Home > Exploring illicit drug use in a Traveller community.

Keane, Martin (2011) Exploring illicit drug use in a Traveller community. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 39, Autumn 2011, pp. 16-17.

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Walsh1 set out to explore the nature of illicit drug use within one Traveller community in the greater Dublin area and assess the relative merits of mainstream drug services and Traveller-specific drug services.  

Data were collected through semi-structured interviews with seven female and seven male Travellers. Four of the men were using a local drug service. The remaining three men and the seven women were not using drug services and did not report any form of illicit drug use. In addition, seven service providers were interviewed. 
Perceptions of illicit drug use in the community and the implications for research
There was a perception among interviewees, particularly among service providers, that illicit drug use within the Traveller community was closely associated with the marginal status accorded to members of the community by sections of mainstream society.
Among the four male drug-using Travellers interviewed, cocaine was perceived as the drug most used in their community, followed by cannabis, ecstasy and prescription tablets, with a few using heroin. They said that these drugs were primarily used as part of the social and recreational night-out scene, but expressed fears about the likely impact of heroin use if it became more prevalent. Smoking cannabis was perceived to be part of normal activity in the community. 
All but one of the interviewees believed that illicit drug use within the local Traveller community was confined to men. The one dissenting male agreed that illicit drug use was predominantly a male activity; however, he mentioned being aware of plenty of Traveller women who used illicit drugs. The Traveller women interviewed were of the view that it would be highly unusual for women to get involved in illicit drug use. The perception that illicit drug use among Traveller women is not a common activity was also reported by Fountain2 and Van Hout3 However; all three studies have an over-reliance on the perceptions of service providers and non-drug-using members of the Traveller community, with only minimal data provided by drug-using Travellers.
All three studies reported difficulties in securing access to drug-using Travellers. Both Fountain and Walsh relied almost exclusively on Traveller advocacy organisations, service providers and non-drug-using Travellers as ‘gatekeepers’ to secure access to drug-using Travellers. Perhaps drug-using Travellers, both male and female, are reluctant to disclose their use of illicit drugs to such organisations and to non-drug-using members of their own communities because of the stigma that surrounds such activity. If this is the case, then perhaps the use of research techniques that are closer to the ethnographic position or ‘snowball sampling’ where a sample of drug-using Travellers is built up over time using one contact to secure access to others, would be more appropriate. An over-reliance on the perceptions of service providers and non-drug-using Travellers, rather than on the experiences of drug-using Travellers, has implications for both the quality and usability of the research being undertaken. Such reliance could mean that the nature of illicit drug use could remain under-reported and poorly understood; indeed Fountain (2006) mentions that service providers were often unable to differentiate between problematic and non-problematic illicit drug use. 
Perceptions of the supply of illicit drugs
Interviewees had mixed views about how illicit drugs were being supplied within the local community. Some Travellers believed that other Travellers were dealing drugs in the community; other interviewees felt that drugs were being purchased from the settled community. The four male drug-using Travellers recalled their experiences of being introduced to illicit drug use (often ecstasy or cocaine) through contacts with members of the settled community.
Perceptions of the potential impact of illicit drug use
The negative image of Traveller men using illicit drugs and the potential impact of this image on young children was cited as a key concern by the Traveller women; fears were also expressed that an escalation in illicit drug use could contribute to an increase in conflict and criminal activity within the community.  
Service provision for illicit drug use in the community
Service providers not working directly with drug-using Travellers were in favour of Traveller-specific drug services, whereas two service providers working directly with drug-using Travellers favoured mainstream drug services as they could offer more privacy and confidentiality, a view endorsed by all the Travellers interviewed. Three of the four male drug-using Travellers were using a mainstream drug service on the recommendation of other Travellers.
Traveller culture and identity as potential protective factors
Retaining traditional religious values and practices, a close-knit style of family life and the strong role of women in preserving the family were mentioned as distinct cultural aspects of the Traveller community. There was a perception that families that adhered to religious practices and had fewer interactions with the settled community also protected themselves from the use of illicit drugs. There was a degree of consensus that the influence of Traveller women, both as mothers and as wives, can deter the men from using illicit drugs. For example, the fear of the wife leaving the husband was cited as an example of this protective capacity. It was acknowledged by some that despite the advantages of familial closeness, drawbacks included a lack of personal privacy and individuality.
Because of the methodological limitations of this study, it can be argued that it is more of a snapshot of untested perceptions than an exploratory analysis of the nature of illicit drug use within this community.
1. Walsh B (2010) Cultural dislocation and consequences: an exploratory study of illicit drug activity among a Traveller community in North Dublin. Dublin: Blanchardstown Local Drugs Task Force. www.drugsandalcohol.ie/15530
2. Fountain J (2006) An overview of the nature and extent of illicit drug use amongst the Traveller community: an exploratory study. Dublin: Stationery Office. www.drugsandalcohol.ie/3958
3. Van Hout MC (2009) Irish Travellers and drug use – an exploratory study. Ethnicity and Inequalities in Health and Social Care, 2(1): 42–49.

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