Home > The drugs market and intimidation.

Galvin, Brian (2016) The drugs market and intimidation. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 57, Spring 2016, pp. 19-20.

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We know from several international studies that the basic assumptions of the standard economic model do not apply to the market for illicit drugs.1 The existence of this market has consequences, often violent, for the distributors and buyers engaged in it as well as for the broader community. Earlier this year the nature of the intense rivalry among those involved in the importation and distribution of illicit drugs was underlined by a number of very public violent incidents in Dublin.  The seemingly inevitable lethal outcome of disputes among competitors in this market receives a great deal of media attention, including profiles of prominent victims and background stories on how this usually clandestine business operates.  


A hidden but more frequently occurring harm is the violence and threat of violence experienced by drug users and their families within their own communities as a result of debt incurred through drug use. The willingness of distributors to use or threaten violence to enforce debts or overcome obstacles has a profound impact on communities already dealing with the disorder and property crime resulting from the concentration of drug markets in their areas.2 Intimidation, by its nature, uses fear to both force people into certain actions and ensure silence.  It is therefore a very difficult topic to study and while anecdotally we know intimidation is used intensively in certain communities, the extent of its use and the consequences for the victims has not been systematically measured. 


A recent CityWide study, Demanding money with menace,3 recorded and categorised incidents reported to community-based drug services which have not, generally, come to the attention of the Garda.  This research built on the knowledge obtained through two previous studies, which had used innovative approaches to illuminate the nature and consequences of this phenomenon. 


Intimidation of families

A 2009 report on drug-related intimidation, published by the Family Support Network (FSN),4 put the findings in the broader context of families already living in marginalised communities and undergoing further alienation as a result of official indifference and even hostility.  Having a family member being threatened with, or actually experiencing, violence as a result of drug use was found sometimes to elicit little sympathy from statutory agencies, leaving affected families to cope on their own.  While communities often organised themselves in a collective response to the open sale of drugs in certain areas, the author of the report described how drug users themselves were sometimes targeted by this communal activism, compounding their already difficult situation.  From their work with families of deceased drug users FSN was well placed to articulate concerns around the specific problem of drug-related intimidation and explore means of alleviating its worst effects on the communities in which criminal organisations were active. 


Following an initial study using a Garda-designed research tool, the author of the 2009 report undertook a postal survey of a sample of 91 family support workers or facilitators, 50 of whom responded. The survey gathered information on the extent and nature of drug-related intimidation encountered by the respondents in  the course of their work over the previous 12 months. The responses included case studies submitted by 36 respondents.  Nearly all the respondents reported that they had clients, usually mothers of indebted drug users, but also including other family members, who had experienced intimidation because of drug-related debts, sometimes as low as €100 but more often amounting to several thousand euro. Little account had been taken of the capacity of these people to repay the debts, with most families needing to take out loans or sell property to do so.  Nevertheless, payment was pursued relentlessly and participation in illegal activity, such as storing drugs or weapons or even prostitution, was often accepted as partial payment.  This enforced criminality sometimes resulted in the exclusion of the family from their local authority home. Mothers were the family member most frequently targeted by those seeking repayment of a debt and it was usually an associate of the person to whom the debt was owed who made contact.  Payment of the debt generally ended the intimidation, but most of the case studies reported that the drug user often incurred further debts and then the intimidation began again. The survey also collected information on the consequences of unpaid debts, with threats almost invariably being carried out.


While verbal threats, including threats of sexual violence, were the most frequently recorded form of intimidation, physical violence and damage to property were almost as common. Intimidation has a profound effect on the communities where it is prevalent.  Families who had experienced intimidation were too fearful to approach the Garda and it seems drug-related intimidation is a very under-reported crime.  The 2009–16 National Drugs Strategy, following a recommendation from this 2009 report, included an action (Action 5) to develop a response to the problem of intimidation. FSN, together with the Garda and the Health Service Executive (HSE), developed a framework including training, an information leaflet and an online campaign to assist drug users, their families or friends who are experiencing drug-related intimidation.


Melting the iceberg of fear

A 2013 study of drug-related intimidation concentrated on one area of a Dublin suburb, interviewing people working in various health and community services.5 From the responses to the interviews, the author devised a ranking system for those engaged in drug-related intimidation, starting with a ‘higher order’, comprising those in powerful positions in the illicit drugs market locally who organised intimidation of in-debt users and other members of the community; a ‘middle order’, often drug users themselves, who were prepared to threaten to protect their own position or act on the instruction of others; and a ‘lower order’, mainly children, who were being initiated into drug dealing and engaging in antisocial behaviour at the behest of adults.


Demanding money with menace

The 2016 CityWide study, mentioned above, undertook an audit of drugs projects in local and regional drug and alcohol task force areas to gather information on intimidation that had been reported to these projects. Most task forces agreed to participate in the audit and collaborated with the authors in the design of the questionnaire on which the audit was based.  The authors used a series of focus groups with both local and regional drug and alcohol task forces to explain the purpose of the audit, garner local information on the subject and distribute the questionnaires. Project workers in the participating task force areas completed the questionnaires and returned them to CityWide between April 2014 and December 2015.  To complete the audit the authors held further focus groups, which were used to complement and clarify the findings from the returned questionnaires.  They also undertook focus groups with Travellers, former prisoners and various community groups.


The findings of the CityWide audit were similar to those of the 2009 NFSN study in a number of respects. After the drug user who had incurred a debt, the person most likely to be a victim of intimidation was the debtor’s mother. These were also the people most likely to report threats of, or actual, violence. The drug user was often the source of intimidation, putting pressure on his or her own family to pay money owed as result of drug use.  While verbal threats formed part of three quarters of all intimidation incidents reported, physical violence (46%) and damage to property (32%) were very common.  As was found in the NFSN study, coercion into criminal activity often resulted from failure to pay a drug debt. As supply of drugs on credit is a feature of the illicit drug market, violence is seen not just as a means of enforcing a debt but also as a means of warning other drug users about the consequences of not paying debts.  The increasingly heavy use of cannabis among young people has meant that the age profile of those incurring debts has declined.  Just over 40 per cent of debts are for sums of less €1,000 but the pressure to pay relatively small debts is just as intense as for greater sums.  A little over a quarter of debts were for sums of €1,000 to €5,000, with nearly 13 per cent ranging between €5,000 and €10,000.


The role played by gangs in the acquisition and distribution of drugs in marginalised communities has been documented,6 and intimidation, or enforcement of debt, is also frequently organised and carried out by groups of people.  Most of the incidents recorded in the CityWide audit involved groups of people: existing social networks attempt to establish themselves in the drugs trade and such groupings are necessary to maintain clandestine activity. Young people are generally acquainted with those who intimidate them, often belonging to the same social network and enduring the consequences of falling into debt with friends.


The responses of victims and their families to drug-related intimidation vary, with slightly less than half of debts being paid in full. Some individuals and their families took no action while just over one in five avoided the perpetrators.  A little over a third of those reporting incidents had informed the Gardaí, with community organisations being the organisations to which intimidation was most often reported.  Fear of reprisal was the reason most people gave for not reporting to the Gardaí and, even if prosecution did follow, this was no guarantee that the intimidation would cease. The consequences for victims of intimidation and their families can be severe, with more than two thirds reporting mental health problems arising from both the intimidation itself and the attendant relationship problems, financial worries and stress in the workplace.


The CityWide report emphasises the role played by community services in supporting those targeted by intimidation and calls for these services to be adequately equipped to deal with these distressing situations. Young people’s indebtedness can rapidly lead to criminal activity, so early preventative work and intervention to stop gang formation is also important. According to the authors, the normalisation of drug-related intimidation and the degree to which it is under-reported owing to fear and lack of confidence in the policing system are major criminal justice issues which require resources and the attention of all relevant agencies to resolve. 


  1. LSE Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy (2016) After the drug wars. Report of the LSE Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy London School of Economics. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/25200/
  2. Connolly J and Donovan AM (2014) Illicit drug markets in Ireland National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol, Dublin https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/22837/
  3. Connolly J and Buckley L (2016) Demanding money with menace: drug-related intimidation and community violence in Ireland Dublin: Citywide Drugs Crisis Campaign. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/25201/
  4. O'Leary M (2009) Intimidation of families Dublin: Family Support Network www.drugsandalcohol.ie/12898
  5. Jennings P (2013) Melting the iceberg of fear: a collective response Dublin: Safer Blanchardstown. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/20566/
  6. Hourigan N (2011) Understanding Limerick: social exclusion and change. Cork: Cork University Press
Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Crime prevention
Issue Title
Issue 57, Spring 2016
May 2016
Page Range
pp. 19-20
Health Research Board
Issue 57, Spring 2016

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