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FactCheck: Are there fewer gardaí dealing with a growing drugs problem?

Sinn Féin TD Seán Crowe recently made some alarming claims on this issue. FactCheck puts them under scrutiny.

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SINN FÉIN TD Seán Crowe recently revealed figures showing a drop in the number of gardaí assigned to drug units within garda divisions across the country.

In a statement earlier this month, and in a later interview on Newstalk Lunchtime, the Dublin South-West TD claimed this decline was happening as problems associated with drug use were increasing.

Is this actually the case?

(Remember, if you see a TD making alarming claims, email factcheck@thejournal.ie or tweet @TJ_FactCheck).

Claim: Garda drug unit numbers are falling as problems associated with drug use are rising.
Verdict: Mostly TRUE

  • The number of gardaí devoted to tackling drug crime has been significantly and consistently falling since 2010
  • The trend in the number of drug treatment cases and drug-related deaths has been more mixed, but there have been successive increases in recent years
  • However, the number of drug crimes recorded has significantly fallen over the past five years.

The Facts

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Seán Crowe made several different claims about increases in drug-related problems.

In response to our request, he sent FactCheck extensive and detailed evidence from several sources, relating to several components of his claim.

We’ll address each of them, starting with the big one…

Garda drug unit numbers

FactCheck asked the Department of Justice for the number of gardaí assigned to each division’s drug unit, from 2010 to 2015. The 2016 figures are taken from a recent PQ by Fianna Fáil TD Jack Chambers.

drugunitnumbers

As you can see, the number of gardaí assigned to drug units within garda divisions has fallen significantly in recent years, but stabilised somewhat since 2014.

At the end of May, there were 126 fewer gardaí in divisional drug units than there were at the end of 2010, a decline of exactly one third (33.3%).

In its response to FactCheck, the Department of Justice pointed out:

…The overall resources deployed in counteracting the drugs trade have to be seen in the context of the fact that all gardaí have a responsibility in the prevention and detection of criminal activity, whether it be in the area of drug offences or otherwise and in particular in the light of the allocation of additional resources to tackle gangland crime, much of which is targeted against those involved in the drugs trade.

It’s also important to note that these figures don’t include the Garda National Drugs Unit, which operates on a nationwide level, although it obviously works with divisional drug units as well.

We got the National Drugs Unit figures from the Department of Justice, and when you add them to the equation, it reveals an even steadier decline in the total number of gardaí dedicated to tackling drug-related crime, in the last five years or so.

drugunitNDUnumbers

In February 2015, the National Drugs Unit was merged with the Organised Crime Unit, to form the National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, which had 108 members by December that year.

The Organised Crime Unit was itself previously part of the National Bureau of Investigation which had 133 members at the end of 2014, but as of December 2015 had 49.

Whatever way you look at it, Seán Crowe is absolutely right to say the number of gardaí dedicated to tackling drug-related crime has been significantly and consistently declining since 2010.

And he is also absolutely right to claim, as he did, that the number of divisional drug unit gardaí in Dublin has fallen from 147 in 2011 to 114 by May 2016.

Drug crimes

We collected data on recorded drug crimes from the CSO (dealing, trafficking, possession), from 2009 to 2016. Since there’s only three months of data available for 2016, we compared the quarterly averages for 2009-2015.

drugcrimes

As you can see, there has also been a significant fall in drug crimes in the recent years, albeit with two year-on-year increases in 2014 and 2016 (so far).

In 2015, there were 24.4% fewer drug crimes than there were in 2010.

The significant, fairly consistent fall in drug crime since 2010 is a blow against Seán Crowe’s core claim that the problem of drugs in Irish society has been growing.

But it is important to note that he never made any specific claim about the trend in drug crimes, and crime alone doesn’t tell the full story of the “problem” of drugs in Ireland.

Drug-related deaths

To support his claim that “the ready availability of hard drugs [is] on the increase”, and his general argument that the overall problem of drugs is growing, Seán Crowe cited figures from the Health Research Board on drug treatment and drug-related deaths.

The figures on deaths come from the National Drug Related Deaths Index, although they only go up to 2013, unfortunately.

drugdeaths

We’re somewhat limited in what we can deduce from these figures, given the most recent available are from three years ago.

There was certainly a very significant 57% increase in the number of annual deaths in the decade between 2004 and 2013, but from 2009 to 2013 the trend stabilises somewhat, hovering around 650 deaths per year in three of those five years, but reaching the highest level on record in 2013.

It remains to be seen whether that number was something of an anomaly, or the start of an upwards trend that continued in 2014 and 2015.

Drug treatment

Seán Crowe directed us to data from the Health Research Board’s National Drug Treatment Reporting System (NDTRS) showing figures for 2013 and 2014.

Those numbers relate to the number of cases of new drug treatment in each year, excluding continuing multi-year treatment cases.

We asked the HRB for the data as far back as 2004.

drugtreatment

There has been a more significant and more sustained upwards trend here, over the last decade. However, after two consecutive massive jumps in 2009 and 2010, there were two consecutive years of declining treatment numbers.

Ultimately though, the numbers haven’t come close to falling to pre-2010 levels since, and there have been two successive increases in the final two years of data available – 2013 and 2014.

Those years also saw the two highest numbers of drug treatment cases on record.

This data certainly tends to support Seán Crowe’s contention about the increased availability and uptake of drugs, and that the drugs problem in Ireland is growing.

Conclusion

12/2/2015 Drugs Seized Source: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

The first part of Seán Crowe’s claim – that the number of gardaí assigned to tackling drug crime is falling – is absolutely TRUE.

However, drug crime itself is also falling. And although he didn’t make any claims to the contrary in his statement, it’s clearly an important factor in evaluating trends in the general “problem” of drugs in Ireland.

Important, but not definitive. The trend in the number of drug treatment cases has been somewhat mixed since 2011, but reached successive record highs in 2013 and 2014.

The trend for drug-related deaths is less clear, since the most recent figures relate to three years ago.

However, there were three successive increases in the number of drug-related deaths in the final three years where data is available (albeit one of those increases was tiny), and the figures reached a record high in 2013.

It’s worth pointing out that, obviously, An Garda Síochána cannot solve all drug-related problems. Their job is to disrupt the distribution of drugs and arrest those responsible for it.

Equally, the problems associated with drugs and drug use are not limited to crime, drug-related deaths and the demand for drug treatment. The social, economic and personal consequences of drug addiction and drug abuse are far-reaching, but also hard to measure in statistics.

That’s why this FactCheck focused on those three areas in evaluating whether the problem of drugs in Ireland has been growing.

On the whole, taking into account the various components of this argument, we rate Seán Crowe’s claim – that the number of gardaí in drug units is down while the problem of drugs gets worse – Mostly TRUE.

To download a spreadsheet containing all the relevant raw data from this FactCheck, click here.

Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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