Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Clinics seeing only the tip of the iceberg

People of all ages and social backgrounds in Ulster are using cocaine, according to key community workers and health professionals.

The number of men, women and teens using the drug - once stereotypically the drug of choice for the rich and famous - is rising rapidly.

However, a health professional has warned that the number of people presenting themselves for help to beat their addiction to the drug is just " the tip of the iceberg".

"Addiction clinics are only seeing the tip of the iceberg of cocaine users in Northern Ireland. Habitual users of ecstasy are now experimenting with cocaine.

"This shift highlights the increase of cocaine which is available on the streets at a reduced price," said Des Flannagan, addictions services manager for the Northern Health and Social Care Trust.

Mr Flannagan added that the majority of addicts he encounters are multiple drug users who are now able to afford cocaine, which he said was previously seen as "exclusive" and associated with the wealthy and entertainment industry.

He also said there is evidence of a secondary drug, cocaethylene, which is the result of mixing cocaine with alcohol.

"This is definitely a common case in so-called recreational users, as alcohol - traditionally a depressant - feeds the need for the buzz or pick-up effect of cocaine. This creates obvious cardiac problems, as alcohol slows the heart and cocaine speeds it up," he said.

The emergence of an 'economy' cocaine market - highlighted this week by the Belfast Telegraph - is making the drug more available to younger people.

One Ulster GP said he has encountered a boy of 16 who was using the drug as well as people in their 50s.

"Cocaine users range from celebrities to people living on the street. Most of the people I see are young males in their 20s. The youngest cocaine abuser I have encountered was a boy of 16, but there are also users in their 50s," said Ballymena GP Dr Terry Magowan.

He added: "A lot of people experimenting with cocaine are playing with fire, you don't know how you will react until you try it."

It is not just health risks involved with cocaine use; addicts are likely to run up massive financial debts.

Nile Enright, who works as part of the West Belfast Community Drugs Programme, said he has encountered one cocaine user who was racking up debts of £50,000 a year to fund their addiction.

He added that he believes cocaine is now as "easy to get as beer".

"We are no longer just seeing the quintessential drug user taking cocaine, it's not only the socially excluded, it's the 21 to 35-year-old's holding down steady jobs with a fair income, buying it to go along with their designer jeans for a night out," he said.

Mr Enright added: "At street level there is anecdotal evidence to suggest younger people, with less money, are getting it, which means it is being 'cut' a number of times."

Director of the Lisburn- based substance misuse charity Ascert, Gary McMichael, said the fact that cocaine is being 'cut' by dealers - meaning it is being bulked up with adulterants - was very concerning.

"Cocaine users have no guarantee of what they are getting - the strength, the toxic substances mixed in the powder - there is a very serious risk involved," he added.

Dr Brian Gaffney of the Health Promotion Agency warned that cocaine users are putting themselves at risk of hepatitis B, hepatitis C or even HIV if they share tubes, straws or bank notes to take cocaine.

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