Seanad debates

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

4:00 pm

Photo of Larry ButlerLarry Butler (Fianna Fail)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann recognises the epidemic in our society of alcohol misuse and illegal drug use, in particular cocaine and related substances, and acknowledges the need for a coordinated cross Departmental approach to this problem."

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Minister of State with special responsibility for Drugs Strategy and Community Affairs, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I wish to thank Members of the Seanad for the opportunity to discuss this important issue which has been in the public domain at a very high level for some weeks. We are discussing the need for a co-ordinated cross-departmental approach to the problem of alcohol misuse and illegal drug use, in particular cocaine and related substances. I commend the House for linking the two issues. I will try to argue why I believe there is potential for more synergies between both.

With respect to the use of the term epidemic, it is important to maintain perspective around this in the context of cocaine. I accept we have a growing problem with respect to cocaine use and, equally, while I accept it is across all strata of society, it is primarily an urban phenomenon and is predominantly a problem with young or younger adults in the 15-34 age group. The last prevalence study in 2002-03 indicated that while 3% of respondents aged 15 to 64 reported that they had taken some form of cocaine at some stage in their lives, 1.1% used it in the last year and 0.3% used it in the last month. Results of the 2006-07 prevalence survey, which will be launched at the end of January, will reflect the findings of the joint national advisory committee on drugs and national drug strategy team report, completed in 2006. It concluded that based on all secondary indicators, there was a significant increase in cocaine use albeit from a low base.

With respect to alcohol, in contrast, prevalence figures in the 2002-03 survey showed that more than 75% had a drink in the last month and in 2006 the average consumption per person in Ireland aged 15 years or over was 13.36 litres of alcohol, which is a decrease from the peak of 14.3 litres in 2001. There are signs that its misuse is creating significant health problems for individuals and is contributing to public order offences in our towns and cities. With respect to alcohol use, key concerns relate to under-age drinking, binge drinking among young adults leading to potential public order problems and the levels of excessive drinking that can give rise to significant health problems for the individuals involved.

The Department of Health and Children, which has responsibility for alcohol, published the two reports of the strategic task force on alcohol that together provided approximately 100 recommendations across a wide range of sectors and involved policies, such as regulating and restricting alcohol availability; reducing the demand for alcohol through taxation and pricing mechanisms; regulating the marketing of alcoholic beverages, in particular those practices that influence younger people — in other words promotions; implementing appropriate drink-driving policies; implementing screening programmes and brief interventions against hazardous and harmful use of alcohol; and providing easily accessible and affordable treatment services for people with alcohol use disorders. While the first three are not an option with respect to illegal drugs, there are potential synergies that may be achieved with the remainder.

In the last Dáil, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, in its ninth report in 2006, reached the conclusion that alcohol should be included in a new national substance misuse strategy and that there should be a co-ordinated response along the lines of the national drug strategy. My predecessor indicated, when he appeared before the committee, that he had an open mind on the issue and was supportive of bringing together any potential synergies that can be identified. From the time of my appointment as Minister of State I have indicated that I support this view.

The committee was aware, as Senators will be aware, that this suggestion of a single national substance misuse strategy has been mooted for a considerable time. The Department of Health and Children, which has overall responsibility for the co-ordination of alcohol policy, is currently investigating this issue and established a working group in December 2006 to examine the issues and the potential synergies involved. This group, which in part arises from action 80 of the national drugs strategy, consists of representatives of the Department of Health and Children, the HSE, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the national drugs strategy team, my own Department and representatives from the community and voluntary sectors and the industry. It is expected to report early in the new year.

The steering group appointed to oversee the mid-term review of the national drug strategy, which was completed in 2005, was struck by the number of times the issue of alcohol, particularly binge and teenage drinking, was brought up during the consultation process and the confusion that was felt by some that there were separate strategies to deal with the issue of illegal drugs and drinking. A number of contributors to the process felt, as the Oireachtas committee concluded, that alcohol and illicit drugs could be addressed through one overall policy.

While the steering group dealing with the mid-term review of the national drugs strategy considered that the question of a combined alcohol and drugs strategy was beyond its remit, it pointed out that although separate policies are involved, in many cases services addressing issues of substance misuse on the ground are not separate. With respect to the key areas of prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and supply reduction, the steering group was of the view that there was potential for synergies between the two strategies, but that there were also areas of divergence.

For example, with respect to education, most educational activities focused on prevention adopt a skills-based approach and cover substance misuse in general, rather than any specific substance, or group of substances. However, in public awareness campaigns, messages need to be credible and effective and the steering group was of the opinion, with which I agree, that addressing alcohol and illicit drugs together can be problematic, given that the messages communicated on alcohol are not necessarily appropriate to illegal drugs. Generally, a zero tolerance approach is warranted for illegal drugs whereas with respect to alcohol it is more about alerting people to the dangers involved and getting across the message of people developing a responsible attitude to drinking.

The health promotion unit of the HSE has responsibility for developing public awareness campaigns about both alcohol and illegal drugs. Evidence identified by the national advisory committee on drugs suggests that maximising the impact of national campaigns is best realised by having co-ordinated local campaigns in tandem with national campaigns. There is therefore significant scope for greater co-ordination in raising awareness in society about the dangers of illegal drug use and problem alcohol use.

The greatest opportunity for synergies may lie in the area of treatment for substance misuse. Clients have different needs and the Government is seeking to put drug related treatment in place that is client centred, thus addressing all the issues personal to the individual problem drug user, including alcohol-related treatment where necessary. Many of the people now presenting exhibit problems related to polydrug use, including alcohol, and it makes sense to adopt an holistic approach. This more holistic and integrated approach is reflected by the work of the HSE's working group on residential rehabilitation on substance use which reported in the summer to the HSE. The HSE's working group on drugs and alcohol is currently considering the report. The residential rehabilitation working group, on which my Department was represented, considered the residential rehabilitation needs of misusers of all substances, including alcohol.

With respect to cocaine, the joint report by the national advisory committee on drugs and the national drugs strategy team, to which I alluded earlier, while recommending, in the short term, the need to consider the provision of cocaine-specific clinics recommended that in the medium to longer term there is a need to move to the provision of a comprehensive substance treatment service tailored to the individual. This is recognised by the HSE and in its report last week to the interdepartmental groups on drugs, of which I am chairman, identified that many approaches already in use work well with cocaine misusers and that it intends to build on this approach and re-engineer existing services to meet emerging needs such as cocaine. Further evidence of this enhanced co-ordinated approach by the HSE is the associated training programme, which is currently being rolled out. This training is available not only to HSE staff but also to workers from the community and voluntary sectors and will cover a number of themes including drug and alcohol misuse in both acute care settings and non-specialist settings and evidence-based practice with substance misuse.

In the context of supply reduction, the legal status of alcohol, as against that of illicit drugs makes closer linkages between policies difficult to achieve. However, under-age drinking is, of course, illegal and I strongly agree that the laws relating to the sale and supply of alcohol to those under age should be rigorously enforced and that concerns expressed about easier availability need to be considered, particularly in the context of under-age drinking.

In the context of a combined national substance misuse strategy, historically, drugs task forces have tended to have varying views, with regional drugs task forces tending to be more open to the idea. In the past, local drugs task forces generally would be more of the view that the policies should be kept separate. The LDTF view probably related to the nature of the illicit drugs problem and the need for a focused response. Some people are still of the view that robust structures are in place to deal with illicit drugs and that their effectiveness in that regard might be blunted by trying to address the much broader and pervasive alcohol issue in the same way. From my interactions with drugs task forces and from the work of the NDST in canvassing the views of task forces earlier this year, I perceive that while there are concerns about ensuring that services to existing clients are not diluted, there is greater willingness for and acceptance of a single strategy, particularly in view of increasing polydrug use and the role of alcohol in the take-up and continued use of illicit drugs.

At an international level there is no single approach to the issue, though the 2006 annual report of the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction reports, "signs of a broadening of the scope of strategies to encompass licit addictive substances (alcohol, tobacco, medicines) as well as illicit drugs". As chairperson of the British-Irish Council sectoral group on the misuse of drugs, I note that Ireland, England and Scotland have separate polices, with the other five jurisdictions adopting a combined approach. To an extent the policy approach may be driven by whether jurisdictions view their response to substance misuse as primarily a health issue or a legal issue. Irrespective of this, to the extent that there is scope for greater co-ordination of our responses to the problems involved, we should pursue it.

I agree with the overall thrust of the motion. The important thing is that any co-ordinated cross-departmental approach would retain and build upon the successful aspects of the national drugs strategy while simultaneously addressing the alcohol issue in a more co-ordinated and effective way. Meanwhile, I await the outcome of the deliberations of the working group led by the Department of Health and Children which should significantly facilitate decision-making on the appropriate way forward and should facilitate the development of the most appropriate co-ordinated approach to the twin concerns of illegal drug use and problematic alcohol use.

I look forward to this debate particularly as the steering group on the new national drugs strategy will be meeting just after Christmas. The terms of reference have been outlined to the group and it will engage in wide consultation, which in my view, starts here. It is appropriate that the elected Members of both Houses should be among the first to give their views. I look forward to this opportunity to engage with the Members and I welcome any proposals.

The Fine Gael leader, Deputy Kenny, indicated that the strength of the strategy to date has been the broad cross-party support and I hope this will continue. I am under no illusions about the challenges which face us but significant progress has been made in a wide range of areas. We have more and very important work to do.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I second the motion. I wish to share my time with Senator Coffey. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Carey, to the House. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the escalating drug issue and the consumption of alcohol. I commend the Minister of State's contribution and I assure him of cross-party consensus on this motion.

If the Government is serious about tackling the serious drug and alcohol issues, we need to see some positive action regarding high-profile prosecutions, strong sentencing, resourcing of the Garda Síochána drug units, Garda raids on pubs and clubs and mandatory drug testing in schools. I hope the Minister of State will include alcohol as part of the new national drugs strategy. If we think the sudden and tragic death of Katy French will expose the dangers of drug use to young people, we are mistaken. The lives and deaths of those who have died too young, from James Dean to Kurt Cobain, have always been tinged with romance. It is not until young people meet and hear the heartbreak of a family member or of a friend of one whose life has been devastated by drug use or until they meet a doctor or a paramedic who can demonstrate to them how drugs devastate the body, or until they meet a drug user and see the real pain, will the dangers of drugs be finally exposed.

Drugs must be demystified and the medical and psychological ramifications of drug use must be exposed, along with the tabloid gloss that has been allowed to cover over the problem. The Minister of State made reference in some interviews that snorting a line of cocaine is as socially unacceptable as somebody who stumbles out of a pub and drives a car. We should not fool ourselves for one moment. Most people in society and all of us in politics recognise that many people do not equate drug-taking with illegality or with causing damage. The message should be that cocaine use must be highlighted and stopped. I refer to the Minister of State's speech and the review of the national drugs strategy. I ask him to convene a national drugs forum, similar to what was done with the issue of Northern Ireland. This will give impetus and status to the national drugs strategy. A national forum on drugs would bring together a wide range of Departments and the Garda Síochána, the HSE, local drugs task forces, community activists, young people, professional groups and all interested parties, to discuss how best to tackle this issue at both a local and a national level.

I am a school teacher and I believe a radical overhaul of the drugs education programme is required. There is an urgent need for a comprehensive drugs and alcohol education programme in schools. The message must be that drugs kill, that there is no quality control on drugs, that drug dealers care only about money and their profits and do not care a whit for the person to whom they sell the drugs. We must sell this message to the public.

Cocaine use is rampant and has become a leading killer in Ireland. Yesterday a Dublin coroner revealed that of the 47 inquests into drug-related deaths, 26 were cocaine-related, 16 heroin-related and five involved ecstasy. This is a serious indictment of all of us.

The national drug-related index survey will be published soon and this is to be welcomed. It is important to have comparative figures. My one regret is that this debate, the Minister of State's appearance on "Prime Time" and coverage in the newspapers, is not reaching the target audience because this audience does not watch television news programmes or read newspapers. I welcome the initiative regarding Facebook and Bebo. I also urge the Minister of State to examine the possibility of putting videos on YouTube.

Simply telling young people that drugs are bad and that they should say "No" is not working. We need to think outside the box. The Minister of State will receive my support for every effort he makes to reach young people. It is imperative that we do something. Education is a most important element in the fight against drugs. We should not forget that drugs kill and affect families and society. We must get that message across.

Drugs task forces need to be strengthened in order that we can tackle the misuse of drugs in local communities by providing the essential resources to implement the national drugs strategy. There may be an element of empire building in some drugs task force areas. I do not wish to be specific as much good work is being done but some drugs task forces do not appear to be properly focused. In his review of the drugs strategy I urge the Minister of State to examine the operation of local drugs task forces.

The Government has let people down in the area of drug treatment in terms of the investment that is required. Only 28 detox beds are available to help 14,500 heroin addicts. We must recognise that most drug users consume more than one type of drug. A survey revealed that approximately 92% of people who began using drugs after 1998 are now polydrug users. It is important that we examine drug treatment programmes.

I welcome the Minister of State's reference to synergies. As we know, alcohol is a gateway drug. It is therefore important that we include binge drinking by teenagers as part of the next national drugs strategy.

It must be brought to the attention of the Judiciary the message it gives out through its sentences. There is too much inconsistency in sentencing policy. I accept that mandatory sentencing has its drawbacks but we need to send a strong message through the Judiciary. I urge that guidelines on sentencing would be made available to judges. It is important that we would send a hardline message regarding sentencing.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, for attending the debate. I assure him that on this side of the House we will be positive where it is necessary to assist him in reaching a consensus regarding the elimination of this sad epidemic that is part of society.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, for attending this important debate. I welcome this all-party motion. No doubt all Senators would agree that all sectors have a role and responsibility to play in the fight against drugs. As politicians, we have to lead that fight. The Government must also take the lead. Communities, citizens and society in general have a big role to play in how we tackle this scourge.

I commend the Minister of State on his efforts to date. I am sure he is happy to hear that from a member of the Opposition.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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I believe he genuinely wants to deal with this problem. I saw the Minister of State on a television debate with what I can only describe as celebrity half-wits before the recent high profile tragedies. These persons were promoting the legalisation of drugs. One can ask where these celebrities are now. They have gone to ground because the same media is publicising these high profile tragedies and the loss of life of two young men due to cocaine in my home area. We are led to believe that one never had any involvement in drugs but just happened to get involved with the wrong crowd on the wrong night.

It is important that we resist the legalisation of drugs at every opportunity. I commend the Minister of State on his efforts in this regard. However, in speaking about drugs we must not neglect the serious issue of alcohol abuse. We should acknowledge this problem at all levels, especially under-age drinking and binge drinking. Currently, there is easy availability of alcohol to under age persons. If we are serious about tackling drugs we should examine the operation of off-licences and supermarkets, as significant amounts of alcohol are being purchased by teenagers or others to give to them. Alcohol abuse paves the way for the abuse of other drugs. It can generate an acceptability in society for such behaviour.

We must tackle this issue on many levels. If we tackle the issue of supply then we will make progress. We must also promote a more holistic approach in terms of providing facilities for young people. Providing an alternative is important, in addition to education and training.

Currently the Garda has localised drug units but my information is that many of them are not solely dedicated to tackling drugs and that they are being diverted from drug problems to carry out other Garda activities. That is not good enough, given the serious nature of the drug problem in society. A more regionalised approach is required to take on the drug barons who are currently one step ahead of the Garda. They are moving from one area to another and they are aware of where the Garda is under-resourced. We need more manpower in the Garda and more intelligence. A regional approach would allow for the pooling of intelligence in order to take on drug barons more effectively. We should start with the top ten drug barons who are well known to the Garda, target them and take them out.

A survey produced by the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors this year identified that nationally we should have 53 sergeants and 390 gardaí, including detectives, tackling drugs. These gardaí would be dedicated to the problem of tackling drugs and associated crimes. Unfortunately, the current complement is only 39 sergeants and 239 gardaí, which is a case of serious under-resourcing. Surveillance equipment is required, in addition to vehicles and top class technology to take on the drug barons as the best of equipment is available to them. They know exactly what moves the Garda makes. We need to properly resource the Garda to tackle this serious issue.

The phrase "personal choice" has been bandied about lately in regard to drug use. We need to be very careful in our language. This does not take into account the impact the personal choice, per se, has on the individual, families, communities and society. Drug taking is much more than just a case of personal choice as it has a wider impact. We all need to work together to beat this scourge.

Photo of Larry ButlerLarry Butler (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share time with Senator Mary White.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

6:00 pm

Photo of Larry ButlerLarry Butler (Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak in this debate on drug and alcohol misuse. I welcome the co-operation of the Opposition parties as an all-party approach is more likely to lead to solutions.

RTE has highlighted the widespread use of cocaine. I thank the Minister of State for the high profile manner in which he has gone about explaining the situation on RTE and the various programmes on which he has appeared. I commend his approach. He did not get over-excited about the problems that have been exposed recently. The situation is disastrous for those families who have been affected by recent cocaine-induced deaths. I extend my sympathy to them. We must take on board that behind every statistic lies a family.

The Medical Bureau of Road Safety analysed blood and urine samples in 2005. Some 747 specimens were tested, of which 480 were positive and 262 were negative. This shows that there is a need for on-the-spot testing of this kind in conjunction with breathalysing.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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It was highlighted last year with the Minister.

Photo of Larry ButlerLarry Butler (Fianna Fail)
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That is essential. If we are serious about allowing people onto the roads, the issue of health and safety must come into play. That is one of the difficulties the Minister of State should tackle.

The Minister of State has stated that there is no quick fix to this problem. This is why we are discussing the matter this evening. We must be flexible in attitudes and policies, awaiting the second national drugs prevalence survey, which was to be completed in November 2007, for an up-to-date picture of usage of cocaine. The Government takes a proactive, decisive and co-ordinated approach towards that matter.

The €50 million allocated in the 2007 budget, an increase of 16%, shows a clear continued Government commitment. That is a significant rise over 2006 and is 87% more than the 2004 figure. The commitment to what the Minister of State is doing is evident.

Some €200 million was spent across the various Departments in 2006. The new programme for the period 2009-16 is being prepared, plus the drafting of the new national drugs strategy will involve an approximate spend of €52 million during 2008. This will see a substantially increased focus on rehabilitation and ensure we go that extra mile to help people regain their capacity for daily life following the impact of a drug problem.

Since the pre-budget outlook, the Minister of State has added €12.5 million to fund the implementation of the recommendations of the national drug strategy rehabilitation report. This additional funding will allow for the development and strengthening of the local drugs task forces and for the roll-out of services to new commuter-belt towns.

There is also a commitment to spend an extra €64.3 million on the global drugs initiative and young people's facilities and services fund, an increase of 29% over 2007 levels of spending. All Senators would agree that is a significant amount of funding and shows the commitment of the Minister of State in that regard.

Capital funding under what is known as the "Premises Initiative" is open to applications for community-based accommodation needs. The national drugs strategy team-prepared joint briefing paper on cocaine use in 2006 brought together all data on cocaine use in Ireland detailing an increased usage albeit from a low base.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin points out it is the personal responsibility of the individual to consider the negative implications of his or her behaviour on other people when taking so-called recreational drugs. That spells out clearly that one must take responsibility for what one does.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Senator Butler is halfway through his allocated time.

Photo of Larry ButlerLarry Butler (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his forbearance. The level of drugs seizures is well in excess of targets set out. The social, personal and health education and the Walk Tall programmes are in all schools. I would like to see more emphasis on this. Senator Buttimer outlined clearly what he would like to see done there. That is the good aspect of our co-operation on this motion. I am sure we will find ideas which both sides will have.

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House and I wish everybody a happy Christmas.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Carey, for coming here this evening. I am delighted that he has become a Minister of State. I know him for a long time and he is a very serious politician. Previously, he was a múinteoir.

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Minister of State with special responsibility for Drugs Strategy and Community Affairs, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I am afraid I used be accused of being a deadly serious múinteoir as well.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I know how he is regarded by many young people who he taught in his area and how he inspired them to go on to achieve an education and improve their prospects. They were able to cut through the class barrier.

The issue of alcohol interests me. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Health and Children and when I was appointed to the committee, I studied its documents. I have taken up the issue of suicide awareness and prevention. The committee, in its 2006 report, was scathing about the Government's failure. It stated that alcohol consumption is strongly associated with accidental deaths, including death by suicide, but the Government has failed to implement its own alcohol policy, the report of the National Strategic Task Force on Alcohol, which could curb alcohol abuse. If I dared give the Minister of State advice, the task force report contains ten recommendations and further study and reports are unnecessary.

As the Minister of State will be aware, I produced a policy document on children and another on aging and ageism. In both areas there were shelves of reports and there was very little action. In the case of alcohol, there is no mystery and it is all spelt out in the report. There is conclusive evidence from the UK that consumption falls if the price of alcohol is increased.

There is a significant problem in Ireland in that alcohol consumption is now based at home rather than in the pub. In that regard there is an issue to deal with in that we do not have a notion of how much is being consumed.

The abuse of alcohol is a serious factor in suicide. Why has Ireland the fifth highest rate of death by suicide of young men among the EU countries? It is incredible. Alcohol has consistently been shown to be a factor. People get false courage when they drink alcohol.

There are more deaths due to suicide than to road accidents. Last year there were 409 suicides and 360 road deaths. All of us are aware of the campaigns for road safety, but what public awareness is there of death by suicide? There are far more deaths by suicide.

On average, 10,500 young people turn up at accident and emergency departments having threatened to commit suicide. This issue of suicide must be lanced, put on the political radar and dealt with.

It is wrong that we are unnecessarily letting people die by suicide. I am a woman of action. I am not interested in excessive studying and reporting. The strategic task force on alcohol report of September 2004 was a Government report and it is time to move on it and implement it. I will push for that, as I did in the case of child care and in my push for a new entrance to the Oireachtas 2000 building. The Chair knows how much work I put into those achievements. I will drive the issue of suicide prevention and awareness at the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party meeting.

I compliment our Cathaoirleach, Senator Moylan, and Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú on the example they set as pioneers.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Senator Paddy Burke does not drink alcohol either.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I did not know that because he is not wearing his badge. We have an epidemic of suicide in the country and alcohol is a major factor in that. It is within our power to implement the recommendations, as listed by the Minister of State in his speech. We should increase the price of alcohol and regulate the opening of new locations for the sale of alcohol. The Government has succeeded with regard to drink driving and people are now afraid to drink and drive.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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That is not true. It has not succeeded.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Senator White, without interruption.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Is the Senator dreaming? What world does she live in?

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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The real world.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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The attitude to drink driving has changed here. The attitude to binge drinking has not changed, but people now feel it is immoral to drink and drive. I defy the Senator to identify anyone who does not realise it is immoral to drink and drive. In my eyes, that is success. Senators on the opposite side of the House should pay more attention to detail before they speak.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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We do not want any lectures.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I wish to share my time with Senator Pearse Doherty.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I also welcome his measured approach and the fact he recognises the important need for a cross-departmental approach, which is recognised in the national drugs strategy. This is not just a matter of criminal justice or law enforcement issue. To see it in that light is to miss the point and not the way to go about changing the damage done by drugs.

We must be careful of our language when talking about drugs and take a rational approach. As the Minister of State said, it is important to maintain perspective when using the word "epidemic". There is certainly an epidemic of alcohol abuse and we would all agree with Senator White when she links that with suicide. We must be careful, however, about suggesting there is a drugs epidemic, because that suggests the need for a crisis response and short term measures. It also tends to lead to slogans and the introduction of measures such as minimum sentences, and to the sort of attack made on me the last time I spoke on this topic when certain Members on the Government side referred to me as being soft on drugs. That is a shame. It behoves us all to look rationally at the issue of drugs and seek credible measures to reduce the harm associated with drug abuse and, in particular, to reduce and prevent the tragic deaths arising from drug abuse.

Scaremongering will simply not work. As Senator Buttimer said, the people who put themselves at risk by taking drugs are not the people who listen to the slogans and messages. To tell people to just say "No", is not an effective way to prevent drug use. That is similar to asking people to abstain from sex in order to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases or HIV. That approach does not work. We need to look at a more rational approach, based on harm reduction and death prevention. This requires a credible message.

We need to treat addiction as a medical problem. In that regard, the HSE methadone programme is welcome, as is the greater commitment to drug rehabilitation. We do not yet have enough places available for drug rehabilitation, but we are slowly changing. One area in need of more resources is the drugs court. As somebody who has worked for some years in the criminal justice system, where I have been in the front line of defending offenders with serious opiate addiction problems, I have seen the terrible damage heroin addiction can do, not just to communities, but to individuals and their families. The drugs court could play an important role in encouraging and providing an incentive for rehabilitation.

I have also been associated for some time with the drug policy action group, which is a group of people who work in the area of drug rehabilitation and criminal justice and who have come together to try and promote a rational debate around drug policy and to explore alternative policy means to reduce the harm associated with drug abuse. The drug policy action group has stated that many of our existing drugs laws, particularly our criminal laws, tend to increase rather than reduce the harm associated with drug use, for drug users themselves and for the wider community. It suggests that the introduction of the criminal justice legislation, such as we have seen in recent years, and the increasing sentences and so on have not had any effective impact on reducing the supply of drugs.

A strong argument has been made by the policy action group which suggests that the over reliance on criminalisation has done great damage to the social fabric by creating a highly organised, profitable and tragically violence driven criminal black market in drugs. We have seen increasingly negative outcomes from the imprisonment of drug users and their criminalisation. I know of people who have become addicted to drugs while in prison, because of drug problems in our prisons.

We need to take a more rational approach to this issue. We need to look at measures that have been adopted elsewhere which are seen to have a more effective impact, for example, the issuing of leaflets outside nightclubs about the dangers associated with using ecstasy without drinking enough water. The Minister of State may remember that a number of years ago there were significant numbers of ecstasy related deaths, not just in Ireland. We should also look at the harm reduction measures used in other countries, including imaginative targeting of the people more at risk. This is a much more effective way to try and tackle the problem rather than creating longer sentences.

I urge the Minister of State to continue the work he is doing in terms of his cross-departmental approach and to take on board some of the suggestions of the drug policy action group. He should look again at the continued criminalisation of all the drugs currently illegal. There are arguments in favour of taking a different approach, in particular to cannabis. Already in our laws the penalties provided for possession and supply of cannabis are different from and less serious than those provided for other types of drugs. Perhaps we could consider taking a step further, as has been done in Britain, and downgrading cannabis. There is less harm associated with cannabis use than with opiate use.

The tragic deaths from cocaine should not obscure the fact that the greatest damage being done in our society by drug abuse is done from opiate addiction, which is associated with disadvantage in certain communities. Those are the communities that have suffered the most. It is also the tragic deaths in those families that have caused the most suffering. We owe it to these people to take a rational approach to drug abuse and to look again in a credible way at how to reduce the damage and risks associated with drug abuse.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
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Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an tSeanadóir Bacik as ucht a cuid ama a roinnt liom le labhairt ar an ábhar seo. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Ba mhaith liom an tSeanadóir Cassidy a mholadh as ucht an deis a thabhairt dúinn an rún seo a phlé sa Seanad agus as an dóigh ar éirigh leis deis a thabhairt do na páirtithe uilig tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún. Tugann mo pháirtí lán-tacaíocht don rún agus molaim é don tSeanad.

The number of deaths as a result of drugs overdoses has increased markedly since 2001. According to figures provided by the Taoiseach to my colleague, Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh, such deaths increased by 32% between 2004 and 2005 alone. The most recent figures show that more than one such drug-related death occurs every three days.

Cocaine-related deaths are also on the increase. During the summer, the Dublin County Coroner, Dr. Kieran Geraghty, having dealt with five cocaine-related deaths in one day, issued a stark warning regarding the lethal nature of even small quantities of cocaine. In recent weeks, increased media coverage has underlined the lethal potential of the drug. In this regard, I refer to the unfortunate deaths of two young men in Waterford, following a 21st birthday party, and the model Katy French. Media reports indicate that cocaine may have played a part in the death of a young man in Bray, County Wicklow. Therefore, a total of four deaths took place in one week and a number of young people were hospitalised during the same period.

Drugs carry the highest human toll, namely, that of life itself. The effects of drug addiction on communities and families are unquantifiable. Drug addiction causes great heartache. Those who live with family members who are addicted to drugs hope that they can come off them by means of enrolling in an addiction programme. However, their hopes are often dashed when their loved ones relapse or when treatment is simply not available. The problem of drugs also imposes a great cost on communities, particularly in the context of the intimidation of neighbours and the threat or reality of violence from drug dealers. There is an urgent need to deal with this matter.

Apart from the human cost involved, there is also a large financial cost, namely, the cost to the economy of illegal drugs. Let us take, for example, the cost of the number of drug addicts who present at accident and emergency departments on foot of complications caused by their drug taking. There is also the cost of drug users who have contracted hepatitis C, HIV-AIDS or other diseases. We must also take into account the number of days lost at work as a result of the effects of drugs. There is also the cost of unemployment and disability benefits paid to those who cannot work because of their drug dependency. In addition, there is the cost of guardian payments — these are not high enough at present — to grandparents who must rear children because their parents either died from drugs or are incapable of caring for their offspring. Finally, there is the cost of drug related crime.

Investment in prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and reducing the supply of illegal drugs makes social and economic sense. However, it is also time the Government got its priorities in order. Budget 2008 is indicative of where those priorities currently lie and the position in respect of them must be reversed. In the budget, the Government allocated €76 million to the horse and greyhound racing fund. However, it allocated only €64 million to the drugs initiatives and the young people's facilities fund. I call on the Government to introduce a Supplementary Estimate to ensure that spending on anti-drug initiatives matches the priority and urgency involved. If the Government were to reallocate taxpayers' money from the horse and greyhound racing fund, then resources to the drugs initiatives and the young people's facilities fund would be more than doubled.

The Government must also recognise that the drugs crisis is no longer confined to Dublin and other centres throughout the State. Cocaine is rampant in every community and county, rural and urban. Not only must the Government recognise that fact, it must put in place strategies to deal with this reality. At present, drug task forces only operate in urban centres. The Government must devise similar bodies to deal with the drug crisis in rural settings.

I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Lisa McDonaldLisa McDonald (Fianna Fail)
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I strongly welcome this debate and I sincerely hope it represents the contribution of the Seanad to a process aimed at tackling and reducing the scourge of drug abuse. We cannot allow this opportunity to pass, particularly in light of recent events, but we must not engage in a knee-jerk reaction to the issue of drug abuse.

I am one of the younger Senators in the House and from discussing the prevalence of drug use with members of my generation, and with people who are younger and older than I am, I have come to the conclusion that each generation has its own demons. Cocaine and recreational drug use are the demons of mine and younger generations and we must accept this as a reality. We must then deal with that reality rather than tying to wish it away.

A short amount of time spent in clubs and pubs throughout the country would make one very aware of the depth and prevalence of cocaine use in our society. Queues outside toilet cubicles in nightclubs and the erratic behaviour of many partygoers provide dramatic insight into the vast numbers of young people getting high on cocaine on an average night out. Such is the normality surrounding its presence, it is common for young people who do not use drugs to be offered cocaine. This has created pressure on young people because most of them want to fit in with their peers. It is as though cocaine is part and parcel of the social scene and that if one refuses to take it or to participate, one is seen as a square. The term "recreational drug" suggests that something is being taken at weekends or on a part-time basis and that there is enjoyment, a lack of harm and zero responsibility involved.

Media stories reflect what is happening on the streets and it is our responsibility as legislators to reflect on the type of lifestyle to which I refer and strengthen the law where required. Only yesterday, the Society of Coroners in Ireland said that an increase in cocaine related deaths is being recorded by coroners courts throughout the country. The head of the society, Professor Denis Cusack, stated that in 2000 and 2001 its members began to see a small number of deaths relating to cocaine but that since 2005 there has been a dramatic increase in such deaths. In the light of these statistics, my thoughts are focused on the need for us to offer something other than outrage or hand-wringing.

Now that Ireland has endured high-profile tragedies, such as the death of model Katy French, as a result of cocaine use, it will be interesting to see, in five or ten years' time, whether the current panic had any long-term repercussions or if we took the correct measures to combat this evil and protect and educate young people. At present, there are enough people who want to use drugs and there is a sufficient number of dealers who want to sell them. Cocaine knows no class boundaries and is the play drug of the rich. Unless there is some sudden societal shift away from drug use in general — I include alcohol in this regard — then it is difficult to see how outrage and policing are going to change anything. It is noticeable that there has been a shift in attitude, for the better, towards drinking and driving. It took time for this to be achieved. I am of the view that we can induce a similar cultural change with regard to illegal drug use.

Although I do not have a settled view on the legalisation or downgrading of some drugs, I believe there is a need to engage in a debate on this matter, particularly in the current context. Such a debate might lead, if necessary, to the introduction of a Green Paper on the subject. I also am aware of the concern that exists regarding alcohol addiction. Alcoholism and its consequences have for too long been accepted in Ireland. I welcome the fact that the Minister of State intends to include the need to combat alcohol and its abuse in the national drugs strategy. I also welcome his comments to the effect that he does not intend to confuse the consumption of alcohol with illegal drug use.

New thinking is required in respect of treatment services because the evidence shows that abstinence in opiate drug addiction treatment does not work. There is a need for better links between addiction services and local services. There is a particular need for inpatient treatment facilities for extreme cases, particularly those with severe drug and alcohol dependencies. At present, the only inpatient facility in the addiction services takes patients who are either pregnant or HIV positive. While these patients deserve priority treatment, there are a number of others who would benefit from some form of respite care. Judging and punishing addicts does not solve the problem. Treatment and rehabilitation can work and the Government must invest hard cash in rolling out treatment programmes.

The courts must take a stronger line in imposing mandatory sentences. It is shocking that of 57 convictions in 2006, only three individuals received the full mandatory sentence of ten years. One judge who presided over 30 of these cases imposed an average sentence of three years and three months. If one takes remission into account, this represents a standard term of two years and five months, which is not appropriate, particularly when one considers the consequences of drug addiction and the lavish life styles enjoyed by those who peddle drugs. Judges are imposing the minimum sentence as the exception rather than the rule, whereas, as the legislation indicates, the reverse should be the case.

It is clear that our coastlines are becoming increasingly vulnerable to drug trafficking and recent seizures indicate that remote inlets are a target for smugglers. I come from a coastal community and I am of the view that people living in such places must be vigilant and must assist the Garda and Customs and Excise in tackling drug smuggling. However, we must also ensure that the enforcement organs of the State are well resourced in order that they can carry out operations in this regard.

It is not adequate to expect an eight-vessel Naval Service to protect our 2,700 miles of coastline. We could use satellites and helicopters to assist the Naval Service in its operations. There are many modern technologies that could be used to assist in tracking those who smuggle drugs by sea.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Despite his baptism of fire he has performed very well since taking up office. I congratulate him on the poise and intelligence he has displayed in dealing with his brief in recent weeks. The Minister of State has not been pressured into adopting the panic measures suggested by some commentators and Opposition politicians. This will stand him in good stead in the context of fulfilling an increasingly difficult role in the years ahead.

I welcome the Minister of State's decision to devote €5 million next year to educate young people about the dangers of drugs. I hope this important programme is grounded in the real world. It should employ language, images, connotations and spokespersons who can communicate to young people. Our young population is well educated and intelligent. We can get the message across if we put thought-provoking and dramatic images and messages into their daily lives. Every channel of communication, including the Internet, print media, television, radio, cinema, billboards, bus stops, nightclubs, colleges and universities, must be used.

The Minister of State intends to continue in 2008 the digital campaign he commenced this year, involving local radio stations like 98 FM. The campaign, which has got off to an excellent start, needs to be continued. The success of the stark and shocking road safety advertisements demonstrates that media campaigns can change the behaviour of the public. Something along those lines needs to be adopted. We need to use role models like sports stars and celebrities as part of this campaign. The experiences of recovering drug addicts can be used to facilitate debate in classrooms and colleges. An approach of this nature is essential if Government awareness campaigns are to bear fruit.

The main problem with Irish society today is that everything seems to be done to excess. We need to get people to take responsibility for their actions, which might not be popular. As I do not intend to shirk my responsibility as a legislator, I have outlined the responses which I think are required. People are very quick to say they have rights, but they are not so quick to accept they have responsibilities. The excessive nature of many aspects of Irish society is clear when one reflects on phenomena like over-eating, drug use and boy racing. Our excesses are preventing us from reaching our true potential as individuals and as a society. We need to examine how other jurisdictions have reduced the levels of harm associated with drug use. I will conclude by telling the House about a quote I found when I was doing some research today. When the American civil rights campaigner, Jesse Jackson, was addressing a meeting in a college, he said:

Today's students can put dope in their veins or hope in their brains — if they can conceive it and believe it, they can achieve it. They must know it is not their aptitude but their attitude that will determine their altitude.

I agree with the suggestion that personal responsibility is central to this issue.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Labour)
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I would like to share my time with my colleague, Senator Prendergast.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, to the House. I am pleased to have a chance to debate this issue. Many Senators have concentrated on the supply of drugs but I want to focus on demand. We can make a fundamental difference by working to reduce the demand for drugs.

The Minister of State was in the House a few weeks ago, on 17 October, for a debate on the national drugs strategy. I was one of nine Senators who contributed to the discussion. I spoke about drug abuse and the increasing number of hard drug users in this country. I highlighted the dangers of not implementing the national drugs strategy sooner rather than later. Some Senators on the other side of the House lauded the Government's achievements in this area, which may have been somewhat premature in light of recent events. During the debate, I also mentioned the wide availability of cocaine in Ireland.

I am pleased we have an opportunity this evening to talk about alcohol abuse, which is increasing among adults and younger people. It is not uncommon to see very young teenagers going around with beer in their hands. We need better education about drug abuse and the effects of alcohol abuse. We need better treatment of drug and alcohol abusers. More resources need to be used to prevent drug abuse. We should provide additional community facilities, for example. If people have more options, they will be less likely to start taking drugs.

Cocaine is not a new drug. It has been around for generations. It has been glamorised by many people. Some Senators will be familiar with the Eric Clapton song, "Cocaine", from the 1970s. While people have recently started to understand the impact cocaine abuse can have, we need to do more to inform people about its dangers. We need to talk about the side-effects of cocaine use. We do not hear much about the downside of excessive cocaine use such as nosebleeds, hangovers and paranoia. It is expensive to maintain a cocaine habit. These are just some of the impacts felt by cocaine abusers. Other Senators have spoken about the impact of cocaine on society as a whole.

We need to explode the myth that cocaine is a sexy drug, because it is not. It should not be glamorised. We need better education. Information should be made available outside nightclubs and in schools. We should talk about the dangerous effects of dodgy ecstasy tablets and the drug known as "special k". These recreational drugs have had a serious impact on the lives of people I know. We need to raise awareness of the dangers and downsides of drugs. If we ensure education is at the core of our drugs policy, we will help to reduce peer pressure.

Better treatment facilities are needed. It is a disgrace that many drug addicts use drugs like heroin for the first time when they go to prison. I recently heard that 50% of heroin users in our prisons had not taken heroin before they were sent to jail. A review of the Whitaker report on the reform of prisons, which was published more than 20 years ago, was undertaken recently. We need to implement the recommendations of the report so that people are sent to prison to be rehabilitated rather than to get addicted to drugs.

As a society, we need to provide people with alternatives to getting stoned or drunk at weekends. More facilities are needed locally so that people who are growing up can choose from a broader range of activities. There has been substantial growth over the past ten years in many towns and villages in the peri-urban areas of the Dublin region. Very few facilities have been developed in these new estates. I am sure the Minister of State has personal experience of seeing young people hanging around late on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights with nothing to do except drink or take drugs. No facilities are in place to offer alternative activities to such people. There are more golf clubs than playgrounds in Ireland. We need to put facilities in place to give children and young people an alternative to taking drugs in the first instance. There are no community centres or young people's facilities in many areas. There are no outlets where youth activities can be organised. In the absence of such facilities, is it any wonder that we have ended up with a drug problem?

I support the motion before the House. We need to direct more resources to educating people about the impact of the misuse of drugs on drug users, their families and society as a whole. Better treatment facilities are needed, as I have said. More social facilities need to be provided in communities to offer people an alternative to getting involved in drugs.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, to the House. I thank Senator Hannigan for sharing his time with me.

Irish drinking habits have changed over recent times. People have become more likely to drink at home than in the pub. That shift has been caused by the significant increase in the availability of alcohol in many outlets, including supermarkets. It is not healthy that such outlets sell alcohol at cheap prices, often below cost. We do not send the right message to young people when we tell them they can get three cans for the price of one, or buy 12 cans and get 12 cans free. I agree with the recent comments of Mr. Padraig Cribben, the chief executive officer designate of the Vintners Federation of Ireland, who said that a great deal of alcohol is now being consumed outside controlled areas such as pubs. The one thing to be said about a pub, I suppose, is one can only drink so much and one will fall down. The amount of alcohol, like other drugs, one can take before one exceeds the stated safe amount varies from person to person. It depends on one's tolerance of the build-up of alcohol.

Drinks consumed at home are generally not measured, which is dangerous. It is very easy to erode safe standards. I refer to the accepted measures which would be safe, such as 14 units a week for a woman and 21 units for a man. The stated units are not necessarily safe. I do not know how the standard was arrived at, but it could also do with a review. One small glass of wine or half a glass of beer represents one unit. We could do with restating safe levels and deciding who measures such things. There is also a problem with supermarkets using alcohol products as loss leaders.

I welcome the designated driver initiative by Coca-Cola. There should be more such initiatives. It is terrible to sit in a pub and drink water all night — as I have done often enough, although I cannot say I do it regularly — while being charged exorbitant prices for doing so. I do not think this is right. From the point of view of value for money, people may conclude that they might as well have the buzz from alcohol and take their chances. I must point out that I am not advocating this, lest I be misrepresented in my remarks.

The issue of drug use has been well covered this evening. It is now so serious that we must tackle the causes. It is difficult to assess whether someone is driving under the influence of drugs because there is no means of testing for this. If we could introduce something similar to breath testing it would be helpful. There are prescribed drugs which may impair driving or interact with and potentiate the action of other prescribed drugs. We need to be careful because there may be genuine cases in which people take drugs prescribed by their doctor which impair their abilities in some way. This could happen with painkillers or over-the-counter flu remedies. For this reason, tackling the problem will be difficult. I do not know whether there is an easy answer but I am sure, in view of the number of innovative people available, there is some means of assessing whether someone is under the influence of drugs and determining whether the drug is controlled or prescribed or being misused for some purpose.

There are problems with the importation of large amounts of drugs, the recent tragic deaths associated with drugs and under-reporting of drug related deaths. When a person dies of cardiac arrest due to drug taking, the association may not be noted. The answer may be to conduct toxicology screening on everyone who is admitted to hospital or dies suddenly, perhaps of sudden adult death syndrome, although I am not implying in any way that this is associated with drug taking. This is an area that must be dealt with sensitively.

Gangland killings are also associated with drugs. A total of 92% of venues tested in a recent survey were found to show evidence of cocaine use, but that could mean that 92 people in each of these 92 venues were taking drugs, although I am being facetious. The daily reports of drug seizures show the level of drug use. I give credit to the authorities for their success in tackling the drugs crisis. How do we measure success? Do we measure it based on the number of people arrested or jailed for drugs offences, or on the level of misuse? If a small amount of drugs are seized, is this less dangerous than a larger amount? One child or young person taking too much of a drug, no matter how small an amount is in the possession of the supplier, can still result in death. My heartfelt sympathy goes out to the families who are dealing with such deaths this Christmas.

I do not know if my information is factually correct, but I have heard of a machine that can scan trucks or refrigerated trucks moving around the country. I believe this scanner costs €3 million. In the context of the havoc wreaked by drugs on families and individuals and in terms of self-esteem, body image and so on, €3 million is not a lot. It would be helpful to invest in such machines with the aim of having every airport and port covered.

Photo of Déirdre de BúrcaDéirdre de Búrca (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Carey, to the House and thank him for his response to the all-party motion which demonstrates the serious concern among all Members about the epidemic of alcohol misuse and illegal drug use in society. The Minister of State warned against exaggeration of the problem, and perhaps "epidemic" is a strong word to use, but when we examine society today and compare it with that of a generation or two ago — although everything is relative — the level of alcohol misuse and illegal drug use does appear to be of epidemic proportions. There were always subsections of the population, especially its younger members, who experimented with drugs or over-indulged in alcohol, but now it appears that binge drinking and the regular use of recreational drugs such as cocaine, marijuana and ecstasy are fairly standard practice for many young people, which is the real issue of concern.

I will start by concentrating on alcohol misuse because alcohol is the drug of choice for Irish people and it is one about which we have a blind spot, perhaps because we have always tolerated high levels of use. The starting point is the culture of alcohol use and misuse in this country. We have a lenient and tolerant attitude towards excessive consumption of alcohol. This needs to change. It is almost a rite of passage nowadays for young people anywhere between the ages of 12 and 16 to binge drink, get drunk and almost throw up. That is the initiation into the world of alcohol consumption. From then on it becomes an habitual behaviour. Young people go out and engage in binge drinking, sometimes combining this with poly-drug use in which they experiment with different forms of recreational drugs. We can see from recent incidents, as mentioned by other Senators, how dangerous these mixtures of alcohol and drugs can be.

We must start by tackling the culture of tolerance towards the excessive consumption of alcohol. That is where the education and public awareness campaigns come in. I agree with other Senators that we need to make them relevant and credible for young people by using language and role models with which they can identify. We must start to change attitudes towards alcohol misuse.

The culture of smoking that used to prevail in this country has undergone a major change. Smoking was widespread and highly accepted, but now smoking in public places is often frowned upon. We have revolutionised attitudes towards smoking in the space of about 20 years. We can do the same in the area of alcohol misuse and drug use if we adopt the same approach and encourage a different set of attitudes towards the use of these substances.

I will mention a few shocking statistics on both alcohol misuse and substance abuse in our society. One in four patients attending accident and emergency units in hospitals present with alcohol related problems. Public order offences have increased by 247% and assaults have increased by 82% since 1996, which has been linked to increasing alcohol consumption. Alcohol was a factor in 36.5% of all fatal vehicle crashes in 2003, and in 38% of fatal pedestrian accidents in the same year pedestrian alcohol use was a factor. Men binge drink on 58 drinking occasions out of every 100, while women binge drink on 30 occasions out of every 100. In 2005, 83% of 14 to 17 year olds drank alcohol, and the average age at which people started to drink was 12. Almost one third of 15 to 16 year old students had binged three or more times in the previous 30 days. Under age Irish girls have the highest rate of binge drinking in Europe. There has been a 390% increase since 1996 in intoxication among under age drinkers in public places. This is why we use strong words such as "epidemic" when describing this problem. When we consider the combined impact of all these different statistics, we can see we have a serious problem on our hands.

Other Senators have suggested policy measures that would go some way towards tackling these problems. An education programme and raising awareness is one of the starting points in addressing our cultural attitudes towards alcohol misuse and drug abuse but we also must take other action. The proposed reduction in the levels of alcohol permitted for drivers is welcome and perhaps in time we would introduce a zero tolerance policy for alcohol and the combination of drinking and driving.

An issue raised frequently this year, particularly in the run-up to the general election, is the need for facilities for young people such as youth cafes that would be alcohol free but allow young people an opportunity to socialise together in safe, fun places but without the presence of alcohol. That would be an essential step in trying to address the culture of alcohol abuse among young people.

We also need a code of practice on the sale of alcohol in off-licences and much higher penalties for the sale of alcohol to or the purchase of it for young people. The penalties under the public order Act must be increased for alcohol related disorders because there has been an alarming increase in alcohol related public order offences, particularly in recent years.

As far as drug abuse is concerned, we must introduce roadside testing for drugs that are commonly abused. When drivers are stopped they are tested for alcohol abuse but we are not examining the possibility that some drivers may have been abusing recreational drugs or even some of the harder drugs. We must introduce a system of roadside testing for those substances. I am aware the Minister of State, Deputy Carey, has been involved in promoting drug-related information sites for young people where they can educate and inform themselves about many of the substances available and the dangers attached to using them.

There should be much greater availability of polydrug clinics. Attempts were made to introduce cocaine clinics but they were not very successful. People might not feel there is a specific need for cocaine related clinics but when they begin to abuse drugs like cocaine they are often experimenting with and abusing other drugs also. It is hoped the polydrug clinics will be able to deal with alcohol abuse also because we are seeing more of the combination of alcohol abuse with drug abuse.

I welcome the proposal the Minister of State, Deputy Carey, made in his contribution about a national strategy on substance abuse that would incorporate alcohol because that is something that has been missing. Having been a member of a drugs task force in Bray I am aware of the excellent work it carried out regarding drug abuse generally but in recent years there has been much more discussion about the need to tackle the alcohol abuse problem, although it needs to be approached in a different way from the traditional approach to drug abuse. Alcohol is a drug that is widely abused in our society and the Green Party would welcome seeing it incorporated into a national strategy on substance abuse. I thank the Minister of State for his presentation.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Fine Gael)
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I wish to share my time with Senator Healy Eames.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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That is agreed. The Senators have five minutes each.

7:00 pm

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Fine Gael)
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A number of speakers outlined worthwhile ways of moving this issue forward. I will not repeat those but instead focus on a number of areas that have not been touched on this evening.

The legalisation of drugs is not a policy we should develop or implement at any point. I feel strongly about that issue because it goes back to my idea of what politics is all about. Politics is about freedom and helping people be free from negative forces, whether it be hunger, deprivation or coercion. It is also about giving people the freedom to do something with their life through education, the provision of safe neighbourhoods and ensuring they have a decent health service. Drugs are anti-freedom. They give people an illusion in terms of who they are. They reduce their ability to make use of the capabilities and gifts they have and that society tries to nurture and anything that does that is not something we should sustain or recognise.

I understand the informed points made by people who propose the legalisation of drugs. They talk about the difficulty of winning this war by reducing the supply of drugs and dealing with the issue of demand but just because the battle is ferociously difficult does not mean we should give up trying to win it. Our State should not recognise anything that reduces the ability of any citizen to take advantage of the gifts God, nature and society has given to them.

The Minister of State referred earlier to his Department's response regarding the inclusion of alcohol in the national substance misuse strategy. He said he had an open mind in that regard. Alcohol should be included in that strategy because there is no doubt that the excessive use of alcohol leads to the difficulties to which I referred. It reduces people's ability to be who they can and should be and if the inclusion of alcohol in the strategy creates challenges for the drinks industry, people who supply drink and so on, as I have no doubt it will, that is a price we must pay. The points made about the link between alcohol, the presentation of people in accident and emergency departments and suicide demand that alcohol be included in the strategy and people who have a legitimate interest in the supply and sale of alcohol will have to deal with that.

On the question of responsibility, that is something I have struggled with during this debate and in recent weeks. Like most people my age, I have been very lucky. I benefited from a good education, growing up in a safe home and the ability to get a job and take advantage of the gifts I was given. With all the life chances and choices that were available to me, if I then decided to use a drug I knew could end my life or severely restrict my ability to act responsibly in the future, at what point would our responsibility as a Legislature and the Minister of State's responsibility on behalf of the Government end? At what point do we say we have done all we can as a Legislature to deal with this issue and when should personal responsibility for one's actions kick in?

I am not saying we should wash our hands of people; nobody is suggesting that. I raise it to bring into sharp focus the people who did not have the chances available to me. I speak about those who have grown up with deprivation and disadvantage and who did not have the role models and the positive experiences I had and for whom drug use is part of their daily life. For those people the supply and use of drugs in their community is far more prevalent than should be the case. It is the whole point of social and educational disadvantage.

An element missing in the debate is that regarding the use of cocaine by people with more money than sense. For many people who do not have money and because of the environment in which they have grown up, drug use is more the norm than we should accept. Schools in disadvantaged areas should be given additional resources and programmes to tackle this. These will have to be accelerated and used in future to ensure in 15 years' time we are not having the same debate. Families and partners about to bring children into the world must be proficient at educating their young on drugs to ensure the mistakes of this generation are not repeated.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Donohoe for sharing his time and the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, for staying the distance in the debate. My focus is on education and the law, both of which need to be strengthened in the fight against the epidemic of alcohol misuse and illegal drug use. Neither issue is simplistic. They must be tackled through a cross-party, cross-departmental and multifaceted approach.

My main concern is for the safety of young people at the gateway age, which is 9 years to 11 years for smoking and 11 years to 13 years for alcohol and drugs. I have less sympathy for young adults who should know the risks and take personal responsibility. I have great concerns for those young people who do not know the risks involved. This is where a serious job in educating them must be done.

In the past few weeks I have become worried that drugs, particularly cocaine, are now an accepted part of a social scene. If that is the case, we are in serious trouble. It suggests drugs are part of our culture which is what happened with alcohol. Everything must be done to prevent drugs becoming an accepted part of our culture.

Young people, particularly teenagers, do not have accurate information on drugs. They may not understand that a drug changes the chemical reaction of the brain which in the process takes away personal power to act responsibly. Instead, drugs create an illusion of personal power which is mistaken. I am concerned young people respond to drugs as something sensational and often feel under pressure to experiment so as to be accepted as part of the group. For teenagers, to be part of the group is paramount.

Other Members referred to the shock of recent deaths from drugs but we know shock does not bring about behavioural change. It only highlights the issue. It is how it is built upon that we will bring about behavioural change. To be able to make responsible decisions, young people need accurate information. They do not necessarily recognise the dangers of drugs or have the wherewithal or personal power to say no. It takes much courage and personal responsibility which is not easy to achieve. It can only be arrived at over a sustained period in education and, more than likely, personal tests in life situations.

On this morning's Order of Business, I asked that each school give one dedicated SPHE class or assembly session on alcohol and drug misuse before the Christmas holidays. With recent publicity, a danger exists of copycat experimenting with alcohol and drugs over the holidays. Of course, education in this must be for the long term.

Will the Minister of State inform the House if all schools have a substance misuse policy in place? Are all schools addressing drug and alcohol abuse and misuse in SPHE classes? How many are using the On Your Own Two Feet programme? I was trained facilitator when we developed the SPHE programme with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. At the time I recall there were only some trained facilitators in the On Your Own Two Feet programme. Since then, how widespread has the programme become?

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator has gone over her allocated time.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I wanted to raise how the law could be used in fighting drugs and my husband will be disappointed about this. I can raise it in another debate. Life is precious. Let us not be afraid to examine all the measures needed to protect it.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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I join with the tributes paid to the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey. His performance on "The Late Late Show" was a watershed in the changing of attitudes to drug abuse. He could easily have succumbed to the flippancy of the occasion, striking a deadly blow for the national drugs strategy in the process. Instead, he adopted a measured approach of both horror and hope. Both words must be kept in mind in this debate.

After the recent terrible tragedies caused by drug abuse, the programme indicated the difficulties in fighting it. There is a flippant approach and cultural attitude from celebrities and others on radio, television and columns in particular newspapers that forget how serious is the situation. The reason we have an alcohol-abuse epidemic is because we did not recognise or admit to it being an evolving crisis. When a survey shows that 70% of young people have used alcohol, it is a serious situation. That is the beginning for more levels of abuse.

Ten years ago, I would have been uncomfortable raising alcohol abuse in the Seanad because it was not fashionable. When Senator Mary M. White earlier praised the Cathaoirleach and me for not taking alcohol, I felt we were being outed. At least, however, there is a changing attitude. I never felt when I wore my pioneer pin that I was telling anyone else what they should do. I was very often the butt of jokes for wearing it. Members will recall comedians using alcoholics as a subject but they never stopped to think of the results of alcoholism. If they encountered alcoholics on the side of the street, experienced broken homes and the violence and depression that went with this, they would not make jokes about it, no more than one would make fun of somebody with a stutter. It is not politically correct. There is change coming in that regard but not quickly enough. We need to change attitudes.

I have heard all the statistics, read the strategies and know how much money has been provided but they are not the issue. The small steps taken in the Seanad in the past week indicate that this is a crisis. I laud the Leader for setting up a sub-committee of Senators and the political parties of every hue who have agreed to tabling this motion. If we do not take these first steps we will not succeed.

When I spoke recently on the Order of Business I did not accuse anyone of being soft on drugs but I questioned arguments being put forward that we could somehow impose on the rights of an individual by overreacting to this crisis. An ordered society will always require constraints on the rights of an individual: one cannot park one's car where one likes, one must give a portion of one's salary to the Government, one cannot drink and drive. They are constraints. Why do we think we are imposing on the rights of the individual by trying to put an end to the terrible torture being inflicted on some people? There are old people who are terrified because they are the victims of drug related crimes, people in some communities feel completely under siege, some parents are at their wits' end because the children whom they have brought up well, with a particular ethos, have been gathered into the net of drug abuse. That is what we must consider.

We were asked today to have a rational debate as if we are dealing with a rational issue. We are dealing with irrationality. Every time we soften our language we send out the wrong message again. Zero tolerance is the only acceptable approach to drug abuse. If the number of young people who have died recently from drug abuse had died as a result of violence, there would be an outcry but we seem to be immune to this problem. If an invader attacked us the country would unite to protect its sovereignty, ethos and quality of life. That is what we face. This is an emergency. When the State was under siege the Government called representatives of the media into private session and asked them to demonstrate a sense of responsibility. The media does not show this level of responsibility now. The Minister of State has the stature to talk to the media and ask it to come into partnership to tackle this problem.

I recall the murder of Veronica Guerin, ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam, and the outrage felt when civilised society was confronted in such a dastardly manner by criminality. We were able then to take strong action. We need the same reaction now. Zero tolerance must be the engine that will drive any strategy we devise.

Responsibility is shared by all those who benefit from our community and it begins in the home. We have reached a point almost where one cannot discipline children or say a word to them in school because the parents will tackle the teachers. One cannot speak about this in public because one will be regarded as not politically correct. We must get back to basics. Parents must demonstrate parental control. Schools have a role but we often expect them to do the work of the home as well.

Society must focus on the measures required. People always have information and they should provide it. Communities should not allow themselves to be intimidated. We should not take a soft approach to drug taking or to those who make money out of it. Nobody could have anticipated the type of gang related deaths occurring now, whereby if someone has withheld money a person can shoot him or her in the head. I am delighted that the Minister of State has put down a marker, and under his leadership we can make progress.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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Tá céad míle fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Chomh maith le daoine eile anseo, ba bhreá liom tréaslú leis an méid atá le rá aige faoi chúrsaí drugaí agus alcólachas. Molaim a chur chuige agus a mhodh múinte freisin.

While I welcome this debate there are aspects of it I do not welcome. I worry about our tendency to discuss these matters in a frenzied moment when events occur in which the media is interested. Anything that touches on human life or death, happiness and fulfilment, or despair and destruction is deeply important. Certain things provoke debate and outrage for a while but then the circus moves on, which raises questions about our attitude to human life and its meaning and how sacred or otherwise it is. It took the tragic death of a young celebrity, for example, to get us into a new mode of discussing this issue. Although it was a discretionary decision to send the Taoiseach's aide-de-camp to the funeral, and I would always welcome such gestures of charity and solidarity, other funerals caused by a similar problem took place without the same high profile intervention. That suggests that even Government and legislators are not immune to the media frenzy but that should not be so.

By contrast I welcome the Minister of State's measured approach. He resisted the tendency to overstate the problem or to make right wing, irrational, rabid statements of the kind that can go down well. I have reservations, however, about the way we turn to mantras at a time like this, such as, "cross-departmental approaches" or the "importance of education" or the "need for investment". Money, education and joined-up thinking are necessary but we need something deeper.

We must examine ways to tackle the demand side of the drug problem but before we do so we must ask ourselves why this demand exists. This is where people become uncomfortable because we have to acknowledge that there is a deep social and cultural malaise at the heart of this issue. Alcohol abuse, drug abuse and suicide are sad symptoms of how cheap life has become in Irish society.

Alcohol has been a problem in Ireland for a long time and it is worth reflecting on how it was counteracted in the past. Those with an interest in history will remember the etchings of Hogarth depicting Gin Lane and the horrible destruction wreaked by addiction. He managed to begin the process of raising people's awareness of the misery associated with alcohol addiction. Fr. Theobald Matthew's temperance movement in Ireland was driven by the moral certainty that alcoholism was wreaking an evil on society and the need for people to become united around moral values of self restraint for the sake of themselves and others. This is the kind of movement that could not exist today because people are scared of the concept of morality and that they might be seen as judgmental. Therein lies the problem. Many people are profoundly lost on a spiritual and philosophical level and this is illustrated by the problems of suicide, alcoholism and drug abuse. It is not surprising that some people lost on a spiritual, psychological or philosophical level might seek comfort from pain in temporary highs offered by alcohol and drugs. If this is the case then telling people to "just say no" will not work.

In the past the church was good at telling people what to believe but was not so good at telling them why to believe what was proposed. It is not surprising that over time, with greater freedom, many people rejected what was proposed. The State risks making the same mistake. Liberal voices focusing on harm-reduction strategies will not work and will simply contribute to the ambivalence surrounding drug taking. We must move away from talk of tough sentencing and targeting drug pushers. We must also move away from talk of investment, education and cross-departmental approaches because, ultimately, the State and its systems cannot solve this problem. The solution must come from people's hearts and it must be a deeply felt community response, perhaps similar to the response in the North to the killing of Paul Quinn. Communities there have come together in a deep sense of outrage and are united in the need to confront the issue. There is no suggestion that some people may choose to kill and that it is an individual choice. There is no room for individual choice when dealing with crises and when addressing issues that may cost lives.

We must move towards a unified, consistent discourse that does not shy from talking about morality. I do not mean this in a narrow religious sense but in a shared social sense, in which religious organisations will be willing and welcome partners in dialogue. Rather than tell people that they should not take drugs the State must convince people why they should not take drugs. Life is sacred; this must be the starting point in this matter and the wider message is that we owe a deep debt of responsibility to others.

These days there is a politically correct emphasis on self-actualisation but this causes confusion rather than strengthening people's sense of responsibility to each other. I agreed with some of the comments of my colleague, Senator Bacik, but I was not clear how she felt about legalising harder drugs as she confined her comments to cannabis. The notion of handing out leaflets at night clubs informing people of the danger of taking ecstasy without water suggests to me that there is a disastrous defeatism in the air. The comparison made with the ineffectual nature of telling people to abstain from sex to avoid sexually transmitted diseases illustrates just how defeatist some people are about people's capacity to amend their behaviour and live more healthy lives. One could argue that this is the pro-choice mentality gone mad.

We must ask ourselves some fundamental questions. Do we believe in people's power to transform their behaviour? If not, why do we emphasis the importance of education? Things are actually the other way round; people can change their behaviour but to do so need leadership through education with a strong moral message at its core. There is no room for ambivalence, with some people discussing drugs as though they were a matter of personal choice about which one must simply be careful. While this attitude is responsible one cannot hope to use it to get the message through to young people at a formative stage in their lives that drugs are not the way to go.

We need a discourse on the meaning of human life and the capacity of people to change. It is ironic that this discussion is taking place while denominational schooling is being attacked because I would have thought the ideal of such organisations is to teach self-belief and an ability to value one's own life and that we could learn from them.

The State must get off the pulpit and stop discussing bland elements of this issue such as money and education. It must stop giving mixed messages on drugs and particularly alcoholism. Regarding alcoholism, we must begin to tackle the use of alcoholic drinks in the sponsorship of sporting events and drink advertising in general. This may hurt and vested interests are involved but if we really believe life is sacred and alcohol ruins lives and damages communities we should not be afraid to make hard choices, even when they cost the Exchequer.

We must move away from the illusion that free education has made us all capable of making responsible choices. This is only the beginning as many people are deeply incurious about the meaning of their lives and their potential. The State must participate, and encourage voluntary groups, in spreading the message to people that life is sacred and that responsible choices are essential for the sake of the human community. This involves a little known and little respected concept known as self-denial.

Photo of Ivor CallelyIvor Callely (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to avail of this motion to make what I hope are comments of a fundamental nature on the epidemic of substance abuse in our society. The time has clearly come for a major redirection of resources relating to the treatment and prevention of substance abuse. Irish society shares with the rest of the developed world many of the social problems that arise out of wealth and substance abuse is one such problem. While we must treat the individuals who are caught up in these problems in a humane and civilised way, above all we must concentrate on removing to the greatest possible extent the root causes of the problem. For example, a society in which binge drinking is the perceived norm is in a poor position to deal with the epidemic of cocaine.

Young people are the most vulnerable to drug and alcohol misuse and we must acknowledge that they have a crucial role to play with their keen perceptions and their ability to criticise the inconsistencies and inadequacies of a society which we all share. They have a right to be heard and it is our duty here, in Seanad Éireann, to take account of their views. We must have the energy, enthusiasm, idealism and commitment to deal with the issue of substance abuse and, most importantly, the current crises we are facing regarding cocaine abuse.

At this time of economic good fortune we have been provided with the possibility to build and maintain a social structure that rejects the notion that drug taking in any walk of life is acceptable, be it in a nightclub, at a dinner party, at a sports event or in the workplace, Leinster House or elsewhere. A person who recreationally, routinely or passively observes such use may note that all cases have a common dominator in that they fuel the drug lord and his criminal activities. Where does collective responsibility begin?

The Dublin County Coroner stated yesterday that cocaine was the commonest cause of death in more than half of all inquests. The year 2007 has seen a large number of inquests into drug related deaths and nearly all deaths involved young people. Ireland has the third highest cocaine use in Europe and seizures of the drug have risen 800% in the past five years. We cannot ignore these statistics.

Substance abuse is not just a matter for the police as health and education play their part too. Each and every one of us has a crucial role to play in the eradication and erosion through education of this scourge in society.

Cocaine has been glamorised and romanticised but the public must understand the opposite is the truth. Cocaine in Ireland mainly comes from Colombia and is produced from a leaf which is stamped into the ground, made into a paste and then mixed with kerosene, sulphuric acid, calcium and a range of other chemicals. Where is the glamour in that? The drug is then smuggled here, a journey which may easily involve transportation in somebody's stomach or rectum.

Debate adjourned.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Larry ButlerLarry Butler (Fianna Fail)
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Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.