Home > An ethnographic study of drug use in the Canal Communities area.

Lyons, Suzi (2010) An ethnographic study of drug use in the Canal Communities area. Drugnet Ireland , Issue 35, Autumn 2010 , pp. 5-6.

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In 1997, in response to the heroin problem, the Government set up 14 local task forces in the areas most affected. Task forces are partnerships between all interested stakeholders looking to bring a multi-agency response to the issue.  The Canal Communities Local Drugs Task Force (CCLDTF) covers Rialto, Bluebell and Inchicore communities in the Dublin 8 area.

The CCLDTF undertook a study to improve knowledge and understanding of the nature of illicit drug use in their area.1The researchers used an ethnographic method, which the authors state ‘can be defined as a perspective as well as a means of data collection’ (p. 12).   Ethnographic studies aim to describe and explain how specific groups of people experience their lives and environment.2 

Data for the CCLDTF study were collected by means of participant observation (in service facilities, estates, homes) and through interviews. Fifty-one interviews were conducted, of which 24 were life histories and eight were group discussions (with 29 young people).  Six of those who were initially interviewed had a subsequent interview.  Additionally, there were 24 formal and informal interviews with service providers.  The authors note that many other people interacted with the research at all the different sites. Interviewers also administered a survey to a target population of 100 opiate or methadone users; some of the results of that survey appear in the text and the appendix (and will be discussed in more detail in a future CCLDTF publication). 

The report of the study begins with a discussion on the nature of drug use and the difficulties in relation to the categorisations used within the field. In relation to patterns of use, the authors use the term ‘styles’ as this can help convey how ‘…at any one moment, populations that overlap certain institutional categories (disorganized heroin-users, for example, can be found both in and out of treatment, often using both methadone and heroin simultaneously), while presenting different challenges to various intervention strategies’ (p. 19). This is followed by a chapter which discusses experiences of the combined use of heroin and methadone in the CCLDTF area. 

Subsequent chapters deal with the history and the issues around drug use in the area, the emergence of crack cocaine and the changing patterns of drug use. Data from the Central Treatment List (CTL) pertaining to people living in the CCLDTF area were analysed. One finding from this analysis was that the area had a relatively high rate of registration on the CTL in 2007, at  20 per 1,000 of the population, compared to 2 per 1,000 of the population nationally. 

The quantitative data collected from 98 valid responses to the survey are summarised in an appendix to the report. The main results include: 

  • 63% were male;
  • 98% were prescribed methadone;
  • Average number of days on methadone was 86;
  • 63% reported current use3 of heroin;
  • 46% reported current use of street benzodiazepine;
  • 30% reported current use of crack;
  • 22% reported current use of powder cocaine;
  • 17% reported current use of street methadone;
  • 60% of those who injected reported sharing a needle or syringe;
  • 36% reported spending between €60 and €119 on drugs in the average week;
  • 88% reported ever having been involved in crime;
  • 57% reported having had a custodial sentence. 

While the authors concede that the methodology used made it difficult to summarise the report, they identify findings that they felt were important (illustrated for the purposes of this article with extracts from the field notes and interview transcripts). 

  • Most of those interviewed were polydrug users, often using combinations of illegal and legal drugs (whether obtained legally or not).

Louise is 34 years old. She finished her Community Employment (CE) scheme recently. She lives with her sister. Louise is on methadone and prescribed sleeping tablets and an antidepressant. She smokes a couple of bags of heroin every few days. Recently, she has been smoking crack every day. This is her main problem drug at the moment. Her weight loss is noticeable. (Field notes, p. 18) 

  • Many of those in treatment for problem opiate use had a range of unmet needs. 
  • Many of those who took part in the study and who were in treatment for opiates also used cocaine, with the use of crack cocaine emerging as a problem.

I got a pipe off someone and I says, ah that’s not doing me any harm, [be]cause it was really the needles [to inject cocaine] that was doing the harm, the blood poisoning, septicaemia, so I says ah I’ll have a pipe [of crack] and then I went to have another one, …going half with someone, and when I was going well, I would get one for meself. ‘Just one’, I’d say, ‘and I’ll go down and have a nice smoke at the end of the night,’ to meself. …and I was smokin’ every morning and all. (‘Sandra’, p. 42) 

  • Individuals who dealt drugs often continued to do so after entering treatment. 
  • Heroin use was viewed unfavourably by younger drug users.

You know what I mean, when you hear about new drugs coming out and all these mad trips and you’d say oh I have to try this, it’s an experience, but we never turn round and say, ‘I have to try heroin and see what that’s like’, d’ya know what I mean? (‘Kim’, p. 53) 

  • While terms and categories used in government policy such as ‘drug user’ and ‘treatment’ appear to be clearly defined, particularly as used in relation to funding, their application at local level is less clear, causing a ‘divide [that] needs to be bridged’. 

  1. Saris A J and O’Reilly F (2010) A dizzying array of substances: an ethnographic study of drug use in the Canal Communities area. Dublin: Canal Communities Local Drugs Task Force. Available at www.drugsandalcohol.ie/13503
  2. Robson C (2002) Real world research. 2nd edition. Padstow: Blackwell Publishing.
  3. Current use is defined as use in the past three months.
Item Type:Article
Issue Title:Issue 35, Autumn 2010
Page Range:pp. 5-6
Publisher:Health Research Board
Volume:Issue 35, Autumn 2010
Accession Number:HRB (Available)
Subjects:MA-ML Social science, culture and community > Community action > Community involvement > Task forces
VA Geographic area > Europe > Ireland > Dublin
A Substance use, abuse, and dependence > Prevalence > Substance use behaviour

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