was to educate, to cover the types of drugs involved and to inform the meeting of what had worked elsewhere. I know nothing much about illicit drugs and less still about successful drug policy or strategy and I had my reservations too about the meeting organisers. So, as all experts do, I took to the Internet. Drugs abused and misused are familiar to all and include; the opioids (tramadol, codeine, morphine, heroin) the amphetamines (ecstasy (MDMA)), the synthetic cannabinoids (spice and other legal highs), cannabis, benzodiazepines ( “the blues”) and off course alcohol.

I told the 150-strong audience who turned out for the meeting that two young lives cut short is doubly tragic but in the bigger scheme of things we were pretty well off by comparison. In the last 10 years in Belfast of all the 46,240 preventable deaths the Public Health Agency has identified, there were 2,524 linked to “drug use disorders” and 2,476 linked to “alcohol related disease”. There were only 46 deaths attributed to “illicit drugs use”. Boring prescription drugs and the booze, it seemed, far out-shown the petty death rate from headline grabbing illegal drugs.

What was happening locally, I continued, had happened here before, was happening elsewhere and would happen again. In the summer of 2013, ten deaths in young men were eventually linked to use of a toxic metabolic variant of the rave drug ecstacy. Ecstacy, an amphetamine-based stimulant, was back on the scene with a vengeance. A lab in the Netherlands, according to the Irish Times, was producing MDMA tablet with strengths of between 150 mg and 300 mg and they delightfully called it “Cherry”. This was an improvement on the standard 1990s tablet strength of about 80 mgs. The Dutch lab also had a powder formulation they touchingly named “Molly” because methylenedioxymethamphetamine is a bit of a mouthful. Ironically MDMA is relatively safe.

But that was then; now in the Spring of 2017 it is happening again. In the year 2016 up to November police figures suggest there were 78 deaths due to drugs more than from road traffic accidents. Last weekend locally we had the deaths of three young people. These deaths are linked to drug use and it is likely that they resulted from the cumulative effects of a cocktail of drugs; benzodiazepines, opioids and alcohol. Tramadol features strongly in this story and it is ironic that it was launched as a prescription medicine as a safer, less addictive version of codeine.

I told the 2015 meeting of a heroin user who claimed to have gone to a dealer to buy cannabis and finding it of particularly “good quality” returned a few times for more. Finding that she now could think of nothing but the cannabis, and unable to afford to buy, was refused a supply “on loan” while being told that his cannabis is laced with heroin. This normal 29 year old found herself in Belfast City centre stealing clothes to maintain a habit.

I finished up by saying that social deprivation was a strong indicator for an illicit drug culture and indeed in my part of Belfast there is plenty of that. In addition, availability of the drug was key, as was the fact that most drug deaths are associated with taking a cocktail with alcohol.

The deaths last weekend, which we are yet to learn more about, and the recorded drug deaths last year, seem to suggest that we are back again at a Drug Crisis –the 2017 Drug Crisis. But these spikes mask an underlying problem affecting mostly young men who have lives totally consumed by and with the procurement and consumption of drugs; any drugs.

This morning things took a more sinister turn when a 26 year old, highly agitated man stabbed two pharmacists in a botched hold up on the Falls Road. My colleagues – who are also friends – were lucky to survive the violent attack which I understand was in no way provoked. Two months back a stabbing occurred in another West Belfast pharmacy.
Just as in the 2015 Drug Crisis there will be calls for meetings. I am unconvinced that meetings will solve the 2017 Drug Crisis. It will take a powerful community effort to better support young men whose lives are obviously so impoverished; material, spiritually and socially that they don’t care.

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  • Nat O’Connor

    A report has recently been released, which hit my desk in my role as voluntary chairperson of a local drug task force: ‘Prevalence of Drug Use and Gambling in Ireland and Drug Use in Northern Ireland’: http://health.gov.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Bulletin-1.pdf (jointly published by the NACDA and Department of Health NI).

    In brief, the key findings for Northern Ireland include:
    – More than a quarter of people surveyed (28%) reported having used an illegal drug during their lifetime, with 6% having done so during the previous year and 3% during the last month.
    – Cannabis was the most commonly reported illegal drug ever used in someone’s lifetime (at 25%), followed by ecstasy (10%), poppers (7%) and cocaine powder (7%).
    – A third of younger respondents (aged 15-34 years) (34%) had ever taken an illegal drug.
    – As well as illegal drugs, the large majority—but by no means all—people aged 15+ in Northern Ireland have taken alcohol (88%) in their lifetime, and 51% have taken tobacco. These figures reduce to 77% and 30% for alcohol and tobacco consumption in the last year.
    – Almost a quarter of respondents (24%) had taken anti-depressants at some point during their lifetime, while more than a fifth had taken other opiates (22%) and sedatives or tranquillisers (21%).

    One of the trends in modern drug use and abuse is the move away from just heroin being the main “problem drug” to what is called “polydrug use” in the jargon. In other words, people—especially younger people—taking drugs are using a wide range and mixture of substances. Also people whose heroin addiction is “stable” because they are on methadone replacement are in some cases also using a range of other drugs—which means that their official status in the statistics as “stable” may be somewhat off the mark.

    In page 34 of the above report, there is a comparison of the lifetime use of drugs by those aged 15-34 versus those aged 35-64 years old. 34% of the younger age cohort have used any illegal drug, including 13% ecstasy, 11% cocaine and 11% “poppers” versus 23% in the older age cohort, of which 8% ecstasy, 5% cocaine and 5% poppers. Cannabis use is 30% in the younger cohort and 21% in the older cohort. The only positive is that lifetime use of tobacco is higher among the older age group (54%) than in the younger cohort (48%). (All figures rounded to nearest whole).

    In other words, drug use and misuse is a growing phenomenon. Despite the spike in cannabis and LSD use that can be seen in age cohorts who were young in the sixties and seventies, there is a greater prevalence of drug misuse among young people today than has ever been the case.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I can’t make my mind up about this.

    In Glasgow, where I lived in the late 90’s and noughties heroin was dying out (with the junkies) but it was still prevalent enough. The argument was that it was poverty that caused it.

    Then I moved to Aberdeen. Same argument for the poor areas such as Tillydrone.
    But then I found out that Fraserburgh was riddled, “lots of money they fishermen!!!” was the reason bellowed. Same problem, two opposite answers.

    In Australia, my experience is that the youngsters are MAD for the drugs and that covers all social strata. (Have you ever partied with an Australian outside of Australia where the drugs are cheaper? Jeeeezzzz).

    So, I dunno anymore.

    I’m beginning to think it’s more to do with the loss of society’s cohesion and the loss of a community spirit, it can’t just be about having not enough/too much money.

  • Brian O’Neill

    Thanks Nat that is useful information.

  • AntrimGael

    Maybe it just comes down to the individual and how strong, weak, easy led etc they are? Good friends of mine have 4 kids, 3 of them decent, hard working people. One son is a scumbag, thieving, drug taking, selfish so and so. His parents, also good hard working people, are at the end of their tether. They have tried and done everything, spent a fortune on private health care etc. It’s no good, he still goes back to his bad ways. I think for their own peace of mind they gave resolved themselves to him coming home in a box or going down for a long stretch inside.

  • nagantino

    It’s that old cliche ” It’s bigger than all of us”. Most people go through that stage of rebellion and experimentation but most grow out of it. It’s all about your personal choices, but drinking is never spoken of in the same way…….it’s a laugh, something to be planned with friends and family, and I’m starting to grow out of it. I’m 65. I’ve no answer.