(en) The anti-heroin campaign in Dublin

Struggle in Ireland (irl_strug@geocities.com)
Tue, 29 Apr 1997 13:09:07 +0000

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Thousands of working class people are involved in a community-based anti-heroin struggle in Dublin. It has involved physically evicting pushers, communities setting up their own street patrols, mass meetings, large demonstrations.

This is the text of a talk given to the Dublin branch of the Workers Solidarity Movement On April 14th. The speaker, Patricia McCarthy, is a member of the WSM and the author of the recently released report: "Dealing the the Nightmare, drug use and intervention strategies in the South Inner City of Dublin". Patricia works and lives in the inner city.


I am starting from the premise that most people here don't know much about the anti- drugs campaigns or about heroin addiction and the particular form it has taken in Dublin.

When I speak about the anti-drugs campaign I am talking about the anti-heroin campaign not about E or cannabis or other non-opiate drugs.

Heroin addiction was first noticed in the inner city flat complexes in the late 1970's. It had probably existed before but now it became a problem with consequences for the community as well as the individual user. Heroin addiction is different to most other forms of addiction for two reasons - most users inject their heroin, especially in Dublin, which creates a needle culture, as opposed to cities like Edinburgh, for example, which has more of a smoking culture; and the fact that heroin addiction is so closely and indisputably linked to poverty and disadvantage. The fact that most users inject leaves them very vulnerable to the H.I.V. virus and, in fact, hundreds of young inner city people are now dead as a result of I.V. heroin use.

Add to this equation the fact that Dublin now has the youngest heroin addicts in Europe and the fact that the heroin epidemic is so confined to the decaying inner city areas and excluded working class suburbs and it can be clearly seen that heroin use in Dublin does not come under the category of recreational drug use. The reality is that young working people in the inner city and in the abandoned working class suburbs such as Cherry Orchard and parts of Tallaght use heroin both as a pain killer, in the lethal sense, and as a form of protest against a system that has left them without hope or opportunities.

The background to the current anti-drugs campaign lies in the Concerned Parents Against Drugs (C.P.A.D.) movement in the early 1980's. At that time local community activists in the North and South inner city and in Ballymun started to organise to force the heroin dealers out of their communities. Young people were starting to die as a result of I.V. drug use, flat complexes were being turned into drugs supermarkets where users from all over the city converged to get their gear. Parents of young children regularity found used needles in the hallways and on the stairs and the official response was useless.

There is little doubt that this completely ineffective and disinterested response was there because the communities effected by the problem were of no concern to the state and the people who lived there had already been written off; to be left to survive as best they could. Third generation unemployment is a fact of life in inner city communities, with all the poverty and despair that goes along with that situation.

C.P.A.D organised by attempting to physically force known dealers out of the communities. Local community meetings - open to all - were held, dealers were named and given the chance to come to the meeting and defend themselves or explain their position. When they failed to appear or failed to satisfy the community about their activities, a march would be organised to the house or flat where they lived and every effort would be made to evict them, including throwing out their furniture and so on.

This campaign lasted just over two years and had some successes. Several of the larger dealers were arrested and got long jail sentences. However anti-drugs activists, the best known being Whacker Humphries, was also tried in the no- jury Special Criminal Court. Humphries was jailed for his efforts to defend his community from the heroin dealers. In the end an analysis of the C.P.A.D. campaign would have to conclude that it was not effective in its objectives.

Within a matter of years the heroin epidemic was worse than ever in the same areas and in newer areas too. We can come back in the discussion as to why this was the case but it has relevance to the situation now.

The City Wide Drugs Crisis Campaign was set up in 1995 by community activists from the North Inner City in response to the escalating heroin epidemic in parts of the city. The levels of drug-related crime had shot up in these areas too and was destroying the very fabric of these close-knit inner city communities. Initial meetings concentrated on bringing in other forces such as the trade unions with some success.

C.P.A.D. had not totally died, especially in the South Inner city, and there was a return - slow at first - to the policy of marches and mass meetings to push the dealers out. Then in August last year the Gardai attacked the community in Summerhill, following the arrest and quick release of a known dealer. A huge angry public meeting followed and from then until the present time there have been huge mass meetings followed by marches to dealers houses in the North and South Inner City and in several of the working class suburbs.

These meetings often happened several times a week in different parts of the city attracting crowds of 1,000 people and more. Dealers were named and asked to explain their actions, agree to stop dealing, or leave the community. These meetings were organised by local community associations, tenants; groups and newly formed anti-drugs groups.

A huge amount of spontaneous energy and organisation was unleashed. Communities began to wake up from the nightmare, as it was described at one meeting, to start to grieve publicly as a community for the hundreds of young people who had died. A community revitalisation on a massive scale was suddenly under way.

A 'social revolution' was taking place with little or no input from the established left, either the far left or the soft left. The results of this new community spirit and self-esteem can be seen everywhere in the inner city in the growth of community groups, youth groups, and community-based activities of all kinds.

Around the middle of last year a new group called C.O.CA.D was formed. This stands for Combined Communities against Drugs and was initially based in the South Inner city. It has since expanded to most of the working class suburbs where there is a heroin problem. The reason for the setting up of the second group was essentially political. Sinn Fein is far more active in C.O.C.A.D. than it is in the City Wide Campaign. There are also differences of tactics between the two campaigns, although these have been exaggerated by a hostile media. On the ground activists from both campaigns cooperate. City Wide's slogan from the beginning has been "Addicts we Care, Pushers Beware". C.O.C.A.D would be seen as having a tougher line on addicts, especially against pusher addicts.

Both campaigns rely on street patrols, often known as "vigios" to actually keep the pushers out of their communities. There have been all kinds of stories circulating about the excesses of some "vigios", and there is no doubt that some mistakes have been made with innocent people accused of being dealers. In most cases these have been rectified after the people involved approached the local anti-drugs group.

However there is a constant fear, that is well-founded in some areas, that addicts are being targetted and even physically attacked. Overall, however, the success of the "vigios" in removing open dealing from the streets of the North Inner City, in particular, is remarkable. In many cases it called for real courage in the face of threats of violence and actual violence from the dealers.

The community has regained control of the streets in several areas and the effect is immediately noticeable. The most symbolic event in this regard was the Christmas Tree which was set up at the corner in Sean McDermott Street, where all the dealing had taken place, last December. This tree which had a separate star to commemorate every local person who had died as a result of heroin use. It became a symbol of hope in a community which had lost all hope.

The campaign is now in the process of assessing where it is going. Very useful concessions have been achieved in terms of greatly increased treatment facilities and services. However, the fundamental social and economic circumstances which created the demand for heroin in the first place remain unchanged.

In these circumstances, it is likely that the dealers will eventually return. Well paid jobs and better housing, schools and recreational facilities are all urgently needed if the next generation of young people from these communities are not to become addicts. It is estimated that there are 7,000-8,000 heroin addicts in Dublin alone.

It is useful in analysing the anti-drugs campaign to draw comparisons with the successful Anti-Water Charges Campaign. The Water Charges campaign mobilised thousands of mainly working class households against an unjust double taxation. Water Charges activists were brought to court for refusing to pay the charges, and large public demonstrations and meetings were held to protest against the tax. Political activists played central roles in a campaign which had a successful outcome due to large public involvement by ordinary people.

The anti-drugs campaign has attracted even greater numbers of working class people. They have been involved in constant meetings and marches since last August. To date 36 anti-drugs activists have been arrested, dozens have been charged and several have been beaten up by the police. With the exception of Sinn Fein and veteran community activists there have been no political activists centrally involved.

The contrast between the two campaigns, whose demands are both essentially reforms of the exiting system, arises from the fact that the anti-drugs campaign has been confined to the inner city and the most disadvantaged working class suburbs. Both have been long neglected by political activists of all kinds. It is a major tribute to the people in these communities that they have succeeded in organising the most successful push against heroin dealing in Europe - with so little outside assistance.

Their achievement in turning around the absolute devastation and despair of their communities is truly remarkable by any standards. It is a testimony to the abilities of ordinary working class people to take control over their lives and force real material improvements to their living conditions from the state. What happens next is the real issue.

At present the street patrols continue. As do the marches, though on a reduced scale because so many of the dealers have already been forced out of these communities. However unless there concerted pressure is maintained to revitalise these communities with real jobs and opportunities the victory over the pushers is likely to be only temporary.

The Workers Solidarity Movement is in favour of legalising drugs, including heroin which should be available to registered addicts free of charge. This would cut out the crime associated with dealing and using at present. It would also introduce quality control into the situation. At present several addicts die every year from accidental overdoses because of the varying quality of the gear sold on the streets.

Methadone maintenance programmes are very useful for some addicts but the reality is that methadone is itself an addictive drug and some people can never get off it. However it is important to say that we do not see heroin addiction as it is manifested in Dublin at present as a form of recreational drug use. It may be for a minority but for the majority of addicts, some as young as 13 years, it is way of killing the pain of their lives in a system that no place for them. That system is capitalism.


            Struggle in Ireland

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