By Louise Walsh
A constant "battle" for funding has led to the closure of a 30-year old award-winning national drug prevention and advisory service, at a time when its founder says that teenagers as young as 14 are using heroin.
Founder of the national Aisling Group charity in Navan, Co Meath, Marie Byrne says the closure comes as drug use reaches 'epidemic proportions' in Ireland.
The internationally acclaimed addiction counsellor says children of 11 years old are now binge drinking while teenagers are using heroin from 14 or even younger.
Marie described the closure of the centre - which has helped thousands of children, adults and families across the country - as 'heartbreaking' but says she could no longer afford to financially fund the voluntary service, with little government agency support.
The author has worked in an advisory capacity with the Australian Government and has travelled to Brazil to work in the notorious drug-run favelas alongside the famous BOPE police force.
She believes Ireland is losing its fight against drugs "by treating the symptoms and not the root causes."
"Ireland is known internationally for its liberal attitude to drug use," she said.
"Our leaders appear to have thrown in the towel as they look at spaces where people can supposedly use and inject safely - but there is no safe use.
"Once, crack cocaine was something we saw on TV but now it has become the substance of choice here
"I thought the situation was bad here 30 years ago but it's nothing compared to now. Children and adults are even now using the internet to learn how to cut drugs.
"Ireland has one of the highest rates of drug use in Europe but we've a policy of treating the symptoms, not reducing the use.
"There's little funding for drug-free programmes here. Instead, €22m is spent on methadone each year.
"It's at epidemic proportions."
Marie is about to publish her second book - the Angel in the Marble - which gives advice to parents on recognising and helping their children who show signs of addictions, including alcohol, drugs, eating disorders, gambling and internet use.
Marie says it was a 'privilege' to work at the centre which was the recipient of the All Islands Special Endeavour Award from the then President Mary McAleese.
"It was a privilege to meet so many people and see them overcome their addictions and move onto a better life. Our great volunteers, supporters and friends helped so much.
"It cost me a lot financially but I know that people are alive today because of the work of the charity and nothing can ever take away from that," she concluded.
Local Sinn Féin TD Peadar Toibin called the closure a 'disaster,' adding that there are 'little or no supports for those young people who want to come off drugs."
He said: "I'm told there are only 787 residential rehabilitation and detox beds in the state - not far off the number of drug deaths each year and only a fraction of the number of methadone and heroin users.
"Only 22 of these beds are for teenagers at a time when drug use in parts of the country are at epidemic rates.
"Marie Byrne and the Aisling Group have helped hundreds of people come off drugs and build healthy, safe lives.
"Many of these young people would surely have lost their lives to drugs, only for the Aisling Group
"The Government seems to be surrendering the fight against drug use amongst our young people in our communities by allowing such groups to close," he concluded.