Inside the illicit drugs markets

drug testing Newly published research turns the spotlight on a dark side of Irish society. eolas examines the findings of the Illicit Drug Markets in Ireland study.

Drugs are rarely out of the headlines but supply and demand in this illicit trade have traditionally been poorly understood and subject to speculation. The Illicit Drug Markets in Ireland study, the first of its kind, was commissioned by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol (NACDA) and undertaken by the Health Research Board. NACDA Chair Catherine Comiskey remarked that the study “provides evidence to inform a debate that is often characterised by vigorous opinion and emotive public discussion”.

Research took place in four locations – two urban, one suburban and one rural – over 36 months between 2008 and 2010. The locations will remain confidential to protect the reputation of the communities affected.

Interviews covered a wide range of people involved in, affected by or taking action against the drugs trade from street sellers to drug users, residents and gardaí. A total of 816 local residents and employees were interviewed. Data for 2008-2009 on drug purity and adulterants, seizures, arrests and offenders were gathered from the Garda IT system and the Forensic Science Laboratory.

The study was only published in October. NACDA explains that it took time to pull all the information together into a coherent, readable work and the organisation was reconstituted in 2013.

The Garda National Drugs Unit (GNDU) views Ireland’s drug situation as “a series of sometimes overlapping markets for different substances that have evolved in waves or phases since the 1980s.”

Heroin started in Dublin and gradually spread throughout the rest of the State. Ecstasy arrived in the 1990s and spread more quickly. Cannabis is “geographically dispersed and continuously growing”. Cocaine was once a small scale upmarket choice but became more widespread in the years of the Celtic Tiger. Crack cocaine is a more recent drug and is now spreading from Dublin’s north side to other locations.

The study reports that people tend to turn to drugs in areas where unemployment – and boredom – is high, facilities for young people are limited, and parental supervision is low. The arrival of users and dealers from deprived inner city areas, on release from prison, or from another country also grows the market. Heroin and cocaine were becoming cheaper but crack cocaine was still highly priced, thus returning the highest profit margins. Heroin purity remained high (45 per cent) across the country but cocaine purity averaged at 14 per cent with adulterants found in most seizures. The extra substances were probably added to the cocaine before being imported or by high level suppliers within Ireland.

The Revenue Customs Division is responsible for intercepting drugs at ports, airports and postal sorting centres. Joint Garda-PSNI operations seek to tackle supplies going across the land border.

The GNDU aims to disrupt international and national drug networks while divisional and district drug units follow up that work at a local level. Investigations are strongly intelligence-led with all leads going into a central system. Undercover test purchases are used to tackle closed markets e.g. in nightclubs.

Sellers were wary but usually not deterred by Garda operations. Public demand for drugs and the resulting potential for profit remained “resilient” and drug sellers would often return after gardaí had left the area. Most prosecutions were for cannabis possession – and local people tended to tolerate its use.

Consignments were divided up and buried to avoid detection or transported by children, heroin users, or others with a drug debt.

The authors called on policy-makers to consider the factors that create and sustain drug markets as they consider their future approach to drug crime. A multi-faceted response was suggested as follows:

• continuing to prevent imports from source countries;

• action to keep young people out of gangs e.g. better leisure and youth work facilities;

• applying international best practice in drug education;

• a focus on ensuring that supply reduction and demand reduction complement each other; and

• diverting drug users away from prison and into treatment (where appropriate).

Most members of the public wanted to see a more visible police presence and the study suggested that police action should focus on the individuals and markets causing the greatest harm. Formal partnerships, involving the community, gardaí and other agencies were seen as effective but success depended on the willingness of local people to get involved. Fear and intimidation keep many residents quiet.

The Dial to Stop Drug Dealing publicity campaign was one example of a useful community initiative. Residents are encouraged to call Crimestoppers (1800 25 00 25) but do not have to leave their name or address. Calls are answered by gardaí who are trained to gather relevant information from anonymous callers.

More research was also needed e.g. to identify how many crimes were associated with drug use and how young people become involved in drug-dealing and gangs.

In conclusion, the study found that that the “complete removal” of illicit drug markets was not achievable “in the foreseeable future.” The most harmful markets were those where drugs were openly sold to the public and where dealers exploited young people and other vulnerable groups, often with violent consequences.

A: Suburb

A “visible and busy” open street-level market for crack cocaine often serving buyers from outside the area. Young people played a substantial role in storing or running drugs – a “financially lucrative option for teenagers” – and many of them came from unstable homes. Two-thirds of surveyed residents avoided certain areas at certain times, mostly due to drug use.

B: Rural town and hinterland

Closed street-level distribution, also attracting non-local buyers, with transactions made by phone, drugs delivered to homes and contacts formed through trusted third-party introductions. The runners were often older heroin addicts rather than young people. Residents felt intimidated by alcohol use as well as drug use but the majority of them were satisfied with the local gardaí.

C: Small town

No open street market. Drug transactions arranged via mobile phone and at pre-arranged locations. Suppliers came from a small number of established families. Residents refused to tolerate young teenagers getting involved in drugs. Forty per cent avoided specific areas at particular times – mainly to avoid suspicious groups of people.

D: Large town

Highly structured markets for heroin, cocaine and cannabis involving several suppliers across a very wide area. Middle-market gangs supplied large volumes of drugs and several highly visible open street-level markets operated. Closed markets in pubs and flat complexes also existed. Young people were reported to be heavily involved in running drugs.

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