Drug related intimidation in the city and county is forcing frightened families to risk committing crimes in order to pay off debts run up by loved ones.
While the problem has always existed it is becoming more prevalent, and the level of intimidation is becoming "more dangerous", according to Debbie McDonagh, a family support training and development worker with the Western Region Drug and Alcohol Task Force.
Speaking to the Galway Advertiser, she said that people "find themselves doing things they would ordinarily never do" to settle their own or a loved one's drug debt. "Family members will take risks to keep someone safe," she added.
Her comments came as the local task force, in conjunction with the gardai, relaunched an information campaign about reporting drug-related intimidation. The programme was set up by the Garda National Drugs Unit and the National Family Support Network to respond to the needs of people experiencing this growing problem.
Inspectors have been selected by the Garda Commissioner to handle the issue - Detective Inspector Michael Coppinger of Galway Garda Station, who works closely with the Western Regional Drug and Alcohol Drug Task Force, is the nominated garda in this division. People experiencing intimidation can make contact with him to arrange an informal or formal meeting.
Ms McDonagh says the intimidation can take many forms and may include threats, violence, damage to the family home/property, or sexual violence.
"The experience of intimidation may be very frightening and may pose a serious risk to the individuals involved and their loved ones."
She said in the past when people were in better financial circumstances it was easier to pay off drug debts. Also, if those in debt died, the money owed tended to "die with them". However, that situation has changed now. What is particularly worrying is that the threats of violence have become "a lot more extreme" even if the level of debt is not significant, according to Ms McDonagh. "People are being threatened for owing a few hundred euro."
"We are not seeing a huge change in the level of drug taking - the problem here is not greater than anywhere else. But that is not to say that we are not concerned. We are seeing a change in the trends of drug use - there is a resurgence in Ecstasy use, a slight increase in heroin - we are noticing it is more readily available - while cannabis use remains consistent year on year."
Debts can range from a "couple of hundred euro to €20,000 to €30,000". The intimidators, who are rarely the drug dealers themselves, often contact the families involved directly. "It can quite simply be a phone call or a knock at the door. Or younger siblings can be targeted and told: 'Tell your mother such and such owes money.' We know in some cases there has been extreme violence [meted out] to the drug user or their family. Even if there is not violence involved there is the threat of it. You are waiting for that knock at the door or your window being broken or your car burned out. This has a detrimental effect on people's health and relationships. If you are worried about your window being put in, this will affect your sleep and stress levels. If the phone rings you panic, and it may only your next door neighbour. The intimidation keeps increasing until the debt is paid. There are cases in different parts of the country where people take out sizeable loans to pay off these debts. Some people even find themselves at risk of committing a crime to pay off these debts.
"Sometimes families may not even know their loved ones have a drug problem until they learn they owe money. "It can be a huge shock to find out your 14-year-old is smoking cannabis and has ended up developing an issue with it. People feel they are the only person in the world in this situation. But they are not alone, a lot of people are experiencing this."