Up Close: Drug abuse in spotlight in UTV programme

A former drug addict who works on the streets of Belfast to help those battling addiction has detailed how he is having to administer overdose treatments on a near daily basis.

He talked to UTV’s award-winning current affairs programme Up Close which examines the deadly consequences of illegal drug use on the city's streets.

The show looks to highlight the extent of the drugs crisis enveloping Northern Ireland. The programme's findings left those behind the production shocked.

Deaths from drugs in Northern Ireland have more than doubled in a decade. In 2020, 218 people died due to drug misuse, and so far this year in Belfast, 34 people have lost their lives, 15 of them in a six-week period.

The programme speaks to those helping on the front line - including former addicts - and looks beyond Northern Ireland for solutions, as well as asking if enough is being done to tackle the problem.  

Presented by UTV’s Niall Donnelly, the hour-long programme follows on from a recent UTV Live news special on this issue.  In the wake of the dramatic increase in drug deaths in Belfast, ‘Up Close’ will talk to charities, statutory bodies, the police and ambulance service who will paint a picture of their lived experiences in helping to tackle the problem.

The programme opens with a report on the work being done to keep the people of the city safe and features Neil Potter, a former addict, and one of many EXTERN volunteers helping clean up the streets and support addicts.

He explains how the life-saving drug naloxone is helping reverse opioid abuse, “We've reversed so many overdoses and so many lives have been saved because of naloxone.” 

He’s noticed a massive increase in cocaine use, as well poly substance abuse where users will mix different drugs at the same time. 

There’s also a moving interview with Brian Maguire (73) a 50-year veteran of the Ambulance Service who describes how Belfast’s drug scene has got worse over the years and what it is like to be faced with an overdosed addict.

“An overdose for us is a medical emergency, just like an asthmatic attack, an epileptic seizure, whatever," he said.

"We treated it with the same urgency as a medical emergency…………We lose a lot, but we also win a lot, and that’s down to the training, the medication, the experience.”

The programme also shines a light on Belfast Homeless Services, a volunteer-led charity group, offering support to the vulnerable and homeless in Belfast.

Liz Rock, Belfast Homeless Services Credit: UTV

Services coordinator, Liz Rocks, is calling for a joined-up approach to deal with all the inter-related issues.

“There's a whole combination of factors," she said.

"There's a housing issue, all the serious mental health issues, there's alcohol, there's drug issues or alcohol issues, lack of resources, and nobody seems to be combined in anything to do it together."

“The only way they're going to stop using is if the proper resources are put in place for them, to give them the option of stop using.

"What needs to happen is our Executive need to get their act together.”

During the programme, Niall will discuss the issues in the studio with guests including Paul McCusker from The People’s Kitchen, and PSNI Superintendent Amanda Ford.

There will also be contributions from centres in Scotland and Portugal, both of which have been tackling their drugs issue in very different ways.

Presenter Niall Donnelly added: “Thank you to everyone who took part, especially those who talked so openly to us about their experiences.

"We hope that this ‘Up Close’ will help viewers realise not only how serious the problem of drug misuse is in Belfast, but also how very complex it is, requiring a multi-agency approach.”

Alison Fleming who produced the programme said: “Despite Niall and I having more than 50 years’ experience reporting for UTV, neither of us has seen Belfast in this light.

"It was truly frightening."

Those helping and trying to address drug deaths in Belfast are true heroes.”

UTV Head of News and Programmes Simon Clemison said: “We have been covering a number of drug-related deaths in Belfast on our news service throughout the summer.

"Given the apparent complexity of the issue we wanted to take time to dig deeper. Reporting on potential solutions as well as problems is important in journalism, so we hope this ‘Up Close’ sheds some light on what has been happening.”

The Public Health Agency has a range of services offering support for addiction. To find a service near you visit https://drugsandalcoholni.info/Mental 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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