Fighting The Drugs Menace


The Minister for Justice, Mr O'Donoghue, has established something of a reputation as a straight talker determined to push through radical changes in the criminal justice area. He was in characteristic mood when he unveiled the 1997 Criminal Justice Bill yesterday; "I am putting my money where my mouth is and my cards face up on the table..(in).. putting this legislation before the Oireachtas." Mr O'Donoghue is most prominently associated in the public mind with his championing of the concept of zero tolerance while in opposition. The suspicion lingers that Fianna Fail fastened on the fashionable concept of zero tolerance as a panacea for the crime problem, without giving due regard to its potential impact on the streets. For all that, Mr O'Donoghue made some very powerful interventions in the crime debate while in opposition. Taking a lead from Mr Tony Gregory, he pressed the case for the establishment of a Criminal Assets Bureau with great vigour. It was he who, perhaps, best reflected the deep level of public concern about organised crime - after the murder of Veronica Guerin. His outspoken and restless demands for forceful action against the drug traffickers was in marked contrast to the feeble approach of the Rainbow government.

The centrepiece of Mr O'Donoghue's new Bill is the proposal to impose a mandatory ten-year prison term on those convicted of possessing drugs for supply with a "market value" of over £10,000. There are understandable concerns among civil libertarians that the market value will be determined by an expert witness, in practice probably members of the Garda anti-drugs units. There is clearly potential for abuse here - notwithstanding the scrupulous manner in which the overwhelming majority of detectives perform their duty. But the thrust of Mr O'Donoghue's Bill is surely correct with its emphasis on stiff sentences and its provision for an inquiry into the assets of convicted dealers, with a view to confiscation. Few parents, teachers or community activists in the drug-ravaged areas of Dublin would object to a mandatory ten-year sentence for those who have inflicted such misery on their family and their community. Over the years, many people who live in bleak flat complexes beyond the ambit of Leinster House and Merrion Street have seen the judiciary and the party political system grossly underestimate the drugs crisis. Mr O'Donoghue's Bill is a commendable attempt to make up some of that lost ground.

A tougher sentencing policy will not resolve the drugs problem. There is a requirement to address the social and economic deprivation at the heart of the drugs problem. There is a desperate need to provide adequate social and recreational facilities for communities that are in critical despair. There is a need to provide treatment and rehabilitation facilities. The hope is that the Government will see the Minister's Bill as one piece of a multi-faceted assault on the drugs problem - and not an end in itself.