Wednesday, 11 December 2019
Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill 2019: Second Stage [Private Members]
I thank the Minister for his concluding remarks, in which he quite clearly indicates he is prepared to work and develop this Bill. Two things are clear from the debate in the House today. The issue of problem drug abuse is a national one; it is not a Dublin issue any more, and we heard contributions from right around the country. This phenomenon of children being exploited, while it has been around, is a growing problem and is becoming much more apparent and obvious. There is a willingness in this House to address it. Everybody who spoke on this issue believes there has to be a legislative response. I listened and have heard some of the arguments that have been presented in terms of the problem with the legislation as presented.
The purpose of the Bill is to make it an offence to purchase or acquire drugs from a child. This would appear to be an offence under existing criminal law whereby if a person purchases or otherwise acquires a drug, he or she is then in possession of the drug. We are trying to make it an aggravated offence to buy or receive drugs from a minor. That is the principle. These children are being groomed and taken advantage of. There is a willingness in this House to offer a level of protection to those children that is not there at the moment.
I take the Minister's offer very sincerely and will engage with the officials in the Department because all the Members who contributed to this debate want to see this issue addressed in a proper manner. I would not like to say that only legislators have a role to play in this. We already have heard about the Garda. While I am aware of the separation of powers, and often we do not reflect on that here, it is important that the Judiciary and the sentences passed are in line with the thinking and the spirit of what was meant to happen. I refer specifically to section 15A of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, which makes it an offence to possess drugs with a market value of over €13,000. Persons found guilty of that offence under this section face a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years' imprisonment. It is extremely unusual for Irish legislation to provide for mandatory minimum jail terms. The norm is that the judge has discretion in determining the appropriate sentence in all the circumstances. The decision in making a mandatory minimum ten-year sentence for the drug offence was to recognise the harm caused to society by drug trafficking. The legislation, however, under a different section provides an element of discretion to the trial judge to impose a lesser sentence if there are exceptional and specific circumstances which would justify departing from the minimum ten-year sentence. The norm should be a ten-year plus sentence. According to the figures the Minister gave me for 2018, there were 141 convictions under section 15A. One of those convicted received a ten-years plus sentence. That was not the intention of this House. While there will always be exceptional circumstances, 99 of those convicted received a sentence of five years or less. That was not the intention of the legislation. It specifies exceptional and specific circumstances. It is now the norm that people caught with significant quantities of drugs do not get the minimum mandatory sentence that this House had envisaged.
As we develop this legislation to protect young children, it is important that the Judiciary does not act just on the words we write but on the view of this House. This measure will not solve the drug problem. There will still be illegal drugs, and the work of An Garda Síochána and the joint policing committees will continue. The purpose of this legislation is solely to try to prevent vulnerable children being coerced, groomed and taken advantage of. I thank the Minister for his contribution and will gladly work with him and others to address the concerns of the Government to ensure that the legislation brought forward on Committee Stage is robust and fit for purpose.