UN report shows just 3% of heroin smuggled into Ireland is seized

Rather than the figure of 10% long bandied about, a UN report puts a more accurate figure of close to 3% on the amount of heroin seized by gardaí here, writes Cormac O’Keeffe

For a long time now, the figure of 10% has been bandied about to estimate the amount of drugs that are seized.

It’s a figure stubbornly difficult to stand up or even to ascertain where exactly it came from.

Successive garda bosses working in the drugs area rubbished it, saying the seizure rate was higher, although they could never put a figure on it.

Now we have a figure, for heroin at least. And garda bosses ain’t going to like it. It’s 3%.

It’s not an estimate from a half-baked university paper, but from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

In consolation, Ireland does not differ much from our neighbours, suggesting a consistency, even a credibility, to the estimates.

Ireland’s interception rate of 2.9% compares to 4.8% in Britain, 2.2% in Germany, 3.2% in France, 2.3% in Denmark, 3.9% in Portugal, 2.2% in Austria, 4.2% in Belgium, 1.4% in the Czech Republic and 6.4% in the Netherlands.

The study, ‘Drug Money: The Illicit Proceeds of Opiates Trafficked of the Balkan Route’, is one of very few such research projects.

The report was based on data between 2009 and 2012. It examined the heroin trade, from production in Afghanistan, via Iran and Turkey and through the Balkan route, to the wholesale and retail markets of Europe.

The report gives a “best estimate” that 958kg of heroin (adjusted for purity) is trafficked into Ireland, on average, every year. It estimates that 27.5kg are seized every year, and that 931kg gets through on to the street.

The UN report takes an average of 29 studies on usage rates among heroin users, giving them an estimate of 44g (pure) of heroin used a year. Working backwards from the 931kg consumed, that suggests around 21,160 users.

The 44g yearly total divided by 365 days suggest a daily consumption of 0.12g of pure heroin.

Based on Irish recorded seizure figures, this would translate into roughly 0.22g of street heroin a day, or about a fifth of a gramme.

Johnny Connolly is a criminologist attached to Trinity College Dublin and researcher on drug markets. He thinks the daily consumption estimate is about right. He puts it at between 0.3g and 0.5g of street heroin, of roughly 30% purity. This translates to 0.1g to 0.2g of pure heroin, similar to the UN estimate.

Where Dr Connolly differs, is on the number of heroin users.

He said the UN study appeared to use Irish official data from 2006, which put the number of heroin users are 20,800. But experts at the time said the figure was “inflated” or an “overestimate”. (We are currently awaiting an updated estimate.)

Dr Connolly puts the number of heroin users closer to 15,000, which includes up to 10,000 who are receiving methadone treatment. Based on this, he estimates the total amount users are consuming between 547.5kg and 657kg of pure heroin (as opposed to 931kg).

Using the UN figure of 27.5kg being seized a year, he suggests an interception rate of between 4% and 4.8%.

“I would say this is more accurate,” he said. “At the same time, we are not really talking about a huge difference. Law enforcement often use the 10% figure, so really we are quibbling between 3% and 5%. And UK research estimates you need to be seizing 80% to make a difference.”

A senior garda told the Irish Examiner that it was “impossible” to say how much heroin was coming into the country. He said that, last year, 85kg of heroin was seized.

“There are substantial amounts coming in, but we don’t know how much,” he said. “I think these [UN] figures are very speculative, 3% or 10% are as accurate as each other.”

He was most critical of the gross profits the UN report estimated Irish heroin traffickers were earning — at €600m a year.

“‘No’, all day ‘no’,” he said. “It’s mad stuff. They are certainly not earning €600m.”

Dr Connolly said the profit estimate is the one he most disputes: “I do think the profits are way too high. I would say it’s almost half that of the report.”

The Ana Liffey Drug Project says an average user spends between €40 and €80 a day on heroin (each bag costs €20).

Dr Connolly said that if you took an average of €60, it would suggest a yearly spend of €320m by 15,000 heroin users.

He said part of the reason for the variation in figures is the lack of publicly available information by the gardaí on seizures and the market.

“Of course there are gaps [with the study] because we haven’t the research here,” said Dr Connolly. “Studies like this help us begin that analysis and that’s really important. If we are trying to get to grips with drug laws, we have to analyse the market, from production to retail, and this is what this study has done in relation to heroin.

“It is very difficult work to do and huge resources have gone into the report, but it is just the beginning.”

He said the research showed that massive money was being made after heroin is brought in and purchased by wholesalers and regional dealers.

“There are massive profit margins at the middle level and that’s where police resources should go. It’s where there is a need for asset seizures.”

Dr Connolly said the money from those assets needs to be reinvested locally: “That’s to displace the drug economy and provide alternatives to young people.”

He said that whether the profits are €600m or €320m, they still outstrip the State’s entire drug-related budget, of around €200m.

He said the UN report raises wider, and deeper, issues about our drug laws.

“This has profound implications for the whole concept of supply control. You have to ask what does supply control achieve?”

Dr Connolly said the possession of all drugs for personal use should be decriminalised, not only to benefit the health of users, but to free up garda resources to target for dealers. He said there should then be a debate about “regulating” drug markets.

The senior garda said the most important objective in relation to seizures was the impact on the gang and the importance of the people arrested, not the quantity.

“It’s quality prisoners that we are after,” he said. “The street operations [targeting street dealers] are very important for local communities, but quality prisoners are a main goal.

“We aim to destabilise and dismantle crime groups and, if we can, break them up. If they are taken out properly it is very difficult for them to bounce back.”

Experts are currently reviewing the last National Drugs Strategy and the next one will be drafted this year.

They could do a lot worse than add the UN study to their reading list.

* A video news report on the Irish heroin problem from 2013

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