Home > The illicit drug market in Ireland.

Connolly, Johnny (2006) The illicit drug market in Ireland. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 17, Spring 2006, pp. 2-3.

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The second publication in the Drug Misuse Research Division’s Overview series was published in December 2005. The purpose of this Overview, The illicit drug market in Ireland,1 was to compile and analyse existing data sources and available research on the drug market, to identify gaps in knowledge and to inform future research needs in this important area of drug policy.

The illicit drug market can be understood as incorporating three inter-related levels or dimensions. The global or ‘international market’ incorporates drug production and international trafficking; the ‘middle market’ involves the importation and distribution of drugs at a national level and the ‘local market’ involves distribution at a retail level.

Understanding the scale, nature and dynamics of the drug market is a critical requirement for effective policy-making and action. It is important to understand the global interconnectedness of the drug market as this has implications for international relations. Also, by mapping out ‘middle market’ levels, research studies have investigated how drugs are moved from importation to street level, by whom and for what profit. In doing so, such studies have identified more efficient ways in which drug supply can be disrupted. With regard to the ‘local market’, low-level distribution networks are the principal means by which drugs become available in a neighbourhood. The ease of access to drugs is regarded as an important determinant of experimental drug use among adolescents. Local drug markets can also instil fear and insecurity in local communities. Consequently, there is a need to identify and disrupt local drug sources and supply routes. Knowledge of these networks, their dynamics and their impact is an important prerequisite for effective interventions, such as local policing, harm reduction or housing initiatives.

Information and research on the illicit drugs market in Ireland is extremely limited. In the case of the importation and internal distribution of drugs in Ireland, information is gathered by law enforcement agencies such as Customs Drug Law Enforcement and the Garda National Drugs Unit (GNDU). When drugs are seized, Irish law enforcement personnel seek to determine the destination of the drugs by considering a number of factors associated with the particular seizure: the size of the seizure, the geographical location of the seizure, whether, for example, weather conditions inadvertently caused a diversion into Irish waters of a particular shipment, and the circumstances of the individuals apprehended along with the drugs. Another possible indicator of national distribution patterns is drug-related prosecutions by drug type and by Garda division, which are reported in the annual reports of An Garda Síochána.

A number of localised studies have provided further information on aspects of retail drug markets and their impact on specific locations. Such studies illustrate that the drug phenomenon impacts disproportionately on the quality of life of certain communities in Ireland, with drug-related crime, nuisance and fear associated with such markets of particular concern. Typically, such communities already experience a range of other social and economic problems such as poverty, high levels of unemployment, educational disadvantage and political marginalisation. Street-level drug markets in such areas can add to the sense of alienation often experienced by residents and this in turn can operate as a disincentive to engaging in community-based and inter-agency policy responses.

Drug price data enable us to estimate the value of the illicit drug market. Knowledge of the value of the illicit drugs market can provide an indication as to its relative importance vis-á-vis local economies. Price estimates obtained from the GNDU and from a drug users’ support organisation, the Union for Improved Services, Communication and Education, were used to ascertain drug prices for the year 2003 as shown in the Overview. As the Irish illicit drugs market is closely connected to that of the UK and Northern Ireland, Irish drug prices are also compared with drug prices in these jurisdictions.

Systematic purity-testing of drugs seized at all market levels can provide useful information on market dynamics and profit margins.

The Overview provides information on drug seizures, estimated illicit market value, drug sources and trafficking patterns, drug prosecutions by Garda region and drug availability. Among the key findings were:

·       The total number of drug seizures reported in the annual reports of the Garda Síochána decreased by 17.2% between 2000 and 2003. The total number of seizures increased from 5,603 in 2002 to 6,377 in 2003.

·       An upward trend in cocaine seizures in recent years is evident. The number of cocaine seizures increased steadily, from 42 seizures in 1995 to 566 in 2003, a growth of more than 1,200%. Since 2000, the quantity of cocaine seized has increased by just less than 500%. A small number of crack cocaine seizures were made in 2003.

·       With regard to market values, based on a commonly used estimation that the amount of drugs seized in a given year is 10% of the total amount imported, using seizure data provided in the Annual Report of An Garda Síochána 2003 and price estimates supplied by the GNDU for 2003, an approximate estimate of the total retail market value for the following drugs in 2003 is made: cannabis resin €374 million; cannabis herb €4 million; heroin €54 million; cocaine €75 million; amphetamine €10 million; ecstasy €129 million; LSD €3,300.

·       The largest proportions of cannabis-related prosecutions take place in the Dublin Metropolitan Region (DMR) and the Southern Region.

·       Despite the concentration of population in the DMR, ecstasy-related prosecutions appear to be dispersed quite widely throughout the State.

·       Although heroin-related prosecutions have decreased in the DMR since 2001, they have increased in the areas immediately surrounding Dublin. While the trends in the other regions are less consistent, it is clear that, although heroin remains predominantly a Dublin-based phenomenon, it is no longer confined exclusively to the capital.

·       Surveys suggest that Ireland ranks quite highly relative to other European countries in terms of perceived drug availability. Ireland ranks first among the 35 countries surveyed in the most recent European School Survey Project on Alcohol and other Drugs with regard to perceived availability of inhalants, crack, cocaine and ecstasy.

·       While there is not necessarily any direct connection between source of drug production and perceptions of availability, these findings suggest an exaggerated perception of drug availability among school children in Ireland relative to those in other European countries.

·       Localised studies and surveys which have sought to ascertain information about local drug markets, have found that some parts of inner city Dublin are characterised by a high exposure to a drug culture and that the procurement of drugs in such areas is relatively uncomplicated.

·       That drug initiation usually occurs within a familiar social context, between friends, relatives and neighbours, rather than through the intervention of a stranger or ‘dealer at the school gates’, has been a consistent but generally overlooked finding of research in this area. 

The Overview identified a number of limitations in existing data sources and provided recommendations for further research. The recommendations included the following:

·       Research is required to identify the operational characteristics and dynamics of different stages of the drugs market, involving, in particular, the middle and local market stages. Research should also distinguish between markets in different substances.

·       Regular surveys on the impact of local drug markets on local communities should be conducted. Such research would assist in evaluating the effectiveness of intervention strategies such as local policing initiatives.

·       Research on Irish drug markets will be facilitated through a more systematic collation of drug seizure, price and purity information.

·       An analysis of seizure data might usefully consider, separately, seizures by the various agencies such as the Garda Síochána and Customs and Excise. Seizures by these different agencies would normally happen at different stages of the market.

·       Seizure data should also be presented in a way whereby small and large seizures can be defined and also whereby seizures can be categorised by drug type.

·       The use of price as an indicator of drug availability requires repeated accurate and up-to-date data.

·       Drug purity data is not collated in a systematic way at different market levels in Ireland. Research should be conducted in the Forensic Science Laboratory to ascertain purity levels of different drugs and for different-sized seizures, i.e. both street-level and larger seizures.

·       Research should be conducted in order to estimate the total value of the wholesale and retail illicit drug markets. The compilation on an annual basis of data sources, including drug production estimates, drug seizures, drug prices (wholesale and retail), drug purity (wholesale and retail) and drug prevalence and estimated per capita drug consumption would facilitate such a study.   

1. Connolly J (2005) The illicit drug market in Ireland. Overview 2. Dublin: Health Research Board. Copies of this publication can be obtained from the National Documentation Centre on Drug Use.

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Crime prevention
Issue Title
Issue 17, Spring 2006
January 2006
Page Range
pp. 2-3
Health Research Board
Issue 17, Spring 2006
Accession Number
HRB (Available)

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