- 14 Jul 08
Convicted traffickers are being put behind bars for far longer than their crimes actually merit. Is this progressive policing - or a miscarriage of justice?
There’s a great deal in the media about inflation at the moment. The cost of basic foodstuffs and utilities is on the rise and more and more of us are feeling the pinch. In general, everything is more expensive than it was four years ago. There is one notable exception: the price of illegal drugs has dropped dramatically since 2004.
Cannabis is the major exception to this trend, with weed prices remaining relatively stable over the past four years. The prices of synthetic drugs, however, have continued to slide. Cocaine can be sold for whatever you’re willing to pay; to turn a ‘50’ bag into a ‘20’ bag, all the dealer has to do is add more Daz. Ecstasy pills are similar, with the cost per pill fluctuating between 50 cent for ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not MDMA’ to a high of €5 for a pill which is more likely to actually contain the desired amphetamine.
According to the Gardai, ecstasy pills cost €10 each. This over-valuation has a serious impact on sentencing for drug offences (in addition to making the value of garda drug hauls sound more impressive). Defendants are being wrongly convicted and sentenced for supplying drugs with a street value far above their actual worth. With the mandatory minimum threshold set at €13,000 worth of illicit drugs, this routine overvaluation makes a massive difference to those who are imprisoned under the mandatory minimum regime.
The latest miscarriage of justice arising from this over-valuation policy took place in Cork Circuit Court last week, when 55-year-old John Heaphy was found guilty of possessing €40,700 worth of ecstasy tablets for sale or supply in Cork in December 2007.
The defendant pleaded guilty to possessing 4,700 pills purporting to be ecstasy, but he knew they weren’t worth €40,700. They weren’t even worth a quarter of that. Four witnesses testified that the pills were selling for €20 for 10 pills, with one saying “you could hardly give them away”.
Solicitor Peter O’Flynn was at the trial, and found the evidence compelling.
“I know that most of the solicitors and barristers in court with me found the evidence given by the four witnesses to be convincing. I believe that this is because they were actually speaking the truth,” he reports.
According to the defence team, the haul was worth €9,400. Unsurprisingly, the jury didn’t pay much heed to their calculations. Instead, they chose to believe Detective Chief Superintendent Tony Quilter of the Garda National Drugs Unit and Detective Sergeant Lar O’Brien, both of whom assured the jury that the street value was €10 a pill. It took the jurors just one hour to unanimously convict Heaphy for possession of €40,700 worth of ecstasy.
If you think that’s unfair, consider the other trial taking place in the same building. The so-called biggest drug trial in the history of the State has just become a whole lot bigger, thanks to ridiculous Garda estimates about the value of the cocaine found floating at sea off the coast of West Cork last year. Thanks to their inflated street price of €70 a gram, the state had already inflated a haul worth €15 million into one worth €105 million. The state now argues that the extraordinary purity of the cocaine should be taken into account, and its street value has been raised accordingly, to €440 million.
They are now charging the three Englishmen with possessing what the media is already rounding up to half a billion euro worth of powder. In other words, the despised defendants are being prosecuted and, likely sentenced, for a crime 33 times greater than the one they actually committed.
The premise by which the Gardai multiplied their insane valuation was that Irish street cocaine is usually 15% pure, while this substance was 75% pure. It is worth pointing out that purity is not routinely tested and appears to have been introduced to this case as an afterthought. Whatever society thinks of narcotics, the least we should expect is that the rules governing society’s hypocritical ‘war on drugs’ are fair. As it stands, the State simply makes its own rules and judges and juries follow in blind trust.
“The problem is that people are regularly convicted of possessing drugs with a street value of more than €13,000, when in reality the drugs are worth far less,” according to Peter O’Flynn, who handles such cases. “This is not fair. If you want to impose a mandatory penalty for possession of large quantities of drugs, then the threshold should be determined according to the weight of the drugs and not according to an arbitrary street value, which is often exaggerated in the courts by vested interests. This weight system is used successfully in the US and other countries. You cannot argue with a weighing scales.”
Astonishingly, a Garda spokesperson told Hot Press that “the price of ecstasy can range from €3 to €6 depending on what part of the country it’s for sale in”, explaining that street prices “are subject to the market forces of supply and demand. Accordingly the value of drugs relate to the price that someone is willing to pay and the amount available”.
The Drug Unit spokesperson claimed that the street prices were arrived at “by direct dealing with sellers” and that, as a result of this ongoing contact with the market, “guideline prices are constantly being reviewed”.
Yet the €10 valuation presented in the Heaphy case dated from lists compiled in 1999 and 2004, when ecstasy was considerably more expensive than it is today. Apparently the valuation has not been revised in the meantime. There was no effort on the part of the State to prove that their valuation was correct, and they didn’t call any witnesses to back up their valuation.
The figures presented in these cases are not credible, even by the estimates of the Drug Unit themselves. So, how long will these fantasy figures be used to convict and sentence people?