Everyone knows by now that Dublin is experiencing a very serious heroin epidemic with an estimated 8,000-9,000 heroin addicts in the capital alone. This situation did not arise overnight but has been growing for the past fifteen years. Heroin addiction and the accompanying H.I.V. and Aids related deaths has become a fact of life for devastated inner city communities, and more recently working class suburbs from Tallaght to Blanchardstown.
Heroin addiction is closely related to disadvantage and poverty. The communities where it has taken hold are precisely those which have been abandoned economically and socially by the state for several decades now. While Ireland is allegedly experiencing an economic boom, whole working class communities have been written off and left to struggle with the inevitable decline into drug addiction and crime.
The community groups who came together in the Inner City Organisations Network (ICON) set up the Citywide Drugs Campaign in 1995 to tackle this epidemic which is raging out of control. Hundreds of young addicts have died during this crisis which everyone on the ground is convinced is even worse than the last one in the early eighties.
That epidemic led to the formation of the Concerned Parents Against Drugs (CPAD) which took direct action against drug dealers, driving them out of communities they had turned into living hells for the residents. There were problems with some of their tactics especially when they degenerated into self-appointed gangs running personal vendettas, and the anti-heroin movement was used as a cover to attack individuals who really had no involvement in drug dealing.
However, overall, they were successful in forcing the state to respond to the drugs crisis by imprisoning some of the most notorious heroin dealers. In the end though, the state succeeded in smashing the anti-drugs movement by criminalising leading activists and imprisoning them after trials in the no-jury Special Criminal Court. Exactly the same tactics are being used this time around. Three local activists from Killinarden in south west Dublin were refused bail in November in an exact repeat of events in the eighties campaign.
This time however, things are much more complicated. Whole families are involved in addiction to heroin, and the drug culture has taken hold in some inner city communities. Young children are very familiar with the whole business of addiction and heroin related sickness and death. H.I.V infection and death from Aids related illness have affected so many inner city families who have had sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who have died that there is a sense in which whole communities are affected by grief and loss.
The fact is that heroin addiction is almost totally a working class phenomenon. It is also confined in Ireland to specific clearly identified communities and within them particular extended families are suffering disproportionately. The whole fabric of these communities has been dramatically damaged by the heroin epidemic. Crime levels are out of control, heroin and other opiates are very easily available and openly sold.
Addicts in treatment attempting to stay off heroin find it very difficult in an environment where most of their friends are using and they are being offered heroin cheaper than ever before on a daily basis. Added to all this is the chronic lack of treatment facilities. There are an estimated 8,000 opiate addicts in Dublin alone. All of the treatment centres offering methadone have long waiting lists. At least 700 addicts are waiting to get on maintenance programmes at the moment. These programme do not even cater for young addicts under 18, especially if they are smoking and not injecting.
The Citywide Drugs Campaign has been very active in Dublin's north inner city. A large amount of very open dealing was taking place in the area and drug dealers were living untouched by the law in the community. The community knows that the powers that be do not give a damn about them or about their children dying from drug related illness. This has always been the case for inner city and poor working class communities but it is now very clear to many people in this area. Since the first big anti-heroin meeting in August, there have been regular huge meetings attended by upwards of a thousand people followed by marches against the dealers throughout the area. The slogans of the campaign are: Addicts we care. Dealers beware.
This slogan reflects the complicated nature of the issue. Many local addicts cannot get into treatment programmes. It is also a reality that some addicts deal in small amounts to feed their own habits and also engage in anti-social behaviour in their families and communities. The slogan makes it clear that a sympathetic attitude is being adopted to addicts but that dealing and stealing from their own is not acceptable.
The campaign is democratically run with open public meetings and organising meetings open to activists from the different flat complexes and localities. Debates about the best tactics to use against the dealers are openly discussed. Links have been made with trade unions and support is being received, but of a fairly minimal nature so far.
A second campaign, COCAD (Coalition of Communities against Drugs) has now been formed and represents the suburban westside and south inner city areas mainly. Both campaigns are working together despite some differences in tactics. The media has attempted to exploit these differences and is trying to portray all anti-drugs activists as vigilanties with links to paramilitaries. The truth is much more complicated.
The gardai especially are determined that there will be no alternative community police force allowed to operate despite their abject failure to deal with the drug barons. This is why the focus of policing activities in these communities has concentrated on harassing anti-drugs activists rather than the dealers. Since the announcement of the new garda initiative, Operation Dochas, this harassment has increased.
There has not been one significant heroin find by the police despite the vast amounts that are being sold on the streets and in the flats, and despite the fact that the local dealers are well known both to the police and the local community. Recently revealed links between major heroin dealers and some gardaí will come as no surprise to many activists on the ground.
It is as a result of the frustration caused by this situation that so many working class communities have now spontaneously organised themselves against the evil of heroin in their midst.
The scale of this community mobilisation is huge. Regular meetings of over a thousand people have been happening in the inner city and in the working class suburbs. The tactics adopted have been marching on known dealers homes and giving them an ultimatum to stop dealing or leave the community. In some communities suspected dealers are told to attend community meetings and explain their situation. Community patrols have been set up in the worst affected areas to prevent dealing.
The result of these activities has been the creation of drug free zones in several inner city and suburban estates. The community mobilisation has also had very positive consequences on other aspects of community life. This was obvious at Halloween when celebration parades and street parties were held in several of these communities previously decimated by drug dealing.
There are dangers in this situation too. The main danger is that over-enthusiastic groups will target addicts who are already the victims in this situation and that mistakes will be made and innocent people wrongly accused and even attacked. However, these dangers are also played up by a hostile media and establishment who want to undermine the self-activity in these communities.
Moving dealers out of particular areas is not a long term solution to the crisis either, something both the Citywide Campaign and COCAD acknowledge. Far more treatment facilities for addicts and educational/preventative programmes are also needed. To make any real difference to the demand for drugs like heroin the real issues of massive unemployment and chronically bad recreational and social facilities in working class communities have to be tackled. Young people especially have no worthwhile future to look to in this capitalist system.
In some ways heroin addiction is similar to other more socially acceptable forms of addiction such as addiction to alcohol or tobacco. The major differences are that heroin is illegal and the others legal which means that heroin users have to contend with all the problems of prohibition. These include the dangers of using adulterated or impure substances and the crime involved in getting the money to pay for ones habit. Criminal activity between dealers also complicates the picture. However, in other ways there are some differences in heroin addiction as opposed to most other addictions.
Firstly, many heroin users are very young, especially in Ireland which has the youngest heroin using population in Europe. Many are in their early teens. Secondly, as this article already states heroin addiction is class based, confined almost totally to marginalised working class communities. Thirdly, heroin addiction is fatal in far too many cases. Most Irish users inject their heroin and the risks associated with this practise are H.I.V. infection and Aids related illness and death.
Legalising heroin on prescription for addicts is one of the steps necessary to tackle the crisis. Far more treatment and preventative services are also needed. In the long run, restoring dignity and a decent future to the communities who have been abandoned by the state and the capitalist system is the only way to reduce the demand for heroin.