Wednesday, 17 October 2007
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Deputy Pat Carey): I am delighted to be here. As the Leas-Chathaoirleach stated, this is my first appearance in the Seanad. I congratulate everyone who was returned to this august assembly. I look forward to working with Senators for however long we remain Members of these Houses.
I welcome the opportunity to outline to the Seanad the achievements of the Government to date, our current initiatives and actions and our plans to minimise problem drug use in Ireland and alleviate the problems it causes. While Members all agree that problem drug use affects many aspects of Irish life, I am sure they also agree that there are no quick and easy solutions to it. Illegal drug use is a global issue and no country has succeeded in coming to terms with all dimensions of the problem. Our efforts to tackle it must, therefore, be seen in that context.
The Government’s response, through its commitment to maximising the successful outcomes of the national drugs strategy, represents the best approach. By taking a proactive, decisive and co-ordinated approach, much has been achieved through focusing on the original four pillars of the strategy, namely, supply reduction, prevention, treatment and research. More recently, the response has been augmented by the development of the rehabilitation pillar, the implementation of which will form a key part of the response to the drugs problem under the programme for Government. The implementation of actions under all five pillars will in time provide a vital, lifelong continuum of care necessary to assist those affected by drug misuse.
In the context of funding, the allocation this year of €50 million in my Department’s Vote clearly illustrates the Government’s continued commitment to tackling the problem of drug misuse in Ireland. This amount represents an increase of 16% on the 2006 figure and is 87% up on the corresponding figure for 2004. In all, more than €200 million was spent on various drug programmes across Departments and agencies last year. This figure is exclusive of the many mainstream services that are availed of in the normal way by those affected by problem drug use. I am confident that resources will continue to be made available on a scale appropriate to the needs arising.
As the national drugs strategy 2001-2008 nears its conclusion and with a new programme for Government bringing us through to 2012, this is an appropriate time to reflect on and note what has been achieved under the strategy in recent years. In addition, it is necessary to evaluate our experiences during the past six years with a view to utilising the knowledge gained from the outcomes achieved when developing a new national drugs strategy for the period 2009 to 2016. My Department will shortly take the initial steps in the process that will lead to the drafting of a new national drugs strategy.
The national drugs strategy 2001-2008 has achieved considerable success across a range of areas in reducing the hardship caused to individuals and the wider community by problem drug use. One of the main achievements to date is the fact that the level of drugs seizures by the Garda Síochána and the Customs Service has been well in excess of the targets set out in the strategy and includes a number of significant operations. In addition, under the prevention pillar, the SPHE and Walk Tall programmes have been rolled out to all schools; awareness campaigns have been organised and tremendous achievements have been made under the young people facilities and services fund; treatment facilities have increased significantly, with approximately 8,500 clients now in receipt of methadone; a range of services is being provided across the statutory, voluntary and community sectors for various types of problem drug use; and research in areas such as drugs prevalence, the outcome of heroin treatment, families and drugs, the effect of drugs on communities and cocaine issues have all helped to inform our progress.
With regard to the methadone programme, I have already expressed my disappointment and concern regarding the decision of individual pharmacists to withdraw from the methadone protocol this week. The putting at risk of an extremely vulnerable group such as methadone patients who are receiving treatment in a community setting cannot be justified given the destabilisation dangers associated with the interruption of their supply of methadone. I have also urged the HSE to ensure that sufficient resources are put in place to ensure continuity of supply to the individuals involved while minimising the disruption they experience.
The specific achievements of my Department under the strategy include the programmes developed by local and regional drugs task forces, capital projects developed under the premises initiative fund and preventative actions undertaken through the young people facilities and services fund. I pay tribute to Members of this House and other public representatives for the role they have played in rolling out those initiatives.
The 14 local drugs task forces have been in operation for nearly ten years and support more than 440 community-based projects, employing more than 300 people. These projects deliver a wide range of services and supports for problem drug users, their families and their broader communities. Furthermore, through the emerging needs fund, approximately €4 million was allocated to 67 projects to ensure the drugs problem continues to be combated on the ground in the most timely and flexible way. In my visits to local drugs task force areas since my appointment, I have seen many of their projects at first hand and have been greatly impressed by the quality and breadth of the work being done and by the commitment and dedication of those involved. Perhaps because of the scale of the work, much of this activity does not attract broader public recognition.
Ten regional drugs task forces were also established in 2003, thus ensuring that all parts of the country now benefit from the operation of a drugs task force. Following extensive consultation processes, each region prepared a strategic plan and these are now being rolled out. While it has, of necessity, taken time to get regional drugs task forces fully up and running, they are now pressing ahead towards full implementation of their plans in the next year or two at a full cost in excess of €14 million. As late as yesterday, I attended a meeting of the north Dublin regional drugs task force and visited the southern task force in the last week. I am impressed with the potential that exists for those regional forces to have an effect.
Meanwhile, capital funding under the premises initiative is now open to applications from all drug task forces to address the accommodation needs of community-based drugs projects. It is envisaged that regional drugs task forces will come forward with an increased range of proposals under this fund in the coming period.
The young peoples facilities and services fund was established to assist in the development of youth facilities, including sport and recreational facilities, and services in disadvantaged areas where a significant drug problem exists or has the potential to develop. The main aim of the fund is to attract into these facilities and activities “at risk” young people in disadvantaged areas and divert them away from the dangers of substance abuse. The target group of the programme is young people in the age range of ten to 21 years who are defined as “at risk” owing to factors such as family circumstances, educational disadvantage or involvement in crime or substance misuse.
Last month in Neilstown, I announced additional capital allocations of nearly €7 million to support 42 projects under the fund. To date, allocations of more than €125 million have been made to almost 500 facility and services projects in local drugs task force areas in Dublin, Bray and Cork, as well as in the cities of Galway, Limerick and Waterford and the town of Carlow. Under the programme for Government, it is envisaged that the young peoples facilities and services fund will be extended to further towns, mainly in Leinster, and I will consider such expansion in the short term.
Meanwhile, arising from the mid-term review of the national drugs strategy, rehabilitation became the fifth pillar of that strategy. Subsequently a working group, chaired by Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, and involving representatives of Departments, agencies and the community and voluntary sectors, was established and its report was accepted by the interdepartmental group on drugs, as well as by the Cabinet committee on social inclusion, in March of this year. The report was published in May and the recommendations received a favourable reaction. However, it was published in the middle of the general election campaign and received little or no coverage and even less debate.
The key recommendations of the report focus on an effective inter-agency approach based on a continuum of care for the individual, involving protocols for inter-agency working, service level agreements, enhanced case management and quality standards; an expansion of the range of treatment options, including an increased number of residential detoxification beds; building on the rehabilitative impact of community employment schemes; and broader life issues, including medical support, access to employment and education, housing, particular issues relating to the rehabilitation of offenders, child care, the role of families in the rehabilitation process, and research.
I view the substantially increased focus on rehabilitation as being significant for the overall strategy. It is important that we go the extra mile to ensure people are facilitated in their efforts to regain their capacity for daily life from the impact of problem drug use. Implementation of the recommendations of the report, which is included in the programme for Government, will be led by the Health Service Executive and co-ordinated through a national drug rehabilitation implementation committee. In keeping with the national drugs strategy generally, the process will involve indepth cross-departmental or cross-agency co-operation in liaison with the community and voluntary sectors. The aim is to ensure such co-operation is achieved from the top policy level to the implementation of the care plans of individual recovering problem drug users. Meanwhile, the drugs situation in Ireland is constantly evolving and changing, and as such we must continue to be flexible in our attitudes and policies in order that we can adapt our approach to meet whatever challenges arise.
Cocaine is one problem that we are endeavouring to tackle in a proactive way. It is only when the second national drug prevalence survey is completed — the first reports from which are expected next month — that we will have an up-to-date picture of the prevalence of cocaine use in our society. However, the National Advisory Committee on Drugs, NACD, and the national drugs strategy team prepared a joint paper on cocaine use last year and this led to the NACD publication, entitled An Overview of Cocaine Use in Ireland, being published. This report, which was published in March, brings together all available data on cocaine in Ireland. It concludes that data sources indicate an upward trend in cocaine use, albeit from a low base.
The report highlighted the extremely high risks associated with cocaine use, risks that are often underestimated by users. The physical problems arising include heart conditions, strokes, nasal problems and respiratory ailments. Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, agitation, compulsive behaviour and paranoia can occur. On top of these risks are the financial, social and dependency issues that arise and the increased threat of crime and violence.
Furthermore, cocaine is particularly dangerous when combined with alcohol and other substances and the messages on the real dangers associated with its use need to be brought home to users. In this regard, I stress again the dangers associated with so-called “recreational” or “weekend” cocaine use and the glamorising of cocaine in some quarters. Apart from damaging themselves in various ways, such users cause social and economic harm to their families and to the communities that bear the brunt of the behaviour and criminal activity associated with the supply and use of cocaine.
As pointed out by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin recently, it is the personal responsibility of individuals to consider the negative implications of their behaviour on other people when taking so-called “recreational” drugs. Their use of drugs such as cocaine impacts on others, including people in disadvantaged areas where we are witnessing the use of violence, including murder, to intimidate whole communities, notwithstanding the significant efforts being made by the Garda and other statutory, community and voluntary organisations.
The NACD report makes a number of recommendations, principally in regard to treatment but also covering supply, prevention and research. A key conclusion of the report is that treatment, primarily in the form of counselling, can and does work and that there is no need to be unduly concerned by the absence of a replacement drug, as in the case of heroin.
In regard to treatment, some stimulant specific treatment interventions are recommended though it is accepted that drug services generally should be capable of catering for the individual problem drug user, regardless of the drugs they use.
Recommendations in regard to the training of frontline personnel to deal with cocaine issues are being followed up both by the HSE and my Department. The latter has already funded training initiatives as well as four pilot cocaine treatment projects to examine different methods of treatment for cocaine use. Furthermore, under the emerging needs fund, six cocaine specific projects in local drugs task force areas have been funded and support for a further nine projects aimed at polydrug-cocaine use has been also provided under that fund. My Department also sponsored a highly successful conference organised by the SAOL project and the NDST at Croke Park last June on the response to cocaine through shared good practice. A useful resource pack for workers in the field was launched at that event.
Overall, it is a priority of mine to monitor closely the progression of the implementation of all the recommendations of this report through the health authorities, the Garda, the Irish Prison Service, drugs task forces and others. I am doing this through my chairmanship of the interdepartmental group on drugs, where reports on implementation are a standing agenda item. The challenges posed by cocaine use are significant, but I am confident we can meet these challenges through a co-ordinated approach utilising the structures of the national drugs strategy.
Looking forward, the programme for Government contains commitments in regard to the implementation of the recommendations of the working group on drugs rehabilitation, developing and strengthening the range of drugs task force projects, continuing and extending the young people’s facilities and services fund and providing cocaine specific facilities. I am working to ensure these commitments are fulfilled.
As indicated, I will shortly initiate the process that will lead to the formulation of a new national drugs strategy for the period post 2008. In this context, I have long been of the opinion that the alcohol and illicit drugs problems are interlinked and I will be stressing the need for synergies in the approach to these issues. Again the formulation of the new drugs strategy will involve collaboration between Departments and agencies and the community and voluntary sectors. Many challenges will face us in the coming years but I am confident that, with a concerted effort by all involved, we can build on our experiences and achievements to date and successfully meet the problems presented over time by the evolving drugs situation.
The issue of the misuse of illegal drugs was once confined to fiction novels or to small areas of social deprivation of our inner cities but the drugs climate has changed significantly in the past 15 years. Today the issue of illegal drug use, drug trade and drug warfare affects not only every city but every townland and village in our country and has serious and long-lasting repercussions for the innocent and not-so-innocent as we have seen in the tragic deaths of innocent victims in the past two years.
Ar an gcead dul síos ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil don Aire as ucht teacht isteach agus an ráiteas seo a thabhairt dúinn inniu. Tá sé práinneach anois dúinn dul i ngleic leis an bhfadhb seo atá ag cur isteach ar ghach baile, sráidbhaile is cathair sa tír.
From talking to people who attended a conference held in Killarney last week, I am aware of the Minister of State’s deep-rooted interest in this matter, on which I commend him. I appreciate his coming to the House to discuss it. Having talked to people in my constituency, they are appreciative of his efforts in this regard.
Like many issues of national importance, this debate should not be about trying to score political points or gaining political advantage on criminal activity that wreaks havoc on thousands of lives across the county. The crisis that faces the Garda, parents, those addicted to illegal drugs and us as legislators demands a strong unified response, a debate that is focused on identifying the factors associated with high drug usage and creative, innovative and practical strategies that will enable us to gain control over a situation that has unfortunately begun to spiral out of control.
The Central Statistics Office figures published this week show that drug use and the number of people in possession of drugs has increased by 958 and 762, respectively. It behoves Members on both sides of the House to work together with local communities and relevant stakeholders to gain control of this crisis.
Perhaps the model of investigation favoured by the scientific community of scientist practitioners could serve us well in this debate. We must be forensic in our questioning, reasoned in our hypotheses and confident that our methods of intervention are effective and will work. It is not enough to intervene blindly. We must do so based on a thorough understanding of the reasons for the current situation.
Bearing this in mind, we must ask relevant and pertinent questions. What are the changes in society that have seen an increase in the number of people beginning to experiment with illegal drugs and continue into long-term use? What is the process of transition through the so-called gateways to more serious and addictive forms of drug use? Why have current educational and public health preventative strategies failed in light of the prevalence of drug use among young people? What deficit exists with respect to the deployment and resourcing of State agencies responsible for the control of this illegal activity — the Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners and Customs and Excise? Why has the price of a human life become so devalued and cheap that so-called drug barons think little of shooting dead innocent bystanders or fellow drug criminals? There should be no condoning the notion of a cheap life. Why is there a public disconnect between recreational drug use and criminal activity? What is actually required to enable a person to successfully become free of the dependence of drugs?
These are some of the questions we must answer if we are serious about trying realistically to address the crisis that is the use of illegal drugs. The task should not fall on the shoulders of the Minister of State. Rather, there is a need for a multivariate response across a range of Departments, including Education and Science, Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Social and Family Affairs, and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.
The Minister of State referred to the withdrawal of methadone supplies from pharmacies, which poses a serious and frightening threat to former drug users on methadone programmes and highlights the urgent need to address the wider drug issue and to push for immediate action in implementing the national drugs strategy. The severe stress and anxiety experienced this week by patients on the methadone programme and their families is unacceptable and demonstrates the fact that 3,000 of the country’s most vulnerable people are suffering owing to the Government’s hands-off approach to the health service.
The Fine Gael parliamentary party met the Irish Pharmaceutical Union, IPU, last week. I call on the IPU to suspend its action. I also call on the Minister and the Health Service Executive to enter talks and stop shadow boxing.
There are many positives in the national drugs strategy. It has a clear focus, inter-agency partnership is working, the voice of the voluntary sector is being heard, family services are developing and a platform for funding is available. Some 100 actions which, if carried out and completed in their entirety, would be a significant and effective response to the drug problem have been highlighted.
The Minister of State referred to cocaine, considered by many to be a recreational drug of choice and the cause of untold hardship and misery across the country. Young adults in particular are struggling under the weight of use of this drug. It has been identified by international medical and psychological research to be associated with negative life outcomes for those who use it on a sustained basis. It affects simple processing of information, attention and concentration, and the social and emotional ability of those who use it, not to mention the significant financial burden of trying to meet the cost that use creates. This, in effect, introduces the person into the vicious cycle of crime to fund drug use.
We have a major problem with the sale and use of illicit drugs, particularly cocaine. Data from the Garda Síochána and Customs and Excise show an increase in the number of cocaine seizures. Recently the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime issued a report showing Ireland as the country with the highest increase in cocaine consumption with rates higher than any other developed country. The number of cocaine related offences recorded by the Garda Síochána has increased fourfold from 297 to 1,224. Cocaine seizures have increased significantly in 2006. There is evidence of a growing cocaine problem in Ireland and in Europe where consumption is increasing and reaching alarming levels.
There is no adequate treatment service to deal with cocaine addiction. Treatment programmes in Ireland were designed to deal primarily with an opiate using client group, not stimulant users. An additional problem is the fact that polydrug use is now common among drug users. Many problem heroin users also use cocaine and alcohol use is prevalent across the board. We must take a holistic approach to battling addiction. There is no point giving a drug addict treatment specific to one drug when the addict uses many different drugs.
The National Advisory Committee on Drugs, NACD, report recommends a reorientation of drug services from drug specific intervention to treatment tailored towards the individual regardless of the drugs used. This approach will provide options for the drug user appropriate to his needs and circumstances and should assist in reintegration into society.
A strong message must be sent to those who think cocaine is a clean drug. Yesterday, a tabloid newspaper carried an opinion poll from an influential woman’s magazine revealing that one out of six women claim they stay slim by taking speed or cocaine. This is part of the folklore and myth surrounding the use of cocaine. The Minister of State must consider a strong advertising campaign similar to the road safety campaigns, for which he would find support on this side of the House. It is time to shock and educate young people on the use of drugs and specifically cocaine, which is not a harmless recreational drug, results in negative life outcomes and has been linked to relationship difficulties, work stress and the development of mental health difficulties.
Not long ago a major shipment was retrieved off the south coast in west Cork. The discovery owed more to a freak of nature than it did to investigation. We must be honest with ourselves and admit that we do not know the quantity of drugs imported to Ireland daily or annually. How many shipments arrive weekly without being intercepted? Following recent drugs finds in coastal areas, there must be a co-ordinated and integrated response to tackling the drugs problem. The Minister of State referred to the need to further develop links and working partnerships with our international partners. It might be necessary to look at strengthening extradition treaties further or developing new ones. As a single nation we cannot hope to address the issue single-handedly but we must be proactive.
Regarding the local drugs task forces, a small but dedicated team of workers, community activists and volunteers wage battle daily against this tidal wave. We are all familiar with the excellent work done by the Merchants Quay project and similar projects. While these carry out important work, there is a level of dissatisfaction with the manner in which they are treated, managed and resourced by central government. Many of these centres still operate as pilot projects and, while the workers are highly motivated, they lack security of tenure in their positions. This leads to a high turnover of staff and a lack of consistency for those seeking intervention and creates additional difficulties for managers to plan for three, four or five years’ time. This is important because it is these long-term approaches that will ultimately be successful rather than media-focused quick fixes.
I ask the Minister of State to examine this. If it has been demonstrated that a centre is carrying out effective and reliable work, it should be afforded permanent status. All workers, having proved their worth, are as entitled as any other public servant to the same permanency held by such public servants.
The lack of an identified training qualification for drug workers represents a lacuna. Many are highly trained teachers or youth workers who top up their experience by doing a variety of courses. We require a specific qualification validated by universities or institutes of technology. The University of Milan, working in co-operation with European Cities Against Drugs, ECAD, has formulated a course and is preparing students in this discipline. Perhaps the Minister of State would investigate this.
We must strengthen the link with families. Strengthening the families programme has a significant impact at local level. If we help the family, we help the addict. Undoubtedly the local drugs task force, which is responsible for the operation and supervision of specially designed projects, is doing excellent work. The strength of the local task force in identifying emerging trends at local level cannot be underestimated. Local people understand local needs best and can take action accordingly.
The Minister of State referred to the provision of detox beds. The Mannix report recommends 12 detox beds in Cork city and 12 in the Cork county and Kerry region. There is a shortage at present. Will the Minister set aside money in the budget submission for detox beds throughout the country? This would indicate support for the treatment centres.
The Minister of State referred to the Walk Tall and SPHE programmes. Our education services need enhancement and strengthening. As a teacher, I know the time allocated for such programmes in the classroom is not sufficient and needs to be improved.
The residential phase of drug treatment is an important part of the rehabilitation process, deserving great credit. While considerable emphasis is given to community-based outpatient services, it is important that treatment centres such as Tabor Lodge in County Cork are also recognised. Implementation of action 57 of the national drugs strategy, linked to No. 48, is not happening. Proper funding for services such as Tabor Lodge is important. The Minister of State must address the current problem at Tabor Lodge concerning benchmarking awards and take it up with the Health Service Executive and the Labour Court to ensure there is no untold hardship and the proper delivery of services continues.
The Minister of State will find this side of the House supports the work of the national drugs strategy. We have made many strong recommendations. I hope the Minister of State will put more emphasis on the rehabilitation pillar in the forthcoming national drugs strategy and that the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance will provide adequate funding for it in the forthcoming budget.
Senator Larry Butler: I support the national drugs strategy and the drugs task force in the outstanding work it has done. I am disappointed, however, that with all this good work, methadone dispensing services have been withdrawn by pharmacists. The Minister of State must do everything possible to bring the two sides in the dispute together to ensure methadone users, who are most vulnerable, are not put back into a difficult situation. It is important not to engage in a blame game as to which side, the Health Service Executive or the pharmacists, is wrong. I would like to see greater efforts and, if necessary, a personal approach by the Minister for Health and Children to bring the two sides together.
The national drugs strategy pursued by the Minister of State and his predecessors is good. My area, Dún Laoghaire, has received a €9.8 million investment in drugs task force programmes for young people and other related services such as child care and the outreach programme. We would like to see further developments in these programmes. Some areas in Dún Laoghaire, which I will not name, have major drug problems but have received much attention from the drugs task force which I want to continue.
Child care is an important component in many individuals’ drug rehabilitation. Many of those on methadone schemes who have found work find it difficult to continue if they cannot get child care. This is an important issue which I hope the Minister of State will examine. It is important the work of the drugs task force continues.
Senator Tony Kett: As it is my first time to encounter my old friend, Deputy Pat Carey, as a Minister of State in the House, I congratulate him on his new appointment. I have complete confidence in his ability to deliver on his remit, knowing him from his days on Dublin City Council. Earlier, I reflected on our time in the council chamber when he sat on one side of me and the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, sat on the other. I wondered where I went wrong. Obviously, I did not work hard enough.
The illegal drugs trade is an international menace. It is estimated its value is approximately €500 billion, of which €1 billion can be associated with our domestic situation. It is an obscene amount of money and gives some indication of the difficulty in tackling this problem.
The use of drugs, particularly addictive substances such as heroin and cocaine, has numerous economic and social costs such as drug related deaths and blood-borne diseases. There are also the costs to the individual, the family and the community. In many addicts’ cases in Dublin city, their parents were also drug addicts. There are also many other functioning families who have a son or daughter who has fallen off the wagon. There is nothing worse than to witness the distress of such a family situation.
No state has managed to come to terms with the drugs problem. Neither the heavy-handed approach of the US nor the softer approach of the Netherlands has worked. This highlights there are no quick solutions to this problem. The national drugs strategy, which runs to 2008, demonstrates the great efforts the Government is prepared to commit to bring some order to this escalating problem. The strategy is balanced and well-focused, aiming to reduce drug related harm and disrupt the operations of the drugs markets.
Senator Buttimer alluded to the recent discovery of a drugs shipment off the west Cork coast, which was a stroke of luck. In that cache there was enough for a ten-year supply for this country which gives some indication of the moneys and quantities involved. How did the seizure affect the individuals involved? Did it take any drug barons out of existence? It probably did not, which is frightening.
There are encouraging signs of progress in the development of the strategy. This is so whether one looks at the area of seizure, expansion of the treatment service or the prevention programmes in schools. As well as that, complementary legislation was introduced by the Oireachtas in the past five years, such as the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. This was outstanding legislation and cut to the heart of many of the drug barons. As well as that there was the Criminal Justice (Joint Investigation Teams) Act 2004 and the Criminal Justice (Illicit Traffic by Sea) Act 2003. As regards the latter two, I wonder how effective they are, if at all. Is there proof that they have been used to any great effect? They should have been, because one has cross-Border associations between different countries while the other is concerned with nobbling these fellows at sea when they are coming in. Many fine Bills are enacted through the Houses of the Oireachas, but much of the time we do not review their effectiveness. That can be said, probably, of most legislation.
The Minister of State alluded to the local task forces. I have no doubt they have been an outstanding success. Some 12 of the initial 14 came into the Dublin area. As someone who represented the north inner city, which is unfortunately blighted by drugs, I have seen first-hand the efforts put in there and the results. One of the reasons they have been successful is that a good deal of thought was put into the make-up of these forces in the first instance. Health executives were involved along with many people who encounter the drugs problem in their everyday lives. These include the Garda Síochána, probation and welfare officers, public representatives and FÁS as well as many voluntary agencies. I recall the late 1980s and early 1990s when it was people power, perhaps, that brought about these task forces in the first place. The Minister of State will recall, as I do, local people taking to the streets, visiting these people’s houses in the evenings, chanting outside and rooting them out. Basically they put the focus on them and embarrassed them out of their localities in some instances.
Many outstanding services and facilities have been established since those local task forces came on stream. If proof is needed that vulnerable children can be taken out of their environment and helped, one has only to look at the programme, “Diarmuid’s Pony Kids”, which was on television the other night, where five or six children were taken from various areas such as Ballyfermot and Finglas and there was one young fellow from the Traveller community. They were put on a ten week course of horse riding, culminating in their time in the limelight at the RDS. It was gratifying to see the joy those children derived from the exercise and to hear that they were resolved to develop their interest and perhaps take up this or another sport, thereby taking them out of the horrible mire they are in. That was one of the good things in the programme. I wish the Minister of State well and hope he continues to focus his resources in the right areas.
Senator David Norris: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. We are former colleagues who served together on the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. The Minister of State and I were together at a debate in Trinity College a week or so ago. It was greatly appreciated that he had taken the trouble to come there and talk about the difficult problem of drugs to an audience of young students. He had to leave fairly quickly as he had to be in the House for a vote. Perhaps he will be pleased to learn, however — and certainly I was surprised, as chairman of the debate — that the motion was actually lost, indicating that the young people believed, by a very small majority, it was appropriate to control drugs in this way.
I note what the Minister of State had to say and much of it I would categorise as fire brigade action in response to a critical situation. No one would deny the situation is critical. It is pathetic, certainly in the north inner city, where I live, to see the victims of drug addiction wandering around, confused, unable to sustain themselves properly, causing difficulties for other people and so on. It is tragic for the families to watch this. It is awful when one considers the level of mortality involved, either through overdosing or infection with AIDS and similar diseases. Just as in the case of Ms Susie Long, a two-tier health service is being exposed. Where that woman was sentenced to death for the crime of being poor, in the same way, as I am sure the Minister of State will agree, the vast majority of casualties from drugs are from clearly defined social categories and postal districts in Dublin. This does not mean there is not drug use and addiction among the professional and middle classes, but they simply are in a position to access either the drugs that sustain them in pure form, or rehabilitation. The fact that here again, it is the most vulnerable elements of society that are involved needs to be looked at.
I know it is normal for the authorities to trumpet their successes as regards drugs seizures. That is complete nonsense, however. The Minister of State said the level of drug seizures by the Garda was one of the main achievements. He said customer service was well in excess of the targets set out in the strategy and included a number of significant operations which were itemised. However, a comparative figure indicating the amount of drugs actually seized and destroyed relative to the estimated level of drugs imports as a whole is necessary to understand the situation fully. I understand the seizure figure is only about 5% to 10%, which is certainly extremely small. That has virtually no impact except occasionally to create a type of shortage in the market. I shall return to this because ultimately it is a question of marketplace economics. That does not distress the drug barons because it just puts their profits up. Therefore it is largely a cosmetic exercise.
This is an unpopular thing to say, dangerous and difficult politically, but I believe it to be true. It is time we opened a debate as to whether certain drugs, how many or even if drugs should be legalised. I happen to believe they should be and that this is necessary. It is the only way to defeat the criminal elements because what is driving them is the financial incentive. The only way to stop them is to destroy the financial incentive. I have some support in this. I said this many years ago in this House and the Minister for Health at the time, Deputy John O’Connell, not only agreed with me but went further. He was not only Minister for Health, he was also a doctor. Another informed commentator, Mr. Gay Byrne, who takes a judicious view of matters, has said that at least this should be opened up for debate. Rather than just listing fire brigade actions we should look fundamentally at the roots of this problem. The Minister of State should appreciate that a very senior policeman in Britain, the Chief Superintendent of Cheshire, has indicated that this is also his belief.
The Minister of State may recall, as I do, that some years ago a courageous Roman Catholic priest made heroin, not just clean needles, available in the crypt of his church in Rotterdam. The levels of crime dropped very rapidly by 75% in that area. A similar experiment was tried in Britain but was closed down after diplomatic representations through the American Embassy. That was the most fraudulently hypocritical action from a government that has consistently, certainly from the time of the Korean war, employed drugs as a strategic instrument. Even when the Americans were funding the Contras in Nicaragua, they used covert operations to acquire and sell drugs so that they could pay for arms. What is going on is shameless. The country where one hears the loudest demands for the war on drugs, just as for the war on terrorism, is the United States, yet it has the single most critical drugs problem in the world. If they cannot win it, what makes us think we can? We can offer palliative measures and I salute the Minister of State in doing this. I am glad he has secured an increase in his budget, and he is a thoroughly decent, principled and well-motivated man. However, we must look at the most radical approach to this problem, which might include the legalisation, registration, classification and quality control of drugs. The reason I say this is that it would cut out the financial incentive because one would undercut the drugs barons who would find it very difficult. I know it has been said that they would smuggle them like they smuggle cigarettes. The only reason they are able to smuggle cigarettes is that they are so highly priced. If they were not so highly priced, then it would not be a problem. In addition, one would have quality control and would not have the spate of accidental overdoses by addicts which are caused by the fact that they can never tell the strength of what they buy on the streets or the degree of its contamination. I could not give a figure and would only be pulling one out of the air but there would be a massive decrease in the levels of crime.
Recently, I was at a very fine play written by a tenant of my house. I was glad to see Anne Enright win the Man Booker prize. She was in my attic while Sebastian Barry was in the basement. It was a most literary house with me sandwiched in the middle. As far as I know, I do not think there was any massive drug taking among any of us. However, Sebastian has just written a play, “The Pride of Parnell Street”, which has been produced in the Dublin Theatre Festival. It is the story of a drug addict and that man explains it very interestingly. Friends of mine said they would not go to that play to see those gougers, “skangers” and blackguards being made heroes. The character in the play did not want to engage in criminal activity but he robbed and attacked old ladies because of his desperation to get access to drugs.
There are a number of reasons for considering this. I am opening this up because the Seanad is the place in which to do so as it is, very largely, a theoretical debate. I do not for one minute suggest that Dublin should become a drugs haven or area or that Ireland alone should relax its legislation. This will have to be done at least on a Europe-wide level and perhaps a global one.
The Minister of State travels quite a bit and has possibly been through Singapore airport. If he has, he will have seen the signs. One is executed — one’s life is terminated — for bringing small amounts of drugs through that airport, yet people regularly do so. Why? If that does not stop them, does one believe our puny laws will do so? I do not believe they will.
It is time to open up this debate. This must be tackled on a global basis and one of the ways we can prepare ourselves for it is to have this kind of debate. There is an assumption that this behaviour of drug taking has always been seen as criminal activity, but that is not the case. It was only in the early 20th century that drug taking became criminal. Establishment figures took drugs. One could go into one’s chemist to get them. One could practically get them in one’s hotel.
A difficulty which needs to be teased out is the most dangerous drugs, for example, the drugs that alter behaviour in an unforeseeable way. Crack cocaine is one such drug. I have been attacked by somebody high as a kite on crack cocaine. I do not believe they knew what they were doing and that is the problem. One moves from what I call the naturally occurring organic drugs, which are made from plants by a fairly unsophisticated process, to the pharmaceutically derived drugs. There are clever chemists everywhere who manufacture such drugs whose effect on the human brain is unpredictable. That is something which calls into question some elements of my argument, so I am not saying I have the answers. Sadly, however, the Government’s strategy does not have the answers either.
Simply by criminalising drugs, one is driving them underground and not affecting the substantial level of imports. One should look at our skimpy Naval Service which, while comprising wonderful people, does not have the resources in terms of manpower, boats and so on. The shoreline in County Cork is a smuggler’s paradise.
I thank the Acting Chairman for his indulgence and the Minister of State. I look forward to the debate but would be lacking in my duty if, as I have always done, I did not say what I thought and what I thought was in the best interests of the nation whatever about the possible impact on my voters if they ever read this, which may not be entirely positive. I know some of the mothers of Ireland would not agree because it is very tragic to see a son or a daughter on drugs. I salute the families and, in particular, that wonderful mother whose name I cannot remember and whose daughter appeared in the newspapers with her arm so desperately scarred. The love of that mother supported the daughter until she managed to get herself into a programme. I salute these people but is it not better to have drugs regulated and the dose and the purity known?
Senator Déirdre de Búrca: I thank the Minister of State for his overview of the current national drugs strategy and his intentions in regard to the new strategy for 2009-16. Until recently I was a member of the Bray local drugs task force, so I had an opportunity to experience directly the implementation of the national drugs strategy at a local level. I was very impressed by the cross-sectoral and partnership approach and the quality of the projects being funded by the strategy.
It is opportune to talk about the national drugs strategy as we approach its conclusion. I hope this debate will influence the content of the new strategy. There is much in the programme for Government on the shape of that, which is very encouraging. In the new drugs strategy, I hope we move away from the central thrust of the previous one, which was tackling the scourge of heroin abuse, and that we broaden it out. As other speakers said, there is polydrug abuse in society. There is widespread availability of drugs such as cocaine, hash and crack cocaine. We must also look at the issue of alcohol. To date, our drugs strategy has focused on the hard drugs which have been sources of concern. To a certain extent, we have excluded alcohol from the focus of the drugs strategy and it very much needs to be incorporated into it. Perhaps that could be included in the forthcoming drugs strategy.
Like other speakers, I regret the action of the pharmacists in withdrawing the methadone treatment programme from very vulnerable people. While we might empathise with the fact the pharmacists believe they have a very real grievance and want to express their concerns about the recent Government decision, that they chose to target a vulnerable, at-risk group to highlight it is unacceptable. I hope they will reconsider their decision and that in the meantime, an interim supply system for that group will be made available.
In terms of evaluating the previous drugs strategy, more than 8,200 heroin users receive methadone treatment. That is a 66% increase on the 2000 figures. That is a very clear indication that the national drugs strategy has been successful in its central focus. However, one of the issues highlighted in the 2005 review of the national drugs strategy was the fact we would need to move beyond methadone maintenance because many addicts remain on methadone maintenance for years. In fact, some remain on it for the rest of their lives, which is not a desirable outcome. The fifth pillar proposed in the 2005 review of the national drugs strategy was about introducing rehabilitation. An integrated rehabilitation provision for serious drug addicts should be a central focus of the new drugs strategy.
Unfortunately, drug use is on the increase in Ireland. That has to do with increased affluence and a greater acceptability of what is referred to as recreational drug use. However, there are very negative consequences to this widespread availability and abuse of drugs. Communities experience the types of problems which go with drug abuse and the drugs trade generally, which include anti-social behaviour, general insecurity and fear of violence. Unfortunately, the violence ranges from more minors examples of intimidation to more serious punishment beatings to shootings for small drugs debts to the terrifying gangland murders which are becoming increasingly common. Drug abuse and its connection with serious crime in Ireland comprise an area of growing concern. There are clear challenges to be tackled in the new drugs strategy. We can take some of our cues from the mid-term review of the current strategy, published in 2005, which review refers to adjusting some of the strategy’s priorities. These include increasing Garda resources in the local drugs task force areas, placing greater emphasis on community policing, establishing local community policing forums and preventing drug dealing. The review refers to specialist training of the Judiciary in respect of drug related issues, the development and implementation of substance abuse policies in all the schools of the local drugs task force areas and the introduction of school-based prevention programmes. It is very important to educate children of school-going age on the risks and dangers of substance abuse generally.
We need more treatment options and a greater range, given the increasing choice of available drugs. Greater emphasis must be placed on integrated rehabilitation provisions in the new drugs strategy. This will lead to certain challenges arising from resource implications. Increasing Garda resources will have such implications, but it is important to remember short-term costs will result in long-term benefits. If we do not tackle all the problems in communities riddled with drugs, we will end up with much higher costs, including costs associated with prisons.
The Green Party would support a new properly resourced national drugs strategy. We hope it would emphasise community policing, rehabilitation services and greater community supports for families affected by drugs. We also hope it would take bold steps, including steps to ensure the provision of clean needles in prisons. Consideration should be given to injecting rooms, as proposed by the Irish Penal Reform Trust. Rather than continuing to deny there is a drugs problem in our prisons and problems with HIV transmission, pilot programmes should be put in place to allow for the provision of clean needles and injecting rooms in the main prisons. An increase in community employment places should be considered so as to benefit recovering addicts.
The issue of alcohol will not go away. There is a voluntary code of self-control in the alcohol advertising industry but we need to adopt a stronger approach to the issue. I hope the Minister will consider this in the forthcoming strategy.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, to the House and congratulate him on his recent elevation. It is a good sign that somebody of his commitment is in his position and this bodes well for the future. I am sure we all agree that drugs are a major curse in modern society and I therefore welcome the chance to debate the subject.
The commitments made in the National Drugs Strategy 2001-2008 have not yet been honoured in their entirety and many problems have still to be addressed. I wish to address four main areas: the means by which we can reduce supply; the means of preventing drugs from reaching our shores; improving treatment for addicts; and the need for research into why people feel the need to take drugs. The current national drugs strategy lists 100 specific actions for tackling drug abuse.  We need to review the list as part of the new strategy and determine which actions have been carried out. We also need to add to these actions, if necessary.
Let me address the issues associated with one of the most prevalent drugs in our society, alcohol. As a nation we top the poll for the consumption of alcohol. In the past four years our consumption has increased by 10% and our rate of consumption is higher than the European average. Some two thirds of Europeans have had a drink in the past month while the proportion in Ireland is higher.
I am concerned about the age profile of alcohol users. The age at which people are drinking is becoming increasingly lower and this is because youths find it easy to purchase drink in off-licences or to get friends, family members or others to buy it for them. We must consider the enforcement of our licensing laws to make it more difficult for younger members of society to gain access to alcohol in the first place.
There has been an explosion in the use of cocaine in Ireland since the publication of the current national drugs strategy. The number of people seeking help for abuse of this drug has increased by 250% in the past nine years. Its use crosses all sections of society and affects the young and old, and the rich and poor. Cocaine is perceived by many as harmless and accessible, and as a drug one takes when one goes out at the weekend, but the reality is very different. It is a crime to take cocaine and it is not a victimless one. The use of cocaine leads to more people in the drugs trade getting shot and means the reasons for getting involved in the trade in the first place remain. Anyone who takes cocaine should do so knowing he or she is contributing to gang warfare, about which we are so concerned at present. We need to educate citizens about the fact that cocaine use is a crime and that there are victims.
Heroin addiction is a major problem and it is estimated that there are over 1 million heroin users across the European Union. In Ireland, gardaí will tell one heroin is mostly a problem in Dublin, in which nine out of ten heroin offences take place.
The reasons for addiction to heroin are many and varied. One reason that recurs is the lack of access to education. Some 75% of heroin users have been shown to have left school at an early age. It is important to ensure that we tackle drug use in schools and state to teenagers that it is detrimental to their future well-being. It is through programmes such as the Right to Read campaign in Dublin, on which there is a conference on Saturday, that we can help people to avoid drugs and engage in self-improvement. We should consider such measures.
The issue of treatment has arisen time and again. We need to ensure that there are places available for those who wish to come off drugs and that programmes such as the Merchant’s Quay project are sufficiently funded and expanded nationally.
Harm reduction policy is essential and in this respect reference was made to needle exchange programmes. A doctor from the Mater Hospital told me recently that a person taking heroin by needle has a 90% chance of contracting hepatitis C. A needle exchange programme would clearly help to reduce this and the incidence of HIV infection. At present there is only one full-time needle exchange service in Dublin. It does not open in the evenings or weekends and is a nine-to-five operation, in spite of the reality that drug users are not users only from Monday to Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. They do not go to the country for the weekend; they are in the city all the time and it is therefore important that this be reflected in the strategy. Opening hours need to be extended to evenings and weekends and the programme needs to be extended nationwide.
There is an increase in the abuse of substances other than heroin and cocaine, including antidepressants. The new national drugs strategy should refer to such drugs and propose methods to deal with their abuse.
The current national drugs strategy proposes the setting up of a trial inner-city drugs court. This recommendation was implemented but I would like to know whether there are intentions to develop the programme further. What sort of results did it achieve and could it form part of a strategy to help lower the rate of drug abuse in the Dublin area? Such programmes, and other research programmes, can help to show us the way forward. I would like an annual report on drug use in Ireland to be published. Such a report would help us to learn what the problem is and try to come up with some solutions. I would like to hear the Minister of State’s comments on that. The national drugs strategy must support the drugs task forces by setting out a framework that will allow agencies to concentrate their energies on preventing and curing addiction, rather than criminalising addicts.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, to the House. I am pleased he is responsible for the national drug strategy. I am confident the Minister of State, whom I know well, will make his mark in this field. I listened to his contribution and I wish him well. As I do not have much time, I will speak briefly about the importance of rehabilitation, which is the fifth pillar to be introduced in this area. In that context, I would like to emphasise the role of the education sector, with which I am familiar as a result of the work I did before I was elected to this House. We must consider carefully the link between the home and the school, which is a big issue. The Minister of State spoke about the interdepartmental connection and the integrated plan, on which we must focus. Children of ten years of age were mentioned earlier. If we are to make a big start, we need dialogue between parents and teachers. Parents should have a huge influence.
I would like to talk about treatment. I lament the recent decision taken by pharmacists in respect of the methadone programme. It is a pity they have taken this course of action, which is affecting the most vulnerable people in society. We need to invest more resources in treatment places. I identify a gap in that sense. Second chance education is an important part of rehabilitation. We need to decide how best we can bring back young people into the education sector. What role should be played by local initiatives, for example? I appreciate that the Government has invested money in local initiatives, such as recreational programmes. Capital funding has been provided for accommodation. What is the best way of integrating these people into society? Do we have the leaders, trained staff, teachers and counsellors needed to work in this field? When I spoke to some career guidance counsellors recently, they told me they have huge problems when they deal with dysfunctional families in risk areas. Resources are needed on the ground in these core areas.
I would love to talk about this issue for another half an hour. The Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, is familiar with my position on this matter. I will no have no difficulty in working closely with him on this subject at a future date.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: I thank Senator Ormonde for sharing time with me. I mean no disrespect to the predecessors of the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, when I say that since he took office, he has been one of the most successful Ministers of State for finding drugs. There has been a series of announcements of drug finds all over the place.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: I congratulate the Minister of State and the various Garda units involved. I welcome the recent development in relation to Lisbon. I was involved with the officials working on that when I was Chairman of the Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs for the past five years. I welcome the recent statement by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that the operation of the Criminal Assets Bureau is to be expanded to cover smaller dealers in illicit drugs and those who are involved in similar activities. Such people will now be targeted to the same extent as the bigger guys because the manner in which they flaunt their money is just as much of a problem. Senator Norris, who is not present in the Chamber, advocated the legalisation of drugs. If the Senator examines the four reports — covering issues like cocaine, cannabis and the inclusion of alcohol in the national substance misuse strategy — which were produced over the past five years by the joint committee of which I was Chairman, he will find there is no such thing as a “soft drug”.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: Alcohol and cigarettes, which are the softest drugs, are gateway drugs. We cannot and should not pander to any liberalisation of the laws relating to habit-forming and addictive substances. I say that with conviction and emphasis as someone who spent five years chairing a committee that was very involved in studying this matter. I no longer have that responsibility, now that I am a Member of the Upper House, but I hope more good work can be done in this regard at committee level as soon as the new structures are up and running.
As Chairman of the Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, I travelled to a drugs conference in Sweden which was opened by the queen of that country. It was a small conference, with just one delegate from each country in Europe. When I decided to attend the conference to listen and learn, I was under the impression that Ireland did not have the big drug problem experienced by other European countries. I was surprised to be rounded upon bluntly by the opening speaker at the conference, who asked me what Ireland was doing about its substantial drugs problem. I fell back in my chair, having been quite relaxed before that, when I realised I was the focus of the meeting. People were interested in Ireland because they felt it had a problem with the drug of alcohol. When discussions take place about national drugs strategies in many other countries, no distinction is drawn at the top level between alcohol and other drugs. Perhaps there is a distinction at the second level. Alcohol is seen as relevant to drugs strategies in such countries because it is the drug of choice there. There is no doubt that it is the drug of choice in Ireland.
I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, to investigate the possibility of including alcohol in any future national substance misuse strategy. I refer to the title used by the joint committee in July 2006 when it was dealing with consultants. The committee asked the consultants to study the debate about including alcohol in the national drugs strategy. The name of the strategy had changed slightly by the time the joint committee made its final recommendations. I do not have time to outline in detail the debate that took place at that time. We were aware in 2004 that alcoholic disorders accounted for 14% of all mental health admissions. At least 25% of those admitted to accident and emergency departments have alcohol related problems. It has been suggested by the general hospitals that 30% of males and 8% of females have an underlying alcohol problem. We are familiar with the problems associated with foetal alcohol syndrome.
While I welcome the decision that has been made to place health warnings on alcoholic products, I am not sure it will be effective. I was a member of the Joint Committee on Health and Children when it examined the tobacco industry. I am not convinced that the substantial advertising levels of the tobacco and alcohol industries can be counteracted by notices stating that such products can damage one’s health, even if such notices are welcome. Perhaps other measures would be more effective. I would like alcohol advertising before 9 p.m to be banned. I welcome the decision to introduce mandatory breath testing of drivers involved in accidents which
result in fatalities. Many other things could be done.
I would like to explain why we want alcohol to be included in any future national substance misuse strategy. There is a framework — that is why the national drugs strategy is in place. We will increase our chances of reducing the supply of drugs and rehabilitating drug addicts if we assign responsibility for this issue to one lead Minister and one lead Department. I understand why this step was not taken in the past, when alcohol and drugs were used separately. They are now being used as one and the same thing, however, which is causing mayhem in our communities. Perhaps this is a matter for the debate on the increase in crime, which will take place in the House at
Senator Nicky McFadden: I do not doubt that the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, is sincere. I applaud him on his allocation of €50 million for dealing with this serious issue. This is another crap report, however. I apologise if that is unparliamentary language. All its aspirations are worthwhile and sincere. No work has been done on prevention or treatment in my local area. We do not have a regional drug treatment centre. No money was spent during the first year of the regional task force. I am angry about this. I have attended too many funerals of people who died from heroin overdoses. I am acutely aware that general practitioner services are trying to cope with difficulties in helping methadone users to access the services they need. I am very angry about this. We are applauding ourselves and saying we are great. This report is too aspirational — it outlines what we want to do. I do not doubt the Minister of State’s sincerity, but I hope he has the will to drive forward this report.
People in the midlands regional drugs task force area are beginning to become a little proactive. They are recruiting an educational officer, for example. We have a problem in our area. I urge the Minister of State to show the will and drive to spend the money that has been allocated. A total of €1.7 million remains to be spent by the midland regional drugs task force in my area by the end of this year. How will it be possible to spend that money in such a short time? I do not wish to judge the community workers involved in the task force but there needs to be leadership shown by the Minister for Health and Children and by the Government.
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