A heroin drought has created a new market in prescription sleeping tablets, bringing novice female dealers on to the streets
In her grey hooded jacket, gold hooped earrings and dyed black hair, grandmother Sandra* stands out among the young emaciated heroin addicts in central Dublin.
Across the road from the Abbey theatre, a group of young men knock back brown medicine bottles of "phi", a mix of liquid methadone.
One of them, a young bearded man in a Dublin Gaelic football team track top, comes forward hobbling on a crutch. A heroin drought in the city has left him desperate for drugs to help him sleep. Money is exchanged and Sandra hands over a blister pack of tablets.
A growing army of female traders is operating in the Irish capital, dealing in unlicensed painkillers and sleeping tablets smuggled in from the developing world. With 9,500 registered heroin users across Ireland, drugs experts warn that the problem is likely to grow, fuelled by a recession that has led many otherwise ordinary people to become dealers.
Pescription drug Zopiclone, a sleeping pill, for sale on the boardwalk alongside the river Liffey in Dublin. Many women are selling pescription drugs to pay off debts and cover household expenses. Photograph: Kim Haughton for the Guardian
"Do you really think I want to be standing here every day selling these tablets to the addicts?" asks Sandra. "I have never taken drugs in my life and I never thought I would ever be doing this."
But she has debts to pay, she says. Her son Sean died of an overdose and she is still paying off the cost of his funeral.
There are estimated to be hundreds of dealers operating on the streets of central Dublin, earning up to €500 (£437) a week. According to campaigners helping addicts, it is women who are the backbone of the business.
A group of Japanese tourists take photographs of each other outside the Abbey theatre, where the likes of Sean O'Casey and JM Synge first saw their works performed. Sandra watches cautiously as an unmarked garda detective car passes by.
Derek Butler is a customer. He produces a paper chemist bag containing a phial full of prescription sleeping tablets and explains why couriers such as Sandra are doing a brisk trade.
"The doctor will only prescribe this amount to me for the entire week but I will go through this bag in one single night. I am HIV positive and have three ulcers on my leg. I can't sleep, especially if there is no brown [street slang for heroin] about in Dublin. These tabs help me get through the week."
Butler says the drugs leave him comatose for up to 15 hours if he takes enough of them.
The female couriers involved in the business are a mix of addicts needing to fund their habit and women who are in debt to loan sharks or simply seeking extra money for Christmas.
Mandy comes into central Dublin every day to meet other addicts on the boardwalk that runs alongside the river Liffey. Within seconds of her arrival a young woman in her early 20s pops her head over the wall and asks whether there is any heroin around.
Mandy, who has been on heroin for 20 years, says the tablets her friends sell are not technically illegal, but they can still be arrested and prosecuted.
"The only thing we can be done for is not having a license to trade in the street," Mandy says, as a rival dealer strolls by with two men pushing babies in prams.
"It isn't just addicts feeding the habit, but girls who are in debt and even grannies. If you are not feeding your habit you can make up to €500 per week from the business," Mandy says as she rolls a spliff on a bench overlooking the Liffey.
Levels of heroin addiction have reached a historic high in the Irish Republic, and some addicts are the grandchildren of the first wave of people who got hooked on the drug when it arrived in the country during the early 1980s.
The Merchant's Quay Project, a charity that works with addicts and the homeless, says it deals with about 9,500 heroin users in 11 of the republic's counties. Tony Geoghegan, its chief executive, stresses that the figure is probably far higher and likely to climb further due to rising unemployment and poverty resulting from the recession.
Geoghegan says staff have noticed a vast increase in the sale of drugs such as Zimovane (sleeping tablets, known on the streets as "zimmos") from Pakistan and China. Merchant's Quay Project wants to have the smuggled drugs tested because it fears the tablets may be doing as much harm as illegal narcotics.
"While there is a heroin drought in Dublin, currently these other tablets are as common as Smarties. Obviously there is a concern about what exactly is in these legal drugs. They are not tested by the department of health. We are going to have to get our hands on some of these tablets and get them analysed because they are being sold in huge quantities. And this trade is going to get even bigger as the recession bites," Geoghegan says.
The head of one of Ireland's busiest treatment centre for drug addicts gives two reasons for the emergence of this latest trade. "The recession is pushing people who would have little or no dealings with addicts into this business. It is poverty, pure and simple. And the market is growing for these tablets because of the drought in heroin at present," he says.
Back at her pitch across from the Abbey theatre, Sandra agrees with that prediction. "I can get €200 (£175) a week selling the zimmos and that is far more than I can get on the social welfare," she says.
"I'm doing it this week to buy a second-hand fridge while I'm still paying off the funeral debt. There is going to be a whole lot more women like me doing this ... it's going to get worse in Ireland before it gets better."
* Names of dealers and their clients have been changed to protect their identities
Dublin's illegal trade in sleeping tablets and painkillers
• €20 (£17) can buy 10 tablets.
• The two most popular drugs are Zopiclone and Zimovane.
• The drugs, which are highly powerful painkillers and sleeping tablets, are used to help addicts sleep and numb pain, especially during heroin "droughts".
• The tablets are smuggled from Pakistan and China via Europe. Some are re-packaged in countries such as Croatia and Germany.
• Sellers can earn up to €500 euros per week.
Henry McDonald in Dublin
Thursday 28 October 2010 14.22 BST
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