Dáil debates

Wednesday, 30 November 2022

Drugs Policy: Motion [Private Members]

 

10:02 am

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann: notes that:
— during the past 25 years of a law-enforcement approach to drug abuse, drug-related deaths have increased by 225 per cent, compared to a 68 per cent reduction in road deaths in the same period, with the total number of such deaths well exceeding 10,500;

— Ireland now has the joint-highest rate of drug-induced deaths among 16 to 64-year-olds in the European Union (EU);

— the number of people prosecuted for possession for personal use has increased over that period by 484 per cent, with more than a quarter of a million convictions recorded for that offence;

— in the same period there has been a substantial overall increase in drug use, with use of cocaine rising by 10,376 per cent, benzodiazepines by 1,824 per cent and cannabis by 263 per cent;

— drug abuse and its harmful effects, including crimes of violence, intimidation and extortion aimed at addicts, their families and their communities, are no longer urban phenomena and are spread across the State;

— despite enabling legislation being passed in 2017, followed by Health Service Executive (HSE) procurement and the selection of a preferred operator to run the State's first medically supervised injecting facility in Dublin City Centre, this urgent initiative is still stalled;

— although in 2019 the Government announced a health diversion programme, involving mandatory referrals to the HSE, the programme applies only to adults caught in possession for the first time, and progress on the implementation of this very limited initiative is acknowledged as "slow" in the mid-term review of the National Drugs Strategy;

— there is no firm commitment to further progress on drugs treatment courts, to assist offenders with drug-related problems;

— despite the significant number of people who abuse drugs and suffer from a mental health illness, our mental health services and addiction treatment centres are still not organised to holistically treat people with a dual diagnosis; and

— the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future committed the parties in Government to convening a citizens' assembly on drugs but, despite the Taoiseach's stated intention to do so in "the latter part of this year", there is so far no indication as to whether or when it will be held;
agrees that:
— overall, there has been a lack of visibility at Minister or Minister of State level, a lack of joined up thinking between Ministers, Departments and State agencies, and a lack of focus, energy and urgency in spearheading the State's response to drugs;

— the policy of criminalisation of the user has failed, nationally and internationally, the resources of the State are wasted on inappropriately processing medical addiction cases through the courts and prisons, and a health-led and patient-focussed alternative is needed;

— the previous international consensus in the West on a law-enforcement approach to drugs is now collapsing, and over 30 countries have decriminalised drug possession for personal use in some form;

— the worst harms of a criminalisation policy are experienced by people and communities who are already disadvantaged and marginalised, and a reformed approach must operate in the context of strategies to combat poverty and marginalisation;

— a community-based health-led alternative response would target the adverse health, social and economic consequences of drug use and would provide harm reduction services to address disease transmission and overdoses; and

— the 2001 Portuguese initiative of decriminalising possession of drugs and introducing a health diversion scheme, with a resulting significant decline in drug deaths in Portugal while they continue to rise across the EU, merits particular study; and
calls for:
— a firm date to be fixed for convening the citizens' assembly on drugs, with the assembly requested by its terms of reference to:
— make central to its deliberations the lived experience of individuals, families and communities who have directly experienced the impact of drug abuse, so that harm reduction and recovery strategies are developed in collaboration with those most directly affected;

— ensure that, while it may legitimately join with other EU countries in considering whether to legalise possession of cannabis for personal use, this question does not distract from the separate and urgent debate about changes in policy and approach needed in order effectively to promote the rehabilitation and recovery of persons addicted to harmful drugs; and

— specifically consider a policy that continues to tackle organised crime gangs involved in drug trafficking and dealing, but offers a non-criminal and comprehensive public health treatment, rehabilitation and recovery alternative for persons in possession of drugs for personal use;
— emergency amending legislation to facilitate mobile supervised injection facilities, for both urban and regional sites;

— regulatory oversight of all addiction treatment services, with a commitment to client centred and evidence-based recovery programmes;

— a significant increase in funding for Drug and Alcohol Task Forces and the conferring of an added educational remit, in liaison with schools and in community settings; and

— the expansion of the work of the Criminal Assets Bureau to target and seize smaller assets in local communities with the full resources of An Garda Síochána targeted at organised crime gangs, traffickers and dealers.

I send my best wishes to my former colleagues and the children, staff and school community of St. Laurence O'Toole's National School, which I used to teach in, who are opening their new school building today. I believe the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, will be opening it. I cannot be with them because of this debate, but they know I love them very much and they are with me always.

If we were to invite a family member of every individual who died from a drug overdose last year to sit in this Chamber, we would not have enough room for everyone. This is the most famous room in Ireland and these seats have been filled by famous people over the past 100 years or so. If we were to invite a single family member of every individual who had died from a drug overdose in Ireland to sit here, we would not have enough room. They would have to sit in the Public Gallery. In 2017, 235 people died from drug overdoses. That figure has got worse year on year. We have one of the highest drug overdose rates in Europe.

If those family members were to sit in these seats, what would we say to them? I suppose we would want to understand the complexity of the issue and show compassion. We would want to listen to experts, who say that there are overlapping issues of poverty, disadvantage and alienation that lead someone into drug use and addiction. We would want to understand all of that. If we were honest, though, we in the political system would look at those family members and tell them that the people they loved and who died were criminals.

This is at the centre of what we are trying to change through this motion. The Labour Party wants to stand with those family members. It wants to stand with those in addiction, those who are suffering and those who are in recovery. It wants to tell them plainly and simply they are not criminals. The criminalisation of drug users is part of a stigma and a shame culture. It is a deliberate act of public policy. It is not drugs that kill people as much as bad drugs policy does. The Labour Party believes we do not need a war on drugs. Rather, we need a war on bad drugs policy. Criminalising and stigmatising people in addiction leads to people in the political system undermining and dehumanising people who need support and compassion. It leads to a then Minister throwing leaflets around her constituency telling her constituents that the newly opened medical centre in her area would not be dealing methadone. It leads to a backbencher using dehumanising language when speaking about someone in addiction. It leads to the most ineffective and absent Minister and Minister of State with responsibility for this area in a generation. The feeling from the political system is that what drug users are doing is criminal and what they are is worthless.

It is not just the political system that feels this way. The medical system feels this way too. My colleague, Senator Sherlock, tells me that, in Dublin, only 28% of GPs are involved in the methadone programme. That is replicated throughout the country. It leads to a bizarre situation where, as Fr. Peter McVerry told us on Monday night, people are travelling from Wexford to Dublin to get their methadone. I know this to be true because I once met a woman called Lisa. Lisa was living in Portlaoise. She was a young mother who used to travel by bus from Portlaoise to Dublin every day to get her methadone. The sad thing is that, when engaging with Lisa, I had the feeling she believed she was not worth any more than that and could not demand a better service because she felt on some level she was a criminal and was worthless. We forced this young mother to go from Portlaoise to Dublin every day on a bus to get her methadone. When I called into that centre a number of months later, I asked about Lisa. I was told she had not survived. We killed her. She was not a criminal. She was not worthless.

I knew a man called Paul who had a daughter with cystic fibrosis. The Minister of State should have seen the way they spent time together. They loved each other deeply. There was a sparkle in her eyes when she saw him. He was not well and she was not well. She did not make it because of her illness. As a result, he did not make it because of his. He was not a criminal and he was not worthless.

The Misuse of Drugs (Supervised Injecting Facilities) Act was passed by the Oireachtas in 2017. What would any of us say if we came across a dead body following a heroin overdose in a laneway and we held that body in our arms? Would we say to that person that the planning application was tied up in the High Court and there was nothing we could do? People are dying in the alleyways of our capital city but we have not made the necessary intervention to save their lives, that being, a mobile facility implemented through emergency legislation. We are the criminals. We are the ones who are useless. It is our inaction that is criminal, not the actions of those who are dying.

Mr. Philly McMahon, a former Dublin footballer whose brother died of drug-related issues, says we need a tribe for change. I can speak of people in this House who are part of that tribe. I remember trying with my Labour Party colleagues to get the injecting centre idea over the line. It was people like the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe of Fine Gael, and former Deputy Jonathan O'Brien of Sinn Féin who were supportive. Even today, I hear people like Deputy McAuliffe from Fianna Fáil making good speeches on decriminalisation. Colleagues like Deputy Hourigan of the Green Party, Deputy Cairns of the Social Democrats and Independent Senator Ruane are speaking seriously about this issue. I think of people like Deputy Gino Kenny, who has been a warrior in this field. We absolutely need a tribe to change this conversation from being about criminality and worthlessness to one that replicates what happened in Portugal 20 years ago when it decriminalised the drug user.

After 20 years, it has half the number of people in drug-dependency programmes and has reduced its drug overdose rate by 75%.

The Labour Party's call today is quite simple. We stand with those affected by this issue. You are not criminals. You are absolutely not worthless. We need people to understand and to completely recast their view of this debate. The Government has promised a citizens' assembly on drugs. We need to hold establish that assembly because people are dying on our watch. It is our inaction that is criminal.

10:12 am

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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This is a truly an important debate. It is disappointing that other than Labour Party Deputies, the only other Member present is the Minister of State charged with responding to the motion. What our spokesperson, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, has done in crafting this comprehensive, thoughtful motion is shine a light on an issue that impacts on all communities in our country, including every village, town, city and rural area. Everyone in this House knows that. We know we have a massive issue with drug abuse, drug-related illnesses and drug-related deaths. We also know there is unimaginable hurt and pain being felt by families in all our constituencies every day and Deputy Ó Ríordáin has just described some of that. Due to the nature of this issue, it is almost unspeakable; it is silent. This is a hurt that needs now to be addressed.

The core statistics set out in our motion should shock each of us because these cold facts tell us one thing, namely, our current strategies are not working. The situation is getting worse. I have been policy focused for my entire career here. In any other sphere of public policy, when faced with those sort of realities, that inescapable truth, the response is to change tack, to see what actually works internationally and to implement change.

This is an uncomfortable discussion for many. When faced with challenging societal issues in the past, we put in place a most useful device, namely, was the citizen's assembly. It was an idea originally championed by my party's former leader, Eamon Gilmore, and is one that has proven its worth. It has helped Ireland rethink difficult issues based on fundamental evidence and fact. We urgently need that now. We must have the long-promised citizen's assembly on drugs. We must hear from those affected. We must hear from those dealing with the drugs issue from the health side, the rehabilitation side and the administration of justice side. We will hear a tale that is both harrowing and instructive. Whatever angle people come at this issue from, they will come to the same conclusion, namely, that we need a change of policy. Marginalisation and criminalisation have failed here and elsewhere.

The experience in the US is instructive. There is a political pressure, dating back to Bill Clinton's time, to be strong on drugs. There has been a policy of mass arrests and incarceration. The prison population has mushroomed beyond all imagination. Enormous resources have been deployed and communities ghettoised to no good effect. Other countries, as Deputy Ó Ríordáin stated, have done much better. The Portuguese experience is instructive. Portugal decriminalised the user while maintaining criminal penalties for those trafficking and selling drugs. It developed a comprehensive system I do not have time to go into, but it is instructive. We should look at and learn from it.

Our motion calls for a change of tack and for a focus on this issue, which impacts on all of us. I ask the Government to look positively at it, to act instantly to create the citizen's assembly, to let the voices of the thousands of our citizens who are hurting be heard and to let us see what we can do to make things better for them rather than continuing on a path that is self-evidently not working.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I am glad to put my name to this motion, which states: "during the past 25 years of a law-enforcement approach to drug abuse, drug-related deaths have increased by 225 per cent, compared to a 68 per cent reduction in road deaths in the same period, with the total number of such deaths well exceeding 10,500." That is 10,500 lives and 10,500 families. The multiplied consequences of this are horrific to imagine. The motion also states:

— Ireland now has the joint-highest rate of drug-induced deaths among 16 to 64-year-olds in the European Union (EU);

— the number of people prosecuted for possession for personal use has increased over that period by 484 per cent, with more than a quarter of a million convictions recorded for that offence;

— in the same period there has been a substantial overall increase in drug use, with use of cocaine rising by [approximately] 10,376 per cent, benzodiazepines by 1,824 per cent and cannabis by 263 per cent;

— drug abuse and its harmful effects, including crimes of violence, intimidation and extortion aimed at addicts, their families and their communities, are no longer urban phenomena and are spread across the State;

I represent the constituency of Cork East. I have first-hand experience of witnessing deals taking place within my neighbourhood. I also have first-hand experience of seeing the prevalence of recreational drug usage, especially of cocaine. Such behaviour has become normalised in our society. We cannot keep burying our heads in the sand. I would have been an advocate for stronger policing but the criminal justice response has not worked. If I look at crime statistics of the sort issued to joint policy committees such as those on Cork County Council, detections of possession of drugs for sale or supply across the city and county fell by 351 between January and August last year to 263 in the same period this year, which represented a reduction of 26%. The dogs on the street know drug use and sale and supply are increasing but the policing response, anecdotally, is moving away. The resources are not there. We now need the community health response. If one speaks to members of An Garda Síochána privately and off the record, they will say the same thing. It is beyond policing and beyond a criminal justice thought process or framework in relation to how it is being tackled.

Having said that, the motion is very clear that we must still ensure we go after the drug cartels and the "Mr. Bigs" of this world.

We now see their influence seeping down into communities. Money procured from recreational drug use by middle class kids and kids of all persuasions - when I say "kids" I am speaking about young adults and older adults - is now going into laundering, such as through the procurement of buildings and other property throughout the State. That needs to be tackled forthwith.

The Portuguese model offers a solution. It involves a long-term commitment but it is something we can embrace. If we embrace and establish the citizens' assembly, we will hear what the citizens have to say. We will be surprised at their response.

10:22 am

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I very much welcome the opportunity to debate the Labour Party motion in respect of drugs policy and to highlight the progress we have made in the implementation of the national drugs strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery. As Deputies are aware, it is a health-led approach to drug and alcohol use in Ireland from 2017 to 2025. As Minister of State, I am responsible for co-ordinating the implementation of the national drugs strategy. By treating the use of substances as a public health issue rather than solely a criminal one, we can better help individuals, their families and the communities in which we live. I very much agree with Deputy Ó Ríordáin that we have to take away the stigma and shame when it comes to those who use drugs. A health-led approach is the right one.

As Deputies are aware, the programme for Government includes a commitment to convene a citizens' assembly to consider matters relating to drug use. We are committed to establishing a citizens' assembly on drug use, along with a citizens' assembly on the future of education, at the earliest opportunity. The timelines for the next citizens' assemblies will, ultimately, be a matter for the Oireachtas to agree, but it is anticipated the Government will consider the matter early in the new year and it will be put to the Dáil and Seanad for debate. It is to be hoped we will have that citizens' assembly up and running as quickly as possible.

Following a mid-term review of the national drug strategy, I agreed six strategic priorities for the remaining period of the strategy, that is, from 2021-25. The priorities reinforce the health-led approach to drug and alcohol use and capture the commitments in the programme for Government, as well as reflecting our support for the EU drug strategy and action plan 2021-25. The six priorities are to strengthen the prevention of drug and alcohol use among children and young people, enhance access and delivery of drug and alcohol services in the community, develop harm reduction responses and integrated care pathways for high-risk drug users, address the social determinants and consequences of drugs use in disadvantaged communities, promote alternatives to coercive sanctions for drug-related offences, and strengthen evidence-informed and outcomes-focused practice, services, policies and strategy implementation. Strategic implementation groups have been established to identify actions to implement these priorities under the auspices of the national oversight committee. These groups reflect the partnership approach and give a stronger voice to civil society in the implementation of the strategy.

Deputy Howlin referred to prison and the need to reduce harm and remove the stigma. A lot is being done by the Garda, such as through its adult caution scheme, and we are trying to work with the Department of Justice on its health diversion scheme. In addition, a significant amount of work is being done under the radar as well. Deputy Sherlock referred to the situation in Cork East. It is obvious that drugs are in every village and town. It is not just an issue in urban areas; it is across Ireland and we have to deal with that accordingly. We will do so through a health-led approach, an education approach and maybe a justice approach as well.

The most recent national drug and alcohol survey, for the period 2019-20, shows that, overall, the use of illegal drugs has remained at a similar level to that recorded in the 2014-15 survey. Unfortunately, the survey identified an increase in the use of cocaine and ecstasy. The most recent data available in respect of drug-related deaths show there were 376 drug-induced deaths in 2017. The number of deaths has fallen in recent years, from 401 in 2013. Every death is deeply regrettable, for the individuals, their family and friends and their community. Deputy Ó Ríordáin poignantly outlined that we would not have enough room in this Chamber for a single family member of every person who has died from a drug overdose. I very much agree with him in that regard.

Recent data from the national drug treatment reporting system show that 17,628 cases received treatment for drug and alcohol use in 2021, which represents an increase of 14% on 2020. The majority of those cases were treated in outpatient facilities. This increase in treatment services reflects the Government's commitment to a public health response to drug use, as well as the additional resources committed to services.

We need to do a lot more on prevention and education for children and young people in respect of drug use. That is one of the crucial elements of the remaining years of the national drugs strategy. I recently announced a €1.5 million allocation for a three-year drug and alcohol prevention and education programme. This funding programme is a key deliverable under the national drug strategy, which aims to strengthen the prevention of drug and alcohol use and related harm among children and young people. This is the first time national funding has been made available for drug prevention with a holistic approach, considering both drug and alcohol use, with the overarching aim of reducing the harmful use of both substances from an early age. This initiative will build on local and sectoral initiatives, such as Know the Score, and draw on evidence from Europe to professionalise and elevate drug prevention practices in Ireland. The programme will fund projects in five prevention settings, including schools, youth and general community, family, environmental and third level institutions.

Funding of the national drugs strategy has increased significantly through the past three years. Budgets 2021, 2022 and 2023 allocated an additional €21 million to expand the provision of drug and alcohol services, encompassing residential and community-based services. More than €2 million has been made available through the community services enhancement fund towards the provision of community-based drug and alcohol services. Of the funding, 25% is ring-fenced for services for women, ethnic minorities and the LGBTI+ community. A further €500,000 is provided for the community services enhancement fund, CSEF, in 2023. Budget 2023 also provides an uplift of €3.5 million in core funding for community-based drug and alcohol services in order to maintain existing levels of service. This is the first increase in core funding since 2013.

A priority of the national drugs strategy is to develop integrated care pathways and harm reduction responses for high-risk drug users. High-risk drug users have complex health and social needs that make them vulnerable to drug overdose and, ultimately, premature death. In 2022, €850,000 was allocated in recurring funding for a HSE-led initiative to reduce the health-related harms associated with the use of cocaine and crack cocaine. This funding will support services in delivering evidence-based interventions and will increase training opportunities for staff in addiction services nationally. It will also improve the support provided to those affected by adverse health consequences of cocaine or crack cocaine use. Community-based services and community healthcare organisations, CHOs, were consulted in developing these initiatives, reflecting the partnership approach at the heart of the national drugs strategy. A drug monitoring pilot programme was successfully implemented at the Electric Picnic festival this year as a response to drug use by people in the night-time economy, who have traditionally been difficult for drug and alcohol services to reach.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, people with addiction issues and those who are homeless and marginalised were classed by the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, as vulnerable groups to whose health and safety Covid posed a risk. Significant additional funding was provided to the HSE to provide for opioid substitution treatment, OST, in 2020 and 2021. A further €4.2 million was secured in budget 2022 for the continued treatment of an additional 1,000 clients on OST. They were given access to OST in 2020 and 2021 under the Covid-19 contingency plan for people who use drugs. In 2022, €10 million was provided to consolidate and maintain the enhanced provision of healthcare services for people who are homeless. These services have greatly minimised the expected number of deaths among the homeless population during Covid-19.

I have outlined the Government's approach to drug use, which is a health-led response. Under my leadership, the Government has provided significant additional funding to implement national drugs strategy. Deputy Ó Ríordáin will be aware that I have engaged with all stakeholders, including community-based drugs and alcohol services to identify clear priorities for the remaining years of the national drugs strategy.

I am disappointed with one issue, which is the national injecting facility. The Government is committed to the establishment of a supervised injecting facility in Dublin city centre. Legislation has been passed and we have identified an area in Dublin. Unfortunately, there are issues with this. We hope this gets up and running as quickly as possible. We are waiting on a decision from An Bord Pleanála. The facility will bring drug injecting into a medically controlled and supervised setting, with health and other benefits for vulnerable individuals.

I am delighted to debate this issue here today. Cross-party, cross-Government and across the community, we must work together to try to address this very difficult issue.

10:32 am

Photo of Duncan SmithDuncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
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In politics, when the answer is more gardaí, sometimes it does not matter what the question is. It has been an evergreen answer for politicians over the years. Sometimes it is the right answer. With organised crime, murder, public order, cybercrime, and burglaries then yes, we need to resource the Garda. In the case of a drugs policy and tackling people with problematic addiction, more gardaí is not the answer. In this motion and led by Deputy Ó Ríordáin, we are trying to move this conversation, along with others, as Deputy Ó Ríordáin has said, to build a tribe and build a group that will push this to where it needs to be, that is, as a health-led approach to harm reduction and recovery. The justice-led and Garda-led approach has failed and is failing. The statistics are there to prove it, in that 70% of all drugs cases before our courts are for the personal use of drugs. How many times have we as politicians, particularly in recent years, discussed the logjams in our Courts Service as all of these things need to go through our courts, when 70% of drugs cases are for personal use?

Beyond that, this is about dignity. It is about providing dignity to the individual, to the person who is suffering, to the person who is in need. Yesterday, I was driving in here at about 9:30 a.m. and I was stuck in traffic in the city. My eye was drawn to a Garda car that was pulled over to the side of the street. One garda was in the car and one was out of the car and searching an individual. I do not know the back story but I would make a judgment call, based on what I saw, that the individual had problematic drug use. Given my mind was in preparation for this debate today, what I saw spoke to one thing, which was the indignity with which that young man was treated. He was being searched and he was being patted down with his arms out. He had no bags or anything with him and he was wearing a tracksuit. When it got down to the mid-section of this young man, the garda pulled the young man's trousers down to his knees to search in and around his boxer shorts area. This was a busy street, in massive traffic, in full view of me and I do not know how many others. The traffic moved on, I moved on, and I do not know what the outcome was. I know one thing. That Individual was not best served by what happened to him on the side of that busy road yesterday morning. This is happening thousands of times. Nothing was done and nothing is being done to assist that individual in terms of that interaction yesterday. All that was done to that individual was the stripping of his dignity and criminalising him. Unless we get this conversation right, and unless we build on this and move on it, a lot of people would have looked at that incident yesterday and probably thought "Well good enough for him and that is how we need to tackle it - with more gardaí". This is what we need to try to move on from. This is why we need the health-led approach, the resources and the facilities. All of the evidence is there. We do not need to build the evidence. We know the models that have been successful, including the Portuguese model. Ireland's policy on this is failing and we do not need any more "Prime Time" documentaries on it. We just need to listen to the people on the front line. We need to go within our own selves and ask how we want fellow citizens to be treated. These are our family and our friends. There but for the grace of God, that could be my son, my brother or my best friend. That could be them. Drug addiction can hit anyone. It can strip away everything in a person's life and leave that person so vulnerable. We as a society are failing in this regard. We are failing in our drugs policy, we are failing communities and we are failing individuals who are on the front line.

I ask the Minister of State to please not dismiss this. Let us put energy into the citizens' assembly. Let us put resources into it. Let us change policy and let us change it here. There are people on all sides who support this. This motion has cross-party support. Let us push it through. I commend Deputy Ó Ríordáin on leading on this on behalf of the Labour Party and we look forward to working with people to bring this further.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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I am incredibly proud to be a member of a party that has drafted this motion, and to call myself a comrade and a friend of Deputy Ó Ríordáin, who has pioneered reform in this space. It is beyond time that we woke up as a society and as law makers to the stark reality of drugs in our society. We have to face the world as it is, not as we would like our ideal world to be. The world of today, in the Ireland of the 2020s, we simply have to face the facts that by the law of averages, someone we care about, someone in our family or in our group of close friends, took illicit drugs last weekend. They may have taken them yesterday and they may take them today. That is a reality. It is about facing up to those facts.

Can we also admit that none of us would like to see the people we care about have a criminal record for consuming something that is readily available on the streets of every town and village in the land? We have a problem but it is not one that can be fixed with more gardaí, more prison cells, more prosecutions, or more convictions. Addiction to drugs is a health problem. For us to admit that the so-called war on drugs has manifestly been a failure is okay. It is okay to admit that. We are spending more than ever on the Garda and on resourcing the wider criminal justice system, yet drug use is rising. Deaths caused by drugs are high and the continuing threat of convictions associated with drug use has not prevented the use of cocaine rising by 10,000% in 25 years. As Deputy Howlin intimated earlier, when a policy is not working we have an obligation to change it. To do otherwise is criminal neglect. I represent an area where gangs fight over the drugs trade. I have seen people shot dead and many more maimed and butchered, homes destroyed by arson attacks, kids traumatised and decent people that I represent living in constant fear. I have been at the forefront of crafting a multi-agency response to this crisis in my community but I have also demanded a tough response against criminal gangs who make fortunes from the drugs trade. Thanks to our community and the members of the Garda in the Drogheda area, we have had that tough response. I make no apologies for demanding that we be tough on drug gangs and smugglers. Gang crime may have been quelled in my own area but drugs are still being dealt, despite the valiant efforts of the Garda. This is a reality for us everywhere.

There is no inconsistency in taking on the gangs and their ill-gotten gains and supporting that strategy, while at the same time wanting to see a sea change in our treatment of sick, isolated, and poor drug user who is at the end of that supply chain. With all of the money spent on so-called crackdowns, we will still see many people needlessly dying. Some people that I have known all of my life have died because of heroin addiction. We have seen and know too many people in our community who are now nothing short of ghosts occupying hollowed-out sick bodies. People are ill and bereft of hope. They are wandering our streets stigmatised and shunned. They have a health problem. If we met somebody on the street was apparently having a heart attack, we would go to help. If somebody is clearly sick because of their addiction to drugs and because of problem drug use, we shun them, stigmatise them and ignore them.

In so many cases, prosecution after prosecution simply has not deterred them. We are locking up too many people whose real need is for a treatment bed, not a prison cell. We pride ourselves in this country on being progressive but in the case of drugs policy, we certainly are not.

If we were to spend just 20% of the money we spend on the criminal justice side on intervention and treatment, agencies like the Red Door Project in Drogheda would not have to go cap in hand to the HSE every few months for short-term funds to retain critical social workers and outreach workers, positions the Red Door Project was, in fact, provided with because of the crisis in my town. This is short-termism at its best. Services like this should be provided simply as a matter of course. They should be de rigueurif we are to take the time to take an evidence-based health and patient-led approach to the use of drugs.

Can we all have that difficult, challenging conversation and democratic dialogue we need to have in a citizens' assembly format, drop the exhausting moral outrage we hear, take that evidence-based approach and deal with the world as it is, not how we think it should be?

10:42 am

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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I commend Deputy Ó Ríordáin and the Labour Party on bringing forward this motion. We can all agree that there is an exceptionally serious issue with drug use and its links to organised crime throughout Ireland. Some people will seek a numbness to whatever trauma they have in their minds, and quite often the only way they can get that is through the use or misuse of drugs.

I read through some of the recent European drug report, which stated that Ireland has the EU's joint highest rate of drug-induced deaths among those aged 16 to 64. We certainly cannot be proud of that as a society. The report indicated that there is growing use of crack cocaine throughout the city of Dublin, particularly, and in many other areas. The national drugs strategy has provided a deliverable pathway forward to secure people out of drug misuse, but the Government has failed to implement the policy and failed to fund it properly.

The thrust of the motion before us relates to the securing of a timeline for a citizens' assembly on drug use, and that is to be welcomed, but it cannot and should not be spoken about in a vacuum. We see in our communities every day people who have sought comfort from trauma in the use of prescription drugs and illicit drugs alike. As one of my colleagues said yesterday, this is the only coping mechanism some people in addiction have because mental health services, unfortunately, are simply not available for many people and they turn to illicit drugs.

The option of the Portuguese model, which has been considered and talked about for many years as a way forward, needs to be considered further. At the same time, we all also recognise the huge harm the drug gangs have done to communities throughout the country, the blight they are on communities and the terrible devastation they bring. I have spoken to parents and grandparents who have been threatened because of young people's drug debts. That is a trauma in their lives as they look at young people with hope, vision and ambition before them reduced to nothing because of their addiction to drugs. Someone once described it to me as suicide in slow motion. That is a very good image. If any of us were to meet a suicidal person, we would immediately recognise the need to intervene and to do something for that person, yet very often all sorts of very difficult and wrong language is used about people who are addicts.

I will outline Sinn Féin's stance on the citizens' assembly. We are supportive of a citizens' assembly on drugs. It is something we have called for in the past. We have also supported the introduction of the medicinal cannabis compassionate access programme because we want those patients who can safely benefit from cannabis-based treatments to do so. Our most recent alternative budget pledged €45.2 million for addiction and recovery service provision. That is over ten times the total amount the Government proposed, €4 million, to enhance the service. Harm reduction and prevention have always been and will continue to be Sinn Féin's principles in our development of future drug and alcohol strategies.

Part of the harm reduction approach will be to tackle organised crime directly, not the vulnerable foot soldiers, often addicts themselves, who are used by unscrupulous drug barons. Criminalising addicts is not the way to tackle organised crime. I hope the Government, when it introduces a timeline for the citizens' assembly, will take all these factors into account and recognise and accept that while there is a criminal element to the problem we have to deal with, many people who are addicts are often themselves involved in feeding their habits by selling drugs and are sucked into that criminal underworld. We have to recognise that the first thing they are is an addict and treat that first and then deal with the rest of it. Citizens' assemblies are one of the best ways we have developed over the past decade or more to deal with complex and divisive issues, to bring experts in and to get the opinions of people who are at the coalface and who can deal with the issue at hand. It is to be hoped we can come out of that with a solution which will serve well not just the general public but also addicts and future generations. We cannot continue this notion of a war on the supply side of drugs, which is what it is. It is only on the supply side. We need a war on the demand side. We need to reduce demand by having appropriate services in place for people who are vulnerable and people who could possibly in the future fall into the traps of drug addiction, as so many have done in the past.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I listened to the Minister of State's description of what the Government has done. This Government's treatment of and support for people in recovery, recovery services and people at the coalface of addiction have been shocking. Deputy Martin Kenny made the point that in the alternative budget Sinn Féin put forward, we pledged €45 million for this. A sum of €45 million would not solve everything, but it would be an ambitious start to support people, something which I do not think this Government is serious about.

I thank the Labour Party for bringing forward this motion. I, like others in Sinn Féin, have advocated in respect of the need for a citizens' assembly because this is a complex issue but it must be dealt with. Sometimes you have to face the hard and unpopular questions. There are no votes for the Labour Party or anyone else in supporting this because some people's attitude towards people in addiction can be very aggressive or very nasty, but these are human beings we know personally. I know people who have died. I know families that have been destroyed. I knew two people who were in the throes of addiction and who took their lives this year because their families were being threatened because of drug debts - two young men who hanged themselves.

I had written a speech. We have to do something, and it needs to be done now. It should be the first thing to happen early in the new year because there are people out there who need support. The number one reason people are in addiction is poverty and trauma. We cannot prevent that but we can support the people on the ground, the people in the throes of addiction and their families. I know this personally. Will the Minister of State bring forward the citizens' assembly on drugs, and will the Government step up?

Drugs task forces have been waiting 12 years for their funding to be restored. If this Government had any bit of sincerity about tackling drugs and helping those in addiction, that is the first thing it would do.

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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I commend Deputy Ó Ríordáin on bringing forward the motion. This is a really important issue and affects every section of society. We need more discussions as to how we approach the use of drugs in this country. We need to hear from everybody. Everybody has to have a voice on this. Whether we agree or disagree with them, we have to ensure that people are engaged in this discussion. The best place for that, as has been said, is in the citizens' assembly. It is really important. A citizens' assembly allows people to have a voice. It teases out all the complex issues. We have to ensure, as I said, that nobody's point of view is considered invalid.

So many families and individuals are directly affected by the failed approach this State has taken to drug use. We need a step change in how we approach drug use. We need to see a health-led approach that has harm reduction and prevention at its core, not the criminalisation of those with addiction problems who need help and support.

Someone who robs a bank is a criminal. Someone who has an addiction is not a criminal. Someone who smokes some weed occasionally is not a criminal. We need to treat this as a health issue. Portugal introduced decriminalisation and the sky did not fall in. People's lives were saved because the level of overdoses reduced. This proposal is not radical. What we are calling for would not make us an outlier in terms of European policy. It has become an essential change of policy and we have to adopt it.

During the Covid pandemic, we regularly heard that we have to believe in the science. I understand the World Health Organization recommends decriminalisation. Just as with Covid-19 and the surrounding issues, we must ensure that we believe the science around drug use and decriminalisation.

10:52 am

Photo of Johnny MythenJohnny Mythen (Wexford, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Labour Party for bringing forward this motion. This is an area that has been neglected and left unchanged and unchallenged. It is tied up with restrictive, punitive policies and narrow legislation. The consequences of criminalisation, particularly of many young people, leads to life-changing disadvantages including being denied travel to certain countries, employment in some jobs and sometimes, the loss of supports from communities and friends. The Government is far behind the curve on this issue, particularly in the use of medicinal cannabis. The introduction of the medical cannabis compassionate access programme in 2017 was very welcome. However, that notable victory mostly belongs to Vera Twomey and her incredible fight for access to medical cannabis for her daughter Eva. Without her courageous stance against the system that denied her daughter access to medication that worked for her, this programme would not have come about. To continue this struggle, we believe it is essential that this compassionate programme includes the widest range of medical conditions, including the relief of chronic pain. The other essential component in improving things and facing societal change is the convening of a citizens' assembly on drugs. Sinn Féin totally agrees about this. We believe such an assembly should be held as quickly as possible and that the Government should fix a date for its inauguration.

I also want to raise the treatment of dual diagnosis. The existing model of care for people with dual diagnosis is appalling. A person with a dual diagnosis is one person who is engaging in substance abuse and has a mental health issue. Many ask for support for addiction, only to be told they must sort out their medial illness first, while many ask for mental health supports, only to be told to stop using substances despite their lives being out of control and that substance being the only support they feel they have in the whole world. Falling between mental health conditions and alcohol or drug addiction, they are shown a revolving door. Funding must be forthcoming and €4 million is totally inadequate. Programmes for drug and alcohol use must be combined and client centred. Finally, we would like to see the examination of a model similar to that in Portugal for Irish law. Again, I call on the Minister of State to initiate the setting up of a citizens assembly on drugs. I fully support the motion and I hope all other Deputies do so.

Photo of Paul DonnellyPaul Donnelly (Dublin West, Sinn Fein)
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I thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin for bringing forward this motion. It is a huge topic. A person would need two and a half hours rather than two and a half minutes to try to address some of the issues. The drug crisis is something that I have seen in the community in which I grew up in the north-east inner city and in the community I moved to in west Dublin. In some ways, there is a common denominator in both communities. They are working class with large pockets of disadvantage with poverty, unemployment, early school-leaving and decades of trauma. Mostly, it is young working-class people who are criminalised even though drug use is widespread in the entire population. We can never underestimate the extent of drug use. It is in every town, village, club, bar and sports club. Now, more than 40 years since Ireland experienced its first wave of drugs in the early 1980s, it is worse than ever. While heroin use might have reduced, along with its impacts, crack cocaine is the most dangerous drug we face in the coming weeks. I recently read a report on Ballymun on this which is utterly frightening.

However, I remain optimistic that we can turn the corner in drug abuse and misuse but we need to change the way it is tackled. First, we need to talk about funding. Funding is critical. The organisations on the ground need the funding that has been cut from them over the past ten years or so. However, one transformative thing we can do is to recognise in the law that people who are using drugs are not criminals and should not be criminalised. If we are genuinely to treat drug addiction as a health issue, then we need to provide the services to support people and not jail them for the possession of drugs. That serves no purpose whatever. If it served a purpose, it would have worked. We can see that it has failed miserably.

There are people who are not here today because injection centres have not been delivered. There are hundreds of those people. We need to deliver that as quickly as possible. Finally, I commend every person who is out there on the front line in services fighting every single day and also the families who are with them fighting against drug addiction. We need to support them. This is a timely motion on how we go about doing that.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I want to thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin for bringing forward this motion and I welcome Councillor Daithí Doolan to the Visitors Gallery. He is a comrade of mine who, like myself, has worked in addiction services right across Dublin over the years. In all those years we have seen so many of our citizens fall between the cracks.

The culture of drugs use has changed. Years ago, people who took drugs had a primary drug of choice but polydrug use is now the norm. It is almost impossible to get a detox bed if you are a polydrug user. The bar for getting into treatment is set very high. Going cold turkey is not an option for people who consume large amounts of alcohol or benzodiazepines because to stop taking them straight away could be fatal. We need to reimagine how people can enter treatment.

But any changes in legislation must be matched by resourcing our communities. If the law was changed tomorrow and we were sending people to treatment rather than prison, it would not work because the resources and the services are just not there. Years of underinvestment by successive Governments has seen to this. Community drug projects cannot strategically plan as resources do not allow. We must put in the resources to allow our communities to respond. We also need to have an adult conversation around dual diagnosis. We need to have a no-wrong-door policy for people with dual diagnosis of addiction and mental health.

While we are talking about decriminalisation, what is a crime is that the only inpatient dual diagnosis facility in the State, Keltoi, has been closed for over two years. I have had many discussions with the Minister of State on this. I will not second-guess any reshuffle that might take place after the new Taoiseach takes office but if the Minister of State is one of those to move, I would ask him that as his parting shot, he do the right thing and reopen Keltoi as a matter of urgency. That needs to happen.

We fully support a citizens' assembly on drug use but we must make sure our young people voices are heard there. The Department of Health held a consultation to gather the views of young people recently. They have asked to make sure that their voices are heard at any future citizens' assembly. We must not lose the youth voice on this debate.

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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I also thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin and the Labour Party for bringing forward this motion. Over the past 25 years, almost ten people a week have died in the State as a result of drug taking. Along with Sweden, Ireland has the joint highest rate of drug-induced deaths among those aged 16 to 64 years in the European Union. Deputy Martin Kenny already mentioned that.

The harmful affects of drug abuse, including crimes of violence, intimidation and extortion of addicts, their families and communities used to be confined to the inner city and working-class suburbs. Now the effect is felt in all our rural towns and villages. Sinn Féin believes that harm reduction and prevention should be the guiding principles in the development of future drug and alcohol strategies. Our alternative budget pledged over ten times the amount proposed by the Government, €45 million compared with a paltry €4 million. The Government's policies on drugs are not working because of its indifference or, worse, its negligence. The national drug strategy is a list of missed targets despite the best efforts of the various agencies. Deputy Martin Kenny also mentioned how Sinn Féin has called for a citizens' assembly to discuss this issue. We supported the introduction of the medicinal cannabis compassionate access programme because we want those patients who can safely benefit from cannabis-based treatments to do so.

We believe this programme must be reviewed and extended to include the widest appropriate range of medical conditions, including chronic pain.

The number of people prosecuted for possession for personal use has increased almost fivefold over the past 25 years, with more than 250,000 convictions in this category. We need to focus on treating addiction as a healthcare issue first. We need to treat the root causes of drug abuse. It is no accident that the effects are felt more deeply in working-class areas, which are suffering from years of Government neglect and where there is little to occupy idle hands. In these areas, the rate of leaving certificate completion has dropped significantly, never mind getting inside the door of a third level institution. The lack of education results in a vicious circle involving imprisonment. The stigma associated with having been imprisoned leads to difficulties in securing employment and, as a result, to even more prison time. We need to break the cycle of intergenerational incarceration and support those in prison to free themselves from addiction and educate themselves so they can remain free from both prison and addiction.

11:02 am

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I thank the Labour Party, including Deputy Ó Ríordáin, for the motion. It is important and I am delighted we have the opportunity to speak about the matter. It is often said, and has been said several times today in the Chamber, that the war on drugs has failed. All of us with good intentions see that it has failed in that it has not done anything to alleviate the suffering of affected communities. When I think of this, I think of the Latin phrase "Qui bono?", which loosely translates as "Who benefits?". Who actually benefits from the so-called war on drugs initiated by US President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s? It is certainly not the communities in the north inner city that I grew up in and represent, nor is it the communities destroyed across Ireland, the UK and America as a consequence of the current approach.

The legal profession has benefited from the war on drugs. Consider the circumstances of an addicted young person who has grown up in my constituency and who has been arrested several times for the consumption of something that is ostensibly taken to deal with trauma, addiction and pain. Consider also the number of people imprisoned for the possession of heroin or crack cocaine. When arrested, be it once, twice or three times, they usually have in their possession an amount of drug worth no more than a couple of hundred euro. The drug becomes monetised, as does the person's suffering and pain, meaning he is brought to the courts. His solicitor gets paid and a judge and barrister also get paid. The person is brought to prison and the couple of hundred euro all of a sudden becomes the €82,000-plus that it costs to incarcerate a person in this country. In prison, the individual probably receives the treatment he or she should have got beforehand, but that also costs money. The doctors cost money. The couple of hundred euro worth of drug the person had in his possession to deal with trauma, suffering and pain is all of a sudden magnified into hundreds of thousands of euro to the benefit of a class of people who do not reflect the community he came from.

I sometimes ask myself whether the war on drugs has failed or does what neoliberalism always does, that is, monetise poverty and pain. The latter has continued for the past four to five decades. It will continue unless we call stop, call it insanity and point to the very reason we must fight so hard just to have what is medical best practice when it comes to the decriminalisation of drugs. The reason we have not done it yet is that a class of people benefit, but I promise it is not the class of people being discussed today. Until we establish that, we will not combat the problem. Therefore, let us just call it out for what it is. There is no war on drugs; there is a war on poverty, but not in the way we imagine it should be done. There is a war to continue as we are doing because people benefit from it. The beneficiaries are not those who suffer. We have to call it out.

When we think about models that work, we hear a lot about the Portuguese one. I am aware that Deputy Feighan is approaching the middle of his term as Minister of State responsible for drugs. I would love him to tell me whether he believes the model in this country, which we often describe as healthcare led, works. We cannot have a healthcare-led model while still criminalising people at a basic level. When the Minister of State reflects on this, regardless of whether his role is to change, I will be interested in hearing whether he believes the Portuguese model works. It has its flaws, of course, but I want to know whether the Minister of State believes it is a better model than ours. What are his measurements for success in this regard? The Portuguese model results in fewer convictions and takes more people in the throes of addiction out of their pain into recovery. It results in fewer young people becoming addicted at the level in question and fewer recorded as having offences. Why have we not implemented this model? I believe I already know the answer.

I support the citizens' assembly, as does everybody else in this Chamber. In 2023, I hope we will have many experts around the table with citizens and they will tell us what a body of evidence that is probably decades old indicates: criminalising people for addiction does not work. That will be true in 2023 but it was true in 1993, when the evidence also existed. Despite the evidence, we still have not done what I suggest.

Even though centre-right parties, including Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, tell us they are now more progressive in their outlook and despite our hearing about expert-led activity and medical best practice, the Minister of State will still stand here today and say that, while the Government will not oppose the motion introduced by the Labour Party and supported by all of us, it will not do anything about it. Next year, despite the fact that this motion will have been passed, people will still be injecting themselves with a poison or taking crack cocaine to deal with trauma and they will be looking over their shoulders because gardaí who will have been taken away from essential duties or from addressing burglaries will be sent down laneways to catch them to incarcerate them and put them through a process that generates huge amounts of money for those who do not live in the communities that suffer. This is because we fail to do what is right and medically and scientifically proven.

The hypocrisy of it. I roll my eyes to the back of my head when a politician says he smoked a joint in college and congratulates himself. We pat such a person on the back, put him on the front of magazines and state how cool he is, but he is safe and protected because he comes from a class of people who are protected from the criminalisation that would apply to a person from the north inner city who said he took drugs when younger. The latter would be considered a criminal. Politicians and those from middle-class professions who say they did of course smoke a joint in college are not criminalised for it and do not get a lifelong conviction that would affect the type of job they might get. The hypocrisy of it is scandalous.

I want to talk about a compassion-led approach to drug addiction. The first step is to take the hypocrisy away from it and call it for what it is. The current approach generates considerable revenue for people who are not in the communities in question, yet the Government will do nothing after it allows this motion to be passed. It is absolutely scandalous. If we do rejig the Ministries, another Minister of State will probably come in and do nothing also. We will patronise the affected communities, saying we have invested so much in them. What will be the outcome? I guarantee the money invested in communities will not be the same as the amount by which middle-class communities will benefit through their work in the legal profession and everywhere else. Poverty pays but it does not pay the people who suffer. It pays other people. It makes meal tickets. We know that, as do the communities and people who are affected. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Ministers know it too, as do those in the legal profession. Until we call truth on this, the war on drugs will be a war on poverty. We will all say the war on drugs has failed but it has not; it has succeeded in that we have made wealth out of it and monetised poverty. Until we call that truth for what it is, we are just lying to ourselves and patronising communities. We are saying we have invested so much but we have sustained the problem. The income keeps flowing into the more middle-class communities, which actually benefit from the suffering and trauma of other people. It is absolutely scandalous.

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I welcome the motion and the good work of Deputy Ó Ríordáin on this matter. He has a good track record in dealing with the issues surrounding drug reform, which is very welcome. Reading the motion, you do not know whether to cry in despair or keep your head up pushing for reform. It is a damning indictment of successive Governments that what has occurred has been allowed to happen.

It is extremely sombre to consider that 10,000 people have died of drug-related causes over the past 25 years. These were people's brothers, sisters, mams, dads, other family members and friends. Addiction is very complicated and it can be messy. I am sure lots of those people could still be alive today if there had been a different policy. I am sure of that. I had friends who definitely would be alive today if not for the marginalisation and social deprivation they experienced. When people experiencing addiction also experience the depths of despair, it is one way to hell. That is what individuals, families and communities have suffered. As I said, some of those who succumbed to addiction could still be alive today if there had been a different policy in place. I am 100% certain of that. If we look at different jurisdictions around the world, particularly Portugal, people are being saved. If we can save one life, it is worth changing the law. It is worth fighting for that.

The Government has paid a lot of lip service to having a health-led approach. That terminology is welcome but the question is whether it counters situations in which people find themselves, whereby they are criminalised, brought through the criminal justice system and marginalised. In fact, it simply does not work. The evidence shows we need a different kind of narrative around this issue. The availability of drugs since the 1970s has increased incrementally, not only in Ireland but across the world. The market for drugs is worth hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Our current laws, which originated 42 years ago, are not a deterrent against people taking or supplying drugs. More than 80% of the people in our prisons at this time are there for drug-related crime. They take in the whole pyramid of activity, from the very top to the very bottom. This tells us the current laws do not work.

We need to do something different. We can talk about a health-led approach, harm reduction and all of that, but there needs to be a change. Attitudes in this country have changed dramatically. We need only look at what has happened in the past ten to 15 years in regard to women's right to choose and same-sex marriage. There have been social advancements in Ireland but, sometimes, this House has not moved on. People's attitudes to drug reform have changed. They do not see criminalising people for personal drug use as legitimate. There must be a different approach. This House is way behind public opinion on the issue. The days of prohibition and the Misuse of Drugs Act, which, as I said, is 42 years old, are coming to an end. We must do something very different and that starts with changing the laws around drug use.

I do not know whether the Minister of State will still be in office in six weeks' time. We might have a new Minister of State. Policy in this area emanates from political choice. Why have successive Governments allowed what has happened to continue? Those Governments have largely been made up of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The question I always ask when considering the issues dealt with in the motion is why this has been allowed to happen. There are vested interests and so forth but, at the end of the day, there is no political will or courage to change what is happening. This is largely affecting working-class communities. The vast majority of people who have died are from certain postcodes in Dublin and certain areas elsewhere in the country. They are largely working-class people. If this was happening to people in a different postcode in Dublin, there would be a completely different response. If we do not have political will on this issue, people do not have a voice.

Those who have succumbed to all this horribleness around addiction have been let down by successive Governments and a lack of political will. That can be changed and the change can be achieved in this House. We need political will from the Government to say that this can no longer continue and something very different must be done. We need to look at other countries that are changing their models around drug reform. After decades of doing things that do not work, they have recognised there must be a changed approach. Countries in Europe are changing their policies, as are the US, Canada, countries in Asia and even countries in South America, which have been terribly affected by drug wars. They have realised the status quodoes not work. As long as that status quocontinues, people will be criminalised and people will die. Why allow that to happen? There is a tiny percentage of people who have enriched themselves through massive profits from the drug trade. What comes with that is the grotesque violence to which communities are subjected.

We must do something. The days of the Misuse of Drugs Act are coming to an end. It may take another couple of years to make a real change but we must look upon the past four or five decades as an absolute failure. If we act now, future generations will say that at least the current generation did something about the madness that happened in the previous four decades.

11:12 am

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Shanahan. I thank the Labour Party for bringing forward this motion. This is my first opportunity since being elected to the Dáil to speak about drugs and the plight of those who have an addiction to drugs. There is more than one part to this issue but first, and most important, are the victims, young and old, who have succumbed to the use of drugs and been caught up in addiction. Their situation is terrible. For families in which a son, daughter, brother or sister has developed an addiction, whether to alcohol or drugs, it creates devastation within that family and the family network. Often, there is a feeling of helplessness in trying to deal with it and wondering how to advise because it is a very complicated issue, as other speakers noted.

Drug addiction is a killer and it is killing people in this country. What is more worrying is that it is becoming more common in modern times. When my children were in secondary school, they could tell me who was dealing drugs in their school and who was taking drugs. They had that knowledge. Thanks be to God they never got involved in that and nor did any other of my family members. Drugs are prevalent now everywhere in this country, including rural parishes, such as the one in which I live, towns and cities. Drug-taking is not confined to the big cities; it is widespread. There is a kind of general acceptability that this can happen.

The villains in all of this are the drug lords and others who sell the drugs and manipulate the minds of those who are addicted in order to make profit. There is something wrong when a young person can tell me who is dealing drugs today in Tuam or wherever. They can tell me how and where it is being done. There is frustration that the policing of all of this seems to be helpless in bringing these people to court. There is always an effort to target the supplier, but the reality is that there are a lot of people making a great deal of money out of the pain and misery of others. I wonder why that is.

We have a lot of people in jail at the moment, as Deputy Gino Kenny said. He said that about 80% of those in jail are there for drug-related offences, but the majority of them could be the victims of as opposed to the people who profit from drugs.

It is important that we look at how we are doing things. When you look back at the past four or five years, there has been a huge increase in drug taking. We need to increase the number of youth residential centres in the country. We do not have enough of them at present. There is a lack of dual diagnosis and a refusal to make dual diagnoses. You might have people who have depression or other illnesses who take to drugs as a solace. The sale of drugs is being done openly on the streets of our towns and villages, and there is something wrong with that. It is important to remember that babies are being born today who are addicted to drugs or alcohol because of their parents' addictions. We have a huge problem and it will take a lot of resolve it. We need to get going with it at this stage.

11:22 am

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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I am happy to contribute to this motion from the Labour Party on decriminalisation and drugs policy. We have been speaking about a drugs crisis and drug abuse in our society for many decades. It is funny that we use the word "crisis", which suggests that something is short-term in nature, when the problem has been going on for decades as well we know. It is having a terribly destructive and detrimental effect on all parts of our society. It is largely thought that it is confined to poorer communities that are disadvantaged when in fact it is spread right across society. Those who are most vulnerable seem to pay the highest price, socially and economically. We can see the fallout of drug abuse and addiction and in our city we do not have to walk too far from this Chamber to see it in its physical form. As other Deputies highlighted, it is right across our country and drug abuse and dealing are endemic in our society, which is sad to say. Unfortunately, it is hard to know what is driving that per sebecause in a lot of cases it is in affluent parts of our society as well.

For those who feel the sharp end of the drugs culture it robs them and their families and children of any bright future. It is largely driven by greed and we have the ignominy in Ireland of having two of the largest drug-dealing gangs in the world operating from bases in Spain but that also have significant ties to Ireland. We also have a two-tiered drug society. We have one group who think of themselves as recreational users of cannabis and cocaine. They see snorting cocaine as not being part of the drugs industry but they look at those who are injecting drugs as somehow being a major part of the problem. Unfortunately, everything is part of the problem because it is adding to this conflagration of drugs that is rampaging across our society. If you speak to psychologists and psychiatrists, they will say they are seeing problems with cannabis use, particularly among the youth, and that paranoia and extreme psychosis are becoming problems for young teenagers who are just dabbling in cannabis. Yet, cannabis is not considered by many to be a gateway drug.

We have a significant amount of work to do on our drugs policy in this country. The citizens' assembly on drugs has to happen as a matter of urgency. We need to get a better defined sense of public opinion on what the problems are and what our population thinks the Government and State can do in terms of adequate responses. Criminalising people for possessing small amounts of drugs seems a retrograde step. We must do something in the area of education. For anybody who spends any time watching television, there is a programme on Netflix which shows the fallout of drug abuse across the north-eastern United States, particularly in Hyannis Port and Cape Cod. One of the things that is stark in that programme is the affluence of the families involved. These families are engaged in sport and have high achievers who started dabbling in drugs, particularly cannabis, at the early stage. They ultimately ended up at the far end of the spectrum taking opioids. That is because if you are dealing with drug dealers, they will present you many options. People who are dabbling in drugs will ultimately move from one thing to another. First and foremost, we need far better education and teeth in the judicial system going after the high-level dealers and the importers of hard drugs.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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I am glad to get opportunity to speak on this motion on drugs policy and the decriminalisation of the user. I have heard different speakers talking about people taking drugs, the number of deaths there have been and the fact that they feel that if taking drugs was legalised, this would not happen. It is hard to figure that one out in my mind. I was in the centre of Dublin city recently. That is a rare thing because usually we are up here during the day, but I was here at night and it was shocking to see what was going on down side streets in our capital. I am not a person to have much fear, but I was looking over my shoulder continuously. If we legalise it, will matters get better? I have my doubts.

It is important to raise in the Dáil the subject of medicinal cannabis and the difficulties relating to it. Everybody knows the story of Vera Twomey. I worked closely with her to get medicinal cannabis for her daughter, as did our Rural Independent Group, but the only other Member who put his neck on the line was Deputy Gino Kenny. He worked very hard to make sure that the child got the medicinal cannabis oil she needed. To say the least, it was shocking to see the lengths to which Vera Twomey had to go in order to get something that would help her child legalised. We are talking about making drugs more acceptable in law. At the time in question, which is not that long ago, we were fighting to make it more simple for a mother to save her child's life. How many more people with multiple sclerosis and other ailments who need medicinal cannabis are finding it difficult to access? That is the legal side of medicinal cannabis. Vera won her battle for Ava. I take this opportunity to wish Ava a happy birthday. She turned 13 four days ago. The battle relating to her case led to her mother shedding blood, sweat and tears. For any woman to have gone through the Trojan effort she made for her daughter and others is something that should never be forgotten in this State. It is seldom I get a chance to read a book. I would advise anybody who is on about medicinal cannabis or anything else to read For Ava, the book that was compiled by her mother on the fight that she and Ava's father, Paul, undertook to save their daughter’s life.

Somebody mentioned smoking joints earlier and how something like this might be opposed and that anyone who opposed it should smoke a joint. Sometimes I find that attitude difficult because I have never smoked a joint in my life. I never felt I needed to do that. I used to have great fun when we used to hit the streets long ago for a few drinks. It was innocent fun and it seems to me that we are taking on each level and accepting new and heightened levels. We accept alcohol use and a certain amount of drug use, but where will it stop? I would like to know where this is going to stop and if it will add extra pressure to a system that is already overly pressurised.

A gentleman came into my clinic recently in Skibbereen. He was stressed because he had been caught growing cannabis for his own use. He was strong in asking that I would air the view in the Dáil that at least he was not supplying it in the locality. The law of the land is there, and there is not much I can do when the laws are the way they are. I advise people to look at Vera Twomey's story, which is more interesting than any other part of the debate.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I am glad to speak on this motion. Setting up a citizens' assembly seems to be the fashionable thing to do for every issue. I do not believe in that. There is plenty of evidence available regarding drug use and abuse in our country. It is shocking and we all know it. Deputy Michael Collins mentioned O'Connell Street in Dublin, but I can go to towns and villages in my constituency and the problem is there.

Nothing has been done to tackle the suppliers and the so-called gangs that are looked up to. They manipulate, use and destroy young people's lives and the lives of their families. They are glamorised and glorified. We see the proliferation of that right throughout the country, and we must deal with it. We must deal with all drugs, including alcohol, and their overuse. Many of us, myself included, can overindulge, so we must look at ourselves and our own practices and what we are giving to people as well.

As regards the Garda and seizures, €34 million worth of drugs were seized in the first nine months of this year. That is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is coming through. This murky business is very lucrative. The judicial system does not seem to be able to cope. Whereas the Garda does sterling work and brings people before the courts, as is the case in respect of many matters, the judicial system has not caught up. It is way behind in many areas, by decades if not a century, compared with what it should be. I do not say that we should lock people up and throw away the key. We must have drug support workers, but there are no supports other than the likes of C-SAW in Clonmel and Tipperary town, voluntary organisations and private counselling.

I recently raised the sale and use of drugs on O'Connell Street and adjoining streets, lanes and car parks in Clonmel. Ordinary shoppers are being intimidated, and there is a lack of gardaí. The Tipperary division is short of gardaí and the drug squad is operating on reduced numbers. For a time, we did not have anyone in the drugs squad in Clonmel. Now we have one or two officers who do good work, but we just do not have enough. They do not have supports and when they go through the revolving doors of the courts they meet the offenders back out on the streets. They are on continual bail and continual free legal aid. We must wake up and smell the coffee. We must provide support.

Sadly, the HSE is lacking in staff. Positions are vacant all over my area in south Tipperary. Some positions in north Tipperary have not been filled for years. We can employ managers and anybody we like but we do not have the personnel who are so badly needed, who are dedicated and will help families. I support all the voluntary groups and also some ordinary individuals who get involved and try to help.

I salute Deputy Michael Collins and the efforts he made with Vera Twomey. Our group assisted where we could. I wish Ava a happy birthday. We can see the battle she went through for medicinal purposes. The Minister had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, and then the medication had to be sourced abroad and it had to be signed off by two consultants. That is so difficult and so arduous.

The Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, was in Clonmel yesterday launching a strategy. It is not easy to be in the constituency on a Dáil sitting day. We are elected to be here to legislate. A lot must be done here, and I do not think another talking shop of a citizens' assembly will sort it out. We need dedicated action. All the pious platitudes in the world, and even legislation, are worthless if we do not have the Garda and the agencies to support people who might slip into the pattern of drug use and need assistance. We do not have counsellors to help them and their families. It is pointless passing legislation here and changing it if we do not have the resources to help people.

11:32 am

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
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I thank the Labour Party for bringing this Private Members' motion to the House. It is the start of a conversation that must go much deeper than what is outlined in the motion. I will explain that in a moment.

I seek a commitment from the Minister of State that a citizens' assembly on drugs will be put place in the first quarter of next year. If it is the case that one is to set up, a motion to formalise the position must come before the Oireachtas in early January. That would allow the citizens' assembly to move forward. I hope it could start its work in March or April of next year.

We know that people in all walks of life use drugs and can be affected by addiction, but the evidence is clear that there is a strong and consistent link between serious drug problems and poverty. Therefore, there is a need to frame our discussions on drug policy in the context of a broader response to addressing poverty, inequality and marginalisation, and to provide the resources in communities to do this. Evidence tells us that making someone a criminal for using drugs brings no benefits, causes significant harms and results in stigma and discrimination. There is a need to consider whether the current legal framework under which substances are prohibited and people using drugs are criminalised is working for communities or is causing further harm. When we set up a citizens' assembly on drugs, we need a commitment to include the voices of people who have been most impacted by the drugs problem. That is crucial.

I will read a synopsis of a submission from the group, Youth Workers Against Prohibition. This is where the conversation has to go. The synopsis states:

At present youth workers are supporting over 380,000 young people in communities across the country. We see first-hand, on a daily basis, the untold damage that criminalising young people has on their life opportunities in Ireland.

[...]

We fully support decriminalisation but we feel it does not go far enough to tackle the issues we see. Decriminalisation of all drug possession and cultivation for personal use is an important first step, but it will still leave the supply of drugs in the control of criminal gangs, and young people will still be at risk using unknown, unregulated substances.

The time has come to have an adult conversation about the need to regulate all drugs, (not just caffeine, alcohol and tobacco), and to create a model that keeps our young people in Ireland safe.

[...]

Under the current policy of prohibition, the drugs market is run by criminal gangs who operate through fear, intimidation, and the exploitation of youth. Under prohibition there is, and always will be, a thriving unregulated drug market and the longer we continue to hold on to the illusion of beating it, the longer we will have to see young people, families and communities suffer the consequences.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin and my erstwhile colleagues in the Labour Party for bringing forward a motion that, refreshingly for me, I can agree with so wholeheartedly. That is with one possible reservation, which is the reference to a citizens' assembly. It seems that there is an unusual degree of agreement in this Chamber. I understand that the Government is not bringing forward a countermotion. Why can we not just deal with the issue? Why do we have to have a citizens' assembly to prompt us to deal with every single difficult issue when we are essentially an assembly of citizens elected, for a finite period, to represent other citizens? Could we just deal with this issue? I do not think anybody would disagree with that. There might be disagreement as to how we deal with it, but it is something that we must deal with.

I had the benefit of studying law at University College Cork, UCC. I was taught jurisprudence by Tim Murphy, who was an excellent lecturer. He concentrated very much on contemporary schools of jurisprudence. From that perspective, he wrote a very short book that was published the year I left UCC. I obviously read his book, which informed my thinking very much from then on. It is called Rethinking the War on Drugs in Ireland and it was published in 1996. Ireland was a different place in 1996, as Deputy Paul Donnelly, outlined earlier. Inner-city communities were ravaged by drugs. However, the problem of drug abuse was pretty much contained in inner cities. The Henry scene - the party scene - was going in Cork and middle class students were taking drugs, but they were not being stigmatised in the way that people in poorer communities were, but drugs were beginning to move out into the broader community. Since then, I have seen many successes of the war on drugs: the Collopys, and the McCarthy-Dundons were just learning their trade on the streets of Limerick at that time. They went on to become major drug dealers. The Garda took them on and put them away. George "The Penguin" Mitchell was jailed. John Gilligan was jailed. The Kinahans are now on the run.

Has all of this led to the war on drugs being won? Are there no more drugs on our streets? No, there are far more drugs on our streets, and they are in every community in Ireland. They are in every village in Ireland now - Bodyke, Scariff - every town and village in Ireland now has a thriving drugs trade. I question the waste of Garda resources chasing these people. They are evil and the trade is very much in their hands, and they are making money out of it, but the answer is not to continue to chase them, it is to take the trade out of their hands, to legalise drugs and to deal with the fact that there is a huge and growing market for drugs. That is a health issue, and it must be dealt with in the same way that we deal with the appetite and demand for every other substance - cigarettes, alcohol, etc., instead of fighting a losing war, which we are very clearly losing, despite the best efforts of the Garda.

I commend Deputy Ó Ríordáin and the motion, but I would like to see action in the House.

Photo of Violet WynneViolet Wynne (Clare, Sinn Fein)
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I thank Deputy Joan Collins and my constituency colleague, Deputy McNamara, for sharing time in order that I might speak on this very important issue. I commend the Labour Party on using its Private Members' slot for this motion. I also commend an Teachta Gino Kenny on the introduction of his Bill last week. They are all positive measures on this important issue and, crucially, they create the space for discussions to take place in this House.

I speak as a representative of the people of Clare but also as a mother, sister, daughter and someone whose partner has been impacted by this issue. I know at first hand the negative consequences of criminalisation, namely, the lasting effects, the anxiety, the shame, the fear and the isolation that come with it, not to mention the stigma. The number of people prosecuted for possession for personal use has increased over the past 25 years by 484%, with more than 250,000 convictions. Criminalisation simply has not worked, end of, and there is the social cost of relying on punitive measures that do not deter drug use. They drain services that could be invested in evidence-based services and, in some cases, they have forced these users into the Prison Service, which, as we have known for many years, is a school of criminality. Behind the user there is more to the story. There may be physical health issues, trauma, mental health problems or abuse. Criminalisation does not address these issues.

The medical cannabis access programme, MCAP, when introduced, was a positive move but it is far too restrictive, especially when compared with approaches in other high-income countries. Thousands of people on this island who suffer with chronic pain, for example, still cannot get access. Instead, they are criminalised. Ireland now has the joint highest rate of drug-induced deaths among 16 to 64-year-olds in the European Union, whereas countries throughout the world are expanding the decriminalisation of drugs. Portugal led the way, as we know, and 20 years later, 31 countries have decriminalised drug possession for personal use in some way, so Ireland would not be an outlier. We need the immediate establishment of a citizens' assembly on drugs and a commitment for it to commence its work in January.

11:42 am

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputies for their contributions to this debate on drugs policy and acknowledge their interest in and commitment to the issue. In particular, I thank the Labour Party for providing time for the debate.

The Government is fully committed to a health-led approach to the drugs issue and believes that people with problematic drug and alcohol use issues should be treated with compassion and care. As Deputies will be aware, the programme for Government includes a commitment to convening a citizens' assembly to consider matters relating to drug use. The Government is committed to establishing a citizens' assembly on drug use, along with one on the future of education, at the earliest opportunity in 2023, following the completion of the workload in which the assemblies are currently engaged. The timelines and terms of reference of the next assemblies will ultimately be a matter for the Oireachtas to agree on. It is anticipated the Government will consider the matter early in the new year, following which motions will be put before Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann setting out timelines and terms of reference for the new assemblies. The Department of Health has commenced preparations for the citizens' assembly on drug use. Discussions regarding the assembly have taken place at meetings of the national oversight committee for the national drugs strategy.

The Government is very positive about the potential contribution of the citizens' assembly to its health-led response to drug use. Drug use affects all members of society, whether directly or indirectly, and imposes significant social and financial costs. Involving citizens in decision-making on drugs policy is, therefore, appropriate. There are two issues, in particular, that the citizens' assembly on drug use could consider, namely, how better to meet the diverse health needs of people who use drugs and how to prevent the harmful impact of drugs on children, families and communities. It would also be beneficial to have an international component to the citizens' assembly in order that there will be an exchange of good practices from the British-Irish Council work sector on drugs and the EU's drugs strategy and action plan, especially with regard to alternative approaches to coercive sanctions. The voices and perspectives of young people on issues regarding drugs policy should also inform the deliberations of the citizens' assembly on drug use. Officials from the Department of Health are engaged with their counterparts in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to undertake a consultation with young people on this issue.

The Government is committed to pursuing a health-led approach for people in possession of drugs for personal use through the health diversion programme. The programme will divert people caught in possession of drugs for personal use away from the criminal justice system and connect them with the health services. The health services will provide assessment and onward referral as necessary to provide a pathway to recovery and to allow participants to avoid criminal convictions, which can have far-reaching consequences, particularly for younger people. This health-led approach is reflected not only in the roll-out of the health diversion programme but also in other alternatives to coercive sanctions that are currently in place, including the drug treatment court and the drug treatment services of the Probation Service. A health diversion programme implementation group, chaired by the Department of Health, is finalising plans for the commencement of the programme, including legislative amendments and operational procedures. To support the establishment of the programme, the HSE is expanding its capacity to provide support, ask and assess, offer assistance and refer, SAOR, screening and support for people who are found in possession of any drugs for personal use.

I emphasise the points the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, made in his opening remarks regarding funding for the national drugs strategy. It has increased significantly over the past three years and budgets 2021, 2022 and 2023 allocated an additional €21 million to expand the provision of drug and alcohol services, both residential and community based. Budget 2023 also provides an uplift of €3.5 million in core funding for community-based drug and alcohol services to maintain the existing levels of service. This is the first increase in core funding since 2013. It is also a priority in the national drugs strategy to develop integrated care pathways and harm reduction responses for high-risk drug users who have complex health and social needs that make them vulnerable to drug overdose and, possibly, premature death.

As we know, drugs can have a wide-ranging and devastating effect on communities, which can exacerbate underlying issues of poverty and social exclusion. The Government is committed to a joined-up, cross-departmental approach in addressing the complex issues faced by communities, and drug and alcohol task forces have an important role to play in supporting the response to drugs at a community level. The drug-related intimidation and violence engagement, DRIVE, initiative is an interagency response to tackle drug-related intimidation and violence in communities that are most impacted. It is led by the drug and alcohol task forces in conjunction with An Garda Síochána, the Probation Service, the HSE, family support services and civil society organisations. The initiative has been funded by the Department of Health for a three-year period. To support the roll-out of the DRIVE initiative, funding of €250,000 was allocated in budget 2023. This funding will support its work programme including the development of a suite of training and capacity-building resources, a national DRIVE liaison network, a shared learning network and referral pathways to support victims, awareness raising, community initiatives, targeted interagency programmes and a national data collection system.

The Government is committed to the establishment of a supervised injecting facility in Dublin city centre. We have passed legislation and provided resources for this harm-reduction and life-saving service. We have identified Dublin city centre as the optimal location to pilot this service, based on the concentration of drug-related deaths in the area. The establishment of the service is subject to the granting of planning permission by An Bord Pleanála. The supervised injecting facility is an important public health response to drug-related death and illnesses and will offer a compassionate, person-centred service that will reduce the harm associated with injecting drug use and can help people access appropriate services. The facility will bring drug injecting into a medically controlled and supervised setting, with health and other benefits for vulnerable individuals. It will also reduce the negative impact of public injecting and drug-related litter on local communities and businesses.

We cannot be complacent about the dangers of drug use to individuals, their families and their wider communities. The Government is committed to implementing a health-led approach that is person-centred and compassionate. The forthcoming citizens' assembly on drug use will provide an opportunity to take stock of drugs policy and to identify further improvements for the next drugs strategy.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Bacik.

This is an incredibly important motion and I commend my party colleague Deputy Ó Ríordáin on bringing so many people along with him on this over the years.

It has been a passion of his and something for which he has been fighting for many years in our Labour Party based on his knowledge and personal experience. It is now on the floor of the Dáil in advance of a citizens' assembly. Really, however, we need to educate and get the message out that our current policies on drug abuse in Ireland simply are not fit for purpose. They do not work. They are not compassionate. Simply put, they are failing society and failing so many people.

One thing I want to stress today as somebody who comes from a rural county is that this is not an issue just for urban centres. This is an issue in every village, town and county of Ireland. I say that with some experience. It is in my own village. It is in the local clubs in my own town. It is everywhere. Young people in particular now are taking drugs in a way that is very different from before. Many of them play sports and find that taking certain forms of drugs gives them a high rather than taking huge volumes of alcohol. What happens then is they develop an addiction.

The way in which we are dealing with this issue needs to change. The idea that 10,000 people are arrested every year for personal drug use is absolute madness. I represent Templemore. If the Minister of State were to talk to any gardaí, they would tell him it is a waste of resources. They do not even want to be doing it. They feel sorry for the people. We really need to change policy. We need a change in policy that shows compassion but also deals with this in a realistic way. This is not about arresting people. We have seen changes in recent times with regard to criminalisation and the three strikes rule. That is a move in the right direction but that is not working either. It is not working for people who are addicted to various different types of drugs.

Ultimately, this motion is about people. It is important to get the message out that this does not mean we are legalising drugs. Those who engage in criminal activities need to be prosecuted in accordance with the laws in every shape and fashion. This is about the ordinary users. What is the point in arresting them? What is the point in doing it as a criminal justice issue? This is about health. It is about looking after people in a more humane way, which requires a complete change in policy. We need to get that across to the people because I believe, at this stage, they will wholeheartedly support it.

11:52 am

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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I am very glad to have the opportunity to close this debate behalf of the Labour Party. I thank colleagues across the House for the strong support that has been shown today for this important motion. I commend my colleague Deputy Ó Ríordáin, who is also our justice spokesperson. Long before he was our justice spokesperson, however, he led for us on the policy of decriminalisation and on bringing people with him to ensure we see a more practical, compassionate, humane and evidence-based approach to drug policy in this country. I also commend Labour Youth, our youth wing, which has been to the fore in leading for us on this within the party. In particular, I thank Mr. Conal O'Boyle, Mr. Hugh Murphy and Mr. James Kearney, who have really led the campaign within Labour Youth and who join us in the Gallery. I commend the many front-line support workers working in drug rehabilitation and treatment, many of whom have worked with us on shaping and supporting this motion. I thank the CityWide drugs crisis campaign, Ana Liffey Drug Project, Coolmine Drug Rehab Centre and Merchants Quay Ireland. I commend all the work that has been done there. I will also mention the Ringsend and District Response to Drugs in my own constituency. I thank all of those who work so hard to deal with and address those who are enduring addiction.

This is an issue that is very close to my own heart. For many years, I practised as a barrister. I did a lot of criminal defence work and much work in the District Court. Many of my clients were themselves in addiction. Their addiction had been a pathway into criminality. I saw very close-up the immense destruction and devastation wreaked as a consequence drug addiction.

I always think of one young mother I represented in court who was in and out of prison. She was convicted time after time of theft-related offences because she was stealing to feed a habit. She was in and out of prison. The only time she looked healthy was when she had spent time in prison and was securing medical support for her addiction. When I thought of the harm caused to all the victims of the crimes committed by clients of mine and others, the enormous harm to the families of those in addiction and the huge physical and mental health impacts upon those people as a result of their addiction, it certainly made me realise the need for a change in policy.

What we have heard across the House today is a recognition by all of us as legislators, both in and out of Government, of the need for change in policy. It is very welcome that the Government is not opposing this motion. It is very welcome to hear the Minister of State's colleagues speak about the legislation on supervised injection facilities, which has been in place since 2017 and which was driven by my colleague Deputy Ó Ríordáin. It is very welcome to hear some lip service being given to a health-led policy to addiction by this Government. What we are not seeing is the drive and political will necessary to deliver that very necessary change in policy to a health-led, evidence-based approach and to a policy where we can decriminalise the user and see addiction as a health issue for which we can put in place the necessary State supports to bring people out of addiction and rehabilitate them, and treat addiction in a compassionate way as a health-related issue.

This is an issue throughout the country, as my colleagues have pointed out. I was in County Limerick recently with Ana Liffey Drug Project, which told me that this is all across the country. We are not only seeing this in urban settings but in rural settings too. It is an issue in my constituency. I recently met with communities, businesses and households in the south inner city who have been impacted very much by the devastation wreaked by criminal gangs and drug gangs. We need to move it out of this. The war on drugs has not been won. The criminal justice approach is not achieving the necessary results for communities and individuals. We need to move to a different approach. The criminal justice approach, which is a criminalisation model, has not stopped criminal gangs from terrorising communities in urban and rural areas alike. It has not stopped people using drugs because, as our motion points out, we are seeing widespread usage. It has not stopped people dying and, indeed, the figures are very stark. More than 10,000 lives have been lost in the past 25 years in this country as a result of addiction. That is a dreadful figure we simply cannot continue to tolerate.

We have moved beyond stigmatisation. We moved to a situation where we can now talk very openly about deaths due to subjects that were perhaps stigmatised in the past, such as suicide and so on. Now, however, we need to talk about how we save those lives and how we save families whose loved ones have been lost through addiction.

Criminal justice policies have not prevented deaths. What they have done, unfortunately, is create unnecessary stigmatisation, particularly of young people. We are seeing so many prosecutions, arrests and convictions for possession for personal use. As others said, this is not a good use of Garda time. This is creating unnecessary stigmatisation for young people, in particular those in disadvantaged communities. In 2020 - a pandemic year - there were nearly 15,000 arrests for possession of drugs for personal use in this country. This is not the right way nor a practical or compassionate way to approach issues around addiction, which should be dealt with as healthcare policies.

The Minister of State in his speech referred to what happened this year at the Electric Picnic festival in County Laois with the pilot model of adopting what was genuinely a health-led approach, which saw the HSE launch a landmark drug testing facility that enabled festivalgoers to forfeit their drugs anonymously for testing. We saw a huge media focus on this and on the various pitfalls that were predicted. The programme was successful by any measure, however. Dangerously potent substances were found in some of the samples submitted, including three entirely new psychoactive substances. The findings immediately led to three communications to festivalgoers advising them of risk. That experience speaks for itself. It speaks to how a genuine harm reduction model can save lives and provide a new and better approach to drug policy.

I will finish by noting that this is not a new debate. I was a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality in 2015. We produced a report that again achieved cross-party consensus on the need to move to the Portugal model, about which others have spoken, with a focus on decriminalisation of the user. Let us see the Government grab the nettle and take the initiative now. Let us hear the Minister of State name a date for the setting up of a citizens' assembly. There is huge support for it across this House. He should name the date. Before Christmas, let us hear a date being set in order that we can move towards a genuine, compassionate, evidence-based and health-led approach to drug policy in this country.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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Hear, hear.

Question put and agreed to.