He was a promising young man. A real find, says his employer. He was reliable, bright and keen to forge a career in hospitality. And then last September or October, he started taking cocaine in a more dedicated way.
Very few things shock this employer, a long-standing veteran of the night-time economy and business owner in rural Ireland. He’s far from an innocent about the myriad, creative ways Irish society has of getting out of its mind. But the speed at which a promising young man became someone who turned up late or didn’t turn up at all; or turned up gaunt and unwashed; or turned up in a ratty mood; or turned up, but then spent chunks of his shift in the toilet genuinely was alarming. By Christmas, he had stopped working for my friend to take up a job in a place that was more supportive of his habit, a place where the clientele doesn’t generally bother to go to the toilet before doing a bump. By January, he was no longer working there either, and was dealing full-time from his flat to try to pay his drug debt.
This week brought another raft of stories about how Ireland is suddenly awash with cocaine. It crept up on us and established itself as a normal part of a night out, a process that seems to have been turbocharged during the pandemic. “Cocaine is more prevalent than cannabis,” Killarney District Court heard this week. Almost as much cocaine seized by gardaí in Galway in first eight weeks of this year as in whole of last year, this newspaper reported last Monday. At a meeting of the County Galway Joint Policing Committee, Fine Gael councillor Peter Roche blamed increases in the price of alcohol for “pushing” people towards cocaine, as though personal agency doesn’t exist. In parts of Ireland, we’re told, cocaine is now as readily available as – insert rural signifier of choice here – a bag of sugar or a packet of Tayto.
The normalisation of cocaine use is partly a product of class prejudice. Ireland’s capacity for mental compartmentalisation means we are adept at dividing addictive substances into the bad kind, and the it-could-be-worse kind. The bad kind are the drugs that devastate already disadvantaged communities, and the not-so-bad kinds are the middle-class choices. Crack cocaine and heroin are class A. Alcohol, cannabis and cocaine: they’re Class-Ah, sure, everyone does them. Not glamorous, not good for you, but no real harm involved, once you don’t lose the run of yourself.
The crack cocaine epidemic is real and terrifying. You don’t have to go very far in the city to see the impact of the drug, which is typically smoked and produces a stronger, more instantaneous hit. In recent weeks, I have twice seen something I haven’t seen in two decades in Dublin – people openly smoking crack cocaine in broad daylight in a car park.
Cocaine’s hold is less in-your-face, less visceral, but still worryingly insidious. While we were busy agonising about why we drink so much, Ireland quietly slid into the ignominious position of fourth biggest consumer of cocaine globally, according to a United Nations report. This is a record you won’t hear politicians bragging about. In 2019, 2.4 per cent of people said they had used cocaine over the previous year, the same percentage as the US and Austria. Simultaneously, as Conor Gallagher recently reported, the purity of cocaine increased from about 35 per cent pure to more than 60 per cent.
One of the things we don’t highlight enough is the link between cocaine and violence. A garda I spoke to characterises it as ‘superman syndrome’
The biggest increase since over the past 20 years is among young women, according to Health Research Board figures. The media lap up stories about harried professional men buying cocaine on their way home from work to propel them through late nights at the laptop, or the exhausted mother who regards it as a better choice for her waistline than Gavi, but the image of cocaine as a discerning, middle-class choice is out of date. It is everywhere, across every class in society and every age cohort.
Supply needs to be tackled, and as this week’s reports reveal, An Garda Síochána is making steady inroads. A far more difficult challenge is targeting demand. Lecturing middle-class users – as Minister Simon Harris did in February – about the link to their Friday night habit and gangland crime seems utterly futile. “Drug use on a Friday or Saturday night is funding and supporting violence, crime, murders the next week. You’re helping to line the pockets of criminals,” he said. He’s right, but you might as well chide people about how much water it takes to produce the almond milk in their coffee, or try to talk them out of their minibreak flight to Cagliari. There are too many steps between cause and effect.
One of the things we don’t highlight enough is the link between cocaine and violence. A garda I spoke to characterises it as “superman syndrome”. Cocaine gives users, young men in particular, an adrenaline rush that alcohol alone wouldn’t be able to achieve. They’ll stroll up to you on a night out to ask for directions to the taxi rank, with a ring of white powder round their nose, he says. Family law solicitors say cocaine has become a common factor in domestic abuse cases. A bar manager attributes incidents of comparatively low-level violence like glassing to the toxic cocktail of cocaine and alcohol.
By last month, the promising young man had wracked up drug debts of about €15,000. With no steady job and an undimmed appetite for the drug, it’s only going one way. The business owner has seen it all. And yet he’s never seen anything like cocaine’s ability to quietly insert itself into people’s lives and wreck them.