The streets of Clonmel in south Tipperary were empty in January, like everywhere else in the State; but, to Superintendent William Leahy, there was one sought-after product that was in greater supply than before: cocaine.
So bad was the situation that Leahy temporarily dissolved his community policing unit for six months to concentrate resources on targeting the sale and supply of drugs.
The move to suspend community policing caused uproar locally, prompting Leahy, usually a quiet man who does not seek headlines, to appear on Tipp FM’s mid-morning current affairs programme, Tipp Today, to answer his critics.
His stark message to host Fran Curry quietened many critics: "We have a serious drugs issue in Clonmel, and many's the time, throughout the last year . . . two years, I've went to sudden deaths of people who overdosed from drugs, deaths of people who took their own lives because of drugs.
“And it’s not nice to see it, and we have to confront this and take this on,” said Supt Leahy, who told listeners that the gardaí alone could not solve Clonmel’s drug problem and that everyone in the town had to take responsibility and ownership of it.
“People who think it is okay to use drugs on a recreational basis, and think that it’s harmless, are only fooling themselves. Not only are they damaging their health, they are funding organised crime,” he says.
“There’s a lot of people wearing the clothes I wear when I’m off work, who go to the pub, have a few drinks with their friends, and they think it’s okay to go into the toilet and have a line of coke, or whatever. In certain section, people can’t see there is something wrong with it.”
Drug of choice
Cocaine is the main drug of choice for those taking drugs in Clonmel and its townlands of Fethard, Carrick-on-Suir, Kilsheelan, Mullinahone, according to local gardaí. The tougher action by the gardaí on the street quickly brought results.
Since January, gardaí have seized €256,000 worth of suspected cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, MDMA (ecstasy), alprazolam, cannabis and diazepam, as well as €20,000 in cash from dealers in the town.
The problem has been growing for some time. Drug detections for sale or supply in and around Clonmel increased by 70 per cent, from 37 in 2019 to 63 last year, while simple possession detections surged from 148 to 258.
Being “law abiding Monday to Friday” and then using drugs at the weekend is contributing to public order issues, assaults, and collisions on the roads, warns Leahy, who says that people’s mental health is being destroyed by drug habits.
Local gardaí are “working closely” with local suicide support groups to educate and support those struggling, but Leahy is quick to acknowledge that tackling the drug problem is not only a criminal justice matter: “Enforcement is one thing, but the mental health aspect is a big part of it,” he says.
His team now hand out fliers with contact details for local drug support services when gardaí encounter juveniles with small amounts of drugs: “It’s a self-referral basically. We give them information (about) the service.
“It’s up to them then to go and seek help. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it does happen,” explains one of Supt Leahy’s team.
“It’s not just about arresting them, processing them, taking their drugs, it’s about getting them help. We are here to help,” says a spokesman from Garda HQ in Dublin later.
Local dealers are sourcing supplies from criminal gangs in Dublin and Limerick, while, more and more, gangs are brutally targeting young people, who often owe them thousands, for repayment. Their families are also being targeted.
“In the majority, if not all of the cases, families are very slow to make complaints to gardaí,” Leahy says. “There is specific legislation to deal with it, but they try to sort it in-house or without going to the gardaí, and we are anxious about that”.
Despite this, Leahy offers hope to those under pressure from dealers. “Come to us because we can successfully deal with it. Like the intimidation of a witness in the courts system, there has been successful prosecutions and successful investigations.”
Leahy says local dealers are grooming their own children and nephews and nieces from an early age to get involved in the drugs trade. “They are not waiting for every child in their family to reach 18. We have seen juveniles involved in the sale and supply of controlled drugs.
“They are no doubt using it, too – but definitely they’re involved in it as well,” he says. So far, the youngest person he has encountered was aged just 12 years, says Leahy. “We will continue to disrupt and dismantle drug-dealing networks and organised crime groups that effect our town so negatively.”
Despite these challenges, Leahy says he is in charge of policing “a great town”.
“It’s a good town, with decent people, by and large. We won’t solve it alone, others have as much of a role to play – addiction counsellors, educators.”
The situation in other places is the same, with higher and higher demand for drugs. In south-east Limerick, Supt John Ryan has formed Bruff Garda District's first-ever dedicated drugs unit.
The move in the district, which covers an area the size of County Louth, bordering other Garda districts in Tipperary, north Cork and west Limerick, came after local concerns about drugs were voiced again and again by councillors at local joint policing committee (JPC) meetings.
“Our drug detections are up significantly on last year. It is a big rural area, but if you were to go the furthest corners of any Garda district, you would find there is young people who have had issues around drugs, there is a story everywhere.
“Mainly what we find here is cannabis, but cocaine would certainly be there, and tablets; we come across a little bit of everything, but they are the main ones we come across in our searches,” Ryan says.