- 11 Feb 08
Is it not long past the time to take a hard look at the real cost of prohibition – which runs into billions of Euro per annum?
When newly appointed drugs minister Pat Carey told Hot Press’ Stuart Clark that there wasn’t much information available in terms of the Irish drug market, he wasn’t wrong. The fact is that the Irish government lags some distance behind most of their European colleagues when it comes to recording drug related statistics.
The most common yardstick by which the scale of the market is measured is the reported value of annual drug seizures provided by the Gardai. The figures provided to hotpress for 2006 indicate that the Gardai seized almost E100 million worth of illegal drugs, of which cannabis accounted for half, with the remainder made up of confiscated heroin valued at E25.6 million, cocaine valued at E13.3 million, amphetamines valued at E600,000 and ecstasy valued at E200,000.
In certain respects these figures are instructive. By far the biggest drug problem is heroin, with an estimated 15,000-plus addicts in the Republic of Ireland alone (see interview with Sean Cassin, Page 68) and an additional few thousand in Northern Ireland. Yet in 2006 heroin accounted for only 25% of the police haul.
New figures have just been reported which suggest that in 2007 there was an increase in the value of drugs seized to E160 million. However this includes the so-called E102 million cocaine haul in Dunlough Bay, Co.Cork – drugs which the Gardai have said were likely to be destined for the UK market rather than the Irish. If that is taken out of the comparisons, then the amount of drugs seized is in fact dramatically down – despite the fact that there is a public perception, fuelled by the media, that consumption of drugs is significantly up. For example, while heroin is more or less stable at E25 million, cannabis seizures are down to E15.6 million – tellingly, there has been no real evidence at street level of a drop in the availability or consumption of cannabis.
This street value estimation is itself problematic. For a start, it dramatically overstates the real value of cannabis resin. The majority of what the Gardai label ‘cannabis resin’ is the hideously polluted soapbar hash, which accounts for the vast majority of the general Irish drug market. At E100 per ounce, soapbar hash costs around E3.50 per gram, whereas the Gardai confer a street value of E7 per gram on this form of hash. Even allowing for the fact that other, higher quality, resins are occasionally imported, this leads to a wild overestimation of the value of cannabis seizures. Some have suggested that the Gardai deliberately inflate the value of the drugs they seize. It’s not quite that simple – though the fact that the seizures are presented in terms of their ‘street value’ rather than their wholesale rates multiplies the reported value of the drugs. Nonetheless, some of the substances are undervalued. Ecstacy is valued (somewhat bizarrely) at E1.37 per pill, which is considerably lower than the prevailing market rate of around E5, while a gram of cocaine costing E70 would be considered a bargain in some parts of the country.
The scale of the market can be roughly gauged by assuming that law enforcement agencies seize around 10% of the drugs destined for the market. It is unusual for rates of detection to exceed 10%, and unheard of for them to rise above 15%. Therefore, after adjusting the cannabis resin figure, we arrive at an annual market value of around E800 million in 2006. This is dwarfed by the market for Ireland’s most popular drug, alcohol, which generates E5.6 billion per annum, but it is nonetheless a very substantial (and growing) market which has been ceded to organised crime.
Though there are some independent growers and importers of cannabis, the synthetic drug market and the vast majority of the cannabis market is controlled by organised criminals, who enjoy staggering rates of profit on their products, and for whom the threat of interception or arrest is but an occupational hazard. According to a 2007 British Home Office report, which conservatively estimated the value of Britain’s drug market at between £7 billion and £8 billion, the drug barons enjoy mark-ups of 16,800% and 15,800% on heroin and cocaine respectively.
Soapbar cannabis is similarly profitable, with a nine-ounce bar costing around E10 to manufacture and fetching at least E900 from end users (and potentially considerably more). The dominance of this polluted form of hash is clear from the figures, which show that 6,951 kgs were seized by Irish authorities in 2006, compared to just 289 kgs of herbal cannabis – a multiple of almost 25.
The soapbar trade is the backbone of the Irish drug network: this polluted product is available in every town and village in the country, usually from the same youths whose anti-social behaviour has recently become a political issue. This is just one of the negative spin-offs of the war on drugs: it tends to empower the most delinquent and violent elements in society. Increasingly, that empowerment entails the acquisition of weapons.
On a global level, the same principle holds true.
The massive black market in illegal drugs has the effect of corrupting everything it touches, from entire Latin American countries to the law enforcement agencies in Europe. Drug traffickers can afford to employ customs and police officials and bribe their way through most of the world’s ports. Drug trafficking operations tend to be seen as the preserve of sleazy, bone-headed criminals operating on an ad hoc basis, but today’s drug cartels resemble nothing so much as multinational corporations, with staff and payrolls, top-down management structures and an emphasis on continually increasing turnover and profit. They have always been several steps ahead of law enforcement agencies.
When the notorious Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar was gunned down by Colombian police in 1993, American drug enforcement agents found his office filled with files detailing their repeated attempts to catch him. One former senior agent said that he knew much more about them than they did about him. The sheer profitability of the trade has allowed drug cartels to grow into monstrous international corporate operations with the government. Afghanistan is a case in point. Prior to the US-UK invasion of that country in 2001, the profoundly unpleasant, fundamentalist Taliban regime had all but wiped out poppy production in the country. The predictable consequence of the US strategy to replace them with the Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of warlords and drug barons, has been to re-establish the country as the world’s primary poppy exporter. According to the United Nations, Afghanistan’s notorious cash crop was responsible for producing 92% of the world’s heroin in 2006. (Thank you, Mr.Bush).
Public despair at these bleak facts is usually channeled into the sort of impotent rage which sanctions all manner of repressive measures to halt the drug trade. Nonetheless, the consistent data trends indicate that drug policies have little or no effect on consumption. This much is clear from the evidence of the US, where the severe repression of drug users has nonetheless resulted in one of the highest drug use rates in the world.
The American way – which has a good deal of support in this country – is to lock drug users and dealers up and throw away the key. The US, which has the highest prison population in the ‘first’ world – and possibly in the world – is a country where you can receive a 30 year prison sentence for passing a joint (supplying a Schedule 1 narcotic, they call it). Though Ireland lags mercifully behind America in its thoroughly twisted attitude to penal punishment, we still imprison a large number of citizens for drug offences, at an enormous cost to the taxpayer.
On average, it costs around E100,000 per annum to incarcerate a person, though costs fluctuate from prison to prison (for example, it costs E250,000 per prisoner per annum in Mountjoy). In 2005, the last year for which figures are available, we sent 279 people to prison specifically for drug related offences, the overwhelming majority (96%) of them males. The demographic most likely to be imprisoned for drug offences are the under 30s, with 64% of drug convictions handed down to young drug offenders.
The majority of drug prisoners are locked up for possession of illegal substances, and receive relatively short prison sentences. 54% of prisoners were sentenced to less than a year in prison, while only 6% incurred the mandatory minimum 10 year sentence set out by the government for medium to large scale drug-dealing.
At an assumed average of a year for every prisoner, the cost of keeping these 279 individuals alone under lock and key is approximately 30million euro per annum.
That, however, is only a tiny fraction of the real cost of prohibition to the prison system and the Department of Justice. It is estimated that of the total prison population, approximately 80% are drug users, and the vast majority of the crimes for which they are committed are carried out to fund their drug habits. Even John Lonergan, Governor of Mountjoy Prison, said back in 2005 that at least 70% of prisoners there had some form of heroin addiction. There are 3,191 people in Irish prisons, according to the latest figures available for 2006, with each prisoner individually costing E91,700 per annum to keep behind bars. On this basis, then 80% are costing an astonishing E286million per annum just to lock up and feed.
That is just one way of looking at the cost. Official UK figures suggest that it requires an average of 60,000 euro per annum to fund a heroin habit. Accepting that many addicts are on methadone, and assuming therefore that half of the heroin addicts in the Republic of Ireland are actively using heroin – probably an underestimation – the amount being spent by addicts on the drug is at least E450 million – of which at least E400 million is raised through one form of crime or another, mostly low level theft of the kind that directly affects the ordinary citizen.
In addition to whatever is stolen, there is the cost of crime itself: the stolen cars written off; the broken locks and windows in houses and shops; the injuries and the resulting hospital costs; the pain, trauma and disruption to entirely innocent people – the cumulative effect of the whole wrecking ball of junkie-fuelled criminality goes on and on (and on).
Though there is no data to show which drugs accounted for the convictions in 2006, we can infer from figures provided to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction by the Irish government in 2002 that the majority are cannabis related.
In 2002, 65 people were imprisoned in Ireland for cannabis offences, nine were jailed for offences related to heroin, and six for cocaine related convictions. This suggests that a disproportionate amount of police time is spent on chasing down cannabis, which is by far the most popular illegal drug – but also the least harmful. Though first time offenders caught with small amounts of cannabis are more likely to receive a fine, the criminal justice system must still process the cases, at the State’s expense, while the offender will receive a criminal record as well as facing the possibility of social stigmatisation, job loss, as well as a ban from entering the US and Australia.
In terms of justice – or the absence of it in the system – the over-valuation of soapbar cannabis can have a devastating impact on relatively low level dealers, or indeed users. With the threshold for the mandatory 10 year sentence set at E13,000 worth of drugs, it is quite possible for a dealer with E6,500 worth of cannabis to receive a sentence applying to twice this value. Of course, the drug’s street value is not what the wholesaler can expect to make, and a haul estimated by the state at E13,000 would in fact be worth around E3,000 to the convicted dealer. Or take the extreme example of John Gilligan, who initially received 28 years, reduced to 20 years, for possession of 20,000 kilograms of cannabis. Has anybody in the EU ever received such a lengthy sentence for a similar crime?
A smart lawyer may be waiting in the wings to take a Miscarriage of Justice case based on what can be interpreted as the deliberate exaggeration of the value of drugs seized – and he or she would have a very good chance of winning, if not in Ireland then certainly in Europe.
The Irish government is particularly bad at recording drug related statistics, and so we do not know how much it spends on attempting to prohibit drugs every year. Clearly the E30 million a year spent locking up drug offenders is a drop in the ocean. Indeed it is probably not an exaggeration to estimate that in excess of 50% of the entire budget of the Department of Justice, which is E2.695billion, is spent on ‘combatting’ drug-related crime, Meaning that the real cost to the Irish economy is substantially north of a whopping one billion euro.
On an EU level, the total annual spend simply on the attempt to prohibit the importation and sale of classified drugs adds up to over E8 billion, with the attempt to prohibit cannabis being the most costly, accounting for around 65% of the total spend. The fruit of all of this expenditure has been a Europe-wide increase in the use of cannabis.
How can anyone argue that this makes sense in economic terms? It can’t. And it doesn’t.
As the figures released last week by the National Advisory Committee On Drugs and the Drug and Alcohol Information and Research Unit in Belfast confirm, the market for illegal drugs in Ireland continues to grow. Given, on the one hand, the profitability of the business, and on the other the extent to which many people – especially those from an underprivileged working class background – feel they have no stake in a society that offers nothing to them in the way of opportunity, it is hardly surprising that prison poses little deterrent.
Even major law enforcement success only has the effect of changing the player’s faces while the market continues to go from strength to strength.
Meanwhile a lot of ordinary, generally upstanding citizens seem like using the drugs. That they are stepped on, leaned on, contaminated, and rendered toxic, poisonous and worse seems to make no difference.
When will we ever learn?