Committee Reports::Report No. 02 - Role of Officers of the Customs and Excise in Controlling the Supply of Illegal Drugs::03 July, 1984::Report



Ról Oifigigh Chustam agus Máil maidir le soláthar drugaí neamhdhleathacha a rialú


The role of Officers of Customs and Excise in controlling the supply of illegal drugs

1. Background to Report

The Committee, following the publication of its first Report on Neighbourhood Watch, considered what topics it should next examine. The members were very conscious of the huge problem created by the mis-use of drugs and of the close relationship between illicit drugs and crime. They decided to set up a Sub-Committee to examine this area and to determine how the problem should be tackled. The Committee are also considering (i) proposals to decriminalise vagrancy, and (ii) the need for controls on the private security industry and will issue reports on these matters in the near future.

1.2The Sub-Committee had a number of meetings and the members were of the view that it would be impracticable to attempt to tackle the problem in one report. There was a clear need to consider individually the different aspects to the problem of drug related crime, to discuss each area, formulate a viewpoint and produce a report incorporating proposals/recommendations for consideration by the Oireachtas.

1.3The Sub-Committee members considered that the problem could be analysed under the following headings which, while not mutually exclusive, could readily be considered as separate topics, namely,




Controls at points of importation by officers of Customs and Excise




Garda surveillance on movement and dealing in drugs both within and outside the country and Garda Community relations regarding drug abuse




Matters relating to the prosecution of drug offenders including the legislation under which drug pushers and abusers are prosecuted



Imprisonment and Treatment

The question of imprisonment for drug dealers and abusers, and the provision of treatment facilities and alternatives to imprisonment for addicts




The need for increasing awareness of the dangers of addiction.

1.4The Committee decided to consider the role which the customs service could play in limiting the supply of drugs to this country. On 19th June, two meetings were held, one with representatives of the Irish Customs and Excise Union who had made a submission to the Committee on this topic and the other with representatives of the Revenue Commissioners. This whole area was considered and discussed and the Committee formulated views which form the body of this Report.

1.5On 14th June, the Committee requested the Garda Commissioner to send representatives to a meeting to be held on some early suitable date to discuss, inter alia, “the role of Customs Officers in the fight against drugs and the interrelationship between the Gardai and the Customs service”. The Commissioner replied to effect that he could not attend the proposed meeting and he suggested that the Committee “communicate directly with the Department of Justice regarding the proposed discussions”. On 18th June the Department of Justice was requested to make the necessary arrangements for a meeting between the Garda Commissioner and the Committee, but, to date, no response has been received from that Department. A copy of this Report is being forwarded to the Commissioner and to the Minister for Justice.

1.6This approach seems to be most appropriate considering that the Mis-Use of Drugs Bill 1984 has now come before the Dail. Many of the recommendations incorporated in this Report relate directly to that legislation. This presents an ideal opportunity for the implementation of these proposals. The Committee consider that this Report is most opportune and that it serves to demonstrate the potential usefulness and effectiveness of the Committee system, if it is given the opportunity and facilities to develop its full potential.

1.7While the Committee will now proceed to examine the other areas mentioned at paragraph 1.3 above, it may also give further consideration to developments in the area of drug smuggling and produce a further report at a later date.

2. Problem of Drug Smuggling

2.1The smuggling of illegal drugs into the country has become a major cause of concern for society generally. The problem has become particularly acute over the past few years since a large increase in the quantity of drugs reaching street level took place in 1980/81. There was a general feeling some years ago that the bulk of “hard” drugs was emanating from raids on chemists shops. This source has been greatly controlled and yet the problem gets worse. Even if that was the original source of the problem, the effective security measures taken have closed off that avenue and the drugs are now being imported directly.

2.2The Medico-Social Research Board undertook a survey of the mis-use of drugs in one Inner City area of Dublin in 1982/83. That study confirmed what many persons close to the problem had been saying for a couple of years, namely, that there is a serious problem of drug abuse in certain areas and that it is particularly prevalent in the 15-24 age group. This study found that the prevalence of heroin abuse in that age group was 10%; but in those aged 15-19 it was 12%, and among females aged 15-19 it was 13%. These figures were in some respects a great deal worse than the equivalent 1970 figures for New York black ghettos especially where females were concerned. This Report confirmed that the findings of an earlier preliminary investigation, undertaken in July 1982, were not only realistic but, in fact, somewhat understated the scale of the problem.

2.3While the smuggling of drugs is, in itself, a criminal offence, the abuse of drugs has unfortunately led to a considerable amount of other crime in the community. This arises where addicts resort to crime in order to obtain the finances necessary to feed their habit. The Committee are convinced that this drug-related crime has been a big contributing factor in the rise in the level of recorded offences over the past few years. The Garda Commissioner’s Report on Crime for 1983 shows a total of about 102,300 indictable offences as compared with 64,000 in 1979 giving an overall increase of 59%. The Committee was informed that it costs anything between £100 and £300 for an addict to feed his habit for one day. The need to finance this habit has led to a substantial rise in handbag snatching, larcenies and burglaries to which addicts resort in order to have the money to purchase illegal drugs.

2.4Considerable emphasis has been placed, of late, on the action to be taken and the provision of powers for the Gardai once a crime has been committed. The Committee consider that greater efforts must be made to tackle the crime problem at its source. It was with this in mind that our first Report concentrated on ways in which the community could help in the prevention of crime. This Report has the same objective - tackle the basis of the problem and by reducing the supply of drugs reduce the consequential drug-related criminal activity.

2.5Given that even a small quantity of any “hard” drug which gets through Customs will be “cut” or “spilt”, the odds on pushers being apprehended with any quantity of drugs is greatly reduced. A major portion of the drugs which have passed the Customs barrier are likely to find their way onto the the streets. It would be more satisfactory if the larger quantities were caught at point of entry and the whole supply from any one importation cut off before reaching the addicts and/or potential users.

2.6This country’s first line of defence to the problem, namely, the barriers at the point of entry, must be geared to tackle the sources and prevent these commodities reaching the streets. Such action, assuming that it were to be successful, would reduce the demands for expensive follow-up activity as well as reducing the unquantifiable social cost of drug-addiction in a young person.

2.7The present trend among drugs smugglers is toward concealment on or in the body. These persons are referred to as “swallowers” or “stuffers” and have created, and continue to create, serious problems for the Customs and Excise service. The question of the extent and legality of search of such persons’ bodies requires the fullest examination and the establishment of guidelines for the officers involved. Similarly, the duration of such search - presumably until the suspected concealed substance is discovered or passed through the body - requires clarification. The Committee was advised that it can take from five to seven days for such concealed substances to pass through the body. There have been instances where it has taken considerably longer - in one case in fact up to 15 days. There is also considerable danger to the person concealing such substances. Cases are recorded where death has occurred following the accidental release of drugs within the body when the package ruptured.

The provision of proper facilities at points of import/export, especially where “swallowers” are concerned, should be treated as a matter of some urgency.

3. Functions of Officers of Customs and Excise

3.1The Customs service operates, in so far as their role in drug-smuggling is concerned, under the provisions of the Customs Consolidation Act 1876 and the Dangerous Drugs Act 1934 which restrict the importation of certain controlled drugs.

Customs Officers are concerned with detecting offences involving the movement of such drugs across the customs frontier.

3.2Ireland, being an island, should be better placed than other countries to combat the drug problem at source, namely, the original supply into the country. It is at these points of entry that the Customs service has a major role to play and the Committee would support any steps taken to improve the level of service available for this purpose.

3.3Within the Customs service there are two grades of officers appointed to the outdoor service, namely, Assistant Officer (383 persons) and Officer (312 persons) who are mainly concerned with the detection and prevention of smuggling.

3.4The principal duties of these grades at Ports [Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Rosslare] and Airports are to

(i)meet and board all vessels or aircraft arriving from foreign countries,

(ii)secure the dutiable stores of such vessels or aircraft under seal,

(iii)receive duty on the personal stores of crews and passengers,

(iv)examine their personal effects,

(v)rummage vessels and aircraft while in the State,

(vi)watch shipping generally and supervise the loading and unloading of cargo,

(vii)clear goods for importation and exportation.

They also perform non-Revenue duties in connection with the laws relating to Public Health, alien immigration and other matters concerning shipping.

3.5When attached to the Land Frontier Staff, they may be employed at the Customs Land Frontier Posts (approximately 25 in number) along the border with Northern Ireland or in patrolling and keeping watch on the Land Frontier with the object of detecting and preventing the illicit import or export of dutiable or prohibited goods.

3.6Officers of Customs and Excise are ideally and strategically located to exercise a vital role in the control of all commodities, including dangerous drugs, at the point of importation.

4. Customs procedures for dealing with drug smuggling

4.1This matter was discussed with the representatives of both the Customs Union and the Revenue Commissioners. The Committee understand that, at present, when a Customs Officer seizes a quantity of dangerous drugs from an arriving passenger/crew member, it is the practice to contact the Garda Drugs Squad. The time lapse between detection of the drugs and the arrival of the Garda Drugs Squad, which can sometimes be substantial, means that there is, in effect, a type of “limbo” period during which the offender, as far as Customs and Excise are concerned, is technically at least, free to continue his/her journey. The Customs Union representatives contend that quite apart from the often embarrassing situations which can arise during such periods, it is very wasteful of the valuable time of both the Garda Drugs Squad and their members to have this duplication built into the system.

4.2While officers of Customs and Excise have statutory powers of arrest under the Customs (Consolidation) Act 1876, there is an administrative prohibition by the Revenue Commissioners on the exercise of this power. It appears that this prohibition was introduced because of the low level of penalties prescribed in the 1876 Act. It is preferable to await the arrival of the Gardai and have proceedings, if any, taken under the Mis-Use of Drugs Act 1977. The Committee consider this to be a major problem and one which should be remedied immediately.

4.3Officers of Customs and Excise are responsible for efforts to combat drug smuggling at the point of import only (or its immediate vicinity) while the illicit supply or use of drugs in all other areas of the country is a matter for the Gardai. There is a very close working relationship between the Gardai and the Customs Officers and this spirit of co-operation must be continued and every effort and opportunity should be made or utilised to build on this solid basis.

5. Recommendations of Committee

5.1The Committee consider that immediate steps should be taken to enable Officers of Customs and Excise to play a more effective part in the fight against the supply of illegal drugs.

5.2The Committee recommend -

1.The provisions of Sections 23, 26, 27(1) and (3), 28 and 29 of the Mis-Use of Drugs Act 1977 should be extended to Officers of Customs and Excise. [Section 6 below].

2.A small Customs Drugs Unit should be established within the Customs service. This Unit which would be of a reasonable size, consisting of, perhaps, three/four persons employed on drugs work on a full-time basis. It would provide a back-up service including specialised training, to all officers. [Section 7 below].

3.Once the provisions of the Mis-Use of Drugs Act 1977 are extended to Officers of Customs and Excise, they should be free to immediately arrest and charge a person found to be smuggling drugs at a point of entry to the country. It will be necessary to ensure continued close co-operation and liaison with the Garda Drugs Squad as, in certain cases, it may be considered more appropriate not to detain and arrest a suspected smuggler so as to give the Gardai the opportunity to catch other persons involved in the supply of drugs. [Section 8 below].

4.Section 186 of the Customs (Consolidation) Act 1876 provides that penalties for smuggling will relate to the value of the smuggled goods. There is an obvious problem in relation to the valuation of drugs which may need urgent expert examination and consideration. This problem would be overcome if the provisions of the 1977 Act were applied to Officers of Customs and Excise.

5.The above recommendations should be incorporated in the Mis-Use of Drugs Bill 1984, which is at present before the House and which provides an ideal opportunity for tackling this problem without any delay.

6.There is a clear need for the provision of adequate resources to the Customs service to enable them to examine and search vehicles and persons at points of import/export. [Section 9 below].

7.Urgent attention must be given and guidelines issued in connection with the procedures to be followed where there is suspected concealment on or in the body by persons generally referred to as “stuffers” or “swallowers”.

6. Mis-Use of Drugs Act 1977

Extension of certain provisions to Officers of Customs and Excise

6.1The 1977 Act gives powers to the Gardai to assist them in their efforts to tackle the drug problem in this country. However, there is no mention of the customs service or their requirements in this area. They are the first in line to tackle the supply problem - they have no function once the drugs have passed beyond the immediate environs of the point of importation, this being a matter for the Garda Authorities - and they should have similar powers to those of the Gardai if they are to have a realistic chance of trying to deal with the problems of drug smuggling. The Committee consider that the following provisions in the Customs Acts need to be extended to Officers of Customs and Excise, namely, Sections 23, 26, 27(1) and (3), 28 and 29. These are dealt with at paragraphs 6.2 to 6.6 below.

6.2Section 23 of the 1977 Act provides specific powers for the Garda Siochana to search persons, vehicles, vessels or aircraft where a member with reasonable cause suspects that a person is illegally in possession of drugs. Under existing legislation officers of Customs and Excise do not have the necessary authority to search a person who has not landed from a ship or aircraft. This can be very important where an officer suspects the passing of drugs from an arriving passenger to a “meeter” or “greeter”, quite a common phenomenon. The extension of the provisions of Section 23 of the Mis-Use of Drugs Act, 1977, to officers of Customs and Excise is obviously desirable in such circumstances.

6.3Section 26 provides for the issuing of search warrants to a named member of the Garda Siochana where there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that a drug offence has been committed. A Customs Officer may not legally attend or assist, in his capacity as an officer of Customs and Excise, at a search under such a warrant. In order to do so, a second warrant, to be issued under the Customs Consolidation Act 1876 would be required. This creates unnecessary duplication especially where the attendance of such an officer is necessary to assist in the search. It may, for instance, be advisable to have a Customs Officer present to examine import documentation. The provisions of section 26 should be extended to authorise Customs Officers to assist the Gardai at searches where this is considered to be necessary or desirable.

6.4The existing penalties for drug smuggling, where the offence is prosecuted by Customs Officers, are generally totally inadequate to meet present needs and they should be the same as where similar offences are prosecuted by the Gardai. The Committee can see no good reason why widely differing penalties apply as between prosecutions brought by the Customs and the Gardai, two bodies having a responsibility for tackling the supply and movement of drugs. This anomaly, which would necessitate an extension of the provisions of Section 27(1) and 27(3) of the 1977 Act, should be rectified immediately.

6.5Courts have power, under Section 28 of the 1977 Act, to remand persons convicted under certain sections of that Act, to obtain a report and in certain cases to arrange for the medical treatment or for the care of such persons. Again this provision only applies where the offence is prosecuted by the Gardai and the Committee feel that a similar provision should apply where customs officials prosecute drug offences.

6.6Details provisions in relation to the defence of proceedings are covered in Section 29 of the 1977 Act and these provisions should equally apply in the case of offences prosecuted by Officers of Customs and Excise.

7. Customs Drug Squad

7.1The Committee are satisfied that the Revenue Commissioners are very conscious of their role in controlling the supply of illegal drugs and that the senior staff are fully committed to efforts to deal with this problem. However, it appears that no officers are assigned full-time to this very important task. The Committee consider the setting-up of a small Drugs Unit within the Customs service as an immediate and essential requirement.

7.2It is envisaged that this Drugs Unit would be small in number, perhaps three or four persons who would be specially selected for membership of this Unit. We are not in a position to definitively quantify the numbers or grading of the necessary staff. These are clearly matters for the Revenue Commissioners as is the question as to whether this Unit could be established through the redeployment of existing staff.

7.3This Unit would be responsible for providing the necessary back-up services for Customs Officers around the country. It would make arrangements for specialised training for all staff and for ensuring that there was an on-going programme of training and refresher training. The Committee understand that about 70% of all officers have received training in this area and acknowledge the input made to date. It appears, from the huge increases in the level of drug seizures by Customs Officers, that this training is having a significant impact on the effectiveness of the Customs service. The Committee are of the view that, if more emphasis can be given to this aspect of the work of Customs and Excise, further substantial improvements in the level of seizures may take place. The aim of this Unit should be the eventual reduction in the supply of illegal drugs and any funds invested in such activities will reap substantial real savings in the near future.

7.4Officers in this Unit would be available to provide expert advice and assistance to staff on the ground. This would give those officers a greater confidence in the system and put them in a position to be more effective in performing their official duties.

7.5In 1981 the Revenue Commissioners introduced an American manufactured kit called the NIK PORTA-PAC Field Testing Kit for use at all customs posts to assist in the identification of drugs. All officers received a half-day’s instruction in the use of these kits which are very easy to use and which have proved to be very reliable. Ireland was the first country in Europe to use these kits and since their introduction here they have been brought into use in the rest of Europe.

7.6The Unit should liaise closely with the Garda Drugs Squad and be in a position to exchange information which may prove invaluable in the apprehension of drug smugglers and/or their accomplices. Within the framework of Interpol, the Garda Drugs Squad have formalised communication procedures with other countries. In the same way, the Customs Unit should form part of the international information exchange co-operation movement which already exists between the customs service of many countries and to which Ireland is a contributing country.

7.7In the same way as a Drugs Squad was established within the Garda Siochana, there is a very real need for a similar unit in the Customs service. This step should be taken immediately and we should not await a further worsening of the drug problem before taking what is a fairly elementary step. The Committee is not in a position to quantify the cost of this proposal. However, the members consider that it would be relatively modest, even in present financial circumstances, and especially in comparison with the scale of the drug problem.

8. Powers of arrest for Officers of Customs and Excise

8.1Section 186 of the Customs Consolidation Act 1876 authorises officers of Customs and Excise to arrest and charge persons suspected of customs offences.

8.2The Revenue Commissioners have issued a direction prohibiting the exercise of this power without their prior consent. The Committee understand that the main reason why this prohibition exists, in so far as drug smuggling is concerned, is because the penalties which are prescribed in the 1876 Act and which would be applied in the event of a successful conviction, are very low in comparison with those set out in the Mis-Use of Drugs Act 1977.

8.3It has been stated that Customs Officers are placed in a difficult situation in this regard and that there is duplication of the efforts of Customs staff by the Garda Drugs Squad.

8.4The Committee considered this matter and were of the view that Officers of Customs and Excise should have authority to use their powers of arrest and that the penalties prescribed for customs offences related to drug smuggling should be increased to bring them into line with those in the 1977 Act.

8.5Such powers of arrest would only be exerciseable at the point of import of the drugs or its immediate environment. Great care would, of course, have to be exercised in the use of this power and Customs officials must realise that it may not always be appropriate to arrest persons at the point of entry to the country. In some cases the person carrying the drugs is simply acting as a courier for a large-scale drug-pusher. The Gardai may have an interest in following such a courier so as to apprehend the “godfathers” who try to stay in the background, but who are the power behind the supply and movement of drugs.

9. Provision of adequate services

9.1If the customs service is to have a realistic chance of successfully tackling the drug smuggling problem then, not alone must the necessary legislative changes be introduced, but adequate resources must be provided.

9.2The provision of sniffer dogs would considerably assist Customs Officers in detecting drugs. The members realise that there are obvious limitations to their use as, for instance, where drugs are enclosed in certain protective materials which make it impossible for dogs to detect the drugs. There is, at present, one dog being trained for this type of work following upon the matter having been raised in the Dail. The Committee consider that this training should proceed and that further dogs be provided as soon as possible.

9.3There is a need for the provisions of adequate physical resources to enable the Customs Officers to effectively discharge their functions in the examination of vehicles and persons. The Committee are not in a position to comment on the level of such resources but are advised that they are not adequate. They have been advised that there is a need for the provision of covered examination bays with pits, ramps and hoists to enable vehicles to be examined. The Revenue Commissioners should examine the level of such facilities and consider if an improvement is necessary.

9.4It has been suggested that x-ray and other specialised equipment be made available to the Customs service. While the Committee favour the provision of any resources which may assist in the efforts to reduce the supply of illegal drugs, the members understand that there may be health and substantial financial problems in relation to certain x-ray equipment. However, these possibilities should be considered by the Revenue Commissioners as indeed should the feasibility of using mobile units.

10. Acknowledgement

10.1The Committee wishes to express its appreciation of the work of the Clerk to the Committee, Mr. F. J. Brady and of the assistance given by the Oireachtas staff.

10.2Thanks are due to the representatives of the Irish Customs and Excise Union, Mr. Seamus McGowan, Vice-President and Mr. Martin McDonald, General Secretary for the valuable submission from the Union and for their presence at a meeting to clarify and discuss the points raised therein.

10.3In addition, Mr. Donal Mulcahy and Mr. Gordon O’Brien, representing the Revenue Commissioners, provided an invaluable insight into the workings and the needs of the Customs Service in so far as the problem of drug smuggling is concerned.

Michael Woods T.D.



3 July, 1984.