Thursday, 1 February 1996
Dáil Éireann Debate
Ms Shortall: Last year the authorities seized a vast quantity of ecstasy tablets. The seizures represented a big increase  on previous figures yet the evidence suggests, and the Garda readily acknowledge, that the seizures represent only a tiny fraction of the quantity that is coming in. Any young person will tell you that ecstasy is readily available on the streets and in many pubs and clubs. The fact that vast quantities of the drug are being consumed by young people indicates a totally misguided and inaccurate perception of the dangers involved. Doctors sometimes compare ecstasy to Russian roulette because while a person could take ecstasy regularly, without any side effects, each tablet has the potential to kill.
The dangers of ecstasy are fivefold. First, many ecstasy tablets are of dubious quality and contain other substances. This can amount to a lethal cocktail in some cases. Second, even ecstasy tablets which are pure can kill because it is not possible to predict how any one individual will react to the drug at any given time. Third, apart from those victims who die immediately, many suffer from long-term kidney failure, heart disease and serious depression. Fourth, increasingly ecstasy is becoming a gateway drug to heroin but of more concern is the increasingly common practice of people taking heroin to come down from an ecstasy high. In many cases this leads to a chronic heroin addiction. This practice is being actively encouraged by drug dealers who are now selling ecstasy tablets and heroin made up in one pack. Fifth, unlike heroin, ecstasy is relatively inexpensive. Tablets can cost from as little as £10 to £15 each and the price is coming down regularly. While medical evidence against ecstasy is steadily growing, more and more young people are dicing with death.
An article in a recent issue of Communiqué, the journal of Garda management, put the number of ecstasy-related deaths last year at 14. In Scotland in 1993 three teenagers died in an evening as a result of taking ecstasy tablets, yet still the perception among young people  of all social classes is that E is a harmless drug. It is this misconception which makes ecstasy so deadly.
The Department of Health has a clear responsibility to change that perception and to do so urgently, even more so given the growing use of ecstasy as a bridge drug to heroin. Merely distributing leaflets about ecstasy will not achieve this. There is an obvious need for a campaign similar to that mounted against AIDS some years ago. It should include use of television, billboards and local radio stations. Such campaigns have been effective in the past and are the only means by which successful campaigns against ecstasy abuse can be mounted. I urge the Minister to do so.
Minister of State at the Department of Health (Mr. O'Shea): I thank Deputy Shortall for raising this important issue. We frequently hear in the media or anecdotally of tragic human stories involving drug misuse. I welcome this opportunity to outline the action taken by my Department to promote awareness of the dangers of using ecstasy and other drugs.
The health promotion unit of my Department is currently planning a drug misuse prevention mass media campaign. The aim of the campaign is to alert and educate people on the dangers of all drug misuse including ecstasy.
For many years the health promotion unit has been actively working to increase awareness of the dangers of drug abuse and it provides a series of booklets and leaflets for health professionals and the public. An information leaflet specifically on ecstasy has been produced and has been widely distributed. Information on ecstasy is also included in the booklets and leaflets for professionals and parents. In addition, the unit has developed a range of educational and health promotion materials especially targeted at young people.
The provision of accurate information about the effects of drug taking is an  essential component of any drug education programme. However, effective and extensive education about drugs also entails examining attitudes, promoting decision-making skills and building self-esteem. A crucial part of the process is using appropriate settings where young people will be receptive to health messages and where lifeskills such as assertiveness and high self esteem can be encouraged.
Young people are subject to many influences and the school provides an ideal setting for primary drug prevention strategies. An important element of the fight against drug abuse is the substance abuse prevention programme entitled “On My Own Two Feet” which is now available to all second level schools. This programme was developed by the health promotion unit and the psychological service of the Department of Education with assistance from the Mater Dei counselling service. It is a comprehensive drug education programme, the aim of which is to enable students develop their ability to take charge of their mental health and to make informed decisions about the use of drugs in their lives. The programme materials include information on ecstasy and its effects. The programme has been introduced in approximately 50 per cent of schools and in-service training and wider dissemination are continuing.
The health promotion unit also runs a community-based training programme with the health boards which looks at the extent of the drug problem at local level and seeks to provide local answers. The programme entitled “Drugs Questions Local Answers” involves a multi-sectoral approach for health-education professionals and others interested in drug related problems which they meet in their work. The unit also supports pilot projects which aim to facilitate communities in tackling their own drug prevention issues.
A further programme is the parent education on alcohol, drugs and family  communication which was developed by the health promotion unit in conjunction with the Cork social and health education project of the Southern Health Board. This project recognises that young people and their parents must be provided with assistance to help them deal with the problems posed by licit and illicit drugs. A course has been developed which focuses not only on drugs but also on the skills and personal attributes that help people deal with the drug problem.
The Deputy will also be interested to learn that the health promotion unit partners the youth affairs section of the Department of Education and the National Youth Council of Ireland in the national youth health programme. This programme develops materials and provides training in health issues specific to young people in the non-formal education sector. The issues addressed include drug education and prevention.
While acknowledging that there are no easy solutions to the problem of drug misuse, I am confident a multi-sectoral approach at national and community level, together with a mass media awareness campaign, can bring positive results.
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