I have argued in the past that the costs of fighting the "war on drugs" against cannabis users can have a significant negative effect on a person's life. The list of negative effects includes being stigmatised as a criminal, being shunned by friends, family, and society, and putting obstacles in the way of one's future possibilities for employment or obtaining a visa. The cost to us as taxpayers is the other expense associated with making drug possession for personal use illegal. Finding precise figures in Ireland can be challenging, but by requesting information under the freedom of information act, we can piece together an estimate of the actual cost. Figures come from a variety of sources and departments, but when analysed they can show us what criminalisation really costs.
The most up-to-date figure we have obtained date from 2017, although out of date and older than I would like, it still gives us an overview of the true cost. In 2017 the total drug-related expenditure in Ireland totalled €240 million. For context you can pay for 9,600 special needs assistants in our schools, it could build 800 family homes, could pay 8,000 nurses or 4,800 clinical youth mental health nurses. This is no small cost, in the wider picture of our society the €240 million could be better spent in other departments. I have broken down the figures below to show a clearer picture of overall drug-related expenditure.
An Garda Síochána Drug Related Expenditure
The most up-to-date accurate figures we have stem from 2017, but the figures do tend to average out every year. In 2017 there was a total of 17,803 drug detection, with 12,776 of those being purely for personal possession. With a budget of over €46.5 million, the total cost of each personal possession case is approximately €3,639. The majority of personal possession cases that come before the Courts involve cannabis; this is not surprising given it is the most widely used illegal drug in Ireland. Personal possession of cannabis is estimated to be 70% of all cases year on year, this would cost €32 million per year of taxpayers’ money being used to criminalise and marginalise people who consume cannabis. This figure is not inclusive of other related expenditures such as probation services, prison services and other health-related expenditures.
Garda Youth Diversion Projects
Youth Diversion Projects are community-based and supported youth development projects which seek to divert young people (under 18yrs) from becoming involved (or further involved) in anti-social or criminal behaviour. The idea behind the Diversion Programme is to allow for young people who commit criminal offences or anti-social behaviour to be dealt with by means of caution instead of the formal process of charge and prosecution for offences or an anti-social behaviour order. A caution is a warning by An Garda Síochána against committing certain types of behaviour. In advance of admission to the programme, a Garda investigating the behaviour assesses the suitability of the young person for inclusion in the programme and prepares a report. Before the young person is considered for admission, they must admit responsibility for their criminal or anti-social behaviour and generally consent to be admitted to the programme and, if necessary, be supervised by JLO (Juvenile Liaison Officer).
There are approximately 105 youth diversion projects across Ireland. Youths can present for many reasons; it is noted that a third of youths in these projects are categorised as “at risk” under the drug and alcohol category. Between 2014 and 2018 over €20 million was attributed to drug and alcohol-related programmes.
Additionally, the Local Drug and Alcohol task forces, of which there are 4 in Cork, and 1 in Dublin had an expenditure of €1.4 million between 2014-2018 and engaged 1048 participants.
Drug Treatment Court
The Drug Treatment Court is a branch of the District Court which was established in 2001 and offers an alternative process which allows people to avoid prison in return for participation in a strict rehabilitation programme. You must plead guilty or have been convicted of non-violent crimes in the District Court before you/ or your solicitor can ask the judge to remand you to the Drug Treatment Court. Since the beginning, the Court has had a low uptake and a low success rate.
The cost of weekly sittings in the Drug Treatment Court averages at €100,000 per year with 95 participants referred in 2018.
Irish Prison Service
The war on drugs does not stop at the Court service, some people criminalised for personal possession of illegal drugs do find themselves in prison. On average it costs roughly €80,000 to house a person in prison for a year. This is not inclusive of other programs such as education, addiction services or psychosocial supports. In 2018 the cost of drug-related services in Irish prisons amounted to €739,882 with psychosocial supports costing €1.9 million. Obtained in the Freedom of Information request is also a breakdown of costs for the probation services. In 2018, 16.2% of probation cases involved drug offences costing €2,961 per person.
In today's Ireland, we have a housing crisis, a health service crisis, a cost of living crisis, a mental health crisis, and facing an uncertain future for the Irish economy. This money can go a long way in addressing some of society's worries. The war on drugs has failed, so why are we still funding it?