Asian migrants 75% of those jailed for cannabis cultivation
Most non-Asian defendants were given suspended sentences
A member of the Garda National Drugs Unit looks at some of the 1,800 cannabis plants seized in Tralee, Co Kerry, last month. Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus
Asian immigrants, many claiming trafficking or exploitation, make up 75 per cent of those going to prison for large scale cannabis cultivation in Ireland.
An analysis of sentencing data from cases coming before Dublin Circuit Criminal Court shows that, over the last 2½ years, two-thirds of these immigrants claimed some form of exploitation or maltreatment but that all 24 went to prison, with an average sentence of three years. In contrast, most non-Asian defendants were given suspended sentences, with only eight out of 25 going to prison.
None of this group claimed exploitation or maltreatment and their average jail sentence was one year.
The figures show the Circuit Criminal Court in Dublin has convicted 52 people for their role in cannabis farms since 2011. Just under half of these were Asian immigrants from either China or Vietnam, with the rest being Irish or European.
Last year, two Vietnamese men were caught in a facility with more than €800,000 worth of cannabis plants. They tended to the plants in stifling heat and slept on the floor; their food was left for them at the front door.
Judge Martin Nolan accepted they were forced to carry out the work and were nothing more than “human watering machines”. Nonetheless he jailed them both. It is a pattern repeated elsewhere. Other Asian immigrants before the court said they had had their passports taken away and were never allowed to leave the house.
One defendant said he did not even know what country he was in.
Asian immigrants tend to be caught in sophisticated operations run by organised gangs, whereas Irish defendants are more likely to be personally running their own smaller operation.
The average amount that Asian immigrants were convicted of cultivating in the period analysed was €384,000 compared to €61,000 for non- Asians.
Another reason they get longer sentences is the deterrence factor. Judges want to send a message that Ireland is not a safe place for these gangs to grow their crops.
Gareth Noble, a solicitor with KOD Lyons, has acted in many of these types of cases and he said this was flawed logic. “I’m not sure how many Asian people in a marketplace in Macau read The Irish Times online and see these sentences being handed out.”
The solicitor said the deterrence factor did more harm than good. If the gangs who ran these grow houses saw heavy sentences being handed out, they were more likely to traffic in vulnerable people to do the work for them, while they maintained a safe distance.
According to Mr Noble, immigrants were also much less likely to be able to assist gardaí to catch the higher-ups and in the process reduce their own potential sentence. “If you don’t speak the language and have never met the person before and culturally everything is totally different, it’s actually impossible to provide any sort of material assistance when you are caught.”
Mr Noble said he had never heard of a trafficked person caught in a grow house avoid a jail term, no matter how horrendous their circumstances.
However the law is changing. Last July, in line with an EU directive, the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking Act) 2008 was amended to criminalise the trafficking of people into Ireland to work on cannabis farms.
The law also recognises as victims those trafficked into Ireland to commit crimes. This does not mean they are granted immunity. A Garda spokesman confirmed that the prosecution of immigrants and their assessment as trafficking victims remained entirely separate issues.
However, Mr Noble said if they were recognised as victims of trafficking, it would offer very strong mitigation when they were before the court.
The Migrant Rights Centre has campaigned for the amendment for years and is confident it will offer victims increased protection. However, a spokesperson conceded it was still unclear whether it would help such victims before a criminal judge.