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Legalising cannabis is the brave solution to gangland crimewave

Matt Cooper, The Times, Ireland, 25th June 2006

The police and political response to the murder of the journalist and mother Veronica Guerin — whose 10th anniversary falls tomorrow — resulted in only limited success. Despite a vast investigation, only one of the many involved was convicted, and even that single conviction may be overturned.

Although a raft of legislation was passed in the immediate aftermath of the journalist’s death, the number of so-called gangland murders has since increased, and the amount of illegal drugs sold and consumed has multiplied.

We are not just back to where we were 10 years ago, when they promised that this type of thing would no longer be tolerated. Things appear to be significantly worse.

So far this year 13 people have been murdered as a result of organised crime. In the two years up to Guerin’s murder, there were 11 “gangland hits”.

In July 1996, there was an enormous demand for action from the Rainbow government of the day. The Guerin murder generated enormous media publicity because one of their own had been slain. But the horror was more widespread, because it seemed that the criminals were moving on from killing each other — which nobody worried too much about — to killing ordinary decent folk.

There was just the slightest feeling of déja vu last week, following the slaying of a 22-year-old Dublin father, James Perdue, in Coolock on Monday night. He was the sixth person to be murdered in the north Dublin suburb this year. Again the media outcry, the demand for more legislation and garda resources, the criticism of the government for letting the carnage continue. So why, a decade later, is the cycle endlessly repeating?

The public demanded not just retribution for Guerin’s murder, not just that her killers be found and imprisoned, but that others be dissuaded from acting in the same way. Measures had to be taken to ensure that crime would not bring about financial riches, and that the consequences of capture would be severe.

Some retribution against Guerin’s suspected killers was secured, but in a most unsatisfactory manner. In convicting two men, the state relied on the uncorroborated “supergrass” evidence of a deeply unpleasant individual, Charles Bowden. He supplied the gun that was used to shoot her, but the state gave him immunity in return for evidence against others he said were involved in the crime. He is now living at our expense elsewhere in the world. It is a criminal offence to try to locate him.

Brian Meehan and Paul Ward were convicted of the murder. Ward’s conviction was overturned because of garda malpractice in taking his statement. Meehan is appealing and is confident that it will be overturned because of the reliance on Bowden’s evidence.

Meanwhile, the cannabis dealer John Gilligan — who admitted that he was the main suspect for the murder — was found not guilty, and convicted instead of drug trafficking. Patrick Holland denied that he was responsible for the murder, and he too was convicted of drug offences only.

This all raised serious questions about the gardai’s competency and the practices they used when the pressure was on. But they were spared scrutiny because of the public’s apparent satisfaction with the outcome of their endeavours. The end had justified the means.

Political measures to protect the public against further outrages were contained in swiftly introduced legislation. The establishment of the Criminal Assets Bureau may well be the Rainbow’s most enduring achievement, because it has allowed the state to seize the property and possessions of those it suspects of crime and who cannot account for their wealth.

Back in 1996 we were promised 600 more gardai on the streets, more prison places, more judges. We were told of a “civilian-isation” programme by which more non-gardai would take over clerical and administrative duties, to free up officers for “real” police work. This government is still talking of doing much the same.

A decade ago Bertie Ahern, in opposition, also made promises, only some of which he implemented on taking power. A lack of prison spaces means previously convicted suspects still regularly get bail when accused of new crimes. Judges often ignore the 10-year minimum sentence for people caught in possession of drugs with a street value of €10,000 or more.

Ten years on, greater garda activity and more legislation is being promised to deal with an apparently greater threat to public safety. There is to be a mandatory 10-year sentence for the possession of firearms, wider powers of detention, and a gun amnesty.

The public seems to have become either defeatist or apathetic. Stories about the activities of mafia-type drug dealers and robbers — and their ostentatious lifestyles and cutesy nicknames — no longer sell newspapers in big numbers. The public attention span is short. Who, other than her family, will remember in 10 years’ time the murder of Donna Cleary — a 22-year-old mother standing in a room at a house party when an apparently cocaine-fuelled gunman fired into her house?

There appears to be little confidence that much can be done to stop what has become commonplace. Even the taoiseach admitted as much in the Dail last Tuesday, when he said that there would always be criminals prepared to kill if they thought it would protect or consolidate their interests. Michael McDowell, the justice minister, met Noel Conroy, the Garda commissioner, on Monday to discuss this problem. Afterwards he told the Dail that 20 of the 29 murders that had taken place this year had been “solved” and that files had been sent, or were being prepared to be sent, to the director of public prosecutions, presumably as the basis for actions in the Central Criminal Court.

But the use of that statistic was somewhat misleading, as was the use of the word “solved”. Securing convictions is a far more difficult job. Anyway, several of those 29 murders took place in domestic settings and were always more likely to lead to prosecutions than carefully planned criminal “hits”. A more telling statistic was provided in the Dail last March by the Labour leader, Pat Rabbitte, who claimed that only 12 of 75 gun- committed murders in the previous six years resulted in convictions.

Many senior gardai argue that they know all about the criminals, but haven’t the powers to gather sufficient evidence to secure convictions. They complain about the legal process, and especially the rights available to defendants. Operational failures are often overlooked, or excused by a lack of resources.

According to reports last week, undercover gardai have started to follow dozens of suspected criminals in Dublin in an effort to stop further killings. This type of heavy presence helped reduce gang crime in Limerick in 2004. But in the absence of a reorganisation of resources, the addition of new gardai and the introduction of a garda reserve and the proper use of civilians for desk work, such efforts may have limited success.

It’s time for radical and imaginative action. How about the decriminalisation of certain drugs — such as cannabis — and the introduction of a licencing system for their distribution and sale, so as to allow the gardai to concentrate on intercepting the supply of more dangerous drugs such as heroin, cocaine and their derivatives?

This would allow for drug use to be controlled to a reasonable degree by the state. It could tax the products and use the revenue to deal with the health and social issues that arise from drug use.

After all, alcohol use is regulated and controlled, both the amount of alcohol in a drink and the situations in which it can be consumed, so why not apply that process to cannabis? It may be dangerous and addictive, but so is alcohol and it is regulated rather than banned.

Of course the chances of that happening are remote because no government is going to want to be regarded as soft on drugs. But earlier this year gardai came up with the good idea of merely issuing cautions to the users of cannabis, rather than wasting time seeking prosecutions for possession. This common-sense idea was dropped when it became clear that McDowell did not approve.

The justice minister’s lack of imagination condemns us to having the same conversations as we did 10 years ago, apparently oblivious to the fact that the same old solutions are having little or no impact at all.

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