Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 9 July 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children
National Drugs Strategy: Minister of State at the Department of Health
A wide range of issues have been raised and I appreciate the contributions that have been made. Deputy Ó Caoláin raised the issue of psychoactive substances and the effectiveness of the 2010 legislation.
We have a cultural problem with addiction in Ireland. Every family in Ireland has an addiction problem. It is in every corner of the country. There is a traditional misconception that it affects only certain geographical areas of Dublin. That is not true. It is everywhere, in every class group, every income level and every part of the country. People in a higher income bracket tend to be able to hide it better. Those in a lower income bracket cannot hide it as easily.
In 2010, there was a cultural shift in that not only do we have a cultural acceptance of misuse of alcohol, which is a dangerous cultural problem, but we also have a cultural problem with our view of cannabis in certain sections of society. Head shops were prevalent in 2010 and schoolchildren in uniform were lining up outside head shops where they could legally purchase substances which were very dangerous. We had crossed a cultural border in the acceptance of that type of activity. The legislation introduced in 2010 was effective in closing down the head shops. There have been 260 controlled substances since then. I agree with Deputy Healy that we are constantly trying to catch up with a very sophisticated and lucrative market because it is only necessary to change one small component of a substance and re-package it. The system is trying to catch up with it. I attended an interesting presentation during the week by a member of An Garda Síochána at the north inner city drugs task force who said he has had conversations with women in his area who ask him how can they tell their children to get a poorly paid job in a department store if they have the option of earning €1,000 per week selling zoplicone on the corner of their street. The vehicle to address this is the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill 2015 that will come before the House this year. I agree about the challenge in doing that.
I accept that we have challenges in the area of treatment. I am trying to be as open as possible to meeting groups and drugs task forces and those who meet service users and people in recovery and have identified several gaps. One gap appears to be between the moment of realisation for a person with a substance abuse problem and the moment when treatment kicks in. There is an expectation that the person’s behaviour or substance intake will change before the person can enter a mainstream programme. There are varying degrees of agreement or disagreement as to whether that really is a gap. We have to identify how we interact with an individual who, for the first time, has had that light bulb moment that life cannot continue in this manner and that he or she needs assistance. Crossing the threshold of a centre involves making a major personal change and calling out for help has a massive effect on self-esteem. Are we engaging with those people effectively and practically at that moment? I am not sure we are. There is also an aftercare issue. Are we just putting those on methadone programmes into cold storage for ten or 20 years, or do we deal with them as people with massive potential, who can work through their recovery and play a significant and important role in society?
We have a cultural problem in how we view people in recovery. It is not edifying to call them by nicknames, which we do. We have to challenge and move beyond that behaviour. They are sometimes very poorly treated by the media and in political circles and we have to move beyond that type of victim blaming. Anyone else with a medical problem would not be treated in such a manner and it does really inhibit them and their potential to recover.
I agree completely with Deputy Healy about the national drugs strategy and inclusive consultation because there are many people with much to say and the nature of the drug problem has changed completely since 2009. We are working with a strategy developed for 2009 to 2016. Ireland was a completely different place in 2009 and the drug issue was completely different then, as is the nature of what young people do now. I do not want to focus only on young people because people of all ages take illegal substances but young people engage in poly drug use, taking benzodiazepines mixed with alcohol and cannabis, which is much more potent and dangerous than it may have been ten years ago. It is a massive problem. I met a man aged 21 in a detox centre in Fingal last month who had been addicted to cannabis for nine years. This weighs heavily on my thoughts when trying to come up with a new drug strategy. I am not convinced we need a seven year one; we need a tighter one, a more focused number of years when we can make a difference through what we are trying to do.
I take on board Deputy Healy’s comments about policing. I intend to hold a conference on 29 July in the Mansion House in order to bring as many stakeholders as possible into one room at the one time. I cannot wait for a review of the national drugs strategy to put a proper political focus on the nature of the problem in Ireland, which is a very serious one. What I hear in different parts of the country terrifies me about the nature, prevalence and danger of drug use because we are not giving it the attention it needs. I intend to bring a paper to Cabinet as soon as I possibly can and not to wait for the review of the national drugs strategy to do so. I will do that most likely in the autumn. This committee can certainly help me in that process. On 29 July, in conjunction with the new Ardmhéara of Dublin City, Councillor Críona Ní Dhálaigh, I want to host a conference and start that thought process about how to feed into the snapshot of the nature of the drug problem in Ireland.
Although Senator Bacik had to leave to vote in the Seanad, I will deal with her issue about the Portuguese approach. I do not see any point in persisting with dealing with people who are caught in a possession of a substance for personal use through the criminal justice system. It is a complete waste of Garda time and of the system. Under the Portuguese model there is an intervention, there can be sanctions but it is a waste of everybody’s time and efforts to approach a person with an addiction issue who has a substance for personal use and decide that person is a criminal. That person has a medical need and should be dealt with in that manner. We have a lot of hearts and minds to win on that. The committees’ consultation process is very useful because as soon as the word decriminalisation is used, people think one is talking about legalisation. They are two very different things. Our terminology has to be carefully used and sculpted. We have to use international models. The value system and dynamic in every country is different. A legislative approach cannot be taken from one country, stuck into another and expected to work. When the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality held discussions on prostitution, it was told not to take the Swedish approach without taking its value system of counselling and education, and the entire package. If we were to go down the Portuguese route, it could not be only a legislative change; it would have to be an entire package of measures.