Tuesday 20 February 2018

Research shows Ireland has lost the 'war on drugs'

Stock photo: PA
Stock photo: PA

Although the official Government line is that drugs decriminalisation 'is not being discussed' the mounting evidence from its own research is that Ireland has lost the 'war on drugs'.

In 2000 the then Government directed that research begin in the drugs markets here and set up the Nation Advisory Council on Drugs and Alcohol (NACDA) whose reports included one last week on the day after California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts voted to join Colorado, Washington State, Oregon and Alaska in legalising cannabis for recreational use. Some 21 states have also now decriminalised cannabis use for medical purposes.

The decision by voters in California, which has the fifth largest economy in the world, is probably the most significant in relation to Ireland, given that many of the hi-tech American companies here have their base in the State.

Historically, one of the main reasons for maintaining the ban on cannabis use here was that governments did not wish to see the Republic as a haven for drug users which could be a deterrent to investors, but that situation seems has reversed if investors are coming here from a place where it is now fully legal to possess and consume cannabis.

The Republic has generally followed the United States lead on criminalising drugs.

Cannabis use was outlawed here in 1977 under the Misuse of Drugs Act largely inspired by US governments 'war on drugs', introduced in 1970 by President Richard Nixon who brought Elvis Presley to the White House for the launch.

Presley, it emerged later, was heavily addicted to prescription opiates and heavily under the influence during his visit.

While relatively little attention was paid to last week's report by the NACDA in Dublin, the Advisory Council's role is, under government remit, supposed to help inform and direct policy on drugs. No mention of legalisation is made in the report or in its other major report last year, The Illicit Drugs Market in Ireland.

The Illicit Drugs report is the most comprehensive study of drug use and effects in Ireland. It was carried out over three years by researchers Ann Marie Donovan and Johnny Connolly of the Health Research Board and gives the clearest insight yet into the impact of drugs here.

One of the most striking findings of the Illicit Drugs report is that Garda action in seizing drugs is actually one of the main causes of violence in the drugs trade as dealers assault and murder each other over loss of earnings.

The feud between the Kinahan and Hutch gangs which erupted in February and led to 12 murders was caused by a seizure of €2m worth of drugs which led to the murder of Gary Hutch in Spain in September last year. There have been well over 200 drug gang related murders here in the past decade and only around 10pc have resulted in convictions.

The NACDA report also found that despite up to 15,000 arrests each year by Garda and Customs, the vast majority of these are of young people for simple possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.

More than 120,000 people have criminal convictions for drugs possession or supply over the past decade and the Garda continue to prosecute people at a rate or around 1,000 a month to meet its 'key performance indicators' (KPIs) in its efforts to 'reduce supply'.

The researchers broke down their investigation into four separate and defined areas: in inner city Dublin; a larger, economically deprived suburban area; a provincial town the size of Drogheda, Dundalk or Swords; and a small town of around 2,000 people and its rural hinterland.

The research showed the proliferation of drugs in Irish society has increased very significantly over the past decade. Interviews with residents of the medium-sized town like Drogheda revealed the existence of drugs dealing zones more normally associated with inner cities, people afraid to go to certain areas at certain times of days and the high numbers of people who had seen drugs being used and needles discarded.

Between 70pc and 90pc of arrests in all four areas where of people aged under 24 prosecuted for possessing cannabis with a value of €10 or less. Most arrests and seizures were as a result of the Garda's broad 'stop and search' powers. The median value of drugs seizure by gardai was around €35.

The Revenue's Customs Service, which was also tasked by Government with reducing supply, has two sea-going interdiction vessels, two giant X-ray machines for examining containers and various other types of sophisticated located at airports and mail distribution centres. Yet, the NACDA report found that, like the Garda, the vast majority of Customs seizures and prosecutions - around 90pc - involved tiny amounts of drugs for personal use. Most were seized at Dublin Airport, the Airmail Centre also at the Airport and the mail centre in Athlone.

The report and its findings remain largely ignored but contain very clear evidence of the absolute failure to stop drugs coming into the country. Heroin is cheaper and more available than ever before and the market for crack cocaine and crystal meth, though still expensive in international terms, is expanding due to the high profitability of sales. Cannabis is still the most widely used drug and last week's NACDA found that 27pc fo the population aged between 15 and 64 have tried it or use it regularly.

  Professor Catherine Comiskey of TCD and Chair of the NACDA, said in her introduction to last week's report that: "Approaches that seek to divert problematic drug users into treatment, that prioritise local community perspectives, and those that occur in collaboration with community-based structures and all relevant agencies, are more likely to be sustainable over time and to win public support."

This messages seems to be firmly rejected by Government whose latest pronouncement from Health Minister Simon Harris, just before publication of the NACDA report, was that any consideration of using cannabis for medical use is "not a discussion about decriminalising cannabis in any way shape or form".

The Government has yet, however, to address the findings in the NACDA Illicit Drugs report

which found: "Garda drug seizures could also contribute to increased violence in drug markets. In all four sites, most of the violence which occurred related to unpaid drug debts. Drug debts were acquired through people consuming their own supply or as a result of Garda seizures. "Where gardaí seized drugs, debts remained outstanding and still had to be paid. This may be described as an unintended or adverse consequence of drug law enforcement, whereby effective supply reduction activities can indirectly contribute to greater levels of drug-related violence."

The NACDA researchers spoke to many dealers as well as recreational users as well as gardai and customs officials and found that despite all the State's efforts to 'combat' drugs the market remained 'resilient' and continues to grow.

The 2015 NACDA research included an interview with one seller who was purchasing five ounces of heroin per week for €5,000, breaking it up into smaller 'score' bags of €20 and taking in €11,000 weekly turnover.

One dealer interviewed in north inner city described the type of violence which is commonplace where dealers lost product usually through garda seizures. He said: "So they put a crow bar through his leg and gave him an awful hiding, broke all his ribs, tried to pull his nails out with pliers, put a gun to his head, threatened him. This was over €1000 debt, cocaine debt, and, you know, he wouldn’t make a complaint to the guards, he just left the city and moved out to the suburbs."

On crack cocaine, one of the most addictive substances, the report says: "The price of crack was uniformly high – €50 per rock using just 0.2g of cocaine – meaning that a seller who was able to make crack cocaine from powder cocaine was in a very profitable position. One crack cocaine seller bought a ‘bullet’ (17–18g/three-quarters of an ounce) of high-quality cocaine for €600 and earned up to €4,000, returning a profit of €3,400."

The somewhat confused response from gardai interviewed for the report is illustrated by one members of a Drugs Unit in a central Dublin station who is quoted as saying:

"We target people from the street level, street-dealing level, all the way up to the importers

like, you know. I would say 90% supply, you know, although we do deal with the users as well but we're kind of more ...as I said we're specifically more after we'll say the suppliers, the bigger fish. Now, the bigger fish might have €100 worth of stuff on him."

From Garda records NACDA found that: "Cannabis resin and cannabis herb seizures were generally of small quantities, most likely for personal use. Ninety per cent of cannabis seizures weighed between 1g and 25g (less than an ounce)."

The report pointed to the Government's National Drugs Strategy as: "To disrupt the activities of organised criminal networks involved in the illicit drugs trade in Ireland and internationally and to undermine the structures supporting such networks’. Another aim of the strategy is ’to prevent the emergence of new markets and the expansion of existing markets for illicit drugs’.

NACDA concluded: "If basic market logic is applied, it could be assumed that a significant reduction in drug availability would mean an increase in prices and/or a reduction in drug purity. However, our interviews with drug sellers, drug users and Gardaí suggest that heroin and cocaine had in fact become cheaper to buy in all four sites and at all market levels."

Online Editors

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