Monday 25 September 2017

Decriminalise certain drugs to focus on the big problems, says criminologist

Busted: €400m worth of cocaine was seized from the 'Dances With Waves' yacht off Mizen Head in Cork in 2008.
Busted: €400m worth of cocaine was seized from the 'Dances With Waves' yacht off Mizen Head in Cork in 2008.

Graham Clifford

A leading criminologist believes efforts to make a serious dent in drug-trafficking into Ireland can only succeed if the use of some drugs is decriminalised and there's less of a focus on smaller seizures.

Dr Johnny Connolly, of the University of Limerick's School of Law and Irish Research Council, says drug law enforcement here should be more strategic and that 'harm reduction' should play a greater role in developing drug-enforcement and detection policy.

"Despite the good work of the Gardaí's Drug and Organised Crime Bureau, the Revenue and Customs and other arms of the State we're seizing a tiny fraction of the drugs coming into the country. Its tip of the iceberg stuff," he tells Review.

"Part of the problem is that Customs officers have such a wide area to cover in terms of the amount of illegal substances they're looking out for. There's too much emphasis on the small player or the person with some cannabis for personal use.

"We should prioritise the major players, those importing crack cocaine and other very dangerous drugs. Those destroying lives and entire communities."

While the Revenue and Customs drug enforcement arm seized €15.4m worth of cannabis (herbal and resin) in 2016, the seizures for cocaine and heroin came in at just €12m. While there were 1,222 seizures of cannabis, the number of cocaine and heroin-related seizures came to 134.

"In Portugal because they decriminalised the use of drugs in 2001 they have more time to focus on the main players and hit them," says Connolly.

"They don't waste time, and resources, on people caught with a joint or a stash for personal use. We should be looking at applying a similar strategy here in Ireland. It would just make more practical sense.

"Fighting the drug trade is expensive and we must make sure we are using all of our resources cleverly - not going after small fish."

Each year the state spends a combined €200m to €300m on drug enforcement. The amount pales in significance when you consider that in 2008, the value of just one cocaine seizure off Mizen Head in Cork came to €400m.

And he said while annual drug seizure figures in Ireland frequently exceed the benchmark as set out in the National Drugs Strategy, it is unclear if that's because of improved performance by drug enforcement or because the Irish drugs market is growing.

"Generally, the level of drug seizures is reflective of law enforcement activity rather than the scale of the market. It's an incredibly difficult area to police. We have limited resources and the drug gangs spend millions on the latest technology and have highly-developed methods of concealment."

While he doesn't foresee too much change to the flow of illegal drugs into Ireland following Brexit, Dr Connolly says this is a specific area of concern the government must address.

Liam Peakin, Head of the Customs Drug Law Enforcement Unit, tells Review: "If there is a hard Border, then of course we'd need Customs officials there. If that is the case some resources may need to be moved from elsewhere (from the ports, airports etc to the Border). Obviously, that could have a knock-on effect in terms of drug enforcement."

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