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How Covid-19 changed drug crime in Ireland

Drug traffickers used rental cars and exploited children as mules during the last year.

Image: Shutterstock/Tinnakorn jorruang

COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS SAW drug traffickers use rental cars, the postal service, exploit children as mules and stash their money at home in a desperate bid to keep their business going, say senior garda sources.

The illicit drugs market was hit hard after the initial lockdown because of an increase in Garda checkpoints and a nationwide shutdown of pubs, nightclubs and other social outlets used by dealers to distribute drugs.

The Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau also seized a record amount of drugs during the pandemic, impounding drugs valued at more than €36 million in the first 11 months of 2020 – compared to €21.3 million in total in 2019.

Meanwhile, Central Statistics Office figures show that reports of drug offences rose by 13.5% between March and May in 2020, with 22,773 offences recorded in the three-month period.

CSO statistician Sam Scriven said this may have been due to higher detection rather than an increase in crime. 

“Given the particular circumstances of the [first] lockdown it seemed plausible to me that increased surveillance and checkpoints could be one such factor [why recorded crime increased]“. 

Covid-19 restrictions triggered changes in the behaviour of both drug traffickers and drug users. Traffickers found new ways to distribute drugs, while many addicts turned to drug rehabilitation services for help.

Covid-19 restrictions forced dealers to come up with new ways to distribute drugs.

Rental cars

“The high garda presence at the start of lockdown made criminals rethink their strategies,” said a detective garda.“They initially started using [rental cars] because that’s not something you think a criminal would use.”

The garda source said rental cars became a preferred method of transport for drug traffickers because their own cars were often well known to gardaí and more likely to be pulled over and searched.

Since some rental cars only require online confirmation of identity, there is no guarantee that the person who hired the car and the person driving the car are the same. This made it increasingly difficult for gardaí to catch drug traffickers in the act.

Postal service

Many traffickers turned to the internet and the postal service in a bid to find new ways to transport their drugs, according to Anna Quigley, the Campaign Coordinator of CityWide Drugs.

“Just like a lot of businesses are operating online now because of Covid, the drugs business adapted in the same way,” she said.

The increase in online shopping through websites also allowed dealers to hide increased volumes of artificial drugs inside legitimate packages, said UCC lecturer in Criminology, Dr James Windle.

When asked for a comment, the commercial director at An Post, Jason Byrne, said that whenever there is any suspicion about the content of a package An Post workers search the package and their intention is always to seize any drugs before they are delivered.

He said: “Because of our company’s scale and that we take in packets and parcels over Ireland and abroad, we have Revenue commissioners on our sites along with their sniffer dogs. They will go through dispatches that are presented to An Post in their processing plants and they will screen them to find any unwanted contraband.”

On 18 December of last year, Revenue officers at Dublin Mail Centre seized various types of illegal drugs with an estimated value of €117,000. 

Almost 16kg of drugs – including herbal cannabis, magic mushrooms, liquid amphetamines and cannabis infused jelly sweets -  were discovered in parcels that originated from the United States, France and the Netherlands. The parcels were declared as items such as ‘ornaments’, ‘candy’, ‘clothing’ and ‘gifts’ and were destined for addresses in Dublin and Louth.

The day before that seizure, Revenue officers at Athlone Mail Centre seized 1.7kg of illegal drugs of various types, with an estimated value of almost €21,400.

The same month, items originating from the United States and marked as ‘sweaters’, ‘wedding invitations’, a ‘make-up stand’ and ‘plastic ornaments’ were found by Revenue officers and a detector dog to contain herbal cannabis with an estimated value of €72,300. The parcels were destined for addresses in Dublin, Donegal, Galway, Limerick and Kerry.

Exploiting children

Traffickers increased their use of young children as mules and runners to transport drugs during the lockdown when schools were shut.

Local political representatives in Dublin said that drug traffickers explicitly preyed on children in disadvantaged areas.

Councillor Daithí Doolan, Sinn Féin’s Group Leader on Dublin City Council, explained that “out come these lads saying ‘we can put money in your pocket, we’ll give you the fancy tracksuits and bikes if you do a bit of work for us’.”

Doolan said that children involved in drug crime often get caught up with debts they cannot pay and this can result in threats of violence. “If you can’t pay, your family will pay and they will visit your family every night of every week of every year until that money is paid. Every visit, they charge you for the visit. They will send people to threaten you, your children, to burn your house,” he added.

Traffickers stashing drug money at home

Gardaí say Covid-19 restrictions also changed the way drug traffickers stored their criminal profits. Prior to the restrictions, many criminals laundered their money through gambling and other outlets, but senior gardaí said this was no longer possible during the Covid lockdown months.

A Detective Garda Superintendent source said “… they are storing more and more money at home in recent months and we’ve had some success identifying and seizing drug-related money which ordinarily may have been laundered through different accounts or businesses.”

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The Detective Superintendent said that gardaí picked up on this during searches and investigations arising from an increased garda presence during the lockdown.

Covid changed the behaviour of drug users

Covid-19 restrictions made it difficult for drug addicts to either feed or afford their drug habits and this had repercussions for drug rehabilitation services.

Chloe Fitzgerald, formerly of the Ana Liffey Drug Project, said “the majority of drug users we see would also be on tablets as well as heroin and crack. And they built up a huge tolerance to these benzodiazepines. But they were in a short supply and people had no money; they were desperately turning to professionals for help.”

If addicts stop taking benzos after having built up a tolerance to them, they can have what is known as benzo fit, leaving them in critical condition – a reason why more people were looking for a community detox during lockdown.

“Because of the lockdown I found there were more people looking for help in relation to getting on methadone and getting on a community detox,” said Fitzgerald. A community detox is when an addict goes to a doctor and is prescribed medication and then the doctor slowly cuts the dose.

Hostels were also required to operate at a reduced capacity. Rooms of eight were reduced to four, which forced people back onto the streets and, in turn, reverted a lot of people back to drug use.

Drug rehabilitation centres’ services also faced changes during lockdown. They focused on mainly outreach work and closed their drop-in services. The workers were proactive in working to put vulnerable homeless people into hotels to protect them from the virus. They also walked the streets to assess people who were showing symptoms in order to get them into isolation units until they could be tested.

Covid changed drug consumption

The Global Drugs Survey examined drug and alcohol use during the pandemic over seven weeks during May and June 2020, surveying 55,811 people from 11 countries, including 4,518 people in Ireland.

It found that 74% of 1,200 respondents in Ireland believed Covid restrictions decreased the availability of illicit drugs, a number that ranked Ireland highest of the 11 countries surveyed, compared to 55% in the UK, 48% in the US, and 35% in the Netherlands.

The survey found the pandemic led to changes in cannabis consumption. Out of the 927 people who reported using cannabis products, 39% said they increased their consumption during the pandemic, while 28% said they consumed less, and 33% said they consumed the same amount.

Cannabis, in its various forms, accounted for almost half of the monetary value of seizures by the Garda Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau — with €15.2 million discovered in total. The bureau also seized 209kg of cocaine, worth €14.6 million; 24kg of heroin, at €3.3 million; and 15kg of ketamine, at €900,000.

€20 million in cannabis, resin, amphetamines, heroin and ecstasy were seized in the first half of 2020 compared to €23 million in total seized in 2019.

About the author:

Emma Costigan, Ruth Delaney, Georgia Fenlon, Rachel Kilbane and Níamh Kinsella

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