Thursday, 26 February 2004

Questions (1)

John Deasy

Question:

1 Mr. Deasy asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the number of arrests made and convictions secured over the past three years for possession of drugs with intent to supply; his views on whether the dealing, illicit trafficking and use of drugs is decreasing; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6398/04]

View answer

Oral answers (5 contributions) (Question to Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform)

Section 15 of the Misuse of Drugs Acts 1977 to 1984 deals with the possession of controlled drugs for the purposes of unlawful sale or supply. I am informed by the Garda authorities that the number of section 15 cases where proceedings commenced in the years 2000, 2001 and 2002, respectively, are as follows:

Year

No. of cases

2000

1,706

2001

1,520

2002

1,530

The number of persons convicted for section 15 offences during these years are as follows:

Year

No. of convictions

2000

686

2001

366

2002

358

The comparative figures for 2003 are not yet available. The Garda Síochána annual reports for the above years provide more detailed information on the status of such section 15 cases within the criminal justice system at the time of publication of the reports. The Garda annual reports also provide detailed information on the type and quantity of illegal drugs seized annually by the gardaí.

Any assessment of trends in drug dealing, illicit trafficking and the use of illegal drugs must be made in the context of these activities being of a clandestine nature. However, what can be done to map trends is an analysis of the key pieces of information available to us which includes the Garda and Customs and Excise statistics and information and our drug treatment and drug research data

As the Deputy will be aware, the Government's overall policy to tackle the problem is set out in the National Drugs Strategy 2001-2008. Responsibility for implementation of the strategy lies with my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Noel Ahern.

On the issue of drugs seizures in general, as the Deputy may be aware, a key performance indicator in the national drugs strategy is to increase the volume of opiates and all other drugs seized by 25% by the end of 2004 and by 50% by the end of 2008, using 2,000 seizures as a base. The Garda Síochana and the Customs and Excise service are achieving considerable success in regard to this target to date, and they are to be congratulated on their continued efforts. The available data on drug seizures is as follows. Garda seizures for 2000 amounted to €20 million; 2001, €45 million; 2002, €49 million and 2003, €100 million. Customs and Excise seizures for 2000 amounted to €11 million; 2001, €60 million; 2002, €34 million and 2003, €21 million.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

In terms of assessing overall trends in relation to drug use, the national advisory committee on drugs, NACD, the Government's research arm on the drugs issue, released two studies in 2003 on drugs prevalence. A study into opiate users, published last May, based on 2001 data, estimated that there are approximately 14,450 users in this jurisdiction, with just under 12,500 of those users estimated to be in Dublin. The estimate is based on statistics provided by three data sources for 2001 — the central drug treatment list, the hospital in-patient inquiry database and the national garda study on opiate misuse and related criminal activity.

This was the first formal estimate of opiate users undertaken since a 1996 study which used the same methodology but estimated prevalence for Dublin only. It is worth noting that while the figures are estimates, there is a marked decrease on the previously reported figure for opiate users in Dublin — 12,456 in 2001 compared with 13,461 in 1996. The fact that such a significant number of opiate users continues to exist among our communities remains an issue of major concern which leaves us with no room for complacency on this matter. However, the decrease in the Dublin figures is encouraging, as is the finding that the numbers of users in the 15 to 24 year old bracket has reduced substantially which may point to a lower rate of initiation into heroin misuse.

The second prevalence study released by the NACD during 2003 was a general population survey examining drug use in the whole island of Ireland. This survey, done in conjunction with the drug and alcohol information and research unit, DAIRU, in Northern Ireland, found that in Ireland, 19% of the respondents had used illegal drugs in their lifetime, 5.6% within the last year of their interview and 3% within the last month of their interview. These figures place Ireland broadly in line with European averages when compared to similar surveys undertaken across Europe.

This study gathered substantial further information which will be analysed over the coming months by the NACD, DAIRU and the drug misuse division of the Health Research Board. The report containing these figures is the first in a series of bulletins which will be published as the analysis is completed on over 150 questions relating to tobacco, alcohol and illegal drug use, as well as findings relating to specific drugs, attitudes, perceived availability of illegal drugs and attempts to modify behaviour by quitting drug use.

The Government recognises that drugs seizures, while very welcome, must only be one part of our overall strategy in fighting the drugs problem which remains one of the great social ills of our times. Apart from our continuing efforts on the drug supply control side, we need to constantly continue to develop our range of responses, addressing both the causes and consequences of the problem.

I put down the question because I visited Mountjoy last week — we all need to remind ourselves that the reason many people end up in jail in this country is largely due to the use of illegal drugs. The Minister referred to the figures relating to drug seizures. It is the case that the figures look good as opposed to two years ago.

The Minister gave two commitments when he took up office in June 2002. He said he would try to increase the number of seizures by 25% at the very least, which has happened. He also said he wanted the charges against people for possession of drugs with the intent to sell and supply them to increase by 50%, but according to the preliminary figures the level of such charges has dipped. That tells me that the message is not getting through to the people on the ground that there is a deterrent in place in regard to being found in possession of drugs with an intent to supply. The Minister needs to address sentencing policy in regard to drug dealers and not only for people who shift the drugs into the country. That message is not getting through to those people. It is clear that the ten year so-called minimum sentence brought in a few years ago has not been enforced by judges and that message is not getting through to the drug dealers. We suggested that the Minister should consider at least the imposition of a three-month minimum sentence for a first offence of possession of drugs with intent to supply.

I have some sympathy with what Deputy Deasy said. In regard to the ten-year mandatory sentence passed into law by this House, I am disappointed that the Judiciary has not taken to it in the way the House had intended. It is not being applied with the vigour the House had expected. The House will recall, and Deputy Deasy will be aware, that provisions were provided for in exceptional cases, but it seems that the exception is when the wish of this House is complied with. The Judiciary collectively should have regard to the proposition that this House put before it, namely, that for possession of drugs with intent to supply on a commercial basis, as defined in that statute, the norm was to be a ten-year sentence and that only in exceptional cases identified by the Judiciary should there be a lesser penalty. That has not happened, but that is something to which I will come back because I do not propose to lose sight of it.

The second point Deputy Deasy raised was the situation in prisons. I fully agree with him that the great majority of people in our prisons are there as a result of drug-related crime one way or the other. In that context, I signal to the House, and generally to the public, that the commitment in the programme for Government for the introduction of mandatory testing of prisoners and creating drug free prisons, as opposed to drug free units in prisons, is the way forward. There is no acceptable level of drugs in prisons. The notion of providing sterilising fluid and needles in prisons to abusing prisoners is anathema as far as I am concerned. I am not going to go down that road no matter what case is made for it by whomsoever.

I want to give two other figures about which there may be some optimism. The number of opiate users in Dublin, a city with an expanding population, is down from 13,461 in 1996 to 12,456 now but, more encouraging, the number of opiate users in the 15 to 24 age category is dramatically down compared to what it used to be. The figures in regard to abuse of drugs generally are not as bad as is being made out, but there is a strong drugs trade in Ireland. There is no doubt that the number of seizures represents an index of Garda activity on the one side, but it also represents an index of the volume of the trade from which these seizures are being made. Therefore, one cannot make simplistic conclusions about it.

May I ask a brief question?

No. We have gone well over the six minutes allocated for this question and we have already lost 15 minutes of Question Time due to the vote. I want to be fair to colleagues who are waiting to have questions answered.