An award-winning national drug prevention and advisory service is closing after a constant battle for funding and at a time when teenagers as young as 14 are using heroin, says its founder. Marie Byrne says the national Aisling Group charity in Navan, County Meath, is closing as drug use reaches ‘epidemic proportions’ in Ireland.

The well-known addiction counsellor says children as young as 11 years old are now binge drinking while teenagers are using heroin from 14 or even younger.

“Ireland is known internationally for its liberal attitude to drug use”, she says, and adds that Ireland is losing its fight against drugs by treating the symptoms and not the root causes.

The closure of the centre, which has helped thousands of families across the country, has been described as heart breaking. However, Ms Byrne says she could no longer afford to fund the voluntary service, with little government agency support. “It cost me a lot financially but I know that people are alive today because of the work of the charity and nothing can ever take away from that,” says Ms Byrne.

“Our leaders appear to have thrown in the towel as they look at spaces where people can supposedly use and inject safely – but there is no safe use. Once, crack cocaine was something we saw on TV but now it has become the substance of choice here. I thought the situation was bad here 30 years ago but it’s nothing compared to now. Children and adults are even now using the internet to learn how to cut drugs. There’s little funding for drug-free programmes here. Instead, €22m is spent on methadone each year. It’s at epidemic proportions,” says Ms Byrne.

Ms Byrne has worked in an advisory capacity with the Australian Government and has travelled to Brazil to work in the notorious drug-run favelas alongside the military police force. Her second book – Angel in the Marble – gives advice to parents on recognising and helping their children who show signs of addictions, including alcohol, drugs, eating disorders, gambling and internet use.

Local Sinn Féin TD Peadar Toibin called the closure of the drug prevention service a disaster, adding that there was little or no support for young people who want to come off drugs.

Mr Toibin said, “I’m told there are only 787 residential rehabilitation and detox beds in the state – not far off the number of drug deaths each year and only a fraction of the number of methadone and heroin users. Only 22 of these beds are for teenagers at a time when drug use in parts of the country are at epidemic rates. Marie Byrne and the Aisling Group have helped hundreds of people come off drugs and build healthy, safe lives. Many of these young people would surely have lost their lives to drugs, only for the Aisling Group.”

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