Seanad debates

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Head Shops: Statements (Resumed)

 

1:00 pm

Photo of John CurranJohn Curran (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State with special responsibility for Integration and Community, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin Mid West, Fianna Fail)

): I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. I thank all Members who have spoken on the matter today and on 3 February and I acknowledge the work of the Seanad in pursuing this important and immediate issue and for adopting a broadly unanimous stance.

Without going through the debate in great detail, I divided the contributions into two clear halves, namely, those who demonstrated the ill effects caused by the products sold and those who posed a range of possible solutions for dealing with the problem. As was abundantly clear, everyone acknowledged there is no simple answer. Reducing the risk and minimising the harm posed by head shops and the range of products they sell will require a number of initiatives.

I have voiced my concerns regarding the activities of head shops and substances represented as legal highs numerous times since my appointment as Minister of State. My concerns about the new psychoactive substances head shops sell centre primarily on the potential health hazards arising from the use of these products and the possibility that their use may act as a gateway to illicit drugs. In light of the banning of a number of substances and groups of substances in the UK last December, I have concerns around the possibility of Ireland becoming a "dumping ground" for some of its banned products.

The problem of legal highs is not unique to Ireland and head shops are causing concern across Europe. A number of countries, including the UK, have taken action, each taking its own approach to the matter in line with its laws and experiences. However, no EU member state has come up with a comprehensive response thus far.

As outlined in the previous debate by my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, the importation, exportation, production, supply and possession of a range of named narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances are regulated and controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Acts. Substances sold in head shops are not scheduled under this legislation. However, the Minister, who has overall responsibility for the Acts, has confirmed that her Department is finalising regulations to introduce controls on a range of substances. These regulations will make the possession and sale of the substances illegal and subject to criminal sanctions. In preparing the required regulations, officials of the Department of Health and Children are consulting the relevant authorities to ensure any legitimate uses of the substances involved are not impinged upon.

Meanwhile, the Government has approved the commencement of a required notification process to the EU. It is envisaged that the regulations controlling the various substances will come into effect in June at the conclusion of that three-month process. I should point out that a number of the products being added to the controlled list under the Acts have legitimate commercial and industrial uses. While they will be banned for some uses on the one hand, they will be licensed and regulated on the other. It is not by choice that we will be giving three months notice to Europe. Rather, it is an absolute legal obligation on us that focuses primarily on a restriction on trade in respect of which there are a number of EU directives. We gave our mandatory notice and the ban on the range of products referred to will come into effect in June, the end of the three-month period.

I have also had correspondence with the Attorney General about other possible approaches to the matter. Associated with this, I have raised issues around public liability insurance, product liability insurance and consumer protection with the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, as well as planning issues with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The matters involved are being considered by their Departments and I expect to have their reactions shortly.

Meanwhile, I have asked the national advisory committee on drugs to carry out some research in the area of the psychoactive substances sold in head shops. The research advisory group established to oversee this research will report to me regularly and I have already received its first two such reports and these have proved very useful in informing our overall approach to the issue.

The specific identification of the issue of the proliferation of head shops and the availability of so-called legal highs in the National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016 reflects my concerns in this issue. Head shops have received considerable attention in recent months. The national drugs strategy was published and launched by the Taoiseach in September 2009. In the consultation period in the run-up to its publication, we became aware of the emergence of head shops and specific actions in the strategy reflect that awareness. Work on those actions has commenced. Senator Quinn referred to the fact that a group is being established in the United Kingdom. We already have a national advisory committee on drugs and it has a research advisory group which is actively working. This is not something we are going to do. In some senses, we have progressed in this regard.

Two actions of the strategy deal with head shops and legal highs. One is action 14: monitoring the activities of head shops and all businesses involved in the sale of psychoactive substances, with the objective of ensuring no illegal activity is undertaken and taking appropriate steps to reform legislation in this area where it is deemed to be appropriate. The other is action 15: keeping drugs related legislation under continual review, with particular focus on new synthetic substances and new or changed uses of psychoactive substances, against the background of EU and broader international experience and best practice. I am determined these and all other actions of the strategy will be implemented.

As also provided for under the new strategy, I held a number of meetings with the Ministers for Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Education and Science in recent months. I have also met the Garda Commissioner and senior officials of various Departments and offices. Head shops and the sale of legal highs were discussed at many of these meetings and various possibilities for addressing the activities of head shops were considered. Meanwhile, the activities of head shops are being monitored on an ongoing basis by the Garda Síochána and Revenue's customs service with a view to ensuring no substances that are currently illegal are being sold.

We all see the harm caused by drug misuse to individuals, their families and their communities. This harm manifests itself in many ways, through negative health, socioeconomic impacts and crime, such as the intimidation and violence often orchestrated and perpetrated by those supplying drugs in our communities. Head shops and legal highs might be regarded as a relatively new aspect of the ever-evolving issue of substance misuse in our society and I am determined to tackle it as such.

The decision to control new psychoactive substances under the misuse of drugs legislation should be welcomed, but it should be noted that this is a first step in tackling this problem. I assure the House that I and my Government colleagues are fully committed to pursuing appropriate responses to counter the potential threats posed by head shops and legal highs.

The range of substances, the scheduling of which will become effective in June, includes synthetic cannabinoids and benzylpioperazine, BZP, derivatives. BZP is already banned but its derivatives, in particular mephedrone, methylone and related cathinones, will be scheduled. That range seems to be particularly problematic. Brand names to be scheduled include Spice, which is a synthetic cannabinoid, and Charge, White Ice and Snow Blow, from mephedrone. Senator Quinn mentioned the ban on mephedrone in Germany. The ban in that country is for one year only. Ours will be a substantial measure. With regard to mephedrone, which is one of the more problematic substances, we have gone much further than other European countries. We are not playing catch-up in this regard.

Senator Quinn made the point that we ban a number of items but we are not sure what happens next. That is why we have a national advisory committee on drugs and a research advisory group. They look at what is coming on the market and identify the chemical components of new products. We can only ban a substance when we know its detrimental health effects. When a substance comes on the market, we identify it and deal with it. We have put structures in place to do this.

Senator Quinn also referred to a product which is banned in the United Kingdom and is still available in this country. I have had discussions with the Garda Commissioner on this. As we bring forward legislation and add new products to the range of controlled substances, the Garda Commissioner is capable, willing and able to enforce it. Sample products are tested continually to ensure the law, as we pass and amend it, is implemented in full.

While the issue of head shops has received much debate, Senator Frances Fitzgerald referred to home deliveries. Not all products are bought through head shops. There are also home deliveries and Internet sales. While we might consider planning legislation and other issues, the primary concern is the product being sold. While one might stop the sale of a product in a particular premises, if it has a negative health effect, we must deal with it under the misuse of drugs legislation. I have also met Customs and Excise officials to ensure they have the capacity to deal with the new range of products coming through the post.

A number of Senators spoke about the possibility of planning and licensing. The primary planning issue is that a head shop is no different from a newsagents. If a premises has retail planning permission, there is no specific requirement for head shop planning. I am looking at this issue but at present a head shop business can move into any existing retail premises. A number of years ago we changed planning legislation for the retail sale of alcohol. An off-licence now requires specific planning permission.

A number of speakers raised the issue of the licensing and control of head shops. We have anecdotal evidence from those who work in drugs clinics and accident and emergency departments about the effects of drugs on people who present. We also have good scientific evidence and advice from Dr. Des Corrigan and the national advisory committee on drugs. They are specifically tasked to monitor and advise me on the detrimental health effects of substances. I think Senator McFadden is closer to my view than to that of Deputy James Reilly. She referred to using the Finance Bill to impose a high licence fee. Dr. Corrigan made the point that the range of products we are about to ban could never be licensed because their negative health effects are too great. They would be more detrimental than other products which are already banned.

The current situation is evolving and while we are looking at issues of planning, product liability and other initiatives, our primary concern is to identify the chemical components, assess their detrimental or negative health effects and use the misuse of drugs legislation. We must bear in mind that closing down a head shop does not necessarily reduce supply because home deliveries from warehouses and the Internet are also available.

This is a complex issue and I am determined to tackle it head on. It is not unique to Ireland. We are looking at best international practice and sharing ideas. The ban which will become effective in June will remove the first tranche of serious products which we know are having detrimental health effects.

I must emphasise two aspects of the health issue. First, the long-term use of psychoactive substances seems to be causing a range of mental health issues for people. Second, we should not forget that taking any of these substances on a single occasion can also cause health problems because they affect the user in different ways. They can cause increased heart rate and raised blood pressure or hallucinations. A person who is hallucinating is at risk of causing an accident to him or herself. It could be an immediate health effect or a long-term use health effect. Health effects can be put in two categories. This is a summary of the range of issues we are trying to address. This is a complex issue. Neither I, nor the officials in my office have infinite wisdom in this regard and we constantly examine best practice and what is happening internationally. We are open to ideas from Members of both Houses and relevant committees on how to tackle it. It is an evolving issue and we need to deal with it on a number of fronts. I thank members for their contributions to the debate on both days.

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