Children as young as 15 are being recruited into organised criminal gangs and are involved in drug dealing and so-called tiger kidnapping, an Oireachtas Committee has been told.

The Justice Committee is hearing submissions from four voluntary and statutory organisations on the prevalence and effects of gangland crime on communities.

It heard that children are involved with drug dealing and kidnappings and can earn €200 in 30 minutes rather than attend a youth intervention programme.

Gangs are also forcing the families of indebted drug users who have taken their own lives to continue paying their drug debts.

The committee was told that gang crime operates at both a low level and high level of intimidation and that one shooting will silence 40 people.

The committee heard that people walk with their heads down and will not make eye contact in areas where gangs intimidate whole streets.

The Dublin City Wide Anti-Drugs Campaign said communities are no longer standing up to criminal gangs because they are being intimidated and are afraid.

Anti-drug organisations told the committee that policing is no longer as visible as it was.

The Centre for Criminal Justice Research said a strong garda presence is needed in the communities worst affected by gangland crime not only to protect people but allow other initiatives to be developed.

Independent TD Finian McGrath said he knows people who will not go to gardaí because acid would be thrown at them and they would be burned out of their homes. 

The Committee has also been told a multi-agency response is needed.

Anna Quigley of the Dublin City Wide Anti-Drugs Campaign called for the reinstatement of a minister to oversee the national drugs strategy.

She said there have been nine ministers over the past number of years, but there needs to be a junior minister dedicated to a drugs strategy with a proven track record on the issue.

She said there was a huge political response following the 1996 murder of journalist Veronica Guerin, but by 2002 that "had disappeared" and while the structures set up in 1997 are still in place, "there's no commitment to it any more".

The committee was advised to look at evidence around legalising drugs in Ireland.

The director of projects of the Ballyfermot Advance Project cited examples such as the legalisation of heroin in Canada.

Dermot Gough said there are a lot of problems with cannabis or weed in Ireland.

He said while it was viewed as a "soft drug" a few years ago; there are now a variety of problems with "young people and weed".  

Noting that 70% of prosecutions are in relation to drug possession, Ms Quigley said she would be in favour of decriminalisation over legalisation.

She said legalisation would be "far more complicated".

"We should have a discussion and look at evidence and looking at evidence what we are doing at the moment is not working", she said.