Tuesday, 5 October 2004
Dáil Eireann Debate
131. Mr. O’Dowd asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the interventions which will be taken by his Department under the national drugs strategy to tackle the spread of heroin misuse nationally; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23422/04]
Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Mr. N. Ahern): As the Deputy is aware, my Department has overall responsibility for co-ordinating the implementation of the National Drugs Strategy 2001-2008. The strategy contains 100 individual actions under the four pillars of supply reduction, prevention, treatment and research, to be implemented by a range of Departments and agencies.
With regard to prevalence of opiate use, research conducted by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs last year estimated that there were 14,452 people using opiates in Ireland. The estimated figure for Dublin is 12,456 with 2,225 people using opiates outside the capital, although a number of these would be in Wicklow and Kildare, which are part of the ERHA region. Although this represents a reduction in the numbers in Dublin of approximately 1,000 over the previous 1996 estimate, this is the first available prevalence data for the regions outside Dublin.
The recent report by the Health Research Board showed that the numbers in treatment for heroin use outside the ERHA area have increased very significantly in the period 1998 to 2002. As the Deputy will be aware, this is in line with one of the key commitments in the National Drugs Strategy 2001-2008 which is to increase the number of treatment places available for drug misusers. While in percentage terms the increase in the numbers in treatment in the regions is considerable, the vast bulk of methadone treatment continues to take place in the ERHA area. In this regard, the Department of Health and Children, which has overall responsibility for the addiction services, reports that at the end of August 2004 there were 7,190 people receiving methadone treatment. This figure compares with just over 5,000 in December 2000, an increase of 40%.
To date, the treatment services in the regions have undergone a similar pattern to that observed in the ERHA when treatment availability was expanded, in that existing users are much more likely to come forward and present for treatment as it becomes more available, accessible and attractive. Accordingly, as the services have expanded, so have the numbers in treatment, which is a positive development as it indicates that services are meeting an existing demand.
All health boards are working towards the increased involvement of general practitioners and pharmacists with regard to the methadone protocol. In July 2001, there were 168 GPs and 233 pharmacists involved in the scheme, compared to 219 GPs and 317 pharmacists involved at the end of August 2004.
I will continue to monitor the overall national situation with regard to opiate use. The programme for Government calls for monitoring of the use of heroin, in particular outside Dublin, and the NACD is in the process of setting up an early warning system to address this issue. The regional drugs task forces are currently mapping out the patterns of drug misuse in their areas, as well as the range and level of existing services, with a view to better co-ordination and addressing gaps in the overall provision. Where opiate use is a problem in particular areas, I expect this to be reflected in their action plans. I look forward to receiving those plans over the coming months and allocating funding for their implementation.
The mid-term review of the National Drugs Strategy 2001-2008 is currently under way. The review is examining the progress being made to date under the strategy and will enable priorities for future action to be identified and a re-focusing of the strategy, if necessary, for the remaining period up to 2008. As part of the review, the relevance of the strategy in tackling the current nature and extent of drug misuse, including emerging trends, will be examined, and any gaps presenting will be identified. The prevalence of heroin use throughout the country will be considered in this context also.
Mr. O’Dowd: I congratulate the Minister and the Minister of State on being re-appointed to their positions and I wish them well. However, as the Minister of State has admitted, the drugs problem has significantly increased outside Dublin city during the Minister’s term of office. I acknowledge there has been significant improvement in the 14 to 21 age cohort in Dublin city, but is it not true that in Louth, Meath, Westmeath, Wicklow and Carlow, heroin is being used more than ever? Has the Minister’s national drugs strategy failed? The strategy is in its fourth year, yet the regional drugs tasks forces have been set up only in the past year and have produced no reports. The Minister has failed to deal with this issue.
Parents in particular are concerned at the spread of heroin, albeit to a significant minority of people. Nevertheless, that minority never previously indulged in heroin abuse. Is the Minister’s strategy failing because he has failed to resource or fund it in these best of times? We have never had more money in our coffers, yet never has less been spent on the national drugs strategy in the regions.
Mr. N. Ahern: The spin put on that recent report was misleading. The figures referred to the numbers in treatment not usage. It is positive if the numbers in treatment in certain midlands towns went up by 400%. Under the strategy, we have been trying to achieve the provision of treatment so that we can attract abusers to the services. That the numbers in treatment have increased does not mean that usage has increased.
Mr. N. Ahern: We will only know whether there has been an increase following the next capture-recapture study. However, that figure did not upset us because treatment has been provided, which is the aim of the strategy. Naturally, when services exist, people will be attracted to them, which is positive because it is only when people come forward that they can be treated to try to rid them of their habits.
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