Dáil debates

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

9:00 pm

Photo of Deirdre CluneDeirdre Clune (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this important issue which is of particular concern. I am alarmed at reports in the media in recent weeks about head shops, although such shops and the products they sell have existed for quite some time. Throughout the country there has been an alarming increase in the number of outlets offering products which, while not illegal, are highly dangerous, according to certain reports, and should not be freely available without any form of control or regulation. They have been described as "legal highs" and "party drugs".

I am particularly concerned about reports from health care workers in the past number of weeks, particularly media interviews with Dr. Chris Luke, a consultant in emergency medicine in Cork, who stated that in one weekend the accident and emergency department of Mercy University Hospital, Cork, had dealt with five cases associated with the use of such products. Four of the patients had to be brought to the hospital by ambulance. Dr. Luke described the reaction as being extraordinarily severe and a number of weeks ago, one girl took three days to stop tripping in the emergency department from the effects of such products. The symptoms have been described as being the classic symptoms of those who use illegal drugs, with reports of psychotic episodes, disorientation and hallucinations.

I visited a head shop today in Dublin and bought the product I have to hand. It cost €30 for five capsules and on the front of the package is written "Blow, intense euphoria, 18 year olds plus". I will leave it with the Minister of State who should pass it over to the relevant Minister. On the back of the package, the product is described as a plant food that is not suitable for human consumption. What kind of legal loophole or regulation is this packaging trying to get around? On the one hand, it promises intense euphoria for 18 year olds only, but on the other, it claims to be only suitable for plants.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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It must be for dogs.

Photo of Deirdre CluneDeirdre Clune (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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God help the poor plants as the ingredients are described as being ketones mix, herbal extracts and glucose. This is alarming and is highly dangerous. A selection of products were freely available in the shop without regulation. Moreover, no one asked me what I intended to do with the pills or how I intended to take them. There is a complete free-for-all in respect of the sale of such products in the shops. Serious concern exists among parents, health professionals and young people. The problem is that such products are not regulated and are legal. They are being sold as legal highs and people are buying them who would not use illegal drugs at all but who find themselves in a sorry and sad state. Someone will end up in a highly serious condition unless something is done to regulate such products and to ensure that their sale is controlled.

The Minister of State should outline exactly what the Government proposes to do regarding this issue about which demonstrations are taking place. There was a demonstration today about the situation in County Roscommon and public meetings are being held nationwide. Parents want to see action in this regard as the present position is not good enough. While the Minister of State probably thinks it is amusing that I was able to buy this product so freely, it is frightening to enter such an establishment and see the number of products that are for sale on an uncontrolled basis. It is simply a case of handing over the €30 in cash. This is a serious situation as 100 such shops exist nationally. While there has been much media coverage on this issue, the most important consideration for me is the concern expressed by medical professionals about the complete lack of control over such products.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Minister of State with special responsibility for Public Service Transformation and Labour Affairs, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, and I welcome the opportunity provided by Deputy Clune to make a statement to the House on the issue of head shops.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 and regulations made thereunder regulate and control the import, export, production, supply and possession of a range of named narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances listed in the Schedules to the Act. Substances are scheduled under the Act in accordance with Ireland's obligations under international conventions or where there is evidence that the substances are causing significant harm to public health in Ireland.

Items for sale in the so-called head shops, such as those referred to by Deputy Clune, and which often are referred to as legal highs, are substances which are not controlled at present under the misuse of drugs legislation. The list of scheduled substances is kept under ongoing review and in particular any evidence that solicitors are being abused and are causing significant harm to public health is reviewed. For example, in 2006, psychotropic or magic mushrooms, which were on sale in such outlets, were banned and their possession and sale now is illegal. On 31 March 2009, BZP was similarly subjected to legislative control measures and criminal sanctions.

The Government has concerns about the growth in the number of head shops, their activities and the health risks associated with some of the products sold. The issue of head shops also is of concern throughout the European Union and all member states are considering how to address the issue. However, no EU member state has come up with a comprehensive response thus far. Under the national drugs strategy, which was published by the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, on 10 September 2009, it is intended to monitor the activities of head shops and all businesses involved in the sale of psychoactive substances with the objective of ensuring that no illegal activity is undertaken. It also proposes that steps be taken to reform legislation in this respect where it is deemed to be appropriate. To this end and under the aegis of the national advisory committee on drugs, a research advisory group has been established to identify possible options for the regulation of head shops. The Departments of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Health and Children, Revenue's Customs Service and other relevant statutory agencies are actively participating in this process.

Legislation was introduced in the United Kingdom immediately before Christmas to control a number of substances and groups of substances that have been on sale in head shops. The Department of Health and Children, which has statutory responsibility for the drafting of misuse of drugs legislation, is currently reviewing that legislation to ascertain how similar controls could be introduced in Ireland. I also will bring the Deputy's specific experience today to the attention of the relevant Minister.