Dáil debates

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

8:00 pm

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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I am pleased to see the Minister of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in the House. The situation with regard to head shops has been deteriorating for a period of time. At least eight head shops have been attacked, largely through arson, with some fire-bombed. Many of them were severely damaged. In my constituency two were attacked with one totally demolished. The absence of any meaningful action from the Government allows sinister elements to have full reign and operate what is effectively criminal behaviour. Such absence also means that head shops can proliferate and spread throughout the country. It is a lucrative trade as we have seen. While that continues we will have more head shops throughout the country. There are approximately 14 or 15 in my constituency and I understand there are approximately 100 throughout the country.

At present, in Dublin Central many parents are in fear for their children. Many of those accessing head shops are very young teenagers because there is no regulation or licensing or no restrictions on minors entering those shops and buying any of the products on sale. Many of those products are labelled in one way but intended in another. These products mimic the most dangerous of drugs which are illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act, particularly cocaine and heroin. They are sold as bath salts or plant food but in fact many of them are intended to be injected or ingested. The danger that many parents in the north inner city fear with regard to their teenage sons and daughters is another drug epidemic to rival the heroin and cocaine epidemics of the 1980s and 1990s, because they are the drugs being mimicked in the head shops which young people consume orally and inject. At a recent meeting of the north inner city drugs task force the Garda indicated anecdotally that it had experienced a sharp rise in burglaries and larceny.

Last Friday, the Minister stated he would introduce legislation to provide the Garda with new powers to deal with head shops. Will he outline those proposals? To date, the interdepartmental committee, on which the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform sits, has not produced any tangible proposals or measures other than a statement of intent that some time towards the end of June certain named products will be banned and that this will come from the Department of Health and Children through the Irish Medicines Board. As was indicated by many people commenting on the area, these are synthetic drugs and once the Minister announces, months in advance, what he intends to do those supplying the drugs will be able to mix the ingredients to produce similar drugs that will not be properly defined under the new designations under the Misuse of Drugs Acts. They will then proceed merrily on their way.

Last month, the Labour Party proposed the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2010 which would prevent the proliferation of new head shops and would require existing head shops to obtain planning permission, which would be very difficult for them to do. One simple Bill already on the Order Paper of the Dáil could solve the problem almost overnight if the Government was prepared to accept it and process it through the Dáil. It could be done very quickly, in the space of a couple of days.

Will the Minister outline his proposals on the new powers he intends to give to the Garda? How are they expected to operate? Will he take the Bill that is before the House and process and implement it and deal with the matter as quickly as possible?

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. If it were easy it would have been solved much earlier than this. The Government is taking action to deal with the problem of head shops. In addition to the public health concerns I, as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, am acutely aware of the need for a criminal justice response.

It is my intention to bring forward urgent legislation that would make it a criminal offence generally to supply unregulated psychotropic substances for use by humans. I have taken this move following intensive discussions with both the Attorney General and the Garda Commissioner. My goal is to bring the full force of the criminal justice system to bear down on head shops. In my view, they are gateways to illicit drug dependence and must be shut down.

This effort is part of a multi-pronged approach to deal with the issue. Already, the Minister for Health and Children has introduced regulations under the Misuse of Drugs Act to place controls on the specific substances currently available for sale in head shops. That will deal with the immediate problem. However, suppliers continuously develop new drugs and there is always a time-lag before such new drugs are subject to proper controls. My legislative proposals are intended to be available to deal with new drugs as they emerge.

As part of the multi-pronged approach, relevant Government agencies, including environmental health officers, are reviewing existing legislative provisions to establish if head shops are liable for prosecution under a range of legislation. The primary vehicle for regulating psychotropic substances is the Misuse of Drugs Act. As I stated, the Minister for Health and Children will take action under that Act to place controls on a range of substances currently on sale in head shops. This will make the unauthorised possession and sale of these substances illegal and subject to criminal sanctions. The orders will effectively mean that the mainstream of substances being sold in these shops at the moment will be banned.

The draft regulations have been notified to the European Commission as required by European law in order to allow these orders to come into effect as soon as possible. It is not possible to take prosecutions until that period has elapsed. Head shops are a problem in many jurisdictions where the authorities experience difficulties in finding comprehensive solutions. A major problem associated with the control of head shops is that the legislators are often left to play catch up - as soon as one dangerous substance is banned in a country, another product is produced to take its place. These products are often produced for an international market and incredible chemical expertise arid ingenuity is at play in constantly devising new products. For that reason, I am exploring how best to provide a criminal justice legislative response. While the full details of the legislation have yet to be finalised, the focus will be on seeking to ensure that the sale or supply of substances which may not be specifically proscribed under the Misuse of Drugs Act, but which have psychotropic effects, will be a criminal offence. I am also examining how appropriate powers could be given to the Garda and to the courts to intervene quickly to prevent these outlets from selling these products by way of appropriate prohibition orders. There are complicated drafting issues to be resolved but my officials have already been in contact with both the Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Health and Children on the matter. I expect to be in a position to bring forward proposals to the Government in the very near future.

In the meantime a number of measures are already in train. The activities of head shops are being closely monitored on an ongoing basis by the Garda Síochána and Revenue's customs service, with a view to ensuring that no substances that are currently illegal are being sold. The HSE, in association with partner agencies under the drugs strategy, is finalising a national drugs awareness campaign that will focus on the dangers of psychotropic substances available through head shops. The national advisory committee on drugs has been asked to carry out some targeted research in this area. The House can be assured that I as Minister, together with my ministerial colleagues, are pursuing all viable approaches to ending the problems posed by head shops.