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Badfellas

Paul O’Mahony

McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime, by Misha Glenny, Vintage, 432 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-0099481256
Pain Control and Drug Policy: A Time for Change, by Guy Faguet, Prager, 238 pp, £31.95, ISBN: 978-0313382808

Misha Glenny is a British journalist, named Misha by his father, an academic specialising in Russian studies. Glenny, despite having no Russian family connections, has embraced his father’s Slavic intellectual inheritance. He has learned several Eastern European languages and become a correspondent, first for the Guardian and then for the BBC, focusing particularly on the collapse of communism and the consequent internecine wars in the Balkans. His reporting built him a considerable reputation that led to his consulting at government level in several countries and heading up, for three years, an NGO designed to assist in the reconstruction of Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia.

His most recent book is a brisk but richly detailed tour of large-scale international organised crime and the criminal gangs that run it and benefit from it. Glenny is an impressively informed and informative guide, who quickly wins the reader’s trust. He is a fascinating storyteller and a direct and generally lucid reporter, who holds the reader’s interest throughout this very ambitious, globetrotting excursion, which ranges from Canada to China and Brazil to Bulgaria. The comprehensive itinerary covers little known territories such as Transnistria and Montenegro, which have an unexpectedly major role in globalised crime, and better known countries such as India, Dubai and Israel, which have important but not widely recognised international criminal connections. He addresses both novel (cyber crime) and age-old (prostitution and protection rackets) forms of crime that tend to spawn criminal brotherhoods, and the various cultural, political and geographic contexts in which such activity flourishes.

While there are occasional passages of hackneyed and purple prose and signs of careless editing (at one point we have an indigent rather than an indigene insisting on paying a restaurant bill), the book benefits from Glenny’s very considerable journalistic skills as he shows himself to be adept at both straightforward factual reportage and the kind of narrative colour-writing that seduces the reader with the human interest angle. Less frequently, but no less skilfully, he tries his hand at more reflective, thought-provoking editorialising. But McMafia also clearly demonstrates Glenny’s wide and thorough reading, in a number of languages, of the voluminous literature, both popular and academic, on organszed crime. Equally clear is the inestimable value of his fieldwork experience and the contacts he made as a journalist in many chaotic and dangerous countries, particularly in Eastern Europe: the book is based on three hundred interviews which he undertook specifically for this book, with academic, criminal justice and plain criminal “experts” and informants.

Glenny’s canvas is enormous, and there is much to be learned from this book about geopolitics, the smuggling of illegal immigrants and sex-trade trafficking, the production and distribution of contraband goods, spanning marijuana, cocaine, heroin, diamonds, cigarettes, caviar and weapons and, of course, about the specific techniques and cultures of gangs. We also learn about new hi-tech forms of crime, such as the vastly profitable email-based scams emanating from Nigeria, and about Brazil’s major role in “phishing” to gain access to victims’ bank accounts and personal financial identities. And always, Glenny is keen to explain why and how these particular specialties happen to flourish in these particular countries.

Transnistria is a “thin sliver of territory” which is theoretically part of Moldova, but has since 1990 been in a stand-off with the rest of the country, maintaining a modicum of independence and somehow maintaining its own borders. This situation creates immense opportunities for the shadow economy and criminal exploitation, particularly in the one resource in which this area is well-endowed – illicit arms. Transnistria was the base of the Soviet Fourteenth Army, which on Ukraine’s proclamation of independence was separated from Russia along with its huge stockpile of weapons, including tanks and several hundred Igla surface to air missiles. According to Glenny, Transnistria has become the “quintessential gangster state”, serving as a refuge for Ukrainian gangsters and trading weapons from the Fourteenth Army stockpile and from its own unmonitored arms factories to willing buyers in troubled areas across the world, including West and Central Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Transnistria is perhaps Glenny’s best exemplar of his main thesis that organised crime has in the last two decades increased exponentially, nourished, on the one hand, by the fall of communism and, on the other, by the globalisation process, which has greatly reduced barriers to trade and to the movement of money and people. However, Glenny’s very thoroughness and his encyclopedic approach eventually undermine the book’s ambition. While the detail of the stories, whether on the Yakuza and their peculiarly stable and tolerated position in Japanese society or the volatile prison-based gangs of São Paulo, who in 2006 caused almost a hundred deaths in a few days of bloody havoc on the city streets, remains endlessly enthralling, the layers of information eventually overwhelm both the reader and Glenny’s theoretical intentions.

There are just too many disparate facts and too diverse a cast of characters, from national presidents to scam artists to ruthless assassins, to allow the reader to see the wood for the trees or to enable the author to present a cogent, overarching argument. Part of the problem ironically is with Glenny’s undoubted reporting and story-telling skills. For the most part these successfully sustain interest in what could have been a monotonous banquet of horror stories about organised crime, but finally they begin to pall. There is a surfeit of authoritative informants who are their “country’s or the world’s best” and I sometimes wished for more egregious, less acclaimed correspondents, who might provide a very different perspective. Another problem is that Glenny, in his many engaging, novelistic colour pieces, succeeds too well in raising readers’ curiosity about individual players and their lives only to leave them dangling, disappointedly bereft of story endings, as he busily moves on to the next corner of the world.

Along the way, he does not miss the opportunity to frequently point out the complicity of the consumer, especially the rich and self-indulgent consumer from the hedonistic and comfortably developed West. However, his condemnation is tempered by a dash of humanity underlined by his admission of occasional illicit purchases of goods such as pirated DVDs and contraband caviar and his somewhat tepid disapproval of brothels and the sex industry, which he coyly tells us are “not really his thing”. The relationship between small individual acts of conscienceless self-indulgence and the highly profitable and violent culture of gangs is obviously a moral quagmire, out of which Glenny never finds his way. So it is no surprise that he ends his book with a well-intentioned but bland and obviously inadequate plea for better politics. Plans to defeat organised crime that rely mainly on better law enforcement, he suggests, “betray a profound abdication of political responsibility. They are the product of unimaginative politicians who lack either the vision or the interest to address the great structural inequities in the global economy upon which crime and instability thrive.”

In the final analysis, this reader was convinced only that organised criminal gangs are conditioned in their motives and choice of activity and methods by their own local historical, geographical, political, economic and sociological context and opportunities. Man’s capacity for organised crime appears almost infinite, because it is based on his proclivity for brazen exploitation of his own venality, for cruel abuse of the weak and vulnerable, for boundless ingenuity in defeating social control systems such as taxation and excise, for quasi-familial alliances to enhance success in a Darwinian, highly competitive and dangerous world, and, perhaps most strangely of all, for willing conformity to strictly disciplined codes of both honour and dishonour.

Yes, globalisation has broadened and deepened opportunities for cross-border crime and, yes, the downfall of communism has created and nourished powerful new forms of criminality and a rapacious, unchecked form of capitalism that itself borders on the criminal. This greedy and callous capitalism cynically hides behind a screen of claimed progress in democracy and human rights, while actually maintaining a system of repressive secrecy and highly centralised power. Such profoundly cynical political systems, most obviously manifested in Russia but also in the Chinese PCNs (politico-criminal nexuses between local party leaders and organised crime) allow or ‑ more sinister still ‑ as Glenny suggests ‑ require criminals and corrupt elements within government and law enforcement to come together to play a mutually beneficial but malign role in society. In Russia and China these corrupt alliances have become essential to the smooth and efficient running of the economy itself.

While modern technology and contemporary forms of political and economic organisation or, more pertinently, disorganisation continue to present innovative opportunities for criminals, the wealth of evidence that Glenny himself assembles succeeds only in underlying the universal and age-old aspects of the phenomenon of organised crime. Countries in turmoil, through war as in Afghanistan or through rebellion and civil unrest as in Colombia, are countries where the rule of law is largely suspended and where the normal controls are stretched beyond breaking point. Such territories are inevitably ripe for targeting by criminal organisations. Indeed the Taliban, who quite recently, under the Clinton presidency, were paid massive funds by the US to eliminate opium poppy growing in Afghanistan, are now facilitating farmers in the Helmand province not only to grow opium but to add value by processing it into heroin locally before export.

But, as Glenny himself chronicles, even if the more outrageous activities and the more violent and ruthless gangs flourish best where chaos reigns, all kinds of government and economic systems provide fertile soil for organised crime. War zones provide a ready supply of young men inured to violence and toughened and calloused by harsh experience. But everywhere there are tough young men, who quickly learn that being ruthless and aggressively intimidating and taking the risks that most people eschew can prove a satisfying and lucrative vocation.

This is obvious in Ireland too, where the local drugs trade has spawned many violent gangs who have been responsible for around twenty murders a year over the last decade. While Ireland does not feature in Glenny’s itinerary, it is obvious that these local gangs are interconnected with international gangs, mainly in Holland, England and Spain, where quite a number of Irish gangsters have lost their lives in gangland assassinations. It is also obvious that Ireland, with its long, indented and little patrolled coastline, is used as a transit country by foreign gangs. The nexus between politically motivated paramilitaries and terrorists and organised crime, which Glenny notes but does not emphasise, also has its Irish manifestation by way of paramilitary involvement in drugs, cross-border smuggling, especially of diesel, and protection rackets. The recent discoveries of marijuana grow-houses throughout Ireland, many run by Vietnamese gangs, also reminds us that foreign gangs, though much more discreet and hidden than the locals, are active on Irish territory. Such activities are not confined to drugs. The fact that brothels have sprung up in recent years across the country, even in relatively small towns, points to the fairly widespread, abhorrent presence in Ireland of people-trafficking into the sex trade.

Glenny is acutely aware of how easy it is in certain circumstances to recruit people, especially young men, into strict criminal brotherhoods or more casually organised gangs. Everywhere poverty and inequality can provide motivation for acquisitive crime and at the same time inspire the kind of self-justificatory rationalisations that diminish the inhibitory powers of conscience to vanishing point. These enabling processes are active whether we are talking about the poor who have nothing and are on the edge of starvation or about the poor who live with relative disadvantage of the kind experienced by the lower echelons of Irish society. The latter, of course, mainly constitute Irish organised criminal gangs, which are mostly family-based or rooted in specific disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

No doubt, in societies where penury is normal even for customs officials, bureaucrats and law officers, corruption becomes an ever-present blight that opens the doors for organised crime. But greed and avarice and situations that give rise to blackmail serve just as well in more affluent societies. Totalitarian regimes like China, which enforce their prohibitions with arbitrary and excessive state violence, as well as developed democracies, which rely on more fairly administered but less severe punishment but which also have harsh tax regimes for certain commodities, in their separate ways create incentives that foster organised criminal gangs. Illegal opportunities to make easy money inevitably attract people eager or desperate enough to assume the risk involved in supplying the illicit goods and services, for which human appetites and individual weakness ensure there is a constant and substantial demand.

Glenny’s most sustained argument at the centre of his book concerns the US-sponsored but global policy of drugs prohibition. The thriving multi-billion shadow economy involves anything that is taxed or prohibited, but, as Glenny points out, illicit drugs form the vast bulk of this criminal economy. Indeed, drugs are estimated to make up seventy per cent of the total business of the criminal global shadow economy. Glenny is in no doubt about the colossal failure of drugs prohibition and control and strongly believes that legalisation of drugs and fully-fledged state regulation, along the lines of alcohol regulation, represent the best strategy for shrinking the sphere of operations and the obscene, ill-gotten profits of organised crime gangs.

Certainly, the evidence is overwhelming that the American war on drugs has been futile and colossally wasteful even when judged only in terms of its outcomes within US borders. US government expenditure on drug control is now running at about forty billion dollars annually, yet in 2005 the numbers in prison on any one day for drug offences stood at half a million, a tenfold increase since the early eighties – a huge price to be paid in criminalising citizens, especially when it has been demonstrated that the criminal law deterrent utterly fails to impact on the use and availability of drugs.

In October 2010 the US National Academy of Sciences published a new research report titled Understanding the Demand for Illegal Drugs. This impartial, scientific body confirmed the negative assessment of the effectiveness of prohibition in the US. They wrote: “A great deal has been done to try to reduce drug consumption in the US over the past 35 years, but drugs are just as cheap and available as they have ever been … Cocaine, heroin and metamphetamines continue to cause great harm in the country … Marijuana use remains a part of adolescent development for about half of the country’s young people.”

That prohibition has failed to do what, at huge expense, it was designed to do is only the most obvious of the harms it has caused. There are other grievous problems in the US and even more starkly in the producer and transit countries that supply the vast US demand for drugs. The events in Mexico in the last few years, since the inauguration of President Calderon and his escalation of the war on drugs through the ill-considered involvement of the military, stand as a bleak and horrifying testimony to the socially disruptive and destructive potential of drugs prohibition in producer and transit countries. Almost twenty-five thousand people have been murdered since 2007 and the killing, often by appallingly brutal methods, has spread far beyond feuding drug gang members and officers of the law to consumers and total innocents.

In October this year, Anand Grover, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health, responding to this awful reality in his annual report, set out the range of human rights abuses that have resulted from international drug control efforts. This is an extraordinary turn of events in an organisation that has, under US pressure, nailed its banner to the mast of drugs prohibition and proclaimed the necessity and possibility of a drugs-free world. Grover called on governments to:

Ensure that all harm-reduction measures (as itemised by UNAIDS) and drug-dependence treatment services, particularly opioid substitution therapy, are available to people who use drugs, in particular those among incarcerated populations.
Decriminalise or de-penalise possession and use of drugs.
Repeal or substantially reform laws and policies inhibiting the delivery of essential health services to drug users, and review law enforcement initiatives around drug control to ensure compliance with human rights obligations.
Amend laws, regulations and policies to increase access to controlled essential medicines.

Grover recommended that the UN drug control agencies themselves should create an alternative drug regulatory framework based on a model such as the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. While there has always been tension within the world body about its total endorsement of the drugs prohibitionist position and while much criticism and complaint have emanated from the representatives of producer countries, it is clearly revolutionary that a highly placed official of the UN should himself so thoroughly question the appropriateness of the organisation’s prohibitionist stance. It is highly significant that, as Glenny points out, drugs decriminalisation and depenalisation approaches are no longer seen as the eccentric views of unrealistic cranks or the tainted views of partisan, befuddled drug users. Many experienced judges and chiefs of police and many reputable politicians, scientists and organisations, including the normally staid Economist magazine, now support drugs decriminalisation.

It is with regard to drugs control and the issue of decriminalisation that Glenny’s book intersects with the work of Guy Faguet, the author of the second book under review, Pain Control and Drug Policy: A Time for Change. Faguet comes from a very different world from Glenny’s, but shares many of his interests and much of his polemical zeal. He is a recently retired professor of oncology in the US, a distinguished medical practitioner and author of more than one hundred and fifty academic articles and several books on cancer. His professional experience has convinced him that drug control policies in the US have created a serious barrier to the proper treatment of the seventy million adult Americans who suffer from chronic pain.

Faguet believes there is a national crisis in pain management in the U.S. with less than half of chronic pain sufferers receiving adequate pain relief from their doctors, though such relief could be readily afforded. He contends that fearful doctors make insufficient use of morphine and similar drugs, ignoring the recommendations on the use of opioid analgesics laid down by the appropriate medical bodies such as the American Pain Society. Many doctors fail their patients because they fear being investigated by the DEA (Drugs Enforcement Administration), being prosecuted and facing the threat of imprisonment or loss of their medical licence. Indeed, he claims that the DEA “aggressively persecutes narcotics-prescribing physicians for the flimsiest of reasons”. In other words, in Faguet’s considered and professionally informed view, the US war on drugs has created an atmosphere of paranoia around opiates that has stigmatised their use to such an extent that doctors are unreasonably reluctant to use them even when they are most required.

However, Faguet devotes only two out of his ten chapters to this central issue of the damage caused by drugs prohibition to medical pain control. He is a Colombian by birth and by inclination is that rare combination of meticulous researcher and a striver after the “big picture”. As a Colombian he has an informed and patriotic interest in the welfare of that country and as a researcher and comprehensive thinker he brings his astute, critical intelligence to bear on the disastrous role of drugs, drugs cartels and US drug-related interference in Colombia and elsewhere. Faguet quite rightly finds it necessary, in order to fully understand and explain both Colombia’s drug problems and prohibition’s negative effects on medical pain control, to address the broader context of illegal drugs and drug control efforts.

Like Glenny, he has written a very ambitious book of enormous scope and interest. While his important chapters on pain control are probably of most interest to professionals with some pharmaceutical knowledge, the rest of the book is more far-ranging and accessible to the general reader. Indeed, it is often engagingly and powerfully, if sometimes rather too densely, written. Faguet is careful throughout to support his arguments and factual claims by apt references to the academic and general literature.

He is an historian as well as a compelling and scientifically sound polemicist. He provides a fascinating history of mankind’s use of psychoactive drugs from antiquity to the present day and an instructive history of prohibition in the US, particularly the short-lived experiment with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, which he describes as an unmitigated disaster. He cites research that indicates that there were half a million speakeasies in the US at the height of prohibition, twice as many as the number of saloons in the pre-prohibition era. Not surprisingly then, alcohol consumption per capita during the prohibition period did not decline but rose by almost 12 per cent, creating an enormous criminal enterprise. By 1931 the Commissioner of Prohibition was announcing that: “The fruitless efforts at enforcement are creating public disregard not only for this law but for all laws. Public corruption through the purchase of official protection for this illegal trade is widespread and notorious. The courts are cluttered with prohibition cases to an extent, which seriously affects the entire administration of justice.” This judgment represents a dire warning that has gone unheeded both in the US where half a million, mostly non-violent and even non-criminal, citizens are now imprisoned for drug offences and, here in Ireland, where our drug-infested and dangerously overcrowded prison system has recently expanded at American-style rates mainly in response to our drugs problem.

Faguet also brings a useful, context-setting historical dimension to his chapters on the geopolitics of drugs, which provide detailed accounts of the situation in Colombia and Afghanistan. There is a short but essential and enlightening section on theories and models of addiction, which he divides into two main categories ‑ those focused on addiction as a disease, which tend to see the addict as a victim, and those focused on addiction as a choice, which tend to see the addict as a deviant person with a behavioural problem. He is surely right in his assertion that the rampant confusion over the nature of addiction is deeply problematical, not least because “addiction is said to be the domain of the police officer, the neurobiologist, the psychiatrist, the social worker, the priest, or the policy maker depending on the proponents’ point of view”. These professionals find it impossible to work usefully together because they adhere to conflicting models and advocate conflicting remedies.

Faguet ends his book with thought-provoking ideas for reform. He favours dismantling drugs prohibition, indeed he argues for the relegalisation of all illicit drugs and the handling of drug use as entirely a health matter and not at all a criminal matter. Current repressive drugs policies are unjustifiable, he argues, not least because “the lure of mind-altering drugs has been with us since antiquity and represents a human behaviour that cannot be legislated or repressed successfully”.

Glenny and Faguet come by different routes to very similar views on the legalisation of drugs, Glenny focusing on the folly of creating a hugely profitable market that is tailor-made for organised criminals and Faguet stressing the human rights violations and political distress in producer and transit countries as well as the rarely acknowledged but serious consequences of prohibition for medical treatment of pain. Both are unambiguous about one thing – that prohibition has utterly failed to do what it set out to do, which is eliminate or significantly reduce the use of illegal drugs. However, neither author addresses how prohibition successfully shields itself from criticism and seems impervious to the overwhelming and undeniable evidence that it has failed. Ironically, the policy of prohibition is so resistant to the evidence of the harm it does that it parallels the process of addiction itself inasmuch as the increasing costs incurred by prohibition appear to actually increase officialdom’s attachment to the failed policy, just as the increasing costs suffered by the alcoholic or drug addict can increase emotional attachment to and dependence on alcohol or a preferred drug.

This is an important omission since prohibition, however discredited, will continue to be the default position of governments, international authorities and ordinary people, who are concerned to reduce the tremendous harm that illegal drugs cause, until the myths of prohibition are understood and dismantled. One problem is the size and power of the groups with a vested interest in prohibition. Prohibition has created a huge criminal justice, anti-drugs industrial complex which refuses to pay attention to the fact that it wastes money which could be far better spent on treatment and prevention. Another problem is that people tend to believe prohibitionists’ unsupported assertion that legalisation would lead to a huge growth in drug problems. There are, in fact, no reasonable grounds for believing that legalisation of illicit drugs would lead to a major upsurge in drug use, particularly in the more dangerous kinds of drug use. The Dutch and Portuguese partial experiments with decriminalisation and other strands of empirical evidence tend to categorically contradict this assumption and indeed suggest that legalisation of drugs would bring major benefits through reduction in both the dangerous use of drugs and the use of dangerous drugs.

Properly informed people have much stronger, self-regarding prudential reasons for not using drugs, or at least not using them dangerously, than economic cost, limited availability or fear of the law and these reasons are likely to be even stronger in the absence of prohibition. Unfortunately, as I argue in The Irish War on Drugs: The seductive folly of prohibition (Manchester University Press, 2008), prohibition itself ensures that many people are not properly informed. There is an inherent hypocrisy and blatant self-contradiction in our form of prohibition, which tolerates some dangerous, mood-altering substances, like alcohol, but criminalises other often less harmful substances. The fallacious, seriously misleading official view that all illegal drugs are equally bad and harmful is also a major source of confusion and ignorance. The hypocrisy, self-contradiction and obvious misinformation of prohibition spread myths and ignorance and destroy the credibility of even sensible, balanced health promotional messages.

It is important to distinguish the harms intrinsically connected to drug use from the many harms ‑ in addition to the creation of a lucrative criminal black market in drugs ‑ that are actually caused by prohibition. Prohibition-induced ignorance, confusion and rashness are lethal, as is prohibition’s blocking of an effective system of quality control. The latter is an ongoing disaster since most drug-related deaths are caused by contaminants in drugs or ignorance about the actual strength of doses bought on the black market.

Despite the prohibitionist received wisdom that this policy is holding back an even greater flood of drug misuse, a strong case can be made that it is prohibition that actually increases drug use and makes dangerous forms of drug use more likely. The furtive nature of the criminal market encourages the spread of exciting, glamourising myths about drugs that can seduce the naive, young consumer and at the same time keep them ignorant of essential, off-putting truths about the dangers of addiction and of certain forms of use. In addition, prohibition ensures that drugs are seen as a forbidden fruit and so particularly attractive to rebellious, sensation-seeking, risk-taking youth. The fact that consumers must collude in the criminal market and very often, in order to be able to afford their drugs, become small-time dealers to their own circle of acquaintances is also highly significant. This collaborative process not only helps protect the profiteering criminals, but also creates a perfect pyramid sales system, which means that drug lords, once they have set the ball rolling, can sit back and reap the benefits, as drug-users recklessly spread drug use far and wide.

It is clear that it is long past the time for Ireland to rethink its prohibitionist policy. In the thirty-three years since the enactment of the Misuse of Drugs Act (1977), which created a fully elaborated system of drugs prohibition in this country, prohibition has utterly failed to eliminate or even contain drug use. On the contrary, this period has witnessed exponential growth in the use of drugs, in drug-related health harms, in pro-drug attitudes among the young and in drugs gang-related violence, intimidation and murder. Tougher legislative measures, including mandatory minimum sentences, longer sentences, the Criminal Assets Bureau and increased police powers and resources have damaged our system of civil rights but have had next to no impact on the drugs problem. Although the CAB has had some success and the Garda regularly makes huge seizures of illicit drugs, the drugs culture is more entrenched than ever and drugs are more easily available and cheaper than ever.

Those who support prohibition too easily forget that all the dreadful, drug-related harms and deterioration in the quality of life in so many Irish communities have occurred under a prohibitionist regime. Prohibition has not only failed to stem drug use, it has been a huge contributor to the growth of serious violence in the Irish criminal underworld. Prohibition has been the fertile ground in which the current Irish macho gun culture has flourished. Inevitably, an intimate symbiosis developed between drug-trading and the gun culture and this can be seen in the frequent phenomenon of guns being imported alongside drug consignments as a major part of the deal. Yes, without prohibition we would still have serious criminals, even violent, organised criminals involved in the many other kinds of organised crime that Glenny describes. However, they would be far less numerous, far less embedded in communities, far less supported by the collusion of ordinary people, far less rich and powerful, far less able to recruit new members, and, very probably, far less violent and gun-happy.

Prohibition, of course, in Ireland as elsewhere, is the essential precondition for the criminal drugs market. Prohibition ensures that the drugs market is a criminal monopoly that incentivises and enriches those ruthless enough to use violence and intimidation in order to turn a profit. This highly lucrative market, estimated to be worth about a billion euro a year in Ireland, has provided a solid power base and source of immense wealth for organised gangs. The drugs market flourishes with relative impunity because we have hundreds of thousands of basically normal, essentially non-criminal Irish citizens who collude with the criminal suppliers. These ordinary people are effectively denying the State the right to interfere with their personal choice to use mood-altering substances. They remain totally unmoved by arguments, like those of former minister Michael McDowell, which suggest that they are personally responsible for the murders and mayhem connected to the drugs gangs. They are indifferent about the criminality of their actions because they believe it has been unnecessarily and wrongly created by the prohibitionist stance of the state.

Over the last three decades, because of the high financial stakes and the chaotically self-regulated nature of the criminal drugs market, drugs gangs in Ireland have become progressively more violent, brutal and callous. In this illegal domain, there can be no recourse to the law for the settlement of disputes. There are many occasions when large rewards are at stake and when there are obvious opportunities for cheating and betraying trust.

As the profits of drug-dealing have increased, so have the attendant risks and so has the tendency to use violence in order to evade detection, protect gains, maintain control over markets and even settle personal scores. More severe law enforcement action against traffickers and dealers has ratcheted up the pressure and intensified the paranoia and volatility of drug gangs. What we have seen is an ever more rapid and unrestrained resort to extreme violence as a solution to conflicts of all kinds. We in Ireland have clearly arrived at a point where it is essential to attend to the realities described at the global and US levels by Glenny and Faguet and give serious consideration to abandoning our totally ineffective, massively wasteful, seriously damaging and socially disruptive system of prohibition.


Paul O’Mahony is author of The Irish War on Drugs: The Seductive Folly of Prohibition, Manchester University Press, 2009.

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