Sunday, 15 June 2008
Brian O’Donovan found ruthless dealers and their victims everywhere in
his research for a shocking new documentary
(Brian O’Donovan is a senior correspondent with TV3)
This was Dublin on a sunny summer morning, but it was no Noel Purcell
song. Far from it. I was there to buy heroin, and it took just 30 minutes.
For the past three months I’ve been working as both reporter and
producer on the TV3 documentary, Undercover Ireland: The Drugs Trade,
which airs tomorrow night. One of the purposes of the programme is to
show just how easy it is to buy drugs.
A week ago, I walked the streets around the Christ- church area of
Dublin, looking for heroin. It was 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning. I was
carrying a hidden camera. After about 15 minutes, I came across Steve, a
drug user who stopped and asked me for a cigarette. I asked him for
heroin. He told me he would get it for me if I “looked after him”, by
which he meant I would also have to pay for his fix. I agreed and I
handed over €50 — €25 for my bag of heroin and €25 for his.
In a remarkable display of honesty, he then handed me a large lump of
hash and told me to hold on to it until the deal was done, so I would
not worry about him running off with my money.
As we walked, he told me about how he had been in jail recently and
about how he had overdosed the night before. He described how a girl had
given him a shot of adrenaline to revive him.
He said: “She used an adrenaline pump, injected me into the chest — the
dozy whore, how dare she take my buzz away!”
He chose to ignore the fact that she probably also saved his life.
He took me to an alley behind St Patrick’s Cathedral. We met Steve’s
dealer and a girl. They asked me to keep a lookout for gardai while they
prepared my bag of heroin.
As he handed over the tiny bundle wrapped in paper, Steve warned me,
“Just take half of this first and then the other half 10 minutes later
— it’s very strong gear.”
As I left the alleyway, confident that I had got away with my undercover
operation, the drug dealer called after me, “Hey you, you’re not a
copper are ya?”
I laughed nervously as I quickened my pace and returned to the car to
make sure that the preceding events had been recorded. They had. Having
examined my camera, I then turned to the little bundle. I carefully
unwrapped the white paper to reveal a small pile of pale brown powder.
On the advice of gardai I handed the drugs to a forensic officer in
Tallaght Garda Station, from where it was sent for destruction.
A quarter of all adults in Ireland have used illegal drugs, and there
has been a massive increase in the number of people seeking help for
addiction. Drug seizures and arrests are on the rise. Our documentary
goes behind the facts and figures to reveal just how easy it is to buy
drugs in Ireland today.
It took just 30 minutes to buy heroin. Cocaine took even less time. My
production team and I targeted a Dublin city- centre “early house”. Two
of the team brought our hidden camera into the women’s bathroom. They
had been about to go into the bar to find cocaine, but cocaine found
them. A man walked straight into the ladies’ bathroom and offered them
coke. He asked the women to come back to his home for a party. They
refused, but said they would like to buy some cocaine.
He left. Within minutes his girlfriend arrived in the bathroom. She
produced a large bag of coke which had been hidden in her bra. She
passed it around a group of strangers that had now gathered in the
bathroom. This impromptu cocaine party went on for several minutes with
the door unlocked. It was about 7.30 in the morning. The women took the
cocaine using a variety of methods — some snorting it off €2 coins,
others rubbing it into their gums, and some using the more traditional
method of snorting it through a rolled-up bank note. They mused about
the drug as they stood around in a circle.
One woman said: “I didn’t care about taking this stuff before, but I
have a daughter now and I’m terrified that something will happen to me.”
Her concern was ignored while other members of the group compared the
quality of the two different bags of cocaine that were now being shared.
Next we brought our hidden cameras to Tralee, where it took about 20
minutes to find a man who was willing to sell us cannabis. We met him in
a bar in the centre of the town. We had to go back to his apartment to
get it. When the drugs arrived, we started to record the events using
our hidden camera — which was concealed in the strap of a backpack —
but the dealer became very suspicious of our bag. He squeezed the part
of the strap where the camera was concealed and then moved the bag to
another room. At that point we decided it was time to leave.
Having established how easy it was to buy drugs in Ireland today, we
looked at the supply routes used by smugglers. We spent several days
with the Customs service.
Our first outing was to the An Post parcel depot in Portlaoise, where
search thousands of packages every week. There has been a massive
increase in the amount of drugs being sent through the post. In the
short space of time we were there, Alfie the sniffer dog detected a
suspicious package that had been sent from South Africa. It contained a
kilo of herbal cannabis, worth €10,000.
Next we spent a day with the Customs service on board The Cutter, a boat
used to patrol the coast. The south coast is extremely popular with drug
smugglers, a fact highlighted last year with the seizure of more than
one-and-a-half tonnes of cocaine off Dunlough Bay in west Cork.
Smugglers target the south coast because it offers plenty of isolated
landing points that are not overlooked but that can be accessed by road.
While we were out with the Customs service, officer Tony O’Riordan let
us in on some of the things they look out for when trying to track boats
that contain drugs. He said: “You can usually tell a drug smuggler
because they’ll be standing on the marina next to their boat and they
won’t even know how to tie a knot!”
Our final day with Customs was spent in Dublin Airport, one of the
country’s busiest points of entry for drugs. While we were there, a man
who had arrived on a flight from Lisbon was detained after one of the
sniffer dogs detected the scent of cocaine. The man was upset enough
about being searched by Customs officers, let alone being filmed by us.
Airport sniffer dogs aren’t just trained to detect drugs; they can also
find cash. While we were recording, one dog found €10,000 contained in
luggage. It was the second cash seizure of the day; that morning, a man
carrying €14,500 had been detained.
The head of Drug Enforcement at the Customs service, Michael Colgan,
explained, “Illicit cash movements are the lifeblood of organised crime.
If we can detect criminal cash, it really disrupts these gangs.”
Away from the sniffer dogs, drug dealers and seizures is the cold, sad
reality of drug use — addiction. We spoke to one recovering drug user,
Anne Marie. She became hooked on cocaine and ecstasy at the age of 15
before moving on to crack cocaine and prescription pills.
She told us that drugs nearly killed her as a result of overdoses and a
suicide attempt. Her addiction turned her into a person she hated. She
shoplifted and picked people’s pockets to get money for drugs.
She said: “If I go back using again, I’ll probably die. In fact, I know
We travelled to Tullow in Co Carlow, where the Merchant’s Quay Project
runs St Francis Farm. It’s a rehabilitation centre where recovering drug
users work on the farm as part of their therapy. Feeding pigs or tending
to crops are activities a million miles away from using drugs.
We met Michael, one of the recovering drug users who is receiving
treatment on the farm. He told us that he started using hash and ecstasy
at a young age before moving on to cocaine and heroin. He said he was
not from a farming background and that working the land was the perfect
way to get his mind off his addiction.
In Blanchardstown in west Dublin, we were invited to a service to
commemorate the lives of people who had died due to drug addiction. It
was an emotional ceremony.
There we met Philip Keegan, whose own son was once a heroin user but is
now clean. Philip helps families who are trying to come to terms with
addiction. He told us that he’d met many people who had had to
remortgage their homes to pay off drug dealers who had threatened their
lives. “It’s a vicious world out there,” he said. “Things were bad when
my son was using, but it’s much worse now. You have to contend with
stabbings, shootings and even pipe bombs.”
Legalisation is proposed by some as a way of combating the drug problem.
We brought our cameras to a Legalise Cannabis Rally which was recently
held in Dublin city centre. We filmed several people rolling and smoking
joints in public, despite the heavy garda presence. It was ironic: while
campaigners demanded the right to be allowed to smoke cannabis, they
weren’t shy about doing it in public.
We asked one of the rally organisers, Eoin Lawless, why cannabis should
be legalised. “The reason it’s sometimes seen as a gateway drug is
because users of cannabis have to go to dealers who are selling other,
harder drugs,” he said. “If it was sold legally, users wouldn’t have to
go down that route and wouldn’t be exposed to other drugs.”
Grainne Kenny of Europe Against Drugs has strong views on legalising
cannabis. She told us: “If you legalise it, who will police it and who
will pick up the pieces?”
As well as being opposed to drug legalisation, she’s also against drug
paraphernalia being sold in “head shops”. These premises sell legal
forms of ecstasy known as party pills, as well as cannabis alternatives.
“Head shops don’t serve any useful purpose and should be banned,” she said.
Paddy Grant, from the Nirvana Head Shop on Dublin’s Capel Street,
defended his business, saying: “We offer people a chance to get high
legally, keeping money out of the hands of organised crime.”
Minister with Responsibility for Drug Strategy, John Curran, said he had
no plans to target head shops, but that a stimulant known as BZP sold in
these shops would be banned in the near future.
Legalisation is unlikely to happen here any time soon, and it’s seen
only by a few as a way of winning the war on drugs. Ireland may have
been transformed by years of prosperity, but we’ve been left with a
country where addiction still devastates lives, where dealers run their
businesses with unprecedented violence and where drugs have never been
easier to buy.
If you don’t believe me, come and meet me in Dublin on a sunny summer
‘Undercover Ireland: The Drugs Trade’, TV3, 10pm tomorrow