SPECIAL REPORT, DAY 2: ‘We need to get our city back for its citizens’

THAT children as young as six are picking up dirty needles discarded by drug users in populated areas of Cork, allied to a situation recently in the city centre where drug paraphernalia was found inside a parish church by mass-goers, provides proof — if proof were needed — that heroin is a respecter of no thing or no one. It is a dark and menacing presence in Cork that threatens our future.

I have long supported calls by eminent Cork University Hospital and Mercy University Hospital emergency consultant Chris Luke for action to be taken on a growing heroin-use problem in our city.

To my mind, very little extra has been don — there have been no innovative campaigns, high-profile multi-agency solutions — so it comes as no surprise that incidences relating to heroin use have mushroomed.

Heroin needles and user kits are being found on a daily basis in many corners of the city, northside and southisde, affluent and less well-off areas. Worryingly, however, the fringes of the city centre and some of our most historic parishes and communities have been blighted by heroin use and its effects. There have been high-profile cases where discarded needles were found in Cork City’s oldest church, St Fin Barre’s South in Dunbar St. They have been found on our main streets and in our housing estates. They have been found in graveyards, convents, parks, and public facilities — nowhere is safe.

This is not to be alarmist, but rather realistic. Deals of heroin can now be bought for as little as €25, a huge price fall from recent years, so its wider availability is not rocket science. In times of recession, the dealers reduce the price and then gradually increase it so it becomes harder to get, and addicts will do more to get it — again evidenced by the increase in crimes against the person.

Some of the dissident groups and criminal elements in Cork have for years prided themselves on keeping this drug out of the city. Small-time dealing in the less addictive drugs has been used for decades as a veil covering the lucrative drugs business that many are benefiting from.

But now Cork faces its biggest challenge. I have some sympathy with those who are addicted to heroin. I have more sympathy, however, with the vast majority of the population upon whom they are wreaking havoc. It is as much by the unintentional actions of the gaunt and ghostly victims of heroin use that can be most intimidating for members of the public.

The authorities with responsibilities for public health, and the health of addicts, must decide on the way forward — just who are we serving here?

Putting used needlebins in public toilets, because needles were being left there, presents a conundrum; are we helping the drug user, are we promoting public health, or are we simply kowtowing to a minority who are involved in essentially illicit activity?

The central problem in all of this is that while there are many agencies and groups involved in the drug prevention and treatment areas, there is very little apparent co-ordination between them and there is little appetite among these agencies to target individual users. Those charged with rehabilitation have an altogether different outlook to those involved in education and prevention.

In the meantime, while strategies for the best way forward are being debated by the HSE, the drugs task force, and the various constituent organisations, the general populace loses out because there are now areas of the city that are becoming off-limits, controls need to be put on children in certain housing estates, and we have visitors to our city witnessing needle depositories in our city centre sites.

We need to get our city back for its citizens. And while the remnants of heroin use in public places is the apex of the problem, the response should start with a zero tolerance approach to drinking on our streets. It must extend to the groups of teenagers who are taking over parks and public spaces for drink and drugs parties.

It has to be based on increased Garda presence to maintain public order during daytime and night- time hours, as well as giving clear instructions to gardaí about on-the-spot confiscation of materials, which rarely happens.

Go to any large housing estate and you will hear residents complain of drug dealing and the problems that can accompany it. I know of two areas that are used almost on a daily basis by people shooting up.

Frustratingly for everyone, the gardaí — quite often — can do little about it. While the identity and movements of the serious drug dealers are largely known to them, the small-time operators can often slip between the stretched hours of vigilance and get away with what they are doing. A targeted and structured approach by all agencies involved in drug prevention and treatment must be taken immediately to prevent the further spread of heroin in Cork. A register of all known users should be compiled and updated and a tailored needle exchange programme rolled out to match usage; all those addicted to the drug should be involved in a reduction programme.

Garda drug squads should be given extra resources to locate dealers and a public information campaign and specific confidential line should be set up.

As with all such problems in our society, what is needed also is funding, expertise, and vision by central government for all of this to happen. I fear, however, that there is little appetite to instigate this.

* Mick Finn is an Independent Cork City councillor


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