The Portuguese model of decriminalising drugs for personal use would not work in Ireland because the State is dealing with “criminal lunatics” who are “completely different” from those in Portugal, former head of the Garda drug squad Michael O’Sullivan has told the Citizens’ Assembly.
The fourth meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use is meeting this weekend at The Grand Hotel, Malahide. It is hearing a range of perspectives on Ireland’s place in the international drugs trade and associated criminal activity.
Mr O’Sullivan, who previously headed the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau (GNDOCB) and is a former executive director of the EU agency tasked with intercepting drug shipments across the Atlantic, also insisted any relaxation of Ireland’s drug laws will not reduce harm.
In Portugal, when a person is found in possession of a small quantity of drugs, they are summoned before a dissuasion commission, which is made up of a social worker, a psychiatrist and a lawyer. It has sanctions such as fines open to it, as well as referral for treatment in cases of addiction.
“Unfortunately for us, we have a level of criminality, violence and viciousness in our criminal underclass that the Portuguese are lucky they don’t have, both in adults and juveniles,” said Mr O’Sullivan. “They don’t have feuds. They don’t have guys running around hotels with machine guns.
“They’re very lucky [in Portugal] to have the crime levels they have. The criminals they are dealing with – they are in the ha’penny place compared to our criminals. We’re dealing with criminal lunatics at times.
“The Portuguese model, for that reason, won’t work. In Portugal, you funnel the person to the dissuasion committee and they try to get you off drugs. In Ireland, we have the courts. Will it work here? It certainly won’t.”
Mr Ó Sullivan said it is “the fear” of the gardaí and the courts that keep tens of thousands of young people “on the straight and narrow”.
“There are tens of thousands of young people who don’t use drugs,” he said. “They don’t use drugs because firstly it isn’t healthy, but also because it is illegal. Very often it is the fear of the courts or the fear of the guards.
“Those who keep going are going to keep going anyway because they are chaotic individuals. It is the sanction element – perhaps that fear element – that keeps people on the straight and narrow.
“Having experienced many of the systems throughout the world, I believe the Irish system for dealing with drug misuse is as good as any and better than most. By the system, I mean not just the criminal justice system, I mean the treatment services. But it needs greater resourcing.”
‘Cruel but effective’
Mr O’Sullivan said using the courts to provoke people with addiction problems to seek treatment was “cruel, but effective and very necessary”.
Det Chief Supt Seamus Boland of the GNDOCB said decriminalisation would not have the desired effect of impoverishing criminal networks.
“Drug traffickers and cartels have no intention of allowing their profits to decrease,” he said. “They are continually making and adjusting plans to increase consumption and ensure profits increase.
“We continuously see new products that are coming to the market like cannabis edibles, vapes and nitrous oxide, all of which are aimed at the younger generation with the intention of increasing customer base. It’s the business model in creating the next generation of consumers.
“We’re satisfied that Irish criminal networks have been considering the supply of fentanyl into the Irish market. This is a very concerning development as fentanyl is not just significant to opioid users, but is a risk to all drug consumers as cartels can add fentanyl to increase addiction.”
He said Irish criminal groups “have formulated plans to ensure the illegal industry will be maintained irrespective of any legalisation”, but did not elaborate further.
This narrative was challenged by a member of the assembly who said he could not “square the circle” after hearing the speakers.
“In the first three assemblies, we heard that the trend is more drugs in more places being used by more people, and that the status quo is not working,” he said. “But here we are to understand it is a good system, and that it works but needs a few tweaks and more funding. I can’t square that.”
Paul Reid, who is chairing the assembly, added: “We’ve heard messages in the past few sessions that people enter the criminal justice system and it is a vicious cycle. There is a view, and it has been expressed here, that it can be still illegal but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a criminal process.”
In response to the assembly member, Chief Supt Boland said: “The status quo is never being maintained. This is a continuous movement that we are working in, between the statutory and all the voluntary agencies, from the back of house testing at festivals to supervised injection centres.
“When we are dealing with addiction and all the problems that are created for our health service, do we really think that making it legal for everybody to consume drugs, that that’s going to deal with that issue? All that’s going to do is create a larger customer base and lead to lots more problems.”
In a session on people’s lived experiences, Paula Kearney and Anthony Lee called for more resources to be allocated to the Drug Treatment Court, which is a District Court that provides supervised treatment, education and rehabilitation for offenders as an alternative to custody.
Ms Kearney told the assembly the State “cannot police addiction out of people”, adding: “Yes, drugs do destroy communities, but drug policies destroy communities even more.
“Drug use is more than it has ever been in the past, but the drug policies themselves only affect certain communities negatively. Look at the communities where stop and search happens – the communities that are heavily policed – and wonder why people get into the situations they do.”
Mr Lee told the assembly of an experience before the Drug Treatment Court: “There was a Judge Horan there. Terrible nice man. When I was there, he used to come down from his chair, down to where I was, to ask me how I was. Believe me, that never happened in my lifetime.
“He showed compassion. He showed empathy. I never had that off people like that. It was all authority in my life. I am very, very grateful, and I can say he is a friend of mine.”
Assistant Garda Commissioner Justin Kelly said the force’s “grave concerns” around the implications of any potential legalisation of drugs “are based on the implications for the whole of our society – not focusing just on those who consume drugs”.
“My colleagues in North and South America have been very clear with me that legalisation will not remove the influence of organised crime groups who will continue to maintain the illicit black market, undercutting legal prices and increasing strengths of drugs,” he said.
“My colleagues in Canada have told me that such changes have significantly curtailed their ability to approach and engage with suspects. In British Columbia, the first month of legalisation saw a record number of overdose deaths. I have also been told it will lead to an increase in drug driving.”