Tuesday, 2 October 2012
Addiction Services: Motion [Private Members]
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this very important debate. I thank the Technical Group for moving this motion, especially Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, who has campaigned on this issue for many years, and her predecessor, the late Tony Gregory. In the early 1980s when I was growing up, even though I was from a rural part of Cork but one which was near the city centre, I was unaware of the tragedies unfolding in the inner city in Dublin. It was because of the campaigning of people like the late Tony Gregory and Deputy O'Sullivan that the drugs issue was brought to the fore.
I believe the reason it was not to the fore was simply because it was affecting people who did not have a voice. It was affecting inner city Dublin and people who were underprivileged and did not have a political voice. It was not until such time as it spread out and started to infest other communities that it became an issue of national prominence. It was a very sad reflection on ourselves as parliamentarians, political parties and a society that we ignored what was a serious blight on a generation of people in inner city Dublin. That had a devastating impact on the community, families and individuals in that area. We saw it culminating in many deaths, the arrival of vigilantes and all that flowed from that, such as the evolving criminality and paramilitaries moving into organised crime. The proceeds of that are, unfortunately, visiting our streets regularly in Dublin and elsewhere.
I congratulated the Minister of State and wished him the best of luck today in his absence. I wish him well and hope he has success in delivering on what is a very important portfolio in the Department of Health and Children. If I were the Minister of State, I would go back to the office, write out the delegation of ministerial functions order and get the Minister for Health to sign it tonight to make sure he has full authority and control over his destiny in delivering on primary care and all that flows from that. In essence, primary care is critical in respect of what we are talking about because GPs and social workers are at the heart and to the fore in addressing drug addiction and abuse in our communities, along with law enforcement and trying to cut off the supply.
I have gone through this motion and while there could be a difference of opinion with regard to one or two areas, we decided we would not move any amendment to it simply because it is a very detailed and thought-provoking motion before the Dáil. We can have the debate and we have a free parliamentary democracy where we can talk about decriminalisation and the opening up of that debate. I would have concerns about it even though I know that in respect of the Netherlands or Portugal, where they decriminalised all illegal drugs in 2001, reports from the Cato Institute and others show the issue should at least be discussed. Perhaps there are parts of it that are positive and which we could bring into our own system. I am not sure, however, that as a society we could cater for the complete opening up and decriminalisation of illegal substances, but I am willing to listen to all sides of the argument from those at the coalface, such as the professionals and those who, unfortunately, have substance abuse issues, feel criminalised and withdraw from support services for fear of conviction and being criminalised. Why not have this debate? My instinct would be that we may not be ready for it.
The one drug that is legal in this country is alcohol and is the cause of huge difficulties and social upheaval - domestic violence, child abuse and suicide. It is something we must address right across the board. Alcohol abuse is a key issue for the Government. It is having a devastating impact on society. These are not criticisms of the Minister of State and the Government, they are just observations as a Deputy, father and person who is interested in promoting health within our society. The Minister of State will know when I want to criticise. The issue of alcohol has been around for too long without us making any serious inroads into addressing the underlying problems and drift from alcohol use to alcohol abuse to drug abuse and all that flows from that. There is a body of evidence in reports, surveys and research that is clearly evidential and shows quite clearly that there is a strong link and that it has a detrimental effect on our society and individuals.
For all those reasons, the national substance misuse strategy steering group report and its recommendations must be acted upon very quickly because we are beginning to lose a generation of people again. We saw it in respect of the Swedish House Mafia concert in the Phoenix Park and we see it every night of the week, particularly at the weekends, in our provincial towns and cities. We know the consequences and causes of it. We know that too much alcohol is being consumed in a binge drinking type atmosphere and we know about the drift towards illegal drugs as well, such as Benzodiazepines, opiates, alcohol and barbiturates. When all these are mixed together, they can become a lethal cocktail. We see it too often in coroners' reports with details of alcohol and polydrug mixes causing death. Daily and weekly our accident and emergency departments are full. In his speech, the Minister of State said that 2,000 beds per night were being used in acute hospitals because of alcohol related incidents. I know we must broaden it out to talk about the other issues as well.
However, it is surely within our scope as a society to deal with this issue.
Other speakers stated the problem is multifaceted and that there is a multi-agency aspect, which is clearly the case. Teachers tell us that children in national schools are experiencing difficulty because of alcohol abuse and use. Therefore, we must not put our head in the sand any longer and decide that alcohol is a bit of craic and part of what we are; we must not decide to park the problem in the belief that the next generation will not be affected. The problem is cyclical and ongoing. Something needs to be done.
The 14 drugs task forces did some ground-breaking work on rehabilitation, training, community employment schemes and getting people back into the labour market. The difficulty is that our labour market is very much diminished and, consequently, it is harder to make progress. We will, therefore, need more supports in the supported labour market area. We do not have the safety net that existed heretofore. If there are not more supported labour market initiatives, there will be a backlog among people on rehabilitation programmes who used to use illegal drugs. It is critical that we provide the supports. I am not making criticisms but observations.
Let us consider the use of methadone as a substitute for heroin. We know approximately 9,000 people are on methadone programmes at present. If one hands out methadone continually without putting in place very serious supports, drug users drift back towards heroin use. Evidence exists to support this view. While we can set up treatment programmes and offer rehabilitation, we will not succeed without a multifaceted, streamlined approach. Let us be honest: most of the drug users are very vulnerable and are under huge pressure. They are addicted to a substance and may not have family or community supports. They may have low self-esteem and all that stems therefrom. Therefore, there ought to be a conveyor-belt system of supports available to them. Any break in this process means one can slip back into drug abuse very quickly.
This area must be prioritised, for a number of reasons, if cuts to resources are being made. If we talk about drug abuse, we must acknowledge it is contributing to homelessness, self-harm and suicide. The figures in this regard are alarming. This ought to be a priority for the Government. All the supports should be built around the drugs task forces and made available at the coalface in communities, thereby giving people ownership of their destinies and the ability to deal with their community problems. Prescriptive diktats from Departments or Governments do not always filter down as intended to communities. The local drugs task forces are important in giving communities ownership and the resources needed to face their challenges. I support this approach. The fruits of it are to be seen. Deputy O'Sullivan and others referred to the good work being done by the drugs task forces. Politically, this matter may have fallen off the priority list. I hope the Minister of State will reinvigorate it and put it back at the centre of Government policy, making sure that scarce resources are provided for those who need them most.
In noting the motion’s acknowledgement of the good work being done by the drugs task forces and through the implementation of various strategies, we must acknowledge that resources to deal with the difficulties are key. We must consider whether there are sufficient resources available to An Garda Síochána, the Customs and Excise, the Navy and Defence Forces to stop supply. Having a land border with another jurisdiction and a vast coastline, we realise it is very difficult to cut off supply. However, all the necessary resources must be made available. X-ray machines are kept in Dublin Port for a few days and then driven to Rosslare for a few. The drug smugglers wait in Britain until they find out the location of the X-ray machine and when they find it has been moved from a particular port they send their containers there. We must use the technology available to us in conjunction with Interpol and the British authorities to deal with this problem head-on.
Let us be clear: some of the drug finds were accidental. One of the biggest drug finds, which was off west Cork a couple of years ago, occurred when someone put diesel into a petrol boat. It was a complete accident that the vast quantity of cocaine was found in the region. If this was by accident, we must ask what is coming in unknown to us and under our noses. We must provide resources to combat smuggling.
It is not a criticism of those who are on the high seas daily to state there are more resources devoted to chasing a few fishermen around west Cork than to chasing smugglers coming from Colombia in yachts and catamarans to the Irish coastline, from where they move farther on into Europe. We must, therefore, get our priorities right if we are to be serious about cutting off supply. Cutting off half or quarter of the supply is no good because all this does is inflate the cost of the products coming in. This increases criminality, resulting in a circular problem. We must deal with the problem head-on on a number of fronts.
I urge the Government to prioritise surveillance and co-operation with Interpol and other agencies on a pan-European basis and globally, particularly with the United States and other countries that have good intelligence on where drugs come from - South America and Africa, for example. It should be within our gift to cut off the supply of major imports of drugs.
The criminal element and the activities of former members of the IRA, who are now moving into criminality and using their paramilitary experience in the process, are having a devastating consequence on cities. Drug dealing is lucrative and will continue without appropriate sanctions. To this day, the sanctions are not tough enough. If one is caught with over €14,000 of illegal drugs, one receives a mandatory ten-year sentence. I raised this in the House time and again. I wrote to the President of the High Court and President of the Supreme Court stating we must have a sentencing policy that puts suppliers away for a very long time.
Those who are using drugs should not be criminalised. We should regard drug use as a health issue. It is a health issue for those who are addicted to substances, be it alcohol, illegal drugs or, in some cases, legal drugs. We should have a good debate on decriminalisation but I have yet to be convinced that it would address the underlying problems in our society.
I ask the Minister of State, Deputy White, to put this matter centre-stage. He should make a name for himself. I know he will on the basis that he has done so already; that is why he is where he is. He should make a bigger name for himself by ensuring that the alcohol and drugs strategies are central to everything he does, not only with the Department of Health but also with the Departments responsible for justice and education and those with lead roles in combating this insidious cancer in society.