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Syringes in the Streets, Gang Shootings, and Clockwork Orange: How Ireland Is Tackling a Drug Crisis

VICE News spoke to addiction workers and Ireland's former drugs minister about the challenges the country's new government will face on the issue of drug policy reform.
Foto di Sally Hayden/VICE News

Katie was walking a few steps ahead of her father through Dublin city center when she spotted something glistening on the ground and reached for it. Then the 6-year-old screamed — she had a syringe filled with blood sticking into her hand.

Over the next six months her family went through the agonizing process of confirming she had not contracted HIV, as her mother Gillian Brien told VICE News. "Every three weeks we were back up to the hospital," she said. "[There were] blood tests every four weeks."


Brien, 37, lives and works in Dublin. She detailed the emotional journey her family had gone on — from being furious at the drug addicts who publicly inject in the city and incredulous at a government that's failed to tackle the issue, to heightened awareness of the problems around addiction, and now Brien's vocal support of both drug decriminalization and the introduction of supervised injecting facilities.

"We did go through the anger stage in our family, but then we realized we want our government to be responsible," she said. "Our anger was redirected at our local TDs (members of parliament)."

"Why aren't [addicts] being provided with somewhere safe to inject?" Brien said, adding that they not only provide safety for drug users themselves, but also for anyone who currently passes through areas where needles are commonly discarded.

"For everyone who lives and works in the inner city, the injecting facilities are the only answer."

Related: Portugal's Example: What Happened After It Decriminalized All Drugs, From Weed to Heroin

Eight years later, Katie still has a debilitating fear of needles, meaning she must be sedated when she needs even routine medical treatment like dental work. Meanwhile, Brien said she spots syringes on the ground every time she walks to and from work.

"It's not going away, it's getting worse. Visibly in the city, open drug use is getting worse."

* * *

After 70 days of debate, deliberation, and posturing, Ireland has political leadership again. Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny has held on to his role in the country's 32nd national assembly, known as the Dáil, with his center-right party Fine Gael leading a minority government.


One of the challenges for the new government will be how to deal with drug policy reform. Previous drugs minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin was extremely progressive, vocally advocating for decriminalization as well as introducing a bill that would bring supervised injecting rooms to Ireland's capital city.

On Thursday, Kenny announced the appointment of Fine Gael's Catherine Byre as Minister of State for Communities and National Drug Strategy. Byrne previously served as the party's deputy spokesperson on community and rural affairs with special responsibility for national drugs strategy between 2007 and 2010. As highlighted in an article published by drug policy advocacy organization Help Not Harm, Byrne has previously voiced strong support for injection centers.

She takes on the role as the country's homelessness crisis and drug issues continue to deepen, according to drug outreach and addiction professionals consulted by VICE News.

Drug-related gang wars have been blamed for multiple killings in Dublin since February. Statistics released by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that in 2011 — the latest figures available — the drug-induced mortality rate in Ireland was more than three times the European average. On top of this, a report that came out in April found Irish young people are the biggest users of psychoactive drugs in the European Union, closely followed by Spain, France, and Slovenia.


When Ó Ríordáin lost his seat during the February 2016 election, addiction workers became worried that the reforms he had begun to introduce would not be implemented.

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The former Labour minister — now a senator — spoke to VICE News on the day the new government was announced.

Ó Ríordáin said he was thankful that the newly published program for government says there is a commitment to supervised injecting centers. However, it is uncertain whether Byrne will show the same advocacy for decriminalization.

"I'm absolutely convinced the only way we can really proceed is to change the context in which we deal with the drugs issue," Ó Ríordáin said. "The injection center argument has been won but the decriminalization argument hasn't."

He warned that many people pushing against decriminalization are "engaged with the issue on a very superficial level" and pushing a "dishonest debate" based on a blinkered insistence that all drugs and drug users are inherently bad.

"Probably every family in Ireland has someone with addiction issues but everyone seems to shy away from it. I think we still dehumanize the addicts, we still call the addicts names, it's still perfectly acceptable to call addicts junkies on national radio unchallenged," he said. "Our fundamental starting point of dealing with this as a criminal justice issue is wrong."


Ó Ríordáin also emphasized that it is not just illegal drugs that have an impact on Irish society. "We have a dysfunctional relationship with alcohol," he said.

Tony Duffin of the Ana Liffey Drug Project, who works with addicts in Dublin and has been campaigning for supervised injecting facilities, recently took VICE News on a tour around some of the most popular public injecting spots in Dublin. These are often down alleys just yards from a main road or shopping street. Syringes are dumped down drains, while other drugs paraphernalia lies scattered on the ground.

Around 400 people currently inject in public in Dublin in any given month, according to Duffin.

He said this situation means supervised injecting facilities are needed urgently, and changes to the current legislation will also be vital for a number of reasons.

"[The new government has] the opportunity to debate and decide how we wish to respond to the issue of personal drug use — and in particular whether possession for personal use is best dealt with through a health focused policy, rather than by criminalization," Duffin said.

In March 2015 an Irish court ruling resulted in the accidental legalization of certain drugs, including ecstasy, ketamine, and crystal meth. The rushed legislation that followed and subsequent lack of a government meant that laws to target new psychoactive substances on a case-by-case basis — such as new legislation due to come into force in the UK on May 26 — are yet to be implemented in Ireland.


When asked about this, Ó Ríordáin responded by saying: "Legislation has to kind of chase after the industry. The industry is very sophisticated and I think the chemical components can change slightly and then they're repackaged and legislation has to chase after it, so the [new] Misuse of Drugs Act will hopefully deal with this."

This has become an issue in some of Ireland's northern counties, where a spate of suicides are believed to be a result of unregulated synthetic cannabis.

Tim Murphy, the manager of the Cavan and Monaghan Drug and Alcohol Service, spoke to VICE News about the problems these unregulated drugs are causing, particularly a type of synthetic cannabis known as clockwork orange.

"Talking to colleagues — teachers, gardai [police], health professionals — [they all] say this is a very serious and growing issue," he said. "I've been out to schools as well and it's causing real problems within schools, behavior issues and all the rest of it."

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According to Murphy, users are often drawn to using these products because of their relative affordability, with one gram of synthetic cannabis costing around 15 euros ($17). The majority of those taking these drugs are young, unemployed men, according to research carried out by the Cavan and Monaghan Drug and Alcohol Service.

Murphy said he was aware of three cases in which someone committed suicide while using these substances. All who died were under 25.


Clockwork orange and other similar drugs like spice are stronger and much more addictive than cannabis, Murphy said, but young people may not be able to differentiate between the two.

He also said that as an adult service his organization doesn't really have the resources to deal with this problem — what's really needed is some sort of residential service for under 18s.

Known brands of synthetic cannabis for sale in Cavan and Monaghan. (Photo via Tim Murphy)

Murphy was more wary about decriminalization than the other addiction workers VICE News spoke to. He said that while he believes the war on drugs has failed, the problem with following Portugal's model — where no one holding what's considered less than a 10-day supply of an illicit drug is arrested — is that "the Portuguese invested heavily in treatment services, they didn't just decriminalize drugs, they diverted it into treatment centers. We don't have that kind of infrastructure in Ireland and that's really critical."

However, he argued that tackling addiction is key to addressing any of the ongoing social problems in Ireland. "We have a national crisis in terms of homelessness, we have a national crisis in terms of mental health, we have a national crisis in terms of keeping people waiting on hospital trolleys, and drug and alcohol issues feed into all that."

* * *

In recent months, drugs have become an even hotter topic of conversation among Irish citizens after a series of gang-related murders in Dublin. In February, three men with AK-47s opened fire at a boxing weigh-in at north Dublin's Regency Hotel, sparking a war between rival drug gangs that has left at least five more people dead.


Dublin-based criminal lawyer Kieran Conway, who was also a former director of intelligence for the IRA, said that there are hundreds of people involved in the city's major gangs, of which he thinks around six are currently functioning. They mainly profit from drugs, including cocaine, methadone, and cannabis, he said.

"The way it operates is at the top is Mr. Big, who's rarely in custody and never in jail. He may have been in the past. And then he has his lieutenants. And his lieutenants do get arrested regularly but they don't end up in jail," he said.

"And then you have the people who actually do the work," Conway continued, saying that young drug users who find themselves in debt to such groups are dragged into activities that involve high risk of being caught, such as carrying and distributing drugs.

"These gangs are riddled with informers and when they go to move the stuff they are very often caught and at risk of very substantial sentences," he said, highlighting the fact that drug possession convictions can carry penalties including minimum 10-year sentences and fines in excess of 13,000 euros ($14,700).

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Conway said the gangs don't need to recruit at all, because young people with few opportunities willingly volunteer. "Now and then they might headhunt a particular sort of person," he said. "[But] recruits come begging to be in the gang."

According to Conway, the government needs to show the same sort of willingness to clamp down on drug gangs as it has in the past on Republican movements, such as the IRA, if it is to make any progress on the issue. "[The authorities] did have many, many successes against the IRA which are sadly lacking against the criminal gangs who are far inferior in intelligence and in every other way to how the IRA were."

Meanwhile, Conway is also an advocate for decriminalization, saying it would remove a significant portion of the customer base that the drug gangs rely on. "Then the criminal gangs wither away or they go into other forms of crime," he said.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd