Drugs Map of Britain: Belfast Buds is an observational documentary on BBC Three about prescription medication addiction. This production brought me back to working at home, in Northern Ireland. I had left years before, like many others, to see a world outside of sectarian violence. Even though the Good Friday Agreement brought peace when I was 18, there was no opportunity at home, for someone with my kind of ambition. I've been living back in Belfast now since 2011, but my work is almost entirely overseas, covering events like the Chile Miners' Crisis or the refugee crisis across Europe.
Belfast Buds follows the lives of young people addicted to Pregabalin, also known by the brand name Lyrica or the street name "buds," because of reported effects similar to drunkenness. Five months ago I'd never heard of this medication, which is used to treat epilepsy, nerve pain and anxiety. Nor did I know much about prescription medication addiction, or why Northern Ireland has the highest prescription rates in the UK.
Pregabalin is the single most prescribed drug in Northern Ireland. Prescriptions have increased by 27 % in the last six years. The drug has some real and important uses, assisting thousands of people here with chronic physical and physiological pain. And yet problems are surfacing because the drug is increasingly appearing on the death certificates of young users. Unlike the rest of the UK, more drug-related deaths in Northern Ireland involve prescription drugs than illicit drugs.
During filming I quickly came to realise the severity of Northern Ireland's dependence on prescribed medication. A dark secret no one is talking about. It was like peeling back a curtain to view a dark cloud sweeping across the nation.
The film follows 27-year-old Kenneth, a man desperate to reduce his dependence on Pregabalin. He's prescribed the maximum daily dose of 600mg, and often administers this in one quick morning session, both orally and through his nose. Kenneth explains that the drug relaxes him, helps him socialize and that he can't go out into the world without it. I wondered how that had become his normal - a complete reliance on a particular legal medication. As I soon learned, Kenneth is just one of many locked into a similar cycle of dependency.
Kenneth was raised in a loyalist estate deeply affected by sectarian violence. He was only seven years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. His story is representative of the legacy of "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland. Drugs were widely prescribed to people affected by the mental and physical trauma of the conflict. This helped spawn a culture of dependency on and abuse of prescription drugs, which is rife today, nearly two decades after the signing of a Peace Agreement. This hangover from the conflict, and a continued paramilitary presence in some areas, has left a generation of youth, like Kenneth, with severe anxiety and other psychological complications. Alternative talking and behavioral therapies are available, but with pressure on the NHS, waiting times are often months. Prescription medication therefore remains the primary immediate response.
I spoke to many experts to understand why prescription drugs are so culturally accepted here. Unlike illegal drugs such as heroin, some experts told me, prescription meds are accepted as "necessary". The justification continues because young people are growing up with these drugs in their homes. Parents use them, and so children think, well, if that's normal for others, it might be normal for me. This normalisation has contributed to another disturbing trend. Young people are buying Pregablain illegally, on the streets and online. It's cheaper than cocaine or ecstasy, and in some places, easier to obtain.
A drugs outreach worker introduced me to Podraig and Brandon, two young men from a small town north of Belfast. They aren't prescribed Pregabalin but buy it on streets to mix with other drugs and alcohol. This rising trend of "polydrug" use has seen a surge of fatalities in recent years. I spent time trying to understand why young people are taking these drugs, and what they are trying to escape from. Both Podraig and Brandon expressed regret at their drug taking, they understand the dangers and the consequences of addiction. But this doesn't prevent them from repeating the cycle.
Addiction is a difficult thing to comprehend and something we, as humans, are all prone to. We lust for life, for pleasure, success, acceptance. It's not an easy picture to accept. Addicts are viewed as abnormal, pushed out to edge of society, their uncontrollable needs are deemed a weakness. We don't have the time or resources to understand the unknown.
After filming I would return home and try to find answers, often finding myself in a dark place with no real understanding. The only conclusive thoughts I could find were that Podraig and Brandon, and to a degree Kenneth, are trying to escape. There's something about our society that makes them feel weak and exposed, and Pregabalin seems to offer an alternative.
If BBC Three continues to allow a platform for this kind of work, important questions will still be asked of some of societies dark and damaging secrets. Discussion and debate serves to drive understanding of complex and difficult issues. As a director, and a humanitarian, that's the most I can hope for.
Drugs Map of Britain: Belfast Buds is available to watch on BBC Three's YouTube and iPlayer channel now.