Chief Superintendent Michael Finn made the comments ahead of a meeting next Monday when, for the first time, the Cork City Joint Policing Committee (JPC) will allow the public to air its views on ways to tackle drug addiction.
It is estimated that there are now 500 heroin addicts in Cork, whereas 10 years ago there were no more than 20.
Only half are on a methadone treatment programme, around 90% are under 30, and the majority take the Class A drug intravenously.
Chief Supt Finn said the rise in heroin use in the city was in part down to dealers who had changed tack.
During the boom times, dealers “concentrated on selling cocaine to the well-healed”, but now sell heroin to lower income victims.
“If an alcoholic is out on the street drinking beer every day, then we can arrest him every day,” he said. “But that person needs treatment. The same applies to heroin addicts. They need treatment, not prison.”
He said that while gardaí would continue to hunt the dealers, it was evident that a multi-agency approach was needed to reduce heroin addiction, which causes several knock-on problems, not least addicts’ deteriorating health.
He said there was “some tangible evidence” increased muggings and thefts from people in the city centre were down to addicts who needed money to get their fix.
He said discarded needles also posed risks for others catching serious infections such as HIV and hepatitis.
The JPC meeting will be held in the Millennium Hall in City Hall at 2pm on Monday and it is open to any member of the public.