Up Close: How Northern Ireland can navigate its way out of drugs crisis

By Ali Fleming, Up Close producer

As easy to buy as beer, with overdoses on our streets every day. Drug deaths have doubled in a decade in Northern Ireland.

I’ve been working on this programme with my colleague Niall Donnelly for a number of weeks.

Despite more than 50 years reporting experience between us, this is a part of life that we’ve rarely seen.

A quick detour away from the city centre of Belfast, just seconds away from bustling shopping areas, and it isn’t hard to find the evidence of drug use.

Discarded needles, cook pots for heroin and even containers of Naloxone - the drug administered in the case of an opiate overdose.

A drug strategy is in place to combat the problem, and on the frontline an army of volunteers is battling to keep people safe.

Neil Potter is a former heroin addict who has been off drugs for seven years.

He’s a volunteer with Extern, and walks the streets of Belfast looking for needles and other materials that could pose a risk to the public. But that’s not all he finds. Every day, he comes across someone who has overdosed.

While Naloxone is carried by first responders, poly drug use - taking a mixture of substances - can often turn diagnosis into a guessing game if the person is unconscious.

So what’s the answer? It’s a complex problem, but one that has been tackled by other countries with some degree of success. In Portugal Overdose Prevention Centres have been created to provide a safe space for drug users.

Somewhere their drug intake can be monitored. To do this requires a level of decriminialization for drug possession, and therefore new laws. It’s a measure being called for here, but it’s a devolved decision, and not one that’s likely to happen any time soon.

Brian Maguire is a paramedic with over 50 years service. He says he feels shock and sadness about what’s happening in the city.

“The big change for me was from a situation where there were no drugs or very little drugs to the situation where we have a pre-existing problem just like any other big city throughout the world. We're riddled with drugs.

“We always felt insulated and always thought we were different. Belfast was different. This could never happen in Belfast.

"What was happening in London, what was happening in Edinburgh, what was happening in Glasgow and any other big European capital. We never thought it would come here.”

Liz Rocks of Belfast Homeless Services knew many of those who died on the streets recently.

“You want their life to be better because you see potential in them. And when you see potential like them folks that left us a few months ago, they were just full of potential.”

And she says poly drug use is a major issue. While many of her team are trained in the use of Naloxone, it’s often ineffective against the mixtures taken.

“The last six months, there seems to be a terrible dose of drugs out there that's just wiping our young people out, you know, and they don't seem to understand what they're getting.

"They think maybe they're getting a particular drug. But unbeknown to them, it could be mixed up, like we're hearing ketamine, MDMA and cocaine. So that's a cocktail in itself and that's going into people's bodies.”

On Up Close we’ll look at the work being done by people like Liz on the frontline, and hearing the impact of addiction. We’ll be hearing from Portugal where overdose prevention centres are in use, and also from police, ambulance and health representatives as NI navigates its way through the crisis.

The Public Health Agency has a range of services offering support for addiction. To find a service near you visit health crisis helpline Lifeline can be contacted on 0808 808 8000.

UP Close is on UTV this Wednesday, August 17 at 10.45pm

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