The French Connection: Cocaine in Ireland
By John Spain, Contributor
February / March 2008
The death of top model Katy French a few weeks ago from a cocaine overdose has finally woken Ireland up to the fact that we are in the middle of a cocaine epidemic. Cocaine use has now permeated all levels of Irish society, from the boardroom to the bar.
So much of it is being used that when RTE (the national television station) did a countrywide investigation a few weeks ago taking samples from counter tops in bar bathrooms all over Ireland, over 90 per cent of the dozens of bars visited tested positive.
So it’s not an exaggeration to refer to it as an epidemic. It’s everywhere. It’s the Celtic Tiger’s drug of choice. Thanks to our economic boom we can afford it, so we’re using it in vast quantities.
It’s now a routine part of a night’s drinking in music pubs even in poorer areas. In better off areas, it’s equally routine to be offered it at a dinner party and you are considered a bit of a party pooper if you say no. At both ends of the social scale, it’s now accepted that people visit the bathroom more often than usual and come back sniffing.
Until recently nobody in Ireland talked about this because everyone was doing it and it was mainly seen as a nice middle- class drug (a clean white powder and no needles); middle-class people could handle their drug better than those moronic working-class addicts stuck on heroin. And of course cocaine is not really addictive.
The death of Katy French has changed that tacit conspiracy of silence. Now everyone here is talking about cocaine, about how big a problem we have and how destructive it is.
Katy French was just 24, a bright and beautiful model intelligent enough to be in demand as a guest on TV shows. She had built a very high profile for herself very quickly. So her death was genuinely shocking to a lot of people here who seemed to think that cocaine was risk free.
Her death emphasized that the cocaine epidemic was real and that people at all levels of Irish society were using the drug.
The truth is that week in, week out, cocaine is causing havoc here. Just before Christmas, the Dublin County Coroner said that cocaine was the most common cause of death in more than half of all inquests into drug related deaths heard at his Court last year. He said that of the 47 inquests into drug related deaths heard at the Court in 2007, 26 of them were cocaine related, 16 were heroin related and five were Ecstasy related.
And if the figure for drug related deaths coming before the Dublin County Coroner seems shocking to you, take note that it relates to the county, not the city. So it’s only half the Dublin cocaine story in 2007.
The County Coroner was speaking at a double inquest into the deaths of two teenagers who drowned while high on cocaine and Ecstasy (they had jumped into a canal to cool off).
It didn’t get much coverage in the media here, because the two young men who died were ordinary guys, not a blonde top model. And it was the same with the two guys in Waterford who died from cocaine about the same time as Katy French. Like her, they had been in a coma for days before dying. She got pages and pages of coverage while they were hardly mentioned. That may seem unfair because for the families involved one death is as tragic as another. But the huge coverage given to the collapse, coma, death and funeral of Katy French did achieve something important. It did bring home to people here that the cocaine epidemic is real and that people at all levels of Irish society are using the drug.
That was the central message of the controversial book The High Society about cocaine use in Ireland which was published just before the death of Katy French and which caused a furor because it said that all kinds of top people (including a government minister) were doing it but gave no names.
One section of the book will be of particular interest to those of you who fly regularly between Ireland and the U.S. Among the many people the author interviewed is an unnamed pilot in his 40s who flies out of Dublin to various airports in the U.S. at least a couple of times a week.
The author quotes the pilot as follows: “I actually use coke more on the days that I am working and away than I do when I’m at home. I find sitting still in the confined space of the cockpit for hours excruciating without it. The truth is that aircraft largely fly themselves these days and when we land I tend to sit in front of the box [TV] by myself, doing coke, having a few drinks in a motel room and waiting for the morning.”
That should make you sit up a bit the next time you hit a little turbulence on the way over. But that was far from the most controversial part of the book, which was written by an unknown young TV researcher, Justine Delaney Wilson. There was also the interview with an unnamed government minister, which the author says was done in a hotel just across the road from the Dail [Irish parliament].
“Yes, I do drugs – just coke though – regularly enough,” the minister said. “I’m certainly not the only one around here that does. The hypocrisy that surrounds it really galls me. We all know how widespread it is – in bars, offices, over there (motioning across the road to the Dail), but we pretend to be horrified when we read the figures in the papers.”
As well as the unnamed minister and pilot, the book also had interviews with a priest, a nun, a lawyer, a doctor, business people, a top media columnist, and other people from all kinds of professions and parts of the country all of whom admitted to regular cocaine abuse. All of the people interviewed were anonymous, but intriguing little details about each interview subject were added to give an idea of who or what they might be.
If it had been just a book, it might not have attracted too much attention. But the book was also used as the basis for a two-part television documentary tie-in with RTE. The two-part program was made by a small independent production company for RTE. Actors played the parts of various people in the book as the interviews were recreated for television.
The programs sparked a furious national debate, with acres of space given to it in newspapers and questions asked in the Dail about the identity of the government minister. A sort of national guessing game – Name the Minister – began as people speculated about who it might be. What was really driving the brouhaha, apart from the fun of trying to guess who was who in the book, was the fact that this was a drugs story which was not about the track-suit-wearing “skangers” from the deprived housing estates but was about the “nice” people, respectable, educated, well-off. The subtitle of the book is Drugs and the Irish Middle Class.
What followed then took a rather different turn. It became a game of Shoot the Messenger, as other journalists began to question the methodology and credibility of the author, Justine Delaney Wilson. Had she really spoken to all these people? Would a minister really have been so forthcoming? Would a pilot be stupid enough to say such things? Did she make it up, or sex it up?
Several high-powered investigations then got under way (including one in RTE) and senior people in RTE admitted to a Dail committee that their usual level of editorial control had not been applied. But RTE was still standing behind the programs even though some of the interview tapes had been destroyed by the author.
There are still doubts about Delaney Wilson’s book and the TV shows based on it. The publisher is saying that they know the identity of the minister and they are confident that the book is based on real interviews and is accurate.
But other groups apart from politicians are less than happy. The pilots’ association says the author must reveal the identity of the pilot because passenger safety is at stake. The Irish Aviation Authority has written to RTE demanding the pilot’s name.
Other groups are also unhappy, teachers and lawyers being just two. The book features an unnamed teacher who likes to take a line during her free classes, and an unnamed lawyer whose offices Delaney Wilson was in with a drug dealer when he made a drop and picked up a bag of cash.
Again there have been demands that she prove that all these interviews are real and suggestions that if she can’t, no one should believe her. But the reality is that the death of Katy French — and the other recent cocaine deaths – have made this kind of questioning seem pointless. Public opinion has shifted. The deaths are clear evidence that we are in the middle of an epidemic, so why try to pick holes in a book that says that?
The real situation here does not need any melodrama or exaggeration to make it shocking. Katy French died after a cocaine binge in a private house. She was an engaging young woman but she had some questionable friends and her social life appears to have mirrored some of the excesses of one section of Celtic Tiger Ireland. It’s a fast, loose, tawdry, drug-fueled set of media names, models and business types, a B-list celeb crowd whose faces fill the Irish papers every weekend.
But the same thing is going on at all levels. The two young men who died in Waterford around the same time as Katy French were also at a house party, a late night birthday party after being in pubs in the city earlier. When someone produced cocaine it was too damp to snort so some of the partygoers ate it. The problem with this is that it takes at least an hour to kick in and people take more when they think it’s not working. With alcohol it produces a toxic mixture. Within a few hours the two young men were having seizures and palpitations, before lapsing into a coma, like Katy French had done.
That’s the sleazy reality at both ends of the social scale here. Another reality is the scale of what’s going on. Last July cocaine with a street value of 100 million euros was seized off the Cork coast as it was being smuggled ashore. It was discovered by accident when a boat involved got into difficulty, raising the question of how much was going undetected.
The answer is: probably a great deal. We have a very long coastline around the south and southwest of Ireland full of hidden bays and beaches and only eight navy patrol boats (mostly small boats) to monitor it. The area is around a quarter of a million square miles. With other routes into Europe being closed off, the drug smugglers now regard Ireland as an easy entry point, with the added advantage that onward shipment in containers is not subjected to the same scrutiny as cargoes coming from places like West Africa.
Most of the cocaine goes straight through to the UK and Europe. But there is plenty to drop off for the home market. Cocaine here has never been so cheap and so easy to source.
A few days before Katy French’s collapse the media had covered her glitzy 24th birthday party in a Dublin nightclub at which she arrived in a shimmering gold dress in a Rolls Royce. She had recently been part of a TV reality show and had appeared on TV chat shows after that.
She was a model who was famous for wanting to be famous. A year ago she had split from her restaurant-owning fiancé because he objected to her doing lingerie modeling. The break-up had put her in all the social columns and magazines, although some suspected the whole thing may have been a publicity stunt. She had invited some A-list stars like Bono to her party but they didn’t show, and this had attracted some comment in the gossip columns. She was so desperate to be famous that she was easy to make fun of. And yet her TV appearances and her evident sense of humor about herself meant that many people not only knew who she was but liked her.
She was not the top model here for fashion shows but she was easily the most high profile among the 2007 crop of leading models. And she made no secret of her ambition to move beyond shoots and catwalks into general TV appearances. And she was intelligent enough to make it happen. She may have been too much a reflection of the celebrity obsessed, money driven, insatiable Celtic Tiger culture. But she was fun. In retrospect her death seems such a tragic waste.
In the wake of her death, some frontline medical staff who deal with the cocaine epidemic have been talking about what they face on a weekly basis. The Accident and Emergency Consultant at a leading Cork hospital said that at least six young adults have died there this year from the effects of cocaine. He said that every weekend now they see young adults brought in with everything from breathing difficulties, seizures, panic attacks, violent paranoia, to even strokes and heart attacks, all triggered by cocaine use.
One thing that is clear is that we have a particular problem here because of the culture of weekend binge drinking. This leads to a lack of judgment when the drinking session is followed by cocaine and too much of the drug can be taken. The toxin formed by an excess of alcohol and cocaine together can be lethal.
Katy French’s death is a tragedy … but something good could result if it leads to more resources being put into the battle against cocaine. At present we have less than 40 gardai (police) in the drugs unit across the whole country, we have inadequate resources to stop smuggling, and the war against the drug dealers is being lost.
But apart from limiting supply, we will really only win the cocaine war in Ireland by reducing demand, and that means scaring all those nice middle class people who are abusing the drug. Random car checks using sniffer dogs should be introduced, with immediate confiscation of a vehicle for testing if there is a reaction. We breathalyze people all the time for alcohol at car checkpoints, and the sniffer dogs could be used at the same time.
Even better would be a regular examination of leading bars and nightclubs, with instant closure of the premises if any traces are found on table tops, toilet seat lids etc. That would make the owners a lot more vigilant. It seems strange that we have a small army of pub inspectors looking for smokers, but no one looking for cocaine.
The cocaine epidemic in Ireland is all a factor of our Celtic Tiger wealth, of course. But even if the money flow slows, we will be left with the problem. Hopefully we will all wake up before there are too many other young deaths like that of Katy French. John Spain is a columnist for the Irish Voice newspaper where a version of the above first appeared.