Athlone’s position as the greatest urban centre in the nation with a heroin problem outside Dublin was confirmed this week with the news that there are 68 people on methadone treatment in the town, according to a reply given to a county councillor at the most recent HSE Mid-Leinster forum on September 21. Across the rest of the county, there are just 49 receiving such treatment from community GPs.
These figures were compounded by the annual review from Merchants Quay Ireland’s, released on September 24, which revealed that almost 500 people across the four midland counties of Longford, Westmeath, Offaly, and Laois availed of its needle exchange project in 2009, and that Athlone was one of two locations in the region to have a specific Merchants Quay premises for family support, community harm reduction, rehabilitation, and aftercare services. In Dublin 642 new injectors presented for needle exchange services.
The annual review for 2009 was launched on Friday by John Lonergan, former governor of Mountjoy prison, and it showed that Merchants Quay Ireland is now delivering services in 11 counties, to 9,422 people, a figure up 9 per cent on 2008.
There was a sharp rise in numbers attending Merchants Quay services in the Midlands, with almost 205 persons per annum now engaging with the community harm reduction service, and 150 engaged with the family support service between the two premises in Athlone and Portlaoise. From next month, these premises will also be able to offer a new Traveller-specific drugs initiative.
The numbers availing of the MQI prison-based addiction counselling service, which operates in 13 prisons across the country exceeded 1,000 for the first time, and numbers using its homeless services increased by 17 per cent in the first six months of 2010 compared to the same period in 2009.
Speaking at the launch, Tony Geoghegan, director of Merchants Quay Ireland called for funding cutbacks to stop, and used some stark UK figures to illuminate the hope possible.
“In an era where policy is focused almost exclusively on reducing public expenditure it is important again to note the fact that according to the British Home Office every £1 spent on drug treatment saves £3 in criminal justice costs alone, and when health savings are included the saving is £9.50,” he stated.
“Addressing the drugs crisis is fundamentally about reducing human misery or it is about nothing. It should not be reduced to economics.
“Investing in harm reduction service directly reduces health care expenditure, and investment in drug substitution treatment has been shown to reduce other healthcare costs and to reduce crime. Most of all investing in all of these areas reduces the misery associated with drug use for everybody.”
Local Senator Nicky McFadden echoed these sentiments, and called for “creative thinking to be employed”.
“This report which identifies that towns such as Athlone are experiencing ‘a growing and significant problem’ with heroin and cocaine in the last year is proof that not nearly enough is being done to educate young people about the danger of drugs or to resource the services attempting to work with addicts, helping them to get clean.”