State keeps to high value assessment of drugs when price on streets is lower


By the end of next year, this State could have anti-drugs and anti-organised crime laws which will be the envy of anti-drugs campaigners and law-makers across Europe.

The new Bill, announced by the Minister for Justice, Mr O'Donoghue, yesterday, has the potential to impose mandatory minimum 10-year sentences for possession of what some abusers would regard as fairly ordinary quantities of drugs. There will also be an automatic process for the seizure of a convicted person's property.

The threshold level for a person facing the mandatory 10-year minimum sentence is a major toughening of the State's position on drugs. One senior Government official commented: "The public want tough and they are getting tough."

A brief examination of some of the recent sentencing in drugs cases reveals exactly what the official meant. Only nine days ago, a Dublin criminal, Russell Warren, was sentenced to five years imprisonment for possessing £2.7 million worth of cannabis.

In July 1995, an English drug smuggler caught with 700 kg of cannabis with an estimated street value of £7 million, one of the largest single hauls of drugs in the State, received a seven-year sentence. The judge ruled that 3 1/2 years be suspended. With remission for good behaviour, this man should be free by next summer. Three years ago, a musician caught with £16,000 worth of cannabis was fined £8,000 but not jailed. This contrasts with the proposals put forward by Mr O'Donoghue yesterday where somebody caught with as little as 1 kg of cannabis could, theoretically, face a minimum sentence of 10 years.

In the past month alone, gardai have arrested around 50 people in connection with a run of drugs seizures, the least of which was valued at £100,000 and the biggest at £8 million.

The State may also have difficulty in determining exactly how to value drugs. Estimates can vary dramatically. In July 1992, Customs officers seized 55 kg of the chemical, benzyl methyl ketone (BMK), which is used in the manufacture of amphetamines. The initial estimate of the haul was put at £4 million. However, a few days later the chemical was being valued at around £7,000.

Street drug prices in Dublin fluctuate but have generally fallen over the past decade or so. The variations in the drugs values depend on scarcity and levels of purity or strength. There is no norm.

Heroin is sold mainly in £10 "bags" and a quarter of a gramme is said to be selling for around £40. The punishment available under the new Bill for heroin possession would therefore be applicable for somebody in possession of around 62.5 grammes (just over two ounces) or over.

Cocaine, once abused only by the rich because of its high cost, is said to have been widely available at rock-bottom prices in Dublin over the past year. According to some sources, it is available at £15 a gramme. In the case of cocaine possession the 10-year minimum sentence would currently apply to somebody caught with over 666 grammes (less than 2 lb). Gardai maintain a consistent valuation for cannabis at £10 a gramme based on the notion of enough of the drug for about four cigarettes, the ubiquitous "£10 deal" which is sold widely in pubs and clubs and on street corners, mostly to young people. This valuation puts a £10,000 price on 1 kg of cannabis. However, it is known that 1 kg of the drug can be bought at wholesale price for between £2,000 and £2,500.

Ecstasy, the "dance" drug which was selling at £25 a tablet when it first appeared in Ireland less than a decade ago is now selling at £10 or £12. The 10-year minimum sentence for ecstasy possession would come into play for anybody caught with 833 tablets or more.

The other commonly-abused drug in this State is amphetamine sulphate which is sold in paper sachets for about £10 a gramme. A dealer would face the 10-year minimum term for possession of 1 kg or more.