There is a similarity in problems faced by communities north and south. The constituency of Louth and East Meath shares many of the same characteristics of west Belfast – high unemployment; poor housing provision; poverty; lack of investment by government; community safety issues and much more.
There are differences also. The most obvious being the fact that Louth and East Meath has an electorate of over 100,000 – some 40,000 more than west Belfast and big parts of it are rural.
Among the community safety issues are those caused by drug and alcohol misuse.
A few weeks ago this blog and local Sinn Féin Councillor Paddy McQuillan visited the Louth Community Drug and Alcohol Team in Drogheda.
We met the staff, members of the North East Regional Drug Task Force, and a group of addicts who are on methadone to control their heroin addiction.
I was very impressed by the commitment and professionalism of the staff who provide a first class service with inadequate resources, and who are struggling to meet the needs of a growing number of drug and alcohol addicts.
Drug and alcohol misuse has taken up to 8 lives in the Drogheda area in recent years.
We met a group of former heroin users, one of whom was a woman. They were very honest about the dreadful impact the drug has had on them and their families, and the connection between heroin and drug addiction and crime.
One former user described the experience as like ground hog day – chasing the money –chasing the dealers - and chasing the drug. And when that cycle is complete they begin the process all over again.
The Drug and Alcohol Team in Drogheda has only been in place since last April. I have no doubt from my conversation with the former heroin users that the centre has been a life line for them.
The project consists of a co-ordinator, one project worker, one CE support staff member and one counsellor who provides 6 sessions a week. According to statistics for 2010 from the Health Research Board, 76 individuals presented for treatment at the centre.
Of these 60% had heroin addiction; 28% had issues with alcohol; 17% with cannabis and 7% for cocaine. 71% of the above have been identified as early school leavers and 60% use more than one drug. 33% are injecting drug users and 8% began injecting under the age of 19.
There obviously are policing and other issues around the availability of illegal drugs. And these statistics only scratch the surface of the problem.
The reality is that many individuals who initially presented with one problem actually have more than one. Some were addicted to up to four substances. And those I talked with spoke of many more users in the area who have not sought help.
The Louth Community Drug and Alcohol Team work hard to provide a service which helps those affected by drug and alcohol misuse. However, the biggest gap in current services lies in the absence of a second level 2 methadone prescribing GP.
Currently there is only one and consequently the waiting list for methadone treatment in Louth stands at eighteen months which discourages individuals to go on the list. In Dublin the waiting time for treatment is within 10 days.
Even if an addict manages to get on the list they are expected to maintain their drug using lifestyle in order to qualify for treatment. It also means that the current system is encouraging ongoing heartache, illness, further family breakdown, crime and in some cases overdose, which can lead to death.
I secured an adjournment debate in the Dáil on Tuesday night and spoke on this issue pointing out the immediate and beneficial affect an additional level 2 GP would have.
The Minister, Roisin Shortall in her contribution acknowledged that the Health Service Executive has now “identified two potential level 2 GPs who are available to commence in the Drogheda area. An additional level 1 GP has also been identified and the HSE is awaiting return of a signed contract from the person concerned.”
This was good news.
The Community Drug and Alcohol Team also needs a dedicated project worker who can provide the essential family support that is part of dealing with drug misuse in the community. But on this issue the Ministers response was less helpful. She said: “Unfortunately, there is no funding available to support an additional family support worker”.
The Louth Community Drug and Alcohol Team in Drogheda provides a critical health and community service. So, this issue is not going away and I told the Minister this after the debate.
We have no money she told me. ‘Yes, we have’, I told her, ‘But your government is giving it away to unguaranteed bondholders in toxic banks.’
And so it is with €10 million this week alone.
In the meantime the work of groups like the Louth Community Drug and Alcohol Team continues. Without their dedication many more lives would be lost or destroyed by the scourge of drugs and alcohol. So well done to you and all those others like you who provide this essential service.