Illegal drug use is the scourge of cities, towns and rural villages right across the state. Gone are the days when the problem was confined to major urban areas. In fact, nowadays hard-core drug use is approaching something like routine.
It is also the source of endless heartbreak for families, parents and children whose lives are blighted by an epidemic of active addiction.
Services aimed at intervention and prevention are notoriously underfunded and this in itself only serves to perpetuate the problem and increase the likelihood of inter-generational addiction.
In terms of the Gardaí there are approximately 250 Garda personnel attached to Divisional Drugs Units for the entire country and these are supported, as needed, by the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau which has 98 Gardaí attached.
But because it is such a significant problem and because of the violence and anti-social behaviour that flows from drug use, I recently submitted a number of Parliamentary Questions to the Minister for Finance in order to precisely gauge the level of the problem and to ask what resources are available to Revenue around the seizure of drugs.
The reply I received should leave us all in doubt that the problem is enormous. In fact, we now know that in 2019 and 2020 Revenue seized drugs from persons entering and leaving the state to the value of €44.8 million.
This included 7,764 seizure of Amphetamines and Ecstasy in 2019 and 10,500 seizures in 2020.
The data provided to me also showed that there were 2,284 Cannabis (Herbal & Resin) seizures in 2019 and 5,053 seizures last year. The total value of all of this was put by Revenue at €28.6 million.
Cocaine seizures amounted to €10.2 million, although as we now know, that has been eclipsed following the seizure of an additional €12m worth of cocaine following a joint search operation between gardaí and Revenue officers at Ringaskiddy Port, in Co. Cork.
This is fantastic work that deserves to be applauded. We need to ensure that such high levels of disruption continue.
Indeed, in his reply to my PQ Minister Donohoe outlined that Revenue’s combatting of the smuggling of controlled drugs into and out of this jurisdiction will continue to be a priority.
That is certainly a stance that all of us can support regardless of political affiliation.
The link between active drug use and crime is too obvious and well known for me to rehearse here.
There is also the very real problem of small communities not being sufficiently consulted when new addiction services are proposed. We must find a balanced approach that accepts people’s concerns but also the need to provide appropriately located services.
In my role as a rural TD for Laois Offaly it is vitally important therefore that the Gardai are sufficiently resourced and that communities are not left isolated or effectively abandoned to rural crime by the latest set of ‘restructuring’ proposals.
That is why I recently challenged the Minister for Justice, to ensure that more is done on the preventative aspects of the problem.
I and many others believe that one of the key deficits is the lack of community policing and the ability to intervene earlier and effectively when a problem is recognised.
Unfortunately, community policing levels in Laois-Offaly have dropped dramatically in recent years.
Data that I obtained from the Department in response to another parliamentary question showed that the number of such gardaí in the Laois-Offaly division in 2009 was 44, whereas the current figure is just 14.
That represents a 200% drop in little more than a decade. This is very concerning for communities that feel isolated, particularly rural communities.
I accept that what we are confronted with here is an enormous challenge that defies easy solutions. It is a hugely complex problem that demands compassion but also political courage.
Attempts to normalise certain forms of drug use will help no one. As will attempts to minimise the damage that drug use creates for the user, his or her family, and also for the children that routinely end up as collateral damage because their parents cannot access sufficiently resourced services.
We need common sense here, but we also need to adopt a tougher approach which clearly and unequivocally sends a message that drug use will not be tolerated with a nod and wink attitude.
Carol Nolan is an Independent TD for the constituency of Laois Offaly. Carol is also a member of the Dáil Rural Independent Group