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Connolly, Johnny (2015) Illicit drug markets in Ireland. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 52, Winter 2014, pp. 1-5.

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The first national study on illicit drug markets in Ireland, conducted by the Health Research Board, was recently published by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol (NACDA).1 The study provides in-depth research and analysis on the various factors that influence the development of local drugs markets; the nature, structure and organisation of the Irish drugs market; the impact of drug-dealing on local communities; and an evaluation of current interventions in response to illicit drug dealing. This article provides a summary of the key findings of the study.

This exploratory study was conducted over a 36-month period (from 2008 to 2010) and included a cross-section of four local drug markets: two urban, one suburban and one rural drug market (anonymised as A–D). The study adopted a mixed methodological or triangulation approach to the investigation. This included the following: 

  • face-to-face in-depth interviews with both former and active drug users and street sellers and with individuals serving prison sentences of more than seven years for drugs supply;
  • 24 interviews with experienced members of dedicated garda drug units in the four study sites and with senior members of the Garda National Drugs Unit;
  • 1nterviews with drug treatment workers, public health specialists and a family support group;
  • a street survey of 816 local residents and business people (approximately 200 respondents in each location);
  • analysis of 1,200 drug offences and seizures on the Garda PULSE IT system throughout the four study sites and nationwide seizures made by Customs Drug Law Enforcement (CDLE) from 18 stations; and
  • analysis of cocaine and heroin purities and adulterants in all study sites by the Forensic Science Laboratory.

Evolution and organisation of illicit drug markets

When asked what they thought were the main reasons for local drug use, most survey respondents highlighted social issues, with drug use seen as a symptom of deeper underlying factors. These included the absence of facilities for young people, high unemployment, boredom, poor parental supervision and drug availability. A number of explanations were also advanced during interviews as to how illegal drugs entered the areas. Factors mentioned included the relocation of people from deprived urban centres to suburban and rural areas, the influence of prison where people had developed addictions and/or met people who would subsequently introduce them to drug-dealing, and the arrival in an area of people, both national and non-national, with heroin habits.

Despite popular portrayals of illicit drug markets as hierarchical entities controlled by organised crime groups, recent international research has emphasised a more complex, decentralised and fluid phenomenon involving numerous participants, most of them strangers to each other.2 The findings of this research correspond with this more nuanced perspective. There were a number of key differences in how drug markets were organised across the four sites surveyed, from more loosely structured to more co-ordinated arrangements. Site D, for example, was highly structured in terms of distributing heroin, cocaine and cannabis, with several high-level suppliers involved in drug importation and distribution over this very wide area. The middle market in this location was reportedly heavily populated with individuals and groups or ‘gangs’ supplying kilograms or more. Although crack cocaine had originated with West Africans in site D, it now involved more Irish sellers. In site C, the distribution of drugs such as cannabis and cocaine was concentrated among a small number of established families. Heroin distributors were described as non-local, both Irish and non-Irish, who had arrived in the area with an addiction. The heroin market was also described as less structured and easier to penetrate from a law-enforcement perspective. In site B, the heroin supply was regarded as having originated within specific families but more recently it involved a looser network of individuals. Heroin was not imported directly but sourced from the major cities of Dublin and Limerick. Cocaine distribution in site B was more structured and lucrative and dominated by a particular group of individuals who used legitimate businesses as a means of transporting drugs throughout the region. Across all sites, it was found that a large number of individuals performed roles on behalf of higher-level suppliers. Another common factor we found across all sites was that higher-level suppliers usually avoided any contact with drugs once they had been imported.

In site A, a large number of individuals performed roles on behalf of higher-level suppliers, including diluting or preparing drugs. Those involved in the storage and transport of drugs were generally relatively minor participants, either earning drugs for their own use or trying to pay off a drug debt. The involvement of young people in the drugs trade was also a factor. In site A, young people played a substantial role in drug distribution at street level. Storing or running drugs was a financially lucrative option for teenagers. Over a six-month period, PULSE data revealed that one-fifth of suspected supply offenders were aged 18 or younger. Not all these runners used drugs themselves and some were doing it as a way of earning money. The profile of runners was different in site B. They were often older heroin addicts running drugs in return for a personal supply. Non-drug-using young people (aged under 18) were not reported as playing a significant role in drug distribution. Similarly, in site C, although runners did exist, there was little evidence to suggest the involvement of very young people (aged 16 and under). It was reported that this would not have been tolerated by local residents. By contrast, in site D, young people were reported to be heavily involved in running drugs.

The main drug sold across all four sites surveyed was cannabis. Heroin, crack cocaine and prescription drugs could be purchased at different levels in all areas. All the main drugs were available in all four study locations, although heroin was a relatively recent phenomenon in site C. The research indicated that some dealers sold multiple substances. PULSE data also suggested a degree of overlap between drug types, with multiple substances often being seized from the same individual in supply type offences. However, there were also many sellers who concentrated on only one substance, such as cannabis.

Where drugs are sold was shown to vary across sites – not all drugs were sold on the open market. No drugs were reported to be sold openly in sites B and C, yet sites A and D had several highly visible open street-level markets, often located in the midst of legitimate commercial businesses. In site A, dealers took turns to sell drugs to buyers who came from outside the area. Across all sites, it was reported that closed markets were to be found in pubs and flat complexes. There were thriving open markets for crack cocaine in sites A and D, while site B, which was a rural town, had an emerging crack problem. Drug sellers in all sites reported the increased use of mobile phones to assist in the carrying-out of drug transactions.

Impact of illicit drug markets

When asked if they avoided areas in their neighbourhood (and why), many respondents noted that this was mainly because of people hanging around in groups taking drugs. This figure varied across the sites, however – from almost three-quarters of respondents in site A to under half of respondents in site D (40%). Most respondents considered illegal drugs to be a big problem in their area (ranging from 67% of respondents in site C to 90% in site A). However, we found that residents’ direct exposure to drug problems, whether through witnessing drug-using behaviour or seeing discarded syringes in their neighbourhoods, varied.

All four sites reported an increase in violence associated with the drug trade – violence that was increasingly visible in public in the form of fights or damage to property. Violence in all four markets was largely related to unpaid debts, although territorial disputes did occasionally emerge in less ordered drug markets. Drug debts were acquired through people consuming their own supply or as a result of Garda seizures. Where gardaí seized drugs, debts remained outstanding and still had to be paid. This may be described as an unintended or adverse consequence of drug law enforcement, whereby effective supply reduction activities can indirectly contribute to greater levels of drug-related violence. In site A, drugs were provided on credit at all levels of distribution and most of the violence related to money owed.

Drug market disputes over debt or territory could also ‘spill over’ into public displays of violence, or innocent third parties could become embroiled in such conflicts. In site A, in a busy open street market for crack cocaine, dealers took turns in selling to new buyers. If one dealer began to dominate, however, this could contribute to conflict, which could lead to public fights. However, not all drug markets studied here can be described as equally violent. In site C, where the drug market was described as competitive but relatively ordered, with everyone ‘knowing their place’, violence was almost always related to drug debts.

Our research found that one of the major consequences of drug-related violence and intimidation is that it can act as a major disincentive to residents or local business people taking action and/or engaging with state agencies in responding to such problems. Explaining their refusal to report local drug-related problems, the majority of residents in all locations stated their fear of reprisal from those involved in the drug trade.

It must also be acknowledged that drug markets can have an ambiguous relationship with their ‘host’ communities: although there may be opposition to them – particularly in terms of the stigma they can bring to the local area – they can also provide a source of cheap goods in deprived communities. Residents in all four study sites reported being offered stolen goods by people they suspected of being drug users. Interviews with drug users and sellers revealed that stolen property was an important currency in everyday drug transactions, so there was clearly a local market for the proceeds of drug-related crime. Stolen goods, such as jewellery, mobile phones, satellite navigation devices and computer games were regularly exchanged for drugs. Stolen goods were either retained by the dealer for their personal use or they were sold in the local community.

Law enforcement responses

With regards to drug seizures, the air mail unit (Dublin), the Athlone mail centre and Dublin airport passenger terminal accounted for most of the seizures made by Customs Drug Law Enforcement (CDLE) during the research period. The drugs seized were generally en route from source/transit locations such as Amsterdam, South Africa or South America. Mail stations such as Portlaoise reported a high rate of low-volume seizures of substances such as cannabis, and licit but prescribed medication such as benzodiazepines.

Of the 1,378 CDLE seizures of illegal or controlled drugs between January and June 2009, 90% were of cannabis herb or resin. The vast majority (90%) of these seizures weighed less than 28g and were most likely for personal use. CDLE made 52 seizures of illegal substances that weighed 1kg or more (4% of total seizures). Cocaine and cannabis herb accounted for 89% of these seizures. It is not possible to determine accurately the proportion of these drugs that were destined for the Irish market or whether these seizures had any significant impact on drug availability in Ireland.

Garda Síochána drug unit strategy focused on middle-market suppliers, primarily using intelligence from informants. Such intelligence was acquired through developing relationships with offenders working in the lower levels of distribution. It was shown across all four sites that supply offences accounted for between 17% and 33% of all drug offences, and that the largest proportions of supply offences were in sites A and D. On the one hand, this reflects the intelligence-led and focused nature of activity by individual Garda drug units. On the other, it reflects the greater availability of drugs in these areas. While some drug sellers acknowledged the importance of being wary of Garda activity, our research showed no evidence that drug availability was affected for any significant period because of successful law enforcement. In all four sites, most prosecutions were for simple possession of cannabis: most of these related to stop and search activity by Garda members and the amounts seized were valued at between €10 and €20. Local tolerance of cannabis use was highlighted by Garda members and by treatment workers in a number of sites.

Assessing impact of drug-related law enforcement

Drug availability

The report highlights the challenges that arise in any attempt to assess the effectiveness of responses to illicit drug markets. Such problems are related to the obvious difficulties in trying to account for largely hidden activities, but they are due also to the limitations of criminal justice data. Moreover, the absence of reliable evidence of a straightforward link between supply-reduction initiatives and sustained reductions in drug availability has been highlighted in the international literature.2 The public demand for illegal drugs and the profits which can be earned from drug-dealing ensure that Irish drug markets, like those elsewhere, remain resilient and adaptable to law-enforcement interventions.


For instance, a convicted drug courier claimed that he had smuggled cannabis across Europe into Ireland for many years without detection. For this individual, the transporting of drugs was a lucrative business and one in which he participated for monetary gain. Also, a number of imprisoned non-national female drug couriers interviewed for the study, who had been apprehended in airport passenger terminals, generally reported being in desperate financial circumstances, and had agreed to courier kilograms of illegal drugs, sometimes for as little as €500. The incarceration of such individuals, while it removes some drugs from circulation, is unlikely to have any real impact on those individuals higher up the supply chain, and thus its effect on drug availability will be limited in the longer term.

Market disruption

In sites A and D, despite several targeted operations, gardaí acknowledged that they were unable to disrupt market activity for any length of time, nor had they been able to displace activity to another location. The limitations of such Garda crackdowns in busy hotspots were also highlighted by local drug sellers, who would disperse quickly when gardaí approached and resume when they left the area. Drug sellers adapted to drug law enforcement by managing risk exposure. For instance, many interviewees did not keep drugs on their person: they would divide up consignments and leave them at different locations, for buyers to collect. Higher-level sellers often used others to transport drugs for them. Drug sellers also reported using people as decoys, where they would give them a small amount of drugs and then inform the gardaí so as to distract the latter from a larger drug-deal happening simultaneously elsewhere.

Engaging and reassuring communities

Another way of determining the impact of law-enforcement approaches is whether they reassure the public. Residents’ perceptions of Garda anti-drug activity were investigated in the street survey. In site A, only one-third of survey respondents believed the gardaí to be effective or very effective in dealing with crime. In sites B and C, approximately half of respondents believed gardaí to be effective or very effective in dealing with crime in their area. In site B, more than half of them knew a Garda by name, while in site C more than a third knew a Garda member by name. In site D, just under half of respondents believed gardaí to be effective or very effective in dealing with crime, while 36% of residents said they were not very effective. Just one quarter of respondents knew a Garda member by name and/or had spoken to a Garda about the area. These findings suggest that there may be a link between perceptions of Garda effectiveness and familiarity with Garda members working in the community; they support the findings of other research which suggest that police visibility can increase residents’ confidence in the ability of the authorities to address public nuisance.

Partnership responses

Evidence is growing, both internationally and in Ireland, that partnership approaches involving drug law enforcement, local communities and other stakeholders offer the most sustainable method of responding to many drug problems, including illicit drug markets.3 Drug unit members’ contact with treatment providers varied across sites. In three sites (A, B and C), Garda members had little contact with local drug-treatment agencies and factors such as confidentiality issues were cited as possibly preventing closer links. However, in site C, it was felt that better working relationships with social welfare services and housing authorities could produce beneficial outputs for all agencies involved. There was also doubt expressed about the suitability or effectiveness of Garda members taking a bigger role in diverting offenders to treatment.

In site D, inter-agency partnership was developing and proving beneficial. The relationship with local municipal housing authorities was described as positive, and local housing authorities assisted efficiently in the eviction of drug-dealers. Recent improvements in relationships with drug-treatment services had also produced positive results such as the identification of persistent drug sellers stationed outside drug-treatment clinics. However, gardaí had no official relationships or structures to help guide problematic users and sellers to treatment.

Research implications

The study raises a number of general implications for future responses to illicit drug markets. First, the complete removal of illicit drug markets through drug law enforcement is not an achievable goal in the foreseeable future. The aim must be to consider how future drug law enforcement might evolve to address the complexities and particular harms associated with Irish drug markets. It is suggested that such an approach does not necessarily require a change in the legal control framework but rather a more pragmatic use and co-ordination of existing resources and the targeting of those resources at the most harmful aspects of drug markets.

Second, not all drug markets are equally harmful. For example, some are more violent than others and open markets cause more disruption to communities than closed ones. Third, law-enforcement interventions that focus on the particular harms associated with a specific market have the potential to have an impact on those harms and they may also lead to a more effective and economically viable use of public resources.


Finally, approaches that seek to divert problematic drug users into treatment and that prioritise local community perspectives, and those that occur in collaboration with other relevant agencies, are more likely to be sustainable over time and to win public support. 

The study concludes with a discussion about how to address four key challenges which, it is suggested, need to be overcome if such an approach is to be successful:

  • how to deliver change through inclusive community-based, inter-agency partnerships,
  • how to engage with communities in light of the widespread localised fears that drug markets and those involved in them can create,
  • how to prioritise harms and use resources to their maximum effect, and
  • how to profile drug markets and monitor responses to them.

Conceptualising drug markets

The illicit drug market can be understood as loosely incorporating three inter-related levels or dimensions. First, the global or ‘international market’ incorporates drug production and international trafficking; second, the ‘middle market’ involves the importation and wholesale distribution of drugs at a national level with research seeking to describe how drugs are moved from importation to street level and by whom; and third, the ‘local market’ involves distribution at a retail level. May and Hough4 provide a classification of retail markets distinguishing between open markets, semi-open markets such as pubs and clubs, closed markets and crack or dealing houses. Some of their main features are described as follows:

■ Open Markets – open to any buyer with no requirement for prior introduction to the seller and few barriers to access.

■ Semi-open markets – pub and club-based markets, mostly for ecstasy and other drugs used by clubbers. Sellers will generally do business in the absence of any prior introduction, ‘provided the buyer looks the part’.

■ Closed markets – sellers and buyers must know and trust each other, or be introduced by a mutual third party.

■ Crack/Dealing House Markets – Have evolved since early 1990s in UK. ‘Crack houses’ sell a wide range of illicit drugs and so are more accurately referred to as ‘dealing house markets’. Can be in residential, uninhabited or semi-derelict properties and often for a short period until enforcement closes them down. Can attract large numbers of buyers, often calling at day and night and are often associated with anti-social behaviour in the building or in the surrounding area.


  1. Connolly J and Donovan A (2014) Illicit drug markets in Ireland. National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol and Health Research Board. Dublin: Government Publications
  2. Babor T et al (2010) Drug policy and the public good. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  3. Connolly J (2006) Responding to open drug scenes, drug-related crime and public nuisance – towards a partnership approach. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Pompidou Group; Jacobs K et al (2007) Making sense of partnerships: a study of police and housing department collaborations for tackling drug and related problems on public housing estates. Project Report. Tasmania: National Drug Law Enforcement Research Fund
Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Issue Title
Issue 52, Winter 2014
January 2015
Page Range
pp. 1-5
Health Research Board
Issue 52, Winter 2014

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