Doctor: ‘Legal highs’ playing growing role in child and teenage drug habits

ONE of the country’s main treatment services for child and teenage drug users has seen a 40% increase in referrals amid growing concern over products available from head shops.

Dr Bobby Smyth, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, said 130 people aged between 13 and 18 years of age were seen last year, 80% of whom were new clients.

Around one-third of those seen were experiencing serious problems with alcohol, while a similar number were addicted to cannabis, with the remaining clients using a range of different drugs, including heroin and cocaine.

Dr Smyth, who works primarily with the youth drug and alcohol service in Tallaght, said polydrug use was the norm, and head shops were increasingly playing a role in the habits of drug users.

“We have noticed a growing trend for teenagers to use these products,” said Dr Smyth. “We have had people use them for a variety of reasons, for example, as an alternative to cannabis use.”

These “legal highs” can cause problems in hospitals where emergency departments (formally A&Es) do not screen for them in tests.

Dr Smyth said he was of the view that head shops should be closed.

Other trends uncovered in the past year is a rise in heroin use among younger people outside of Dublin, in counties such as Kildare, and parents coming under pressure to pay off drug debts run up by their children.

Sums of up to €5,000 can be owed to dealers by teenage drug users.

Dr Smyth said the service was also seeing almost as many clients from well-off families as from classically deprived areas. Heroin was the main drug used in one in every 20 cases, but cocaine did not register as the main drug with any clients and would instead be used occasionally in a cocktail of drugs taken by a client.

Children and teenagers are referred to the service by their parents in around one-third of cases, but in other cases it is on the advice of GPs, Garda Juvenile Liaison Officers and others.

The Irish Examiner reported last year how the counterpart drug support service for the northside of Dublin, the SASSY Project, was operating with just two members of staff and a lengthening waiting list after close to €1 million in funding allocated for it was spent elsewhere by the HSE.

Dr Smyth said that the southside project was operating without a waiting list and his current staff complement of five was managing, despite the rise in referrals.

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