Thursday, 1 April 2010
Dáil Eireann Debate
2. Deputy Jack Wall asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the number of complaints lodged with his Department with regard to head shops; the number of head shops in each electoral area; the actions taken to date or planned by him to deal with the concerns raised; the meetings arranged or that have taken place with other agencies or Departments to deal with the concerns raised; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14327/10]
3. Deputy Michael Ring asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the action that he will take to combat the problem of head shops; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14329/10]
My Department has received a large number of complaints regarding the operation of head shops and the new psychoactive substances being sold in these outlets. I covered many of these issues when replying to an Adjournment debate tabled by Deputy Ring last night. These range from letters from individuals, to correspondence in relation to motions passed by local authorities, to a copy of a public petition in the case of Roscommon town. My officials have also been made aware of such concerns through various meetings, including through a conference on “legal highs” organised by the regional drugs task forces, which was held at the end of January. I suspect a number of Members attended the conference in Mullingar. The number of head shops has increased significantly in recent times and it is estimated in excess of 100 such outlets operate in the State.
My colleague, Deputy Curran, when Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, voiced concerns on a number of occasions regarding the activities of head shops and the legal highs and I very much share those concerns, which primarily relate to the potential health hazards arising from the use of these products and the possibility that their use may act as a gateway to the use of illicit drugs.
The National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016 includes two actions aimed at addressing the issues involved. As provided for under the strategy, the former Minister of State, Deputy Curran, held a number of meetings with the Ministers for Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Education and Science. He also met the Garda Commissioner and senior officials from various Departments and offices. Head shops and the sale of legal highs were discussed at many of these meetings, as were various approaches to addressing the activities of these outlets. While reading background information for Question Time, I noticed many meetings had been held with a range of agencies and groups.
Through the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, the primary legislation through which these substances can be regulated, the Department of Health and Children is finalising regulations to introduce controls on a range of substances. These regulations will make the possession and sale of these substances illegal and subject to criminal sanctions. In preparing the required regulations, that Department is consulting the relevant authorities to ensure any legitimate uses of the substances involved are not impinged upon. Meanwhile, the Government has approved the commencement of a required notification process to the EU and it is envisaged that the regulations controlling the various substances will come into effect in late June, at the conclusion of the three-month process involved. As I stated last night, I assure the House this process will take three months and suggestions it will take longer are not correct.
Meanwhile, the national advisory committee on drugs was asked to carry out research in this area and this is under way. In addition, the activities of head shops are being closely monitored on an ongoing basis by An Garda Síochána and Revenue’s Customs Service with a view to ensuring that no substances that are currently illegal are being sold. My Department has been in contact with the Attorney General about a range of approaches to the matter and a number of issues arising in that context are being considered at senior level within an interdepartmental framework.
I assure the Deputies that the issue of head shops and new psychoactive substances is of serious concern to this Government and to governments in many other countries, given the international nature of this problem. A number of countries have taken certain actions, each adapting their approach to reflect their own laws and experiences. However, no EU member state has come up with a comprehensive response thus far. I also assure the Deputies that I will continue to work with my ministerial colleagues in vigorously pursuing all viable approaches to counter the potential threats posed by head shops and legal highs.
Deputy Jack Wall: Like Deputy Ring, I wish the Minister and Minister of State well in their new portfolios. I assure them we will do everything we can to work with them. I thank the former Minister, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, and the former Minister of State, Deputy Curran, for the effort and time they put into Question Time. Question Time is an important occasion during which spokespersons and Ministers can interact and assist each other to improve the brief.
I thank the Minister for his detailed reply. The timescale for implementing legislation or guidelines is a major concern. It is of paramount importance that this happens. A recent newspaper article highlighted a 400% increase in applications to the Department of Health and Children seeking information about products that could pose health risks to young persons. That related to concerns about head shops.
Deputy Costello, my party colleague, introduced the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2010 to make it difficult for head shop owners to acquire premises and set up immediately. The former Minister of State thought it was a good idea at the time and that it could be done. Will the Minister follow up on this and bring legislation forward, even if that means amending Deputy Costello’s Bill?
News broke earlier that head shop owners want to form a representative association to defend their right to trade and so on. They will not go away because we think what they do is a bad idea. We must examine this issue and act quickly but we must also ensure that what we do is right in order that we can eliminate this threat for once and for all. It is intended the owners will form a group, having examined the legalities involved, and they will fight regulation every step of the way. The Minister can rest assured that the Labour Party will join him and other Ministers in doing everything possible to ensure our youth, the generation of tomorrow, is protected from head shops.
Deputy Pat Carey: I thank Deputy Wall for his good wishes. I also would like to be associated with the remarks made by Deputies Wall and Ring about the former Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, and the former Minister of State, Deputy Curran. I agree they did excellent work in the Department. I wish my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Mary White, well and I look forward to working with her. I assure the House this will be the only time she will be present for Question Time as an onlooker. She will be an active participant in future.
Deputy Wall’s final comments are relevant. When I served in the Department previously, head shop owners advanced the notion that self-regulation was the way forward for their operation. I did not agree with that then and I do not now. The Government is under no illusion about the determination of head shop owners, many of whom feel they are fulfilling a useful purpose. I do not share that view but they will do everything to ensure they can operate. I am equally determined, as is the Government, to make sure they cannot, which is all the more reason to ensure we take every step carefully. The three month notification period to the EU has been taken in clear recognition of the experience that if it is not done, it is easy to strike down any measures in the domestic courts.
On the legislation, following the advice of the Attorney General, the interdepartmental group to which I referred is looking at how best to draw up legislation that would be watertight and not subject to constitutional strikedown. That will not be easy but we believe it can be done. It was possible to do it with the Criminal Assets Bureau and I believe it can be done in this area also. Planning, consumer protection and insurance can be incorporated into the legislation.
I have not seen Deputy Costello’s Bill but I will have it examined. I am aware of his experience, which is similar to my own in drugs task force areas, and that would inform some of our thinking. If Deputy Wall is aware of measures in the draft Bill that can inform, advise and strengthen the legislation I wish to advance, he should bring them to my attention and I will take them on board. A good deal of work is being done to prepare guidelines for parents, young people and those who are not so young. There are a number of head shops in my area and, contrary to the popular perception, it is not always 15 to 21 year olds who use them. I was taken aback to see that people approaching middle age have been consumers of those products. Equally, I do not suggest that every last item on sale in those shops is either illegal or damaging. My point is that customers of such shops are not all of a certain age.
These shops have almost spun out of control in a short space of time. I know the Deputies present are as determined as I am to ensure that does not happen because it is causing a considerable amount of legitimate concern. There are side effects, apart from the obvious ones of anti-social behaviour and damage to health and society. There is no doubt that many of those products, legal and otherwise, are gateways to the use of other drugs. Let no one be under any illusion but that this industry is highly organised and very determined. I am aware of that from my experience two years ago. We will have to proceed with great care and caution in order to ensure we have watertight measures to prevent such shops trading.
Deputy Michael Ring: I object to the name “head shops”. They are not “head shops”, they are drugs shops. People should stop calling them “head shops” and should call them drugs shops because that is what they are. Recently, a drugs shop in Dublin was burnt down, accidentally or otherwise, and €500,000 was found in the safe by the Garda, probably more than in any of the banks in the country.
The Minister said the Government had notified Europe in compliance with the three month notification period. Ms Marian Harkin, MEP, said in response to questions tabled in the European Parliament that when it comes to public health and safety there is no need to wait for three months, that we can introduce our own legislation. Deputy Catherine Byrne has raised this issue for several months. What she said is correct, namely, that we need to regulate this industry as a matter of urgency. Deputy Wall is correct also that given the amount of money they are making, the people behind those shops can pay for the best advice. I referred to the amount of money that was found in the safe of one such shop. One could ask what amount of money had been put into banks and elsewhere.
This is one of the greatest scourges to hit the country. I listened to the “Liveline” programme with Joe Duffy last week and I heard a parent from England outline what happened to her child. There are bound to be children in this country who are badly affected. Children will die if we do not do something about the matter. We must regulate the shops. If one has a chemist’s shop, one must have a licence and a pharmacist with professional qualifications to issue drugs. This area must be regulated as quickly as possible. I urge the Minister to make this his number one priority. Whether it is regulation or legislation that is required, I urge the Minister to bring it before this House as quickly as possible to help us deal with these gangsters. People are burning down shops in Dublin which means that someone has been hurt on the streets. We need regulation in this area and we need it fast. We need to protect our children and communities. The matter is getting out of hand. Fine Gael maintains that all of the products sold in those shops should be approved by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the Irish Medicines Board. I urge the Minister to make it his number one priority to ensure we have the regulation and legislation before this House as quickly as possible.
Deputy Pat Carey: I assure Deputy Ring that it is already a priority of mine and of the Government. The notification is in order for the measure not to be struck down subsequently. It is necessary for the notification to take place. At present, four draft statutory instruments have been prepared to bring a number of substances, including the so-called legal highs, under the control of the Misuse of Drugs Act. We believe the four draft orders are comprehensive. They will relate to the substances which are being sold in the shops referred to by Deputy Ring. I refer to the so-called SPICE products, the BZP derivatives, mephedrone, methylone and related cathinones, GBL and 1,4 BD.
The notification period commenced either yesterday or the day before. I will double-check that. I assure Deputy Ring that I am absolutely determined in that regard. A commitment to that effect already exists in the drugs strategy. Deputy Byrne has been engaged in this work for as long as I have. Many of us can go back to the days when glue was regarded as a gateway drug. Previous to that it was cider and other products. It might be a short-term phenomenon but I do not think that is the case. Unless we attack the surge in these shops with determination through whatever measures we can, they will continue to proliferate. The one thing on which I do not disagree with Deputy Ring is the determination of the sector to put it up to us to see whether we can put them out of business.
Deputy Michael Ring: Will the Minister also speak to his colleague in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley? There must be regulation in the area of planning. We cannot allow a situation where every other business is controlled and restricted. If one has a takeaway shop, one is restricted in most towns in terms of opening hours. I urge the Minister to speak to his colleague to introduce the necessary amendment to deal with the matter and to prevent drugs shops from opening as they currently do. It is wrong for them to be open for such long hours.
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