Ireland could benefit in a shift in its approach to drug crime, an expert has said.

‘Gardaí can only do so much’

Sending drug dealers to prison is unlikely to deter them and is actually more likely to extend their career in drug dealing, a Cork expert has said.

Lecturer and Director of the BA Criminology Degree at UCC, Dr James Windle has been researching illicit drug markets for 15 years and said “gardaí can only do so much” in the fight against organised crime and drug dealing.

Dr Windle said he believes there is “a point of diminishing returns” when it comes to policing drugs in Ireland and that arresting lower level drug dealers is unlikely to have a big impact on the drugs market. “By the time they’re gone to prison and got a criminal record, it's disrupted their relationships, it's disrupted their employment opportunities, it might disrupt their education,” Dr Windle told the Cork Independent.

He added: “They probably would have naturally moved away from drug dealing but actually they may have to continue for a little bit longer because of prison. In many ways, I think that more law enforcement against lower level drug dealing is probably counterproductive, but there needs to be a certain level.” Dr Windle said a shift, as seen in the UK and America, towards more harm reduction policing that focuses on violence rather than drug dealing itself, may be of benefit.

“Not every drug dealer is violent. Not every drug dealer is involved in intimidation or exploiting vulnerable people, but what you can do is use policing to move the more violent ones out and create a culture within a drug market that's less violent, that's less intimidating,” he said.

Dr Windle’s comments came following a recent Cork Joint Policing Committee meeting at which drug-related crime and intimidation in Ireland was spoken about by An Garda Síochána.

Detective Superintendent McCormack said Ireland is a significant player in the European drug market and is now a transit country for drugs as well as a destination country, in part due to our border with the UK and increased direct access to mainland Europe brought about by Brexit.

“Before Brexit there was maybe 2 ferries operating directly between France and Ireland and now that number is somewhere around 16 to 20. So, we’re now also a transit country,” he said.

The presentation went on to focus specifically on drug related intimidation in Ireland where a criminal or criminals allege monies are owed for a drug debt. Intimidation can take many forms including physical violence, verbal threats, criminal damage, sexual violence and hostile takeovers.

The Drug Related Intimidation Programme was established in 2009/2010 by GNDOCB and the National Family Support Network (NFSN) to respond to the needs of substance users and family members experiencing drug related intimidation.

Dr Windle continued: “There are things the guards can do but they first need to have a level of legitimacy within that community. This is one of the arguments for community level policing.

“If you have a community where they don't trust the police or they feel uncomfortable going to the police, this is often an indication that the community is struggling in some way, it may be that it's disconnected from the state, it may be there's a lack of jobs, it may be that a culture has arisen in this area where you just simply don't talk to the police. That's difficult to tackle.

“Very little drug policy affects drug consumption and markets, it's other policies, it's wider structural issues such as housing, such as giving everyone free medical treatment, helping people find employment.”