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Forensic lab prioritising large drug seizures over personal use cases

Forensic Science Ireland is under increasing pressure to test drug samples as huge numbers of seizures are made.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

A HUGE VOLUME of drug seizures and pressures on staffing levels have caused Ireland’s forensic lab to “prioritise” which seizures they test. 

Sources have said that the amount of simple possessions, or drug seizures by gardaí of quantities for personal use, being tested routinely by Forensic Science Ireland has been reduced. 

The Journal has learned that gardaí who find drugs such as cocaine, heroin, cannabis and ecstacy, have been told that some samples will not be tested in time for court appearances.

Gardaí make the simple possession seizures normally using legislation to stop and search people on the street under the misuse of drugs act while large quantities are seized under warrant with detailed intelligence supporting the search. 

The seizure, depending on quantity and other evidence, can be prosecuted as either simple possession or sale or supply. 

“There is quite an amount of seizures of small quantities of drugs for personal use being found as normal,” a source explained. 

“But such is the volume of drugs going to the forensic lab that a lot of those samples are not being tested in the way they would have been before. 

“This could cause certain problems evidentially in court as the Judge, in a contested case, would require a certificate to prove that it is a controlled substance.

“This is a staffing and resourcing issue – clearly there is not enough people there to do the testing,” a source said.

Sources have said that there is concern within the force that any backlog could affect prosecutions of organised crime suspects. 

It is understood that a large amount of the suspects in the cases of simple possession would have admitted the type of drug in a cautioned memo to the investigating garda. 

A Department of Justice spokesperson confirmed that there was a change in the way Forensic Science Ireland (FSI) operates.

“Forensic Science Ireland (FSI) provides a forensic analytical service to the criminal justice system. FSI works with An Garda Síochána to ensure that cases where analysis is urgently required are prioritised,” he said.  

“Testing for simple drug possession is still taking place however FSI works with An Garda Síochána to focus on the most important cases and prioritise resources accordingly. This practice is common across forensic organisations in Europe.

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“The need for prioritising analysis in more serious drug offenses, including section 15 (possession with intent to supply) and section 17 (cultivation) cases over section 3 (simple possession) cases, is clear. Cases are prioritised on the basis of when the Court Date for the drugs offence is scheduled,” the spokesperson added. 

The Justice Department spokesperson admitted that there has been a substantial increase in the amount of forensic samples sent to the lab.

“This practice of prioritisation has served the criminal justice system well. In a situation where FSI do not have the capacity to do everything, the cases that are prioritised are those cases that are  most critical and most impactful to the criminal justice system in general.

“The case load for FSI is increasing all the time. In 2020 alone, drugs and toxicology submissions increased by 26% and more specifically, complex case submissions (related to possession with intent to supply, or cultivation) increased by 34%. In 2020, approximately 29,000 cases were submitted to FSI and reports were issued in 22,000 cases,” he added. 

Seizures increased to record levels last year and it is understood that the rise will continue in figures for 2021. 

One unit alone, the Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau seized €36.5 million last year.

A statement has been requested from an Garda Síochána.

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