Many local units are forced to operate with a handful of members, with Cork West struggling with three; Wexford axed to just one; and Cavan/Monaghan’s unit abolished altogether.
Drug squads in divisions afflicted by organised crime — including Dublin North, Dublin South, and Limerick — have, on average, had their strength almost halved in recent years.
Garda sources point out that in many cases, drug squad gardaí are performing other detective duties — such as tackling burglaries — because of dire shortages in local detective units.
It comes as separate statistics show that the overall strength of the force has reached 12,799 — including 200 gardaí on career breaks.
This brings the effective strength to 12,599 — which is 400 below the 13,000 minimum previously set by Garda headquarters. About 300 recruits will come on stream in batches of 100 throughout this year.
The figures were revealed as Garda Commissioner Noirín O’Sullivan announced two “super” Garda units: One to tackle organised crime and a second to tackle child, domestic, and sexual violence and human trafficking.
Figures supplied by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald to Fianna Fáil TD Billy Kelleher show the strength of the country’s 29 divisional drug units fell by 30% in the last four years, from 361 in 2011 to 253 in 2014.
This includes a 100% cut in Cavan/Monaghan (from 8 to 0), a 91% cut in Wexford (11 to 1), a 64% cut in Wicklow (11 to 4), a 57% cut in Cork West (7 to 3) and 50% cuts in Dublin North (32 to 16), Waterford (10 to 5), and Laois/Offaly (6 to 3).
There has been a 45% cut in Dublin South (31 to 17), a 40% cut in Limerick (20 to 12), and a 29% cut in Cork North (7 to 5).
Some 13 units are operating with six staff or fewer.
“All drug investigations require two key elements: Surveillance and searches,” said one source. “If you don’t have the resources, you can’t do either.”
Several sources pointed out that many drug unit members are sucked into general detective duties — from investigating burglaries to car thefts — because detective units are so depleted.
“For far too long, regular units have been depleted to staff specialist units,” said a spokesman for the Garda Representative Association. “While we fully understand the need for specialist units, regular units as well as local detective and drug units are constantly cannibalised. You can’t keep doing that and expect them to function.”
Local drug units are sometimes assisted by the Garda National Drug Unit, which has also struggled with staff levels, with 55 members. It is to merge with the Organised Crime Unit, which has up to 40 staff, in a new super unit.