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What’s the best way to destroy violent gangs? Legalise the drugs

The main currency propelling these gangs is the supply and sale of illicit drugs. We can remove their power, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

THE SHOCKING AND audacious gangland violence that has erupted onto our streets is but the tip of a very deep iceberg.

Every few years we see gangs flare up against one another and dramatic killings ensue, but in between headline-grabbing times these same gangs control and terrorise whole communities on a daily basis. The main currency propelling these gangs is the supply and sale of illicit drugs, from cannabis to crack.

It’s worth considering that the violence on our own streets, which are the end distribution point in a long supply chain, is tame compared to that suffered by people in countries through which drugs are produced and distributed. Situated on the Central American trafficking routes, Honduras is a country of 8 million people with 7,000 murders per year.

Drug fuelled gangs are a global scourge on humanity

The entire European Union has 500 million citizens, and 6,000 murders a year. The violence in Honduras and Columbia and Mexico and other nations caught up in the trade is more barbaric than anything we could imagine. Drug fuelled gangs are a global scourge on humanity.

When we see drug related violence we call for additional resources for the Gardai, the maintenance of the Special Criminal Courts, more prison cells and tougher sentences. All of it makes sense when you see the war on drug crime as linear fight: More criminals leads to more police, more convictions, more people locked away from society where they can do no harm.

9/2/2016. Armed Gardai Checkpoints Source: Sam Boal

Of course, we know from long domestic and international experience that all of the above does not lead to a sustained decline in the drugs trade. Gangs may behave themselves more during a period of heightened law enforcement activity, but in the end drugs still get to end users and the staying power of the lucrative industry outlasts that of policymakers.

A report in illicit drug markets in Ireland that was conducted by the National Advisory Council on Drugs and Alcohol spent 36 months looking at four markets across the country between 2008 and 2010.

They surveyed residents, gardaí, offenders and official statistics. They found that there is no one typical drug market, that in different places you have everything from highly organised gangs running drugs through legitimate business fronts; to highly decentralised markets where drug users are themselves the end dealers.

The report highlighted that market disruption by gardaí is practically pointless. From the report:

The limitations of Garda crackdowns in busy hotspots were also highlighted by local drug sellers, who would disperse quickly when gardaí approached and resume when they left the area.Drug sellers adapted to drug law enforcement by managing risk exposure. For instance, many interviewees did not keep drugs on their person: they would divide up consignments and leave them at different locations, for buyers to collect. Higher-level sellers often used others to transport drugs for them.Drug sellers also reported using people as decoys, where they would give them a small amount of drugs and then inform the Gardaí so as to distract the latter from a larger drug- deal happening simultaneously elsewhere.

9/2/2016. Armed Gardai Checkpoints Source: Sam Boal

The report authors spoke to offenders serving prison sentences for trafficking and possessing drugs. As they point out, the people they spoke to serving time in Irish prisons for importing drugs are mostly financially hard pressed individuals who took the job for as little as €500 in payment. We now house them at an average cost to the taxpayer of €95,818 per year per prisoner.

Looking at 1,378 drug seizures by Customs officials in the first half of 2009, the report authors found that 90% were cannabis herb or resin. 90% of these seizures were less than 28g and “were most likely for personal use”. Looking at garda activity in the drug markets they were profiling, the report authors found that most prosecutions were for possession of cannabis, with amounts seized by gardaí being worth €10 to €20.

Law enforcement

Most damningly, the report authors wrote that “our research showed no evidence that drug availability was affected for any significant period because of successful law enforcement.”

We seem to pour a disproportionate amount of effort and money into fighting drugs as measured against the impact on quashing the trade. Globally the drugs trade has flourished and only gotten stronger with years, and there is no evidence to suggest it is any different here in Ireland.

Fighting a head on war against criminals is clearly the wrong approach. Taking away their market is more likely to be successful. A think-tank in Mexico, IMCO, put the value of that countries hyper-violent cartels cannabis exports to the United States at $2 billion a year.

When certain US states legalised cannabis production and sale, the value is estimated to have collapsed by $1.4 billion a year. This is the reason why countries on the drug routes are turning to legalisation of the drug, seeking actively to undercut the gangs and drive them from the market.

It is likely that within the next ten years, cannabis will be legal across the United States. As it is, Denver has become one of the most popular states for spring break college students to flock to after legalising the stuff; and it is likely leaking from various states across the country at a cost to the drug gangs.

Common sense prevailing

Cannabis is legal or on its way to being legal in countries from Spain and Germany to Canada and Australia. Common sense is prevailing around this drug, which is at worst as harmful as alcohol, and revenues are being robbed from criminals.

Much destructive revenue comes from harder drugs we could not, in good conscience, make available for mass market sale. Heroin, crack and cocaine for example are drugs with clear and outsized harmful effects.

What we could do, however, is undercut the criminals where existing users are concerned. A blight of methadone clinics is the amount of heroin dealers who hang around outside them to keep their users hooked.

Why don’t we just bite the bullet and give addicts the heroin they crave, stick them in injection centres and hold our noses to the unsavoury nature of it in return for saving ourselves the time, effort, danger and cost of fighting violent gangs?

The reduction in gang revenues and the need for users to raise funds through criminal activities such as burglary will contribute to a wider social good, whatever our misgivings about keeping addicts hooked.

Perhaps we should just acknowledge that some addicts will always be hooked, and the best we can do is reduce the harm of their addiction. And if they’re in state run clinics that are giving them what they really want, maybe over time we can do a better job of convincing them to stay off drugs than we do when we send them out the door of clinics today and into the waiting embrace of criminals.

We’ll never eliminate drug use. So lets just get rid of the gangs, by drying up their revenue. Aaron McKenna is a businessman and columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.  

Read: ‘It’s shocking to think that 20 years after Veronica Guerin’s death we are back here’>

Poll: Should the election campaign be suspended to deal with gangland crime?>

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