Seanad debates

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

National Waste Strategy: Statements


5:00 pm

Photo of Liam TwomeyLiam Twomey (Fine Gael)

The motion before the House concentrates on illegal drug use and the misuse of alcohol. It does not mention the abuse of prescription drugs to which many people in society are addicted. If we are to deal with such problems, we should consider alcohol and drugs separately. The problem of alcohol can only be solved if there is a change in Irish culture away from binge drinking. Alcohol causes a significant proportion of society's problems. Drug use affects a minority of people. An even smaller minority of people take hard drugs. Those involved in the abuse of drugs tend to get wiser as they get older. They often reduce their consumption of illegal drugs significantly as time goes by. The opposite is often the case with alcohol. People often consume more alcohol as they get older. There is a greater acceptance of alcohol abuse among people who are older. A change of culture was achieved in the case of drink driving. Young people, in particular, turned away from drink driving whereas older people continued to drink and drive to a considerable extent. They made very little change to their behaviour.

When we talk about the need for cultural changes in our attitude to alcohol or policies which work in tackling drug use, it is important to focus on young people because they comprise the sector of society most likely to change their behaviour for the rest of their lives. Attempts to change the behaviour of older people do not tend to work. I do not want to suggest young people are somehow the cause of all ills in society because they most certainly are not. I have had practical experience of this in my surgery. Drug use begins in people's teenage years, peaks in their 20s and begins to fade away in their 30s. It is a strong feature of the drug user's life to take drugs during that long period of time. Irish society is unusual in that we mix drugs and alcohol. In most other societies one abuses either alcohol or drugs but seldom both. In Ireland we tend to abuse everything together.

The task force and national drug policies in place will work up to a point. I will not undermine them because when one deals with somebody who has an addiction, small, unglamorous steps are the way forward. Many who try to deal with drug or alcohol addictions take three steps forward and two steps back. Addiction is the problem. We should not always go for these glamorous headlines on drug and alcohol abuse because the majority of those who take drugs and alcohol get on fine with their lives, including those who take cocaine and, to some degree, heroin. They can live their working lives. Some people in quite sensitive positions in Irish society abuse serious drugs such as cocaine and heroin and get on fine. Cannabis, for the majority or users, is a pretty innocent drug. When we talk about drugs and alcohol we should put matters into perspective. The problem is when people get a serious addiction that destroys their lives and the lives of those around them, and when people abuse drugs and alcohol by taking too much on an occasion.

Over use happens in Irish society, especially with alcohol at the weekends. Too many people consume too much at once. Patients come to me complaining of fatigue and lack of energy and they think there is something physically wrong with them. When I ask how much they drink, they almost straighten their backs, puff out their chests, put a big smile on their faces and say they can drink up to 16 pints on a Saturday night. Sometimes those who are not so boastful might say they consume 12 pints on a Saturday night, which is 24 units of alcohol, the maximum a man is supposed to drink in a week. However many of my patients who talk like this are women, and they are supposed to consume only 14 units in a week.

The acceptance of alcohol abuse in Irish society is unbelievable. People, not just 18 year olds but people up to their 40s, who are not alcoholics, go out on a Friday and Saturday night and consume up to 15 or 16 pints or the equivalent in alcopops or other drinks. Many managing directors say they have given up providing free drinks at Christmas parties because they have been astounded by the amount of alcohol people will consume before they collapse.

Alcohol abuse has got worse because we have become a wealthier society. There is a need for cultural change on alcohol and we have done little about it in the last number of years. We have made all sorts of excuses. We have seen the drinks industry set up its own organisations, we have patted ourselves on the back that we have done something about it but we must be honest and admit we have done nothing about it and it is out of control.

While the drugs issue gets many media headlines, we could probably take control of it better and deal with it easier if we were more genuine about it. I have read many of the contributions made in this debate and I found that people back the taskforces and feel more funding is needed. If these debates are to be worthwhile we should try to take on board something that might be more controversial when we discuss it. I do not completely support some of the controversial ideas proposed but we could debate them to see if they could work for Irish society. If we are to deal with addiction we need more places for rehabilitation, but one of the ways to reduce alcohol and drug abuse is mandatory drug testing. In my surgery, when we are looking at a separate health issue we incidentally find people are taking far too much alcohol and drugs. Drink driving and the carnage that came with it was reduced because we introduced a simple roadside test for drink driving. We have the same ability to test for drink and drugs if we are prepared to accept that we should have mandatory drug testing. Airline and transport companies such as CIE have policies on mandatory drug testing for employees but it can be convoluted and is not carried out with any great sense of purpose. People are expected to travel from other parts of the country to Dublin to have their mandatory drug testing carried out. There is a template there for mandatory drug testing and we should examine that as a means of reducing consumption.

If we introduce mandatory drug testing we must be careful not to aim only to penalise people all the time. We should aim to educate people to reduce their consumption of alcohol and drugs, if they are discovered, and we should provide proper rehabilitation facilities. It is pointless for doctors such as me and people who deal with addiction to discover that people have a problem with drugs because there is nowhere we can send them to get proper rehabilitation. The people who suffer from the addiction aspects of drugs need to be found because they are destroying themselves and the lives of their families and children. However while I might be able to identify them, I have nowhere to send them. If there is to be a carrot and stick approach we should look at it like that. We should ask whether we should debate mandatory drug testing and not see it as a daft, right-wing proposal that aims to jail everybody. Once we identify drug abuse, how we deal with it can be taken up in a different way when the rehabilitation facilities are available for it.

This is a cross-party motion. Such motions are great for talking about issues, but the people elect the Government to make decisions. The Government must take up its responsibilities. In common with most politicians, I always hear that whenever there is good news, it is attributed to a Government decision. The Celtic tiger was supposed to have been developed by this Government, but as soon as it started to go sour the global economy was blamed. I have never heard the Government give any credence to the Opposition or cross-party work. The Government must deal with this and I want to see more policies. The task force and some aspects of drug policy work well, but the enforcement of legislation and rehabilitation have been a failure. I speak from the front line.


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