- 16 Jan 20
“I am interested in decriminalising the person caught with small amounts of drugs because if we decriminalise that person we don’t minimise their life chances," he told us in a landmark interview
Former Assistant Garda Commissioner Jack Nolan is to lead the task force that has been set up in response to the narco terrorism, which has claimed multiple lives in the Darndale and Coolock areas, and spread out into neighbouring counties. In something redolent of a Mexican cartel war, the dismembered body of 17-year-old Keane Mulready-Woods was discovered this week in North Dublin. The Drogheda youth had previously been warned of credible threats to his life by the Gardai who were unable to prevent the killing.
Since exiting the Gardai in 2017, Jack Nolan has continued to advise police forces worldwide; become a member of the Ana Liffey Drug Project board; and participated in the Hot Press Drug Policy Town Hall Meeting at Electric Picnic where he spoke in favour of aspects of Portugal's drug decriminalisation laws.
"We’ve had 41 years of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977," he said in a landmark October 2018 interview with Hot Press. "While it has no doubt had many successes, it’s time now to look at different options."
Acknowledging that you can't just police your way out of a drug problem, he added: "In my 40 years of policing, I’ve witnessed the movements in Ireland on many social issues. Same-sex marriage, divorce and abortion were all areas that were once considered no-go areas for discussion. Drugs, in not just Ireland but all over the world, followed the law enforcement model, which is certainly required in relation to the dealing, the importation and all the associated criminality that occurs with it. But, the person at the end of the food chain, who suffers on the street, has been somewhat forgotten about. Using the criminal court and the law enforcement model for the people unfortunate enough to have become addicted to drugs is probably not the best approach. I’m heartened to see the focus on harm reduction, heartened to see the focus going towards a health model. We’ve had 40 years of one approach; let’s see what the next approach can bring. I don’t think the world will be magically changed the following morning if we decriminalise the personal possession of drugs."
Here's the whole of what was a fascinating and highly nuanced interview with our man Stuart Clark:
The most notable contribution to the drugs debate in the UK recently came from Mike Barton, the Chief Constable of Durham Police who, calling for the legalisation of cannabis, said, “What we’re doing is not working. The status quo is not tenable. It’s getting worse. Drugs are getting cheaper, stronger, more readily available and more dangerous. Prohibition doesn’t work.”
You seldom hear any such pronouncements from senior members of An Garda Síochána who generally don’t comment on existing laws or make unilateral policy statements.
That doesn’t apply, though, to retired officers like Jack Nolan, a former Assistant Commissioner who hung up his uniform in April 2017 after 40 much-garlanded years with the force. Indeed, he’d been among those tipped to succeed Martin Cullinan as Garda Commissioner in 2014.
Not ready to ride off into the sunset, Nolan accepted an offer to join the Board of the Ana Liffey Drug Project whilst also acting as a private consultant to law enforcement agencies in Europe.
Having travelled twice this year to Lisbon to see first-hand how the Portuguese decriminalisation model works, Jack made a potentially game-changing contribution from the floor at last month’s Dublin Drug Policy Town Hall meeting in the Wood Quay Venue.
“The world’s response has always been law enforcement and then secondary has been the rehabilitation, the treatment and the welfare model,” he said. “Our young people are criminalised. Our young people are deprived of life chances. Three-hundred-and-sixty odd die of overdoses - that’s more than three times the number of people who die on the roads. And yet we’re here in a small town hall meeting discussing this issue. This is a bigger issue for Irish society than is commonly perceived.
“Decriminalising drugs is a major challenge,” he continued. “I am more interested in decriminalising the person caught with small amounts of drugs or using drugs because if we decriminalise that person we don’t minimise their life chances and we give them opportunities that today are not as readily available.”
It was the first time that someone who’d occupied such a senior position in the Gardai had plainly said that Ireland’s criminal justice-based drug laws are penalising young people and failing to prevent one of the highest drug overdose rates in the world.
It’s unlikely that Jack Nolan’s highlighting of decrimalisation will have gone unnoticed by his former colleagues or the State Working Group, chaired by Mr. Justice Garrett Sheehan, who later this year will deliver their report on future drug policy to the Minister of State, Catherine Byrne TD. With the Minister already stating that the government favours a “health-lead approach”, campaigners are optimistic that significant change to our drug laws are in sight.
Whilst not wanting to pre-guess the State Working Group’s findings, Jack believes that there’s a growing appetite amongst Irish people to address the issue.
STUART CLARK: Can you give us a brief overview of your Garda career?
JACK NOLAN: Forty years of policing. I was stationed in every region of the country, and at I believe 16 or 17 different locations starting off in Cork City as a young guard, then up to Portlaoise for duty in the prison during the difficult times with the IRA campaign. Abbeyleix, Tullamore, Monaghan, Clones, Galway, Kilkenny… so a full career that took in various different branches at Garda Headquarters and getting to the rank of Assistant Commissioner in charge of Dublin. I retired in April 2017 the day before my birthday, so it’s a date I’ll always remember. I saw practically every side of policing from the development of wind-up telephones and computerisation to air support units and the growth of organised crime and An Garda Síochána’s response to that including drug dealing.
With them being a criminal justice issue here, I imagine drugs are talked about a lot in Garda circles.
Drug taking, drug dealing, drug importation and drug cultivation are all topics that appear on Garda planning and performance agendas right from district level to headquarters level, and, indeed, I was involved in the development over the years of strategic plans in relation to combating drug dealing and reducing supply.
You could have spent your retirement pottering around in the garden, but accepted an offer to serve on the Ana Liffey Drug Project board. What attracted you to the role?
(Laughs) I’m not really the pottering in the garden type! I was meeting their CEO, Tony Duffin, on a monthly basis at the Dublin City High Level Group meetings, which were chaired by the City Council’s Deputy Chief Executive, Brendan Kenny. Homelessness, rough sleepers, drug use, drug paraphernalia in the streets, public order and all the other what I call ‘street issues’ were being discussed by the people who had the ability to make decisions and put in place firm actions. I was particularly taken by the Assertive Case Management approach, which had been agreed by Dublin City Council, Ana Liffey, the Health Service Executive and An Garda Síochána to provide real and immediate help and assistance to people who are living pretty troubling and chaotic lives without the benefit, in most cases, of family support and homes. I had as part of my brief the juvenile programme that the Gardaí runs for young offenders. I was particularly interested in that and sat on a high-level management group with external experts who helped steer it. So, I had a keen and deep insight into the more rehabilitative and supportive An Garda Síochána services, which help people and organisations working hard to assist those less fortunate than our selves.
You joined Ana Liffey at a time when they were strongly advocating for the introduction of Ireland’s first medically supervised injecting room. Were you already in favour of the concept?
I’d been exposed to significant policing experience in Europe and had heard the concept being discussed in other places. I was particularly conscious of the fact that Portugal had made significant strides towards a different model rather than the law enforcement one in relation to drug dealing and taking. I was involved with a Dublin City business forum where An Garda Síochána and the different restaurant, hotel and tourist associations met on a monthly basis. Both Tony Duffin from Ana Liffey and Tony Geoghegan from Merchants Quay, who will be running the pilot injecting room, made impressive presentations.
You also met with Pat Paroz, the ex-Commander of Drug & Alcohol Coordination for New South Wales who told Hot Press that he was dead set against the introduction of the first Sydney injecting centre – until he saw it in action.
Yes, I had that conversation with him too. I had an open mind on the benefits and had a keen awareness of the issues and the problems associated with opening a supervised injecting facility in Dublin city centre. When you look at it in the clear, cold light of day, the police and the caseworkers are those who meet the results of drug addiction face to face in its most harrowing and gruesome forms. They encounter the victims of overdoses and the victims of significant misuse of drugs. Seeing somebody die down a laneway isn’t really something that should be allowed to happen in a modern democratic society. So, a supervised injection centre offering those unfortunate enough to be addicted to take their drugs in a controlled environment where there’s medical assistance should be generally available. It’s my understanding that there’s been no incident of drug overdose death in a supervised injection centre. I understand all the public concerns of how close its location can be to other social amenities or educational facilities: all of those issues are pertinent and important and have to be considered. I also think the dignity of a human being must be considered in the overall equation.
Whilst a person dying is obviously the primary issue, it’s not fair to expect our first-responders to go down lanes and find their bodies.
We’ve had 41 years of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977. While it has no doubt had many successes, it’s time now to look at different options. The government started looking that way with the National Drugs & Alcohol Strategy in 2017 and is continuing with the establishment of the Working Group on the issues of drugs possession under Judge Sheehan. I think that’s a very forward and positive step and I look forward to seeing its recommendations in due course with interest.
You said at the Dublin Drug Policy Town Hall meeting that you’re interested in “decriminalising the person rather than the drug.” Can you elaborate on that?
There’s no one seeking to decriminalise the actual substances. I personally favour the option of decriminalising the person found in possession of smaller amounts of drugs, but as we said before this is a major, complex issue. It’s not just about decriminalising a substance: there are issues surrounding the availability and cultivation of drugs. In Uruguay, they’ve put the supply of cannabis through their pharmaceutical networks and they’re doing something similar in the United States, and Canada also recently passed legislation in this regard. The issue of decriminalising a person is just one small part of a wider health and social issue for Ireland to consider. An emphasis on reducing supply or controlling supply through a licence or nationalised outlets is a debate that must commence as well.
You’ve said that drug policy needs to be “evidence based.” What evidence did you see in Portugal of decriminalisation – or aspects of it – working?
I’ve been to Lisbon twice to get the overall picture. I met some highly experienced people from the health rehabilitation side who left me somewhat surprised when they talked about there being around 100,000 addicts in 2001 and that now being reduced down to about 50,000, which is still a huge number, but very much heading in the right direction. I was particularly taken with the Dissuasion Committees, which is what a person found in possession of drugs for personal use goes through rather than the courts. It provides health and psychological evaluations and highlights the rehabilitation and health options that are available. I’m taking from that, that the information provided by the Dissuasion Committee and the overall health-led approach has been a key factor in the reduction in the number of addicts. I was also heavily influenced and impressed by the availability of treatment facilities and the number of residential treatment spaces that are available to people who require them and also how low threshold the access to residential treatment is.
(Note on ‘threshold’: services in Ireland require people to significantly reduce their drug intake - and even stop taking some drugs all together - before admitting them. In Portugal, residential stabilisation/detox services will assess and admit people as they present to them). Did you talk with law enforcement colleagues when you were in Lisbon?
Yes, I met with the Municipal Police to find out what happens on the streets, how they deal with usage, how they deal with community complaints and how they interact with other branches of the police who focus heavily on gangs and organised crime.
Was their support for decriminalisation wholesale or did it come with caveats?
It seems to be an accepted fact. I met officers who’d been serving prior to decriminalisation in 2001, and only heard positive comments in relation to how the matter is dealt with and policed today. There may be people with alternative views but I didn’t meet them.
As a family man, you seem concerned about the opportunities that are stripped away from young people when they get a criminal record for minor drug offences.
One of the many functions I had whilst serving was being in overall charge of the Garda National Vetting Bureau and, yes, I was struck by the consequences of how a criminal conviction that happened a long time ago can affect the life chances of somebody from an employment or travel perspective such as not being allowed entry into the United States. There are opportunities in the debate that’s now commencing in this country to decriminalise possession of smaller amounts of drugs rather than impacting on the life chances of somebody. It’s a huge thing for an individual to have a conviction for a maybe once-off possession of drugs.
Another thing you highlighted at the Dublin Town Hall is our drug overdose death rate being three times that of our road traffic accident one.
It’s a very reasonable point to make. Ireland had a poor road traffic record, which prompted the Road Safety Authority and councils to come up with a carefully crafted strategic plan. The 160/170 people being killed on the roads now is still way too high, but when we look at the 348 overdose deaths and another 347 from issues associated with drugs, it puts the matter into perspective. The conversation about deaths from drugs needs to be raised to another level.
You were very impressed with Philly McMahon’s contribution to the Dublin Town Hall – and vice versa. How important is it to have people like him contributing to the debate?
I’m conscious of the awful tragedy his family experienced when his brother died as a result of using heroin, and really appreciate the effort he’s making to divert people away from any form of engagement with illicit drugs. People who won’t take any notice of you or me will listen to Philly because of his sports star status. His enthusiasm and motivation to help others is hugely impressive.
Did you find it frustrating during your time with An Garda Síochána that, unlike Chief Constable Mike Barton, you couldn’t publicly talk about the sort of issues we’ve been discussing today?
There are many people in An Garda Síochána who are very knowledgeable and, indeed, experts in the area of drugs. It is somewhat difficult to speak out in relation to drug use while you’re a serving member of the organisation and obliged to uphold and follow the law in the form that it’s presented to the people of Ireland. Internationally, it’s usually former officers talking about it. That said, I do think An Garda Síochána has become more vocal and open in its discussion of issues. For instance, you see far more officers appearing nowadays on TV. The Ana Liffey Drug Project are planning to host a conference this autumn at which representatives from various different police forces will get to meet and exchange ideas and opinions. That sort of thing is invaluable.
What do you personally hope will come out of the current consultation process that’s being lead by Justice Sheehan?
In my 40 years of policing, I’ve witnessed the movements in Ireland on many social issues. Same-sex marriage, divorce and abortion were all areas that were once considered no-go areas for discussion. Drugs, in not just Ireland but all over the world, followed the law enforcement model, which is certainly required in relation to the dealing, the importation and all the associated criminality that occurs with it. But, the person at the end of the food chain, who suffers on the street, has been somewhat forgotten about. Using the criminal court and the law enforcement model for the people unfortunate enough to have become addicted to drugs is probably not the best approach. I’m heartened to see the focus on harm reduction, heartened to see the focus going towards a health model. We’ve had 40 years of one approach; let’s see what the next approach can bring. I don’t think the world will be magically changed the following morning if we decriminalise the personal possession of drugs. But the lives of some people may be significantly changed and that’s something we should never forget – the person at the bottom of the food chain.
Do you have your response ready if somebody says, “Jack Nolan’s gone soft on drugs”?
That’s always going to be an issue for some people. During my operational phase back in the 1980s, I was involved in the management of approaches to the organised crime problems that plagued Dublin. The debts and dealing and murder were the dark perspective of the drug world. I’ve spent my career policing for the people of Ireland. I think reducing harm for those using drugs is a key ambition for lots of people. We should explore the possibilities to the greatest extent.
I’ve left the most important question until last: how do you think Everton are going to fare with Marco Silva in charge?
(Laughs) I’ve been waiting for you to ask me that! I’m proud to be an Evertonian and, with my eternal optimism, look forward to us getting back to the glorious football last seen a long time ago under Howard Kendall. That’s not going to happen straight away, but I do like the look of Marco Silva.