Gardaí to target street drug dealing as burden of Covid-19 duties eases

Commissioner says legalising drugs would make situation ‘far, far worse’

The Garda is to place a renewed focus on tackling street level drug dealing as it moves away from policing Covid-19 regulations.

Operation Tara, which was announced on Friday, will seek to “disrupt, dismantle and prosecute drug trafficking networks at all levels”, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris. But it will primarily focus on low level dealing, which Mr Harris said was devastating drug addicts and their families and corroding the communities around them.

The operation comes amid increasing concern about drug related intimidation, where dealers target addicts or their families with threats and violence over unpaid debts, in deprived communities across the country.

Mr Harris urged caution in the debate over legalising drugs. He said such a move would bring its own health and policing issues. He noted to the issue of so-called headshops a decade ago, which sold then-legal psychoactive drugs, causing health and public safety issues.

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“I don’t believe that we would just see the absence of organised crime groups should we legalise all of these drugs tomorrow,” he said.

The commissioner said he did not think anyone had thought through how drugs could be legalised “I think the situation would be far, far worse, if we just had in effect, a level playing field or open season on this.”

Crack cocaine

Gardaí are concerned about the increased use of crack cocaine, which Assistant Commissioner John O’Driscoll said has replaced heroin as the main problem drug in some areas of deprivation.

“Whereas in the night-time economy and other locations, we see that wider use of cocaine is a problem and is expanding.”

Policing of the drug trade has continued uninterrupted during the pandemic, Mr Harris said, pointing to figures showing €24.45 million worth of drugs were seized last year. This included 137.8kg of cocaine, 368.6kg of cannabis and 5.8kg of heroin.

“It is no longer the case that such dealing is confined to our cities and urban areas, it is happening in towns and villages across the country. Operation Tara will tackle this scourge,” he said.

Asked if it would be more effective to focus on higher level drug criminals, Mr Harris said the Garda does “huge work” in that area but targeting street dealers will “disrupt the business model” and prevent “goods getting to market”.

“If millions are seized, a local community does not see the benefit of that. Whereas, if we act locally and bring in an individual recognised locally as peddling drugs…then that adds to the confidence of a local community that there is a law enforcement response to this.”

The commissioner said the force can “further coordinate” it’s activities in relation to drug crime “now that we’ve got into 2021 and a lot of the weight” of policing the pandemic had been removed.

Intimidation

Operation Tara will also focus on drug related intimidation which is also a problem in deprived urban areas, he said. Some 17 per cent of people surveyed in Dublin expressed a knowledge of this happening in the city, compared to about 8 per cent in Munster.

As of last month, 321 gardaí had been assigned to full-time roles in drug units across every garda division as part of the operation.

Mr O’Driscoll said gardaí would target people engaged in the activity if they receive a report from a victim. Gardaí may not necessarily charge the person for the intimidation, for fear of further endangering the victim, but will find other ways to bring them to justice.

“In other words, the people involved become our targets,” he added.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times