The war on drugs is lost... so what do we do now?
Government research shows decriminalisation and taxation of our illicit drugs trade may be the way forward
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 ruled that research should begin into the drugs markets, and it set up the National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol (NACDA).
One NACDA report was released last week - the day after American states California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts voted to join Colorado, Washington State, Oregon and Alaska in legalising cannabis for recreational use. A total of 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 the Republic to be seen as a haven for drug users, as this could be a deterrent to investors. But that situation seems to have reversed if investors are coming here from a place where it is now fully legal to possess and consume cannabis.
While relatively little attention was paid to last week's report by the NACDA in Dublin, the advisory council's role is supposed to be to inform and direct the Government's policy on drugs. No mention of legalisation was 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 its effects in Ireland. It was carried out over three years by researchers Anne Marie Donovan and Johnny Connolly of the Health Research Board and gives the clearest insight yet into the impact of drugs.
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 NACDA report also found that, despite up to 15,000 arrests each year by gardai and customs, the vast majority of arrests 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 continues to prosecute people at a rate or around 1,000 a month to meet its key performance indicators in its efforts to "reduce supply".
The research showed the proliferation of drugs in Irish society has increased significantly over the past decade. Interviews with residents of medium-sized towns such as Drogheda revealed the existence of drug-dealing zones more normally associated with inner cities; people afraid to go to certain areas at certain times of days; and high numbers of people who had seen drugs being used and needles discarded.
Between 70pc and 90pc of arrests are 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.
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 report showed that 27pc of the population aged between 15 and 64 have tried the drug or use it regularly.
Professor Catherine Comiskey, of Trinity College Dublin and chair of the NACDA, said in her introduction to the report: "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 could likely develop only in a situation in which some form of legalisation has made drug addiction less of a criminal offence.
The NACDA said that despite all the State's efforts to combat drugs, the market remained "resilient" and continues to grow in all areas of the country.
The report stated the Government's National Drugs Strategy was meant 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".
It 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, interviews with drug sellers, drug users and gardai suggest heroin and cocaine had become cheaper to buy in all four sites and at all market levels."