The Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children were told by Spunout and the Aislinn Adolescent Addiction Centre that alcohol was both a gateway and relapse drug and that issues such as the availability of alcohol and its below-cost selling needed to be tackled as a matter of urgency.
Both groups also told the committee they had suffered funding cutbacks and were struggling to maintain services.
Breda Cahill, general manager of the Aislinn Centre, which provides treatment for adolescent drug users from its Ballyragget location in Co Kilkenny, said staff had noticed four crucial changes since it opened its doors in 1998.
“It has become the norm for adolescents to drink and take drugs and go beyond experimentation,” she said.
Ms Cahill said alcohol was still the main drug abused by adolescents and the main drug of relapse.
“As a society we are unable to stop the flow of drugs and underage drinking.”
She also noted a rise in the prevalence of suicide among adolescent drug users, versus the lack of stepdown facilities.
Ruairi McKiernan, chief executive of Spunout, said 50% of young people surveyed on the group’s website believed the future was bleak.
He said following a move from Galway to Temple Bar in Dublin, staff at Spunout regularly witnessed up to eight people at a time taking heroin on a nearby street.
“Ireland is actively in the midst of a very, very serious heroin epidemic,” he said.
He also pointed to the growth in the number of off-licences in recent years while services for young people were being cut. He said changes on alcohol policy needed “political will and political courage”.
Fine Gael TD Denis Naughten said there had been “doublespeak from the state on the whole position of alcohol”, while people were still able to purchase cannabis seeds online and have them delivered to Irish addresses.
He said one website was even offering free seeds to people in Ireland making an order.
Mr McKiernan said that Spunout’s HSE funding had been cut from 30% to 20% of its budget, while Breda Cahill said the level of state funding Aislinn received would not cover the growing demand for services at a time when there were gaps in the mental health system for those aged 13 to 18 and no stepdown facilities.
She said its HSE funding had also been cut, meaning the Aislinn Centre was trying to plan for the delivery of its family support service on the same level of income it has had for the past two years.
Mr McKiernan said that some major philanthropical organisations, which had been “propping up” certain services were now “exiting stage left”, causing anxiety for those people involved.