‘Local drug task force needed to tackle local drug problem’

Calls for the formation of a local task force to tackle the problem of drugs in Westmeath were made at a meeting of the Joint Policing Committee (JPC) on Monday morning in Mullingar.

Crime figures for the second quarter of 2019 showed there was a 20% increase in possession of drugs for sale or supply.

There were nine more incidents of possession of drugs for sale or supply in the second quarter of 2019 compared with the same period last year, taking the number from 43 up to 52 in 2019.

The total number of seizures for simple possession in the first six months of 2019 compared with 2018 was also up, reaching 947 compared with 839 last year.

In the first six months, the incidents of sale and supply were also up, from 53 to 66. Cultivation was down from three to two incidents, while obstruction was up two, from 10 to 12 incidents.

At Monday’s meeting, it emerged that there is no local drugs task force in Westmeath. Instead, a regional one serves the four midland counties of Westmeath, Longford, Laois and Offaly.

That was something that was challenged by Cllr Frankie Keena, who said: “To me the drug problem is across the board. If someone is dealing drugs, if someone is using, if families are affected, the same problem exists both in the cities and in rural areas of the country.”

Pressure on gardaí

The chief executive of Westmeath County Council, Pat Gallagher, explained that guidelines laid out by the Minister for Justice and Local Government in 2014, did not propose to expand the establishment of local drugs task forces in rural Ireland because of “the need to minimise pressure on gardaí and local authority resources”.

It was to be handled through “maximising the communication of other local resources such as community alert, neighbourhood watch, business watch groups and other community fora” in accordance with local drug strategy.

“The local drug task forces are in operation in a small number of areas, principally Dublin,” said Mr Gallagher.

Cllr Frankie Keena said, however, that he had difficulty with that.

“The local drug task forces are attached to the cities, like Dublin, Limerick, Cork, and the regional task forces covers the rest of the country...

“They are not allowing local drug task forces to set up in the rest of the country,” said Cllr Keena.

“We have our own problems here – they exist as they do in Dublin, and Cork and Galway,” argued Cllr Keena.

Referring to the guidelines, he said: “That’s 2014 – unfortunately the problem has not gone away, in fact it’s escalating.

“I feel uncomfortable drawing the line between regional and local task forces because it’s the same problem. It hits families in the same way, and the dealers still come down to rural areas and do their business,” said Cllr Keena.

Effect of two festivals

Chief Superintendent Peter Duff said, however, that the vast majority of simple possessions occurred at the two annual music events, the Life Festival, which takes place at Belvedere House and Gardens, and the Body&Soul Festival, which is at Ballinlough Castle.

“That would account for over 90% of offences over the six months,” stated Chief Superintendent Duff.

“You have a large amount of people coming in for those festivals, and a large amount of gardaí deployed, both in uniform and in plain clothes, specifically to deal with drugs offences.

“That figure is common in every festival we have in the country, whether it’s Longitude in Marley Park or Electric Picnic – it’s a common feature of these festivals.”

Chief Superintendent Duff said the increase in the detection of drugs for sale or supply in the majority of cases was again in relation to the two music festivals.

“People are arrested bringing drugs in to sell or supply them. Cultivation is down from three to one, and obstruction is up 10 to 12

“They are low figures,” he stated. “The concerts are causing the spike in figures.”

CEO Mr Gallagher said if the JPC committee felt strongly that combating drugs was a priority in terms of public safety in Westmeath, it could be made a priority in the next strategic plan, which will be drawn up in the autumn.

“We could certainly invite the regional drugs task force to come and present on that subject,” added Mr Gallagher.

“What you need to consider,” continued Mr Gallagher, “is if you want to recommend that a local drugs task force be established.

“The policing forum follows that. That needs to be addressed – first in the regional drugs task force, and then, if at national level it’s decided, a local policing forum is something that follows that.”

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