Thursday, 10 September 2020
Public Health, Well-being and National Drugs Strategy: Statements
Frank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
I thank the Deputies for their contributions to this discussion on public health and the national drug strategy. I have noted many of the points that have been raised and will consider them and their implementation as part of my brief in the coming months. I will also try to reply to Deputies who have raised specific questions, if I can. I have many policies that I want to outline but I will not be able to do so in the time allowed. I want to answer a lot of the queries that have been asked and speak to the advice that many of my colleagues have offered in their responses.
I thank Deputy Gould for his advice. He talked about dealing with people in recovery. He received clarification on the matter and I got official clarification from my Department on 4 September. In the meantime, any information sent out to Deputies who asked parliamentary questions was the applicable information at the time. No information was sent out to mislead anybody. I can only say that I am delighted that those vulnerable groups are now able to meet because the recommendations regarding limiting meetings to fewer than six people does not pertain to them. However, those people are vulnerable because of underlying health issues and any meetings should be approached with the guidelines from NPHET about social distancing in mind. NPHET, not Ministers, provides the advice to the Government. The relevant official advice became available on 4 September. There might be other channels of communication but that is the official advice.
Deputy O'Reilly discussed the Keltoi situation and the prospect of its reopening. I understand that a review has been commissioned by the HSE and a date for reopening will be confirmed when that review is completed. The facility is now being used for self-isolation for homeless people and vulnerable groups. I will respond to her as quickly as possible. She also mentioned nitrous oxide and I must put up my hands and admit that I was not aware of the incidence of the use of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, two months ago. Since then, I asked my officials to do a survey and get the information back to us as quickly as possible. I am delighted that Senator Higgins has raised this important issue. We can only use an evidence-based approach and that is what we have done. When I have a date for the reopening of the facility the Deputy mentioned, I will come back to her as quickly as possible.
Deputy Ó Ríordáin talked about a health-led approach. He is right that we need to take a much more compassionate approach to people who use drugs and their recovery. We have talked about legalisation. The Deputy also referred to alcohol. We have had a love affair with alcohol, which is also a drug. The Deputy also called for the convening of the Citizens' Assembly to consider the issue of drugs. That is a matter for the Department of the Taoiseach. I have already written twice to that Department to seek an update on its plans for the Citizens' Assembly in this regard.
Deputy Murnane O'Connor talked about the local task force and antisocial behaviour. Funding for local task forces is vital.
Sometimes we think these task forces only deal with drugs. They are drug and alcohol task forces. While the situation in major cities is difficult, given heroin, cocaine, cannabis and opioid use, they are drug and alcohol task forces.
I was in the north west and 70% of the people using the task force resources there were doing so because of alcohol. I am sure that the figure for drugs in Dublin is probably 80%. We have to be cognisant of the fact that there are two different operations.
I refer to Deputy Eoin Ó Broin 's contribution. He mentioned minors. He is absolutely right. It is part of the programme for Government that legislation would be introduced to deal with the coercion of minors into the supply and sale of drugs. I hope that such legislation is brought in. It is a very pertinent argument. He, like many other Deputies, invited me to meet local task forces. I am only too delighted to do that if I can be of any help. It would inform me, my Department and officials. I ask Deputy Joan Collins and any other Deputies who wish to do so to please write to me. We have visited a few already.
Deputy Gannon talked about doing the same thing over and over again. I can feel his frustration 12 years on from his involvement in a local drugs task force and the trauma and poverty involved. He referred to Portugal. Ireland is not the same as Portugal. We examined the regime in Portugal but it does not have the same legal system as Ireland. We have decided on a health diversion approach, which is in the national drug strategy and is the template we are using.
I attended a very sad event in St. Michan's Church in Halston Street. Deputy Gannon was there. It brought home to me the scourge of what has happened in Dublin and many other cities and what is now happening around the country. All of the names of the young men and women who died from overdoses in the past ten to 15 years were read out. It would bring a tear to one's eye. I thank those who organised the event for the invitation, which brought home to me an issue that has ruined communities and families. The service was poignant.
Deputy Higgins talked about sweets laced with cannabis and the fact that people are ten times more likely to end up in hospital. It is an issue of which we need to be aware.
Deputies Quinlivan and Gino Kenny talked about the criminal justice system and the possession of drugs, as well as alternatives. They highlighted the fact that heroin is in rural areas.
Deputy Tóibín talked 697 people who died and the drug situation in Ballivor. He said he is not too sure about the centre. Perhaps we could investigate the situation regarding Scientology.
Deputy Michael Collins talked about the closure of Cara Lodge in west Cork. We will investigate it. Deputy Joan Collins mentioned the CityWide campaign. We had discussions with it and were delighted to have an informed conversation with Deputy Ó Ríordáin and Senator Ruane. It was helpful. I look forward to meeting each and every Deputy for a cup of coffee. I am happy to listen to any groups they want to bring in. There are a lot of issues we have to deal with.
I am looking forward to bringing in minimum unit pricing in respect of alcohol. We await the report and review from Northern Ireland. Perhaps the two constituencies could move together. One aspect of minimum unit pricing I have just found out about is that when it was introduced in Glasgow, the preliminary findings were that there was a reduction of 8% in the amount of alcohol purchased per household and a decrease of 21% in the number of deaths related to alcohol. People have said I did not give enough attention to my drugs policy. I am dealing with health, well-being and public health.
I thank the Acting Chairman for his indulgence. I look forward to working with all stakeholders to do the best we can. All I can do is be the best I can. I need each and every stakeholder, Deputy, Senator and official in my Department to help us tackle this very difficult problem.