‘Red light’ warning over heroin spread

RED warning lights should be attached to a report highlighting the spread of heroin across the country, former prison governor John Lonergan has said.

The ex-Mountjoy chief said the country was “sleep walking” into a human catastrophe by failing to intervene in the “scourge”.

Mr Lonergan made the comments as he launched the 2009 annual review by Merchants Quay Ireland (MQI), which works with drug users, homeless people and prisoners.

The report said it dealt with more than 9,000 people in 2009, with a 9% hike in drug users availing of its services. MQI director Tony Geoghegan said the “greatest rise” in problem drug use was outside Dublin.

He said heroin use had taken off in large urban areas across the country and that MQI now operated needle exchange services in four Midland counties, dealing with more than 200 people a year.

Launching the review, Mr Longeran said: “There should be red lights on top of this report. It’s indicating that heroin is no longer confined to Dublin and is spreading across the country. For me that is certainly a red light. I know what will happen as a consequence.”

The report said “there is now a growing and significant problem” with heroin and cocaine and other drugs in towns such as Athlone, Portlaoise, Birr and Longford.

“Our concern is where the biggest increase is where the least services are available.”

He said such was the lack of methadone treatment services in parts of the country – up to two years in some places – it was quicker to get help in prison, where services have expanded.

He questioned why the controversial announcement by the Government a year ago of an Elton John charity fund for needle-exchanges services across the country had not yet materialised, apart from one service in Limerick.

Mr Lonergan said: “In many areas the services are almost non-existent. There’s also an ambivalence, and sometime even stronger, a total opposition to acknowledging there is a drug problem and providing the services.

“If you don’t have the services you are going to have an expansion. It’s a no-win situation, it’s a self-inflicted wound. Part of struggle is to convince communities they have a central role and responsibility to respond to drug addiction in their own community.”

He said there was “danger on the horizon” and the country was “sleep walking” into a national disaster.

Mr Geoghegan said the homelessness problem was getting worse with a 17% increase in demand for its services in the first six months of this year, compared to the same period last year.

He said they provided 45,000 meals last year, but added they had already hit that figure this year.

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