Seanad debates

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

5:00 am

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Progressive Democrats)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the public consultation period of the National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016.

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, Deputy Curran, on his first outing to the Seanad. I move this motion in the hope of encouraging a wide-ranging debate during the public consultation phase of the National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016. I framed the motion broadly to prevent the debate from becoming adversarial. I am somewhat disappointed, therefore, that the Opposition has chosen to end the debate with a vote.

My thinking on this matter was stimulated by a recent "Prime Time" programme.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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That is the reason for our amendment.

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Progressive Democrats)
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That programme asked whether it was wise to keep to the strategies that have been implemented by governments internationally over many years or whether an alternative was available to this war without end. It investigated the issue of drugs at the international, national and local levels and asked what we can do to help. It made a compelling case for a review of our policies, which is the reason I tabled this motion. It might be useful to include the Seanad in the public consultation phase of the strategy to draw attention to the strategies as they are developed.

International strategies have been weak in tackling the organised crime which fuels the drug culture. We need to learn lessons from international thinking on this issue, so I hope to use the opportunity of this debate to explore policies which have been implemented elsewhere.

I am sure the Minister of State has seen the "Prime Time" programme. I found it extraordinary that so many law enforcement officers with years of experience, including former gardaí, thought that the policy of prohibition should be reviewed. They suggested that no politician would have the courage to make such a statement because of the risk of being regarded as wanting to legalise drugs. The issues are not so black and white, however, and that is why I sought this debate. As always, I am delighted to see Senator Donohoe in the Chamber because he is a reasonable man and I am sure he will appreciate my reasons for tabling this motion.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Fine Gael)
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I can give only one kind of response now.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Is Senator O'Malley saying the rest of us are unreasonable?

Photo of Kieran PhelanKieran Phelan (Fianna Fail)
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The Senators can continue the niceties outside but Senator O'Malley should be allowed to continue.

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Progressive Democrats)
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I am encouraged by his smiles.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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The Senator is clutching at straws now.

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Progressive Democrats)
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I do not want this debate to be framed as calling for the legalisation of drugs because that is not what I am doing. However, I am seeking a debate on the solutions because if we continue to do more of the same, we will not make progress. We should not close the door on positive elements of previous strategies or enlightened policies implemented in other countries. The law enforcement officers interviewed on "Prime Time" held the opinion that a blanket prohibition is not necessarily the correct way to proceed. I want to widen this debate so we can critically analyse the issues.

One academic called for a cost-benefit analysis of prohibition. That would be useful because we need to consider the real cost of drugs, including alcohol, to society.

The national drugs strategy comprises four pillars. The Opposition amendment addresses the first pillar, treatment, and the Minister of State is very familiar with the treatment services needed and how best to target resources. The previous drugs strategy helped to build the infrastructure for treatment. Money was available for discussions on what needed to happen and to establish systems. We have made significant progress but the next phase must include an audit of treatments to determine whether the resources invested are directly benefitting patients through streamlined services. We need to build a strong conduit that reaches the end user. Treatment should become a major element of the national drugs strategy.

The second pillar of the strategy is availability. The Garda has had major success in seizing drugs but only 10% of total imports are detected despite the investment of huge sums of money and resources. We need to examine how we can improve on that.

The Criminal Assets Bureau, empowered by various items of legislation, has done a tremendous job of pursuing major drug barons. The CAB is another of the successes of the existing strategy. Further successes of this nature are required. The work of the CAB proves that when we are determined to take action, make changes and tackle crime head on, we are well able to do so. This gives me great encouragement regarding the political will to act, which is vital. I have no doubt that during his term of office the Minister of State will see to it that practical steps are taken, in the context of the national drugs strategy, to deliver better resources for patients, in the first instance. Such resources must also be delivered in respect of tackling the cancer that is the major criminal element involved in the supply and distribution of illegal drugs.

In a sense, harm reduction lies at the heart of the prohibition argument. We do not want people to abuse drugs but they always will. It is human nature. We must, therefore, reach out to them in the best way possible. Harm reduction strategies have been extremely useful in allowing people who are isolated to lead as normal a life as possible. I would like harm reduction initiatives to form one of the major pillars in the new drugs strategy.

I look forward to the remainder of the debate and I hope it will continue in the spirit to which I referred earlier. We must seek solutions and encourage inclusivity. I look forward to the contributions of Members and the Minister of State.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Progressive Democrats)
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I second the motion. I have not consulted Senator O'Malley on this matter because I did not have the opportunity to do so. However, I also have a major difficulty with the way the Opposition drafted its amendment to the motion, which was framed in such a way as to allow all Members to air their views on this issue. I am somewhat disappointed it has not been taken in that spirit.

One of the major challenges facing us is the need to guide and nurture our young people in order that they might emerge from our homes and schools as well-rounded and independent individuals. They need to be well equipped to face the many challenges of the 21st century and they must be well informed of the dangers they face and how these can be overcome. While this task is not, and never should be, the sole responsibility of Government, we do have a major role to play. We need to view our society holistically. It is not possible to fix a systemic breakdown without simultaneously changing every interconnected problem that young people face.

Drug abuse in all its forms robs young people of their futures. I include alcohol and tobacco in my description of drugs. Statistics from the United States show that tobacco kills more people every year than all of the people killed by all illegal drugs in the 20th century. Alcohol kills 80,000 Americans each year. In the context of what Senator O'Malley said with regard to enforcement and an appropriate response to the different levels of drug abuse, it is interesting that statistics from the US Drug Enforcement Agency indicate that there were no deaths attributable to the use of cannabis. That is a matter we should re-examine.

If indignation and impatience could stop the problems of drug abuse, they would have done so long ago. Righteous though they may be, however, they cannot replace the need for effective strategies that deal with the entire web of problems behind drug abuse. It is my firm belief that we can make real progress in tackling the drug culture by beginning at the very basic building blocks of society, namely, our homes and communities. Community-based, collaborative efforts have proven to be the key to reaching out to those at risk and preventing abuse and neglect. If we take responsibility for ourselves, our families and our local communities we can ensure that neighbourhood by neighbourhood and town by town, abuse rates will continue to fall.

The Government is intent on supporting this type of local based effort and a further €2 million has been allocated in 2008 to develop and strengthen the work of the local drugs task forces and facilitate the implementation of projects under the emerging needs fund. More than 440 local drugs task force projects, including those under the emerging needs fund, are in receipt of moneys from the Department. The 2008 allocation of €22 million for such projects shows an increase of 9.5% over the amount spent in 2007.

I wish to focus on one aspect of the battle against drug abuse, namely, the provision of credible and appropriate social outlets for young people, particularly those in the 13 to 18 age group. Research carried out on behalf of the Government in recent years shows that children in this age group are most susceptible to alcohol and drug abuse. If we can succeed in getting young people in this age group through this difficult period, unscathed by the effects of drug abuse, we will be well on the way to solving this problem nationally.

A nationwide network of youth cafés forms the centrepiece of the Government's policy on developing recreational facilities for young people. The need for improved recreational options has consistently been raised by teenagers in consultations with and surveys carried out by a range of bodies in recent years. In particular, young people have said they want a place where they can hang out with friends, where they will be safe and over which they will have a sense of ownership. This policy has been welcomed by many youth representatives around the country. Comhairle na nÓg — our young people's parliament — has highlighted a grave lack of recreation facilities in some areas, particularly for teenagers who are not sport orientated.

I was recently fortunate enough to be asked to speak to a local junior certificate class about the wonders of the democratic process. In light of his comments earlier today, perhaps I should have allowed Senator O'Toole speak to them because he might have had a far more interesting perspective on the matter. Towards the end of our discussion, I asked the 15 year olds in the class what would be their priority if they were allowed to govern the country for one day. Without hesitation and with total unanimity they said they would provide a youth café in every town. The young men in the class pointed out that there were only four pool tables in their town and that all were located in pubs. These young men told me that, despite what people might think, they do not want to go into pubs. They stated that they feel extremely vulnerable in the pub environment and would give anything to be able to meet and play pool in a space they could call their own. Young people themselves have identified recreational opportunities as one of the most important quality-of-life issues in Ireland in recent years.

I am pleased the Minister of State with responsibility for children and his officials are examining various models of youth cafés and that a template could be ready soon for the development of such facilities in our communities. However I suggest that we already have a model or template which, with a little modification, could be used to empower communities to provide youth cafés for their young people. The equal opportunities child care programme is a shining example of how self-sufficient and proactive communities can be empowered to provide facilities for themselves. Since the programme's inception in 2000, more than 50,000 child care places have been provided by communities. This is the model we could use for youth cafés. Young people and their mentors could identify and substantiate a need for a youth café in their area. They could be directly involved in designing it and, with capital investment from the Government similar to that relating to child care, we could easily roll out a nationwide network of youth cafes in record time. With respect, there is no need to reinvent the wheel in this instance. I ask that at some point in the near future the Minister of State with responsibility for children return to the House to debate this matter further.

I am heartened by the approach taken by the Government in respect of education on drug abuse. The main focus of the national drugs strategy regarding education is on preventative strategies, targeting the primary and secondary levels, as well as the informal education sector, which includes youth services. Arising from this, all schools now have substance misuse prevention programmes included on their curricula. A consequence of this policy is that we are equipping all students with knowledge regarding the dangers of drug misuse.

The Department of Education and Science has in place a national curriculum for social, personal and health education, SPHE, which is backed up by teacher guidelines and a full-time support service through which teacher training is provided. The programme consists of a number of modules, including one relating to substance abuse, at both primary and post-primary level. Within the SPHE programme, the Walk Tall programme has been developed, in co-operation with the health sector, as the substance misuse prevention programme at primary level. The latter programme is part of the primary school curriculum — from junior infants to sixth class — and is supported by the primary curriculum support programme on a national basis. Social, personal and health education is a mandatory component of the junior cycle curriculum at post-primary level and is supported by the SPHE support service.

There is no doubt that progress is being made in the area of education on the dangers of drug abuse. This policy of education is without doubt the most important and powerful tool we have in the war against drugs. Empowering young people to make the right decision in respect of drugs is the real issue. Armed with the right information and provided with the facilities to socialise in a safe and credible environment, they will make the decision that they do not need drugs of any kind.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following;


there has been a reported seven fold rise in the number of cocaine cases seeking treatment between 2001 and 2006;

the number of new heroin cases outside Dublin doubled between 2001 and 2006;

levels of drug use among Irish teenagers are now far greater than the European average with 50% of young people having used drugs at some stage in their lives;

the shortage of dedicated residential services for drug treatment across the country, with an estimated 365 more beds needed at hospital, community and rehabilitation levels to meet demand;

in view of:

Government failure to implement the recommendations of the working group on drug rehabilitation under the National Drugs Strategy 2001-2008;

the delay in the rollout of treatment projects for drug users;

calls on the Government to:

immediately implement the outstanding recommendations of the rehabilitation pillar of the National Drugs Strategy 2001-2008;

ensure regional and local drugs task forces are adequately resourced and supported to tackle drug mis-use in the regions; and

introduce additional residential services in line with recommendations, in order to reduce waiting times for drug treatment services."

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, congratulate him on his appointment and wish him well. The motion before us is welcome and timely but I make no apology for proposing the Fine Gael amendment. I do so on behalf of the ordinary people of Ireland who have asked us to represent them in this Chamber. These are people whose family members have been victims of drugs and who have today and this week on TV3 painted a very graphic story of what it means to be a citizen of Ireland in this century.

This Government came into power more than 11 years ago with a national drugs strategy we all welcomed and bought into. We can consider its four pillars. Supply reduction has failed and a 10% detection rate with regard to prevention is not good enough. With regard to treatment, residential treatment centres are not available and detox beds are not in place. There are waiting lists for methadone treatment. It is not good enough. We have research coming out of our ears but there is no leadership or Government action.

I make no apology for tabling an amendment to the motion. I am not being adversarial. I have listened to the people of Cork who attended the consultative process and read or heard what they said. The character of drug use has changed from the 1980s and 1990s to today, which the Minister of State himself knows. We should not bury our heads in the sand.

In a very eloquent opening, Senator O'Malley asked if there was an alternative to this war without end. I hope there is. Senator Cannon spoke of empowerment and that we should educate people but such action needs genuine political leadership which challenges, provides resources and empowers people. That is not happening.

Senators can give me all the replies in the world and speeches with statistics concerning money and local drugs task forces, but this action is not happening locally. The figures, unfortunately, prove this and I get no joy from saying that. I have visited classrooms where people have seen their peers committing suicide because they owe money to drug barons which they cannot afford to repay. I have gone to the homes of families run out of estates because they are afraid of living in Ireland today. That is the war we are talking about.

The people in question are not grandiose but are ordinary people struggling and trying to get out of a mire. Senators should not lecture me about being adversarial. This Government came into power and indicated it would have a consultative process and drug strategies. We have not learned.

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Progressive Democrats)
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What does the Senator suggest?

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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One can consider what the programme on TV3 last Monday produced. Customs and Coast Guard personnel lack resources, X-ray machines are not being dispersed throughout the country and there is a lack of dog units.

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Progressive Democrats)
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What are the Senator's ideas? That is the purpose of the debate.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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There is a lack of joined-up thinking between Departments. That is what the Government is presiding over.

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Progressive Democrats)
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Has the Senator any ideas?

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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That is what the Government is presiding over. With regard to residential treatment centres and detox beds, there are nine counties with no such facilities after 11 years of prosperity. Senators have the temerity to come in and lecture us on how to tackle drugs but we should get real.

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Progressive Democrats)
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Nobody lectured the Senator. What are his ideas? Will we hear them?

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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The argument——

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Progressive Democrats)
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No, we will not.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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——is we are small island community. Our teenagers have overtaken those in the United States of America in the use of drugs. What does that tell us? What are we telling the people around the country in every urban and rural part of Ireland?

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Progressive Democrats)
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What will the Senator tell them?

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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What will we tell them about the issue?

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Progressive Democrats)
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Has the Senator a clue about it? No.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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If we are to talk about the twin pillars of education and enforcement, we should have real and meaningful education that will tackle the core of the issue and give young people an opportunity to buy in.

I subscribe to Senator Cannon's comments on the use of youth cafés. We have one in my local election area of Togher and it is brilliant. We also have a brilliant example in Ballinlough. The Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fáil have been in Government for 11 years but we have seen no national roll-out strategy of youth cafés.

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Progressive Democrats)
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What would the Senator do differently?

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I would introduce them immediately. We should empower, enforce, educate and resource. We should not kid ourselves. Senators on the Government side have come to this debate to lecture us. We accept money is not the answer but the essence of what we are at is down to problems such as a sevenfold increase in the use of cannabis. If we need to take in the variations across the counties of the country, we should do so, but we need absolute consistency from Government, which we have not had.

What did the Progressive Democrats former Minister do when he was in Government on the issue? He did nothing. In fairness to the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, who formerly had responsibility in this area, he went out to meet the people, listened and engaged.

I have a fundamental difficulty with this Government because there has not been a reduction in the availability of illicit drugs. The national drugs strategy aims to enable people with drug misuse problems to access treatment and other supports in order to reintegrate into society. Since this strategy came into being, the reality has been very different.

The Minister of State must accept that we have seen an increase in drug use in rural Ireland, cities and townlands across the country. The process of making treatment available has not been given the necessary priority, which is a point on which Senator O'Malley and I differ. There is also the issue of residential detox bed availability, the number of which remains at 23 in the most recent report of the working group on drug rehabilitation. The report stated that for our population we should have 89 beds, yet it only recommends an increase of 25 beds. That leaves a deficit of 41.

Today we welcome an opportunity to offer input to the next stage of the national drugs strategy. The previous strategy did not meet its own aims and aspirations, even in a time of unbelievable wealth and boom in the economy. Given the people now in charge, although with a new Minister, what is the likelihood of the next phase meeting its aims and objectives? I hope they will be achieved and that there will be no difficulty in convincing this side of the House about it. We need action rather than just talk. It is time to deliver and it is time for accountability in this war against drugs.

I am sceptical because after 11 years in power, what have we seen from this Government? Why have we seen members of the Coast Guard or Garda on television this week lamenting the lack of resources and joined-up thinking? We should have investment in youth. We are hiding behind RAPID and Leader programmes as we have done nothing for middle class areas. People are crying out for help in such places but because they have a certain income, help cannot be provided. RAPID and Leader areas are correctly prioritised but this is a classless war. Drugs go across the boundaries of society.

It is for such reasons we have tabled our amendment. Blame can be apportioned with regard to the lack of treatment facilities, and this blame must be political, involving the Government and Health Service Executive. It is paradoxical that on one hand the Government is extolling people to stop taking drugs and seek treatment and yet these people cannot access treatment. Why is that the case, particularly in considering the rehabilitation pillar of the national drugs strategy? Why has it not been fulfilled?

We welcome the debate on this side and I am not being adversarial. I have been involved in my community helping young people all my life.

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Progressive Democrats)
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The Senator did not take the opportunity to offer any solutions.

6:00 am

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I am quite simple in my approach and we must eradicate drugs from our society. To do this requires political leadership, more resources for the Garda for enforcement, better use of the courts and help for young people through education.

The advertising campaign on the issue this spring was ineffective. We must learn from the mistakes that have been made and go forward. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, will, like a new broom, bring an enlightened vision to this area. I look forward to his input and he will not face difficulties from this side of the House. However, he should not come to this House to tell us all is well when his party has been in Government for the past 11 years and has never had more money at its disposal. Like everything his party has done in Government, it has blown it on this issue. We are talking about people, young and old, not commodities or statistics. They are our fellow citizens. Some of them have died, some are struggling and, thankfully, some have been rehabilitated. It is the job of Senators on this side of the House to point out deficiencies and challenge the Government to lead.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy John Curran, to the House and wish him well with his new portfolio.

Photo of Larry ButlerLarry Butler (Fianna Fail)
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Money will not solve the issue we are discussing this evening.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I ask Senator Paschal Donohoe to second the amendment and speak on the motion.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Fine Gael)
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I am delighted to second the amendment to the Government's motion tabled by my colleague, Senator Buttimer. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, to the House.

My support for Senator Buttimer's amendment is forged by the constituency I represent, Dublin Central. In recent months I have had two experiences that emphasise that this amendment is correct and that it is important we debate this issue. The first experience occurs annually in my constituency. The inner city portion of Dublin Central is the cradle that gave birth to the citizen-led, people-driven movement that was so successful in tackling the heroin epidemic in the area in the 1980s. The ordinary people we represent saw the failures of the State and of politicians and decided to take power into their own hands, take to the streets and set up organisations that survive to this day. They give people the power to recognise the scale of the epidemic they face and the fact that more needs to be done to tackle it. Every year one of these organisations organises a mass for people who died due to drug abuse, the victims of a scourge. Their families come together to pay homage to their memories and reflect on what they have lost. Seeing people come together to mourn the tragedy of lives lost and potential unrealised should give all politicians pause to question how current policy in this area should be changed. The scale of damage to communities is immense.

The second area I wish to allude to is more positive and gives me more hope. Work is being done in local communities to tackle this issue and provide leadership, but often this is due to the failure of Government initiatives. The Minister of State attended the launch of the annual report of the Anna Liffey drug project last week, as did I. It is based in Abbey Street and is at the cutting edge in dealing with homeless people and those with chronic addiction problems. I recognise the recent intervention of the Minister of State's predecessor in stepping in to meet a funding gap faced by the project and making new facilities available. I know the Minister of State was supportive of this action. Owing to the services the project provides, it is at the cutting edge of giving treatment and hope to these people. The leadership provided by the likes of Mr. Tony Duffin in addressing this issue is inspirational. We must look to the models provided locally as a source of inspiration for how to move forward nationally.

The North Inner City Community Forum and the North West Inner City Community Forum are brilliant in this regard. These organisations were set up owing to frustration in communities at the lack of recognition of the issue that exists and at the fact that not enough is being done to address the it. Seeing the work done by these groups makes it clear to me why an amendment to this motion is necessary. The role of politicians and the Government is to provide leadership on this issue. It is not our role to form a consensus, for its own sake, on what needs to be done. We can see many examples of agreed strategy not being implemented.

Listening to this debate unfold reminded me of G.K. Chesterton's sentiments on Christianity. He felt it is a great idea and we should give it a try. Strategies and pillars on this issue have been laid out but, as Senator Buttimer outlined, in many cases they are not implemented. Before we move on to the next model we must see what has been implemented and what is working of what was agreed. The need for this debate was highlighted by the contributions of my colleagues from the Progressive Democrats. Senator O'Malley suggested the need for a strong, liberal review of current policy and the possible examination of whether prohibition is working, with a debate to follow. On the other hand, Senator Cannon spoke of the need for youth cafés. The attitudes behind these contributions are remarkably different and that is why this debate is so important. The pillars outlined by Senator Buttimer indicate that the strategy we are discussing has not been implemented and young people have lost their lives and potential because of this.

There is a 12-month waiting list in Dublin for people seeking access to treatment and this indicates, contrary to what Senator Butler may think, that in many cases money is still the issue. It would be premature for us to start considering the next model to address this issue when in our capital and in cities and counties throughout the country people must wait 12, 14, and 15 months for the treatment they need.

If we are to reduce the supply of drugs, the Criminal Assets Bureau must complement its focus on large-scale drugs sources with a focus on middle men and small-scale suppliers. We must look at those who get drugs abroad and take deliveries from large-scale suppliers. The Criminal Assets Bureau should focus on tackling middle men and suppliers on the street. We want to see the funds confiscated from such people reinvested locally to supply treatment beds and ensure people need not wait 12 to 14 months for the treatment they require.

I appreciate Senator O'Malley's recognition of my reasoned approach to some aspects of this and am all in favour of a debate on new approaches and strategies. However, we must first examine whether the current strategy is being implemented. I am not sure we need to reinvent the wheel. We know what the model is for success. We need to ensure the funding and the will exist to make it happen. As we have already pointed out, this is often not the case at present. That is why we are pushing this amendment, which is badly needed in a debate such as this.

Photo of Larry ButlerLarry Butler (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the debate, which is long overdue. I agree that it is the job of the Opposition to be critical of various things we do. However, it is important to bear in mind that we are opening up this debate to the public. We are reviewing the current strategy, which is a good thing. I attended some of the strategy meetings myself, and one aspect of the working group was to examine what is working and what is not working. The aspect that continues to be relevant is the operation and effectiveness of the structures involved. They are very important. People now see that good work has been done in various communities down through the years. Nowhere was worse affected by the drugs problem than certain areas of Dublin, such as the north inner city and Dún Laoghaire, and telling me how to deal with drugs is preaching to the converted.

It is not an easy subject. Money is not the be-all and end-all. It is good from a budgeting point of view for delivering services in certain areas, but the big problem in many cases is the money available to young people who are able to buy these drugs. That is one of the issues we must tackle. Family is the basis for the social behaviour of young people who get involved in drugs. I believe that families must be responsible and take into consideration that ten to 20 year olds are liable to get involved with drugs. When the family unit works strongly together, these are the people who are taken into consideration. This is one of the ways in which we can confront the drug addiction problem.

The Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs, Deputy Barry Andrews, has several projects which deal with young people and tackling behavioural problems which in part may lead to substance abuse. This must be tackled and it cannot be left unchecked. We must consider what programmes are to be delivered by the Minister of State.

Home life is very important. Young people are affected by seeing the abuse of prescription drugs in the home. Even the local GP who dishes out prescriptions willy-nilly is implicated. This is highly relevant. Drugs are left around the house, unprotected, and young people will get involved. Alcohol is not a prescription drug but it is also abused within the home. There is no control and it is not kept under lock and key by parents, and young people have access to it. The family is the most important thing in the fight against the drug culture. The mid-term review of the national drugs strategy suggested building on the role of families in the rehabilitation process. We must give these families the help they require.

With regard to the prevention pillar of the national drug strategy, the Government has enjoyed some success in the area of social, personal and health education, including the Walk Tall programme mentioned by my colleague. Government has also acted swiftly on the recommendations of the alcohol advisory group and has introduced the Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2008, which tackles the sale and consumption of drink by strengthening the powers of the Garda to confiscate drink and controlling the physical environment of shops in which alcohol is sold. This is a vital first step. Alcohol is a gateway drug that leads to abuse of other drugs such as amphetamines. Nine thousand members of the public, which is a significant number, visit our accident and emergency departments every year due to the effects of alcohol. We must deal with this. I would also go further and advise that a heavy excise duty be put on alcohol, alcopops, "baggies" and cigarettes. This would certainly help reduce their use among some young people who can readily get them.

The Government has an awareness campaign, organised by the young people's facilities and services fund, which targets young people of between ten and 20 who are at risk. With regard to sport and recreational facilities, €125 million has been spent on 500 projects. It is important to bear in mind that the project has been responsible for the introduction of many sporting facilities. Several successful cocaine projects in Tallaght and in various other areas have helped. Education is another pillar of the national strategy. It is essential that we take every opportunity to educate young people on the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse. Treatment facilities are also important. Approximately 8,600 clients are now undergoing methadone treatment around the country, which is a significant increase. This is an important aspect of the campaign that is now, in timely fashion, being reviewed.

Society must take a harder stance against drugs. There seems to be an acceptance of soft drug abuse in our society. A policeman told me recently that he caught a young guy with some hash in his pocket, but when he rang the boy's mother she asked him whether he did not have something better to do than to pull up her son for carrying soft drugs. While we have that sort of attitude our approach will certainly not work. We must take a tough stance in this regard.

The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, the HSE, the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment are currently taking a joint approach to implementing the mid-term review of the national drugs strategy. The inter-agency approach includes an increase in the number of residential detoxification beds, investigation of the impact of community employment schemes, and broader life issues such as education and medical support. The Garda Síochána plays a key role in tackling the problem of drug misuse locally, nationally and internationally. The Garda strategies for dealing with drug offences are designed to undermine the activities of organised criminals and networks in order to tackle the distribution of illicit drugs. These strategies include gathering intelligence on individuals and organisations involved in drug distribution, including the support structures underpinning these activities, and conducting target operations on criminal networks based on intelligence and collaborative work.

The review of the drugs strategy is important. It is not the case, as Senator Buttimer said, that we simply have not delivered in various areas. By discussing this issue and reaching conclusions we could have collaborative support in the House on the way to tackle the drugs problem. It is too serious an issue with which to play politics. Too many people have died in this and other cities for us to be political about this issue. We must find a solution to this problem, a political one if we can, although that will be difficult.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and congratulate him on his appointment. I know he will do a good job. His predecessor brought this issue into the domain of public contributions on a new way forward to tackle this problem.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Labour)
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I congratulate the Minister of State on his new appointment. I thank the Progressive Democrats for tabling this motion. It is good to have a debate on the new national drugs strategy and I am pleased to have this opportunity to contribute to it. Many people were disappointed with the previous strategy. There has been a failure to implement many of its recommendations. It is for that reason that I wish to state my party will support the Fine Gael amendment to the motion.

We had an opportunity in recent months to debate the drugs problem and the national drugs strategy with the Minister of State's predecessor. I would like to reiterate a few points I have raised previously, mainly centring on harm reduction, the introduction of a modern approach to drug treatment and the control of diseases associated with drugs.

Dealing with drug addiction will be a pivotal part of the new strategy, but we cannot ignore the peripheral issues associated with drug addiction such as infection and homelessness. The spread of infectious diseases among drug users is a growing and dangerous problem facing us all. The Merchant's Quay Project has been at the forefront of drugs counselling in Dublin for almost 20 years. I read with interest its new submission on the new drugs strategy and once again it centres on the issue of harm reduction. It is still calling for a 24-hour needle exchange programme that can be expanded throughout the country, as was promised in the previous strategy but still has not been delivered. We need to revisit that issue and introduce one as soon as possible.

We know that 60% to 70% of intravenous drug users are infected with hepatitis C. There is no vaccine to prevent contracting it, but treatment is available in the form of drugs such as Interferon. Drug users, under the Merchant's Quay plan, access primary and mental health care where necessary. They also obtain clean paraphernalia and access to hepatitis C treatment. However, we also need to focus on promoting immunisation against other diseases such as hepatitis A and hepatitis B, the incidences of which are high among drug users.

We need to re-examine the issue of clinical treatment. Methadone is the drug of choice in terms of treatment, but often it is not effective. Some people cannot use it and some users react badly to it. Any treatment plan needs to move beyond the issue of the usage of methadone to include, perhaps, morphine and other substances.

The new drugs strategy needs to have a comprehensive picture of how to deal with the issue of homelessness and drug use. Ireland has a rapidly growing homeless population and we would all agree that the link between homelessness and drug addiction is undeniable. Homeless drug users have always proven to be the hardest people to help. It is estimated that 45% of Dublin's homeless population has a dependence in some form or other on drug use. A recent Merchant's Quay Project survey revealed that 93% of the drug addicts surveyed were homeless at some point and 63% of them were homeless at the time the survey was conducted.

Other sections of society still suffer from the ravages of hard drug use. Probably none is more ignored than our prison population. We can argue all night about how drugs get into our prisons. We should be able to find some way of preventing that, but the fact is there are drugs in our prisons. We have to deal with that issue and ensure prisoners are kept safe from potential infections. One way we can do that is to ensure there is an effective needle exchange programme in our prisons. A survey of drug users in prison in 1999 revealed that 21% — one in every five — of intravenous drug users first injected when they went to prison. Is there still no plan to introduce a needle exchange programme in Dublin's Mountjoy Prison? Such a programme is the single most effective way of combating disease and infection among addicts in prisons. We need to examine the introduction of such a programme in our prisons.

Switzerland was the first country to initiate a needle exchange programme in prisons in 1992. The prison staff quickly became supporters of it because they found they were working in a safer environment and the incidence of infection among inmates declined. In 1996 Germany introduced a needle exchange programme in three prisons initially and quickly extended it to a fourth prison when they recognised the success of the programme in those three prisons. However, there was a change of ideology which resulted in that programme being removed even though the prison staff were quite supportive of it. It is prison staff who are always the first to criticise the removal or cessation of needle exchange programmes within prisons. We need to examine that issue.

We must learn valuable lessons from aboard for our national drugs strategy in the area of harm reduction and also from projects in this country such as the Merchant's Quay Project. We need a comprehensive and nationwide needle exchange programme. We need to revise and rethink our attitude towards medical treatment. Importantly, we need to find a way of locating homeless people and ensuring drug use among that population is well categorised. We need to tackle that issue to ensure these people can become clean and have a new start in life.

Photo of John CurranJohn Curran (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin Mid West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senators for their contributions. As was mentioned, this is my first official visit to the Seanad. I was on the far side of the glass partition any time I was here previously.

I thank the Seanad for the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the development of a new national drugs strategy. I welcome it and it is important that Members of this House have an opportunity to contribute to what will be a new national strategy.

I am conscious of the fact that the current national drugs strategy grew out of the efforts of Members of the Oireachtas across various parties in the mid to late 1990s and I acknowledge the work and commitment of all involved at that time. The Government is determined that the new strategy will facilitate its tackling of the illicit drugs problem in a comprehensive and effective way.

Senator Buttimer passed significant comment on the current strategy and raised a number of issues. He can put forward figures on what was not done and find flaws with the strategy and I can rebut them and point out the aspects of it that worked. It is much more important that we analyse the current strategy and ascertain what worked well, why it worked well and what did not work. It is important that we embark on a new national strategy because the problems we face today are somewhat different from those that were faced when the first strategy was formulated. In many ways the first strategy reflected a problem of the time — a particular drug was prevalent in particular areas. The scene has changed completely now and some of the gaps the Senator indicated are in areas that traditionally would not have had a drugs problem. It is in that context we need a full debate on a new national strategy to tackle this problem.

I agree with the Senator about the need for an analysis of the current strategy. That is taking place as part of the public consultation process. We must learn from the mistakes made but we also must learn from our successes and achievements. We need to recognise what is working well and why. I agree with the Senator that the services provided throughout the country are considerably different. That all forms part of our debate on this issue.

The issue of problem drug use is complex and difficult. It is a global issue and no country has succeeded in coming to terms with all aspects of the problem. Our efforts to tackle it in Ireland must be seen in that context. The current strategy represented our first attempt to develop a fully co-ordinated response to the threat from problem drug use. It grew out of the threat posed at that time, by heroin in particular, to individuals, families and communities.

It is important to put on record that the strategy has had many achievements. One is the significantly increased level of drug seizures by the Garda and Customs and Excise. I wish to make a point in this regard. Senator O'Malley made the point that this may represent only 10% of the total volume of drugs in circulation. That is the figure that is generally referred to in the media. There is no certainty in this regard. For example, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, EMCDDA, suggests the EU-wide seizure rate is 25%, while the UN goes further in stating that 40% of world drug production is seized. By their nature, the figures are not definitive and there is a broad range of views, from the 10% usually put forward by the media to the UN estimate of 40%. We must be careful, therefore, when discussing the figures. What is certain is that any critical analysis would show that the Garda has become much more successful both in terms of the number of seizures and the quantities of drugs intercepted.

There has been a significant increase in the availability of treatment facilities, with the national drug treatment reporting system, NDTRS, indicating that more than 12,700 people are in treatment for problem drug use in a range of services provided across the statutory, voluntary and community sectors. Approximately 8,600 of these are in receipt of methadone. Preventative measures have been put in place, such as the roll-out of the social, personal and health education, SPHE, and Walk Tall programmes in schools. The success of the young people's facilities and services fund is such that it is being extended to operate in Arklow, Wexford, Athlone and Dundalk. Research is taking place in areas such as drugs prevalence, cocaine use, treatment outcomes and the effect of drugs on families which inform our current programmes and help us to map out our future approach.

I take this opportunity to outline briefly the process by which the new national drugs strategy is being developed. A steering group was appointed at the end of 2007 to develop proposals and make recommendations on a new strategy. This group comprises representatives of the key statutory, community and voluntary interests involved in tackling problem drug use. Consultants have also been appointed to assist the steering group in its work. The group is examining the progress and impact of the current strategy, considering the degree to which it continues to be relevant in a changing Ireland and looking at the operational effectiveness of the structures involved. It is also monitoring developments in regard to drug policies at EU and international level to ensure any new developments and approaches are considered for incorporation into our strategy.

To obtain the views of as wide a range of interested parties as possible, a broad consultation process has been overseen by my Department. I am directly involved in these consultations. As part of this, a series of 15 public consultation meetings was held throughout the State. Meetings with relevant Departments and agencies are now nearing completion and a series of meetings with key sectoral groups and organisations working in the drugs area is about to commence. Further meetings are planned with appropriate focus groups, including problem drug users, young people at risk and immigrant groups, while submissions in writing and by e-mail will continue to be accepted until the end of this month.

I have attended several of the public consultation meetings and most of the consultation meetings with the relevant agencies. Some of the bodies with a role to play include the Health Service Executive, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Garda Síochána, Customs and Excise, the probation and welfare service, the Courts Service and the Department of Education and Science. We have had consultations with all these parties on the aspects of the drugs strategy for which they have responsibility. My role is largely to co-ordinate the services, in education, health and so on, which are delivered by other Departments and bodies. The consultation process thus far has been extensive and detailed. Senator Buttimer asked whether it involved a review of the current approach. That is the correct way to begin any process — by looking at current practice and moving on from there — and that is what we have done.

The public consultation meetings are central to the work of formulating a new strategy. These meetings sought to identify the concerns facing individuals and communities, the successful aspects of the existing strategy and the gaps that must be addressed with a view to identifying the main priorities for any new strategy. We recognise that the current system is not perfect. That is why we are affording the public the opportunity to have an input into how it might be improved. Most of the people who attend these meetings are directly affected by drug abuse. They know what they are talking about. There would be no point in my claiming at these meetings that everything is perfect. This public consultation process proved to be a genuinely beneficial exercise at which we learned more than we would by sitting in Leinster House. We engaged directly with the public and received excellent feedback from those who are involved in this area daily.

While there were interesting regional variations, there was a reasonably significant level of consistency in the views expressed at these meetings. Some of the concerns identified were the level of heroin use outside Dublin and the availability of drugs services generally outside the Dublin area. Other issues identified were addiction to prescription and over-the-counter drugs, the level of acceptance of alcohol abuse in Ireland, the importance of engaging and supporting families, and issues of family intimidation. In regard to the latter, the need for increased supports for families, as referred to by Senator Buttimer, came across strongly.

In terms of efforts to deal with the problem of drug misuse, participants in the public meetings acknowledged the increased rate of drug seizures and the improved performance of the Garda in this regard. Other improvements that were mentioned included increased funding, the usefulness of integrated services when they are in place, and the increased utilisation of a community partnership approach. The latter was of particular importance to participants, with many emphasising that the new strategy must have links to the community. People also referred to various individual initiatives in different areas.

Senator Donohoe asked about the Criminal Assets Bureau going after middle-tier dealers. It is often the case that some aspects of illegal drugs activity receive little media attention because they are not seen as glamorous. However, at my meetings with the Garda I have been given clear indications that they are going after the middle men. For example, they have seized vehicles and other assets from what we would loosely refer to as middle dealers. This is something the Garda and Criminal Assets Bureau have already embarked upon.

Key priorities for the future were identified at the public consultation meetings. These included the provision of preventative initiatives in schools as well as in out-of-school settings; an increased range and availability of treatment services, with a continuum of care for individuals and an integrated multi-agency approach; more widespread availability of methadone, with options to move on from this treatment; a greater focus on rehabilitation of problem drug users; more family support measures; and a more integrated approach to the problems of illicit drugs and alcohol, with some favouring a joint strategy. This gives merely a flavour of the views expressed. Comprehensive outcome reports of the 15 public consultation meetings are being posted on my Department's website,

There has been a quantum leap in the range and quality of work being undertaken under the existing strategy compared with what was in place in 2000. In that regard, I acknowledge the dedication and commitment of those involved at the coalface in delivering these services. In speaking to some of these people since my appointment, a constant theme that arises is the importance of inter-agency co-operation across all sectors and organisations. That type of inter-agency co-operation to maximise the impact of initiatives for the benefit of problem drug users and for society generally is something we must aim to get right. This is also emphasised in the report of the working group on drugs rehabilitation, the implementation of the recommendations of which is envisaged under the programme for Government. In that regard, the HSE is progressing the recruitment of a senior rehabilitation co-ordinator and will establish the national drugs rehabilitation implementation committee by September.

The drugs situation in this State and worldwide is evolving constantly and we must endeavour to be flexible in our attitudes, structures and policies so that we can adapt our approach to meet whatever challenges arise. I stress that the relevance of all aspects of the current national drugs strategy are subject to scrutiny, whether the five pillars, the structures for implementation, the roles of the various players or the more detailed actions outlined in the strategy. The partnership approach of the statutory, voluntary and community sectors has been key in achieving progress thus far. While a continuation of that partnership approach is envisaged, we now have an important opportunity to look at the structures through which we deliver that partnership and to consider whether there are more effective ways of achieving our goals.

Ireland has changed significantly since the current strategy was activated in 2001. Our increased prosperity has had many benefits for our people. However, prosperity has also brought challenges, not least in the context of drugs. We must not underestimate the need to continue to focus on the heroin problem, particularly in the context of social disadvantage. At the same time, cocaine has emerged as a significant problem. In addition, polydrug use, involving a combination of illicit and legal drugs, including alcohol, has become common during the lifetime of the current strategy. The use of illicit drugs now occurs across all social strata and, it would appear, is increasingly spread geographically across the country.

The joint report of the national advisory committee on drugs, NACD, and the national drug strategy team, NDST, on cocaine forms the basis of a co-ordinated response to the emergence of the cocaine issue and many of the recommendations of the report are in the process of being implemented. The central conclusion of the report was that treatment in the form of counselling works and the Health Service Executive, as well as some community-based services, are working to develop and re-engineer services so that those who present with a cocaine habit can receive appropriate treatment.

Apart from the appalling consequences for the people directly involved, drug use also causes social and economic harm to families, friends, communities and society as a whole. Despite the best efforts of many, some communities are experiencing anti-social behaviour, intimidation and violence which is linked to the criminal activity associated with the supply and use of drugs. Furthermore, great economic loss to the country is involved through the waste of the potential input that many people who get caught up with drugs could have made to society and through the costs that arise from their involvement with drugs, particularly in the areas of health care and the criminal justice system. People are increasingly exercised about the issue of alcohol use, and alcohol as a gateway to illicit drugs is also a real issue. The process of developing a new national drugs strategy affords the opportunity for debate on how synergies between alcohol and drugs policies can be improved and, indeed, whether a single substance misuse strategy is now appropriate to cover all.

I am cognisant of the all-party motion passed by the Seanad in December recognising the problems of alcohol misuse and illegal drug use in our society, and acknowledging the need for a co-ordinated cross-departmental approach to these problems. I am determined to tackle the problems arising into the future and the new strategy is vital in forming the framework through which this will be done. The comments and suggestions of the Members who have contributed to the debate are appreciated and have been noted. This might be a Private Members' debate but I am using it as part of the public consultation process. I have listened carefully to the points and noted them.

One of the Senators spoke about education. There are various relevant modules within SPHE and the education curriculum. One of the keys to dealing with this issue is prevention, so we must develop those models further. It is my belief that education and prevention must be stronger. We have created awareness. However, as a father of two schoolgoing children aged 11 and 16, who would be mad if they heard me mention it, I am, perhaps, conducting my own research and evaluation in the home. The education aspect is one I wish to see further developed and examined. I thank Members for the opportunity of participating in this debate.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Curran. It is my first opportunity to participate in a debate with him. I was in Slieverue in my constituency last Friday after the Lisbon treaty referendum count. The Minister of State will be familiar with the area. People were raising the green flag at the local national school and a little fellow approached me with a trophy he had won after captaining the Slieverue school team. He asked me if I knew his cousin, John Curran. The Minister of State's mother is from that part of the country.

I wish the Minister of State well in his office. His comments indicate he has a good grasp of the issues in this area. I was not present for the start of the debate so I am not familiar with what other Members have said. Unquestionably, over the past 15 years this country has changed a great deal. One of the changes for the worse is the spiralling problem of the misuse of all types of drugs, be they illegal substances, prescribed drugs or alcohol. I welcome the opportunity the Progressive Democrats have given Members to discuss the drafting of the new national drugs strategy.

The Minister of State referred to the problems associated with the misuse of drugs, especially anti-social behaviour. All Members are aware of the trauma that is caused and the anti-social behaviour that takes place in our communities as a result of people's dependency on drugs. I firmly believe that insufficient resources have been allocated to the relevant authorities, particularly the Garda Síochána. In certain urban areas additional resources have been provided to the Garda but that has not happened in rural areas. It is a sad statement about Ireland in 2008 that at every crossroads in the country, be it in Slieverue or my local area of Tullogher in Kilkenny, one can acquire an illegal substance of any description. We are not doing enough to help the Garda to police those communities.

I am not seeking a heavy-handed approach. However, if it is well known in an area that there are suspicious activities at a particular location, the Garda authorities should be informed. I have had reason to do that on a number of occasions, but the Garda does not have the resources to police those areas at the times these activities are taking place. Something as simple as policing those areas can act as a basic deterrent. One could argue that those activities would be moved to another location but the Garda resources could move with them. However, there is no move, particularly in rural areas, to provide those additional resources.

I learned an astonishing statistic shortly after I was elected to the Seanad six years ago, that is, that the highest proportion of heroin users outside the city of Dublin is in Carlow town. That is probably related to the proximity of Carlow to Dublin but I have not seen and do not see sufficient resources being given to the local community in Carlow to confront what is a relatively new problem in the area. It is a problem that has grown exponentially even during my few years of involvement in public life.

In the midst of this is the ongoing problem of the lack of facilities in many new communities and in rural areas for young people to distract them from the lures of drug abuse. One might consider it a case of seeking to close the door after the horse has bolted, given that the years of the Celtic tiger are over but insufficient moneys were invested in developing amenities that would have distracted young people from drug use over the years. There is also a problem in many communities with regard to the re-investment of the funds seized by the Criminal Assets Bureau. The funds have been gathered from the proceeds of the illegal activities taking place in many communities throughout the country and radical improvement is required in that regard under the new national drugs strategy.

One of the best rehabilitation centres in the country is the Aislinn Centre in Ballyragget in my constituency. It has been recognised as such over recent years. I welcome the call in the Fine Gael amendment for additional residential services for people who are addicted to substances. There is a shortfall in such services. Again, this comes back to the issue of providing resources and ensuring these facilities are provided. It is not an easy task, especially in light of the new economic circumstances, but it must be addressed if we are serious about dealing with the drugs problem in this country.

I share the views of other speakers and the Minister of State with regard to whether alcohol should be discussed in the context of the drugs strategy. At the end of his contribution the Minister of State asked whether we should have a strategy for the misuse and abuse of substances across the board. I think we should have such a strategy and look at the bigger picture.

I am not a saint and I am partial to the odd drink, as is the Minister of State, but I believe there is a connection. Alcohol has become a gateway drug. We have a problem in this country. We often laugh about it and even now I made a joke about it but the abuse of alcohol goes unnoticed in Ireland. If we are serious about our drugs strategy, alcohol must be included within it. As a nation we no longer can afford to turn a blind eye to the abuse of alcohol as a substance which takes place much more regularly throughout the State than that of illegal drugs.

The final issue I wish to raise is the abuse of prescription drugs. I was not familiar with this until a case presented itself to me recently. It concerned a person who became addicted to prescription drugs. I hope the new strategy will include a provision on tackling this growing problem because it is becoming a much greater problem. The Minister of State has a difficult responsibility and I do not envy him his job but he has the capability to do it well. It will be difficult because the financial position is not as buoyant as it has been for the past ten years. If we are serious about tackling the drugs problem we need additional resources in certain key areas in terms of amenities for young people, additional residential units and more resources for the Garda Síochána which tries to police the situation locally. If the Minister of State can deliver in some of those areas he will have done a good day's work.

Photo of Déirdre de BúrcaDéirdre de Búrca (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, to the House and wish him well in his new portfolio. I was impressed by his response to some of the earlier contributions and I may cover some of the same ground. That the Minister of State would use this debate as part of the consultation process is a good way to benefit from the various perspectives that Senators will articulate on the national drugs strategy. I thank the Progressive Democrats for tabling this Private Members' motion. As we are starting to look at the next phase of our new national drugs strategy we should, as the Minister of State has said, evaluate how we have done so far, the approaches we have used and look at some fresh thinking that may be required in particular areas.

Reference was made to the "Prime Time" programme on the issue of drugs. The message I took from that was that policy makers and politicians need to be courageous in their approach to the problem of tacking drug abuse and substance abuse generally in society because it appears the older prohibition model has its limits. If we are to seriously tackle some of the social and crime related problems attached to substance abuse, we may have to look at a model other than prohibition. It does not always have huge social support and much public education and so on is needed. I hope that in the new drugs strategy that thinking will be reflected.

I will be quoting from the recommendations of the Merchants Quay Project which has developed much expertise in the area of working with drug abusers. It has welcomed the inclusion of alcohol into a single national drugs strategy. Most members will be aware that a motion was agreed by the Seanad last year on the issue of alcohol abuse in society. It is a good idea to integrate the issue of alcohol.

Alcohol is the drug of choice for many Irish people. We do not think of it as a drug because we use it so widely in so many social contexts. It is one that needs to be addressed within the drugs strategy in the same way as other substances that are being abused. The point made by the Merchants Quay Project is that appropriate resources and funding need to be provided to facilitate service development and staff upskilling and not to assume that alcohol can be included and that the resources that have been used to tackle other substances can be automatically applied to address the issue of alcohol abuse.

The submission from the Merchants Quay Project highlights some of the structural and reporting mechanism changes it would like to see. These are sensible suggestions. It seeks clear formal mechanisms for ongoing consultation with drug users and users of drug services. That would be a welcome element of any new drugs strategy. The Minister of State and his predecessor have been involved in the national consultation process which has involved consulting former drug addicts and those using and providing State services, as well as medical experts. The expertise and the experience that substance abusers have of the services is invaluable in terms of ongoing evaluation of the services. That those clear structures would be established as part of the process of implementing the new drugs strategy would be welcome. The timely reporting of data submitted to the national treatment reporting system has been mentioned. Timely reporting is important. It is impossible to assess how the strategy is being implemented and to respond to new trends emerging unless that data are available.

The Merchants Quay Project has called for needle exchange to be included and counted as a treatment intervention within the national drug treatment reporting system. I hope the Minister will consider that recommendation and also the establishment of a drug trend monitoring system as a matter or priority. The level of cocaine use has exploded in recent years. It appears the profile of people who abuse cocaine is very different from that of those who abuse heroin and so on. Research has identified that it is predominantly the 15 to 34 age group who abuse cocaine. The side effects and the problems associated with cocaine use are different from other drugs. The drug trend monitoring system is a good idea and it is to be hoped that it is one that will be established with the new drugs strategy.

The issue of funding has also been highlighted by the Merchants Quay Project. This is the key issue. It states that the following are essential in regard to funding. There should be a single funding channel for the national drugs strategy, annual funding for the regional development task force and also the local development drugs task force and funding for projects for three years. There should be ring-fenced budgets for each pillar of the national drugs strategy, full cost recovery for projects paid in advance and a commitment to multi-annual funding to facilitate proactive service planning and delivery. I realise that in difficult budgetary situations it is not always possible to do that but that is the ideal in terms of funding certainty. It also seeks regular reporting on the progress of the strategy. I am interested to hear whether the Minister of State has plans in regard to regular reporting. It also recommends that the Oireachtas committee on drugs link in to existing national drugs strategy structures.

In the area of harm reduction, some of the suggestions made by the Merchants Quay Project are interesting. In terms of the new thinking, one of its new proposals is that the new drugs strategy would look at establishing a pilot safer injecting facility or facilities in Dublin city and, perhaps, in one or two other cities with a view to assessing the impact of such a service on drug related harm. Certainly the "Prime Time" programme, which looked at the issue of drug abuse, featured a number of models of this kind, based in the Netherlands, and which appeared to be successful in terms of harm reduction. While they do not cure the problem or wean the users off the drugs, they are injecting in a much safer way and avoid many of the problems, infections and diseases that go with hard drug abuse.

The Merchants Quay Project is also seeking a full spectrum of outreach services for hard-to-reach groups, better access to primary health care for drug users and more immediate access to mental health services for drug users experiencing acute mental health issues. I hope the Minister of State will take all these points on boards in putting the new strategy together.

The Minister of State mentioned prevention in his contribution. The Green Party believes the targeted Garda anti-drug use programmes in schools and third level institutions are very important. We hope the programmes will continue and that the Garda will be properly resourced to provide them. We also recommend that the Garda be given search powers along the lines of the new random breath testing model for drink driving to allow for random searches at particular places, times and events where senior gardaí believe there is a risk of drugs being present.

7:00 am

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
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I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the important issue of the national drugs strategy. I do not support the motion but I will support the amendment tabled by the Fine Gael Party because it best reflects the current crisis we are in. Chronic underfunding has been a feature of this area. It is one thing to have a strategy but one needs to look at the reality to date with the national drugs strategy from 2001 to 2008. During that period the Exchequer purse was overflowing but the NDS was crippled by underfunding. Under the 2008 budget the finance afforded to the drugs initiative-young people's facilities and services fund, which includes the NDS, is set at €64 million. Let us contrast that figure with the horse and greyhound racing fund which is to receive €76.6 million. It is clear where the Government's priorities lie.

The Health Service Executive provides a total budget of only €83 million to support drug and alcohol services. It already has made cuts in the area of drug treatment and has reneged on promises to deliver. While the HSE has plans to develop drugs services, it is not intended to do so until the end of 2008 and even then they will only be progressed if the HSE has met its overall financial targets by that time. Everyone looks at how things appear in the media. We all know the reality in this House of how likely it is that this will happen. The way things are going, there will be no service development at all.

The HSE recruitment ban, or "employment controls", which is the HSE's preferred term, is preventing the replacement of staff who have left existing drug treatment services and, in addition, it is preventing the introduction of new much needed services even where funding for same has been approved. By its own admission the HSE is short more than 350 detoxification and rehabilitation beds and it has fewer than half the beds required.

Much has been made of the recent cocaine awareness campaign but the feeling locally is that it was not hard hitting enough. To make an impact we need something akin to the seat belt awareness campaign. We must not be overly reliant on billboard-driven awareness campaigns either. Solid educational modules in schools and initiatives through sports clubs, business, trade unions, professional bodies, etc. all could make a positive contribution.

In the new national drugs strategy from 2009 we must ensure a number of criteria are met and that funding to frontline services is sufficient and secure. It is important that staff should not be unduly hindered by having to complete endless evaluations and reports. Successful pilots must be mainstreamed without undue delay and with the additional funding that is necessary. Service delivery must be integrated and joined up. The user's first point of contact, whatever agent or agency that happens to be, should be in a position to line everything else up, that is, to make the necessary referrals to treatment, social welfare, accommodation or employment supports or other such facilities, and to ensure they are delivered to the user. Waiting lists for treatment must be eliminated. Support must be on hand and available during the crucial window when a user decides to seek it.

In terms of supply reduction, the recent growing number of drugs seizures is very welcome but we must remember that is also an indication of a growing drugs market. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has indicated that the "dial to stop drug dealing" scheme is to be rolled out. My party has been calling for that since 2006 and it must happen without further delay. As with the successful pilot in Blanchardstown it must be a confidential non-Garda line. It is this characteristic that allows it to serve as a bridge between communities and the Garda. Under the new NDS, communities and joint policing committees should have a role to inform the allocation of Garda resources and Garda operations, especially those of the national and local drugs squads. In addition, a constructive link between communities and the Criminal Assets Bureau should be developed.

The Minister with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, who is based in the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, must take responsibility for all aspects of the delivery of the new NDS and he or she must have real clout in the important Departments of Finance, Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and Education and Science and with the HSE.

I wish to sound a note of caution on the extension of the NDS to include alcohol. Any move to include alcohol under the remit of the NDS must be given very careful consideration. While there are obvious advantages to the inclusion of alcohol in a national drugs strategy, such as for the treatment of polydrug users involving alcohol, there is a real danger that illicit drugs would get lost alongside the nation's mammoth and culturally entrenched problems with the legal drug of alcohol. Funding to the NDS would have to be increased by many multiples if such an extension were to be at all feasible. Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh, fá choinne an deis sin a rá sa dhíospóireacht seo.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I congratulate the former Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, on the hands-on role he took to the drugs industry. We complimented him in the House a number of times on being one of the most successful Ministers of State in terms of drug seizures. He was responsible when a series of big Garda raids took place and I commend the Garda, Customs and Excise and everybody involved.

I also wish the best to the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, as he takes on that mantle. I am heartened by the fact that he came to the House tonight to ensure he heard at first hand from many speakers the issues that are to the fore as far as we in the Seanad are concerned. We have had many debates on alcohol in particular. I sent a note to him recently to the effect that if I were to make one submission to the national drugs strategy, it would be that alcohol would be brought under its remit.

I say that with some level of experience because as Chair of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, we compiled several reports on drugs. One such report was The Inclusion of Alcohol in a National Substance Misuse Strategy. I am sure the officials are familiar with the report and if they are not, I ask them to re-read it. Another report was The Treatment of Cocaine Addiction, with Particular Reference to the Irish Experience, which was published in 2005. Drug Abuse in Ireland — a Waterford Perspective was published in 2007. The Effectiveness of Investment in Sport and the Arts as a Deterrent Against Youth Substance Abuse was published in April 2004, and The Relationship between Alcohol Misuse and the Drinks Industry Sponsorship of Sporting Activities was published in March 2007. The final report we produced was entitled What Everyone Should Know about Cannabis. There is no shortage of information from both Houses in the recent past on drugs and drug misuse.

To be parochial, I commend the support services that exist in my area in the form of a rehabilitation centre called White Oaks. I will ask the new Minister of State to take a continued interest in that, as the previous Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, recently went there to meet with Fr. Neal Carlin and his board of directors. They provide a very important service that cuts across both alcohol and illegal drugs. There is a strong case for a detoxification unit for the north west.

Our strategies must operate on an inter-state basis. When I was campaigning for a "Yes" vote on the Lisbon treaty one of the things that was greeted on the doorsteps with great enthusiasm was the concept of more inter-state police co-operation on the drugs issue. I accept the unit in Portugal has an Irish input and the people who are involved there are aware of the significant work taking place on a trans-frontier basis. In the same way as trans-frontier co-operation to find the drugs, there should be trans-frontier co-operation to deal with issues such as rehabilitation and detoxification. The latter is not available in the White Oaks centre because of the lack of designated medical supports. I ask the officials and the Minister of State to consider introducing a detoxification facility in the north west. When a person presents it is important that there be as much intervention as quickly as possible, not only for the individual but also for his or her family. For many people, especially those in rural areas, discovering that their son or daughter may be a drug user or has experienced a drug overdose is a frightening experience, particularly if the resources are not on their doorstep. While I accept there cannot be such facilities on every doorstep there must be access to someone's door when this issue arises.

I agree with Senator Buttimer on the issue of using drug dogs. I remember the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform telling me that after dogs were introduced into prisons, the number of prison visits declined by approximately 75% for a while. Having the dogs trained to detect drugs is not as relevant as the visibility of what could be a drug dog in an area. Unless it has changed in the very recent past it is not acceptable for the Garda and Customs and Excise combined to have only 20 drug dogs. If dog handlers were patrolling a town or going through a nightclub, people who are up to no good would not be as confident about doing what they do when there is a potential of being caught. It would be far easier to catch such people by using drug dogs than by using many other techniques.

Regarding cross-Border matters, there has been considerable talk about the alcohol issue. Any change in alcohol policy in the Republic will not be successful in areas such as mine. For example, price increases which would be seen to be the biggest deterrent and work well in areas like Scandinavia will not work in my area. If there is a significant increase in the price of alcohol in my town, it will not work because I could go 18 miles and buy it cheaper. Human nature is such that people will go where it is cheaper. Any initiatives must be Border tested, so to speak. In the post-Good Friday Agreement period we should work in close co-operation with people who have exactly the same problems in the North. I understand Bangor has taken a particular initiative, involving the police, the community, the publicans and all the different entities to try to ensure that town is safe at night. It wants to ban anti-social behaviour and anybody caught engaging in serious anti-social behaviour knows he or she will be in serious trouble. That co-operation between different bodies should be explored. I believe something similar is happening in Cork.

The answer to why alcohol should be in the national drugs strategy is contained in the joint committee report. The Minister of State said today that he wants to be in charge of dealing with the issue. If alcohol comes under the remit of the Department of Health and Children, and drugs come under his remit and never the twain shall meet, he cannot be in charge. Polydrug use is the issue. In the past cocaine and heroin have been the problem. People did not want them mixed. However, contrary to what Senator Doherty says, people now know they need to be mixed and not just for polydrug use.

We should reconsider the money that is invested. Enormous sums of money are invested in sport and certain people get involved in it. The initiatives being taken by the GAA are very good and very influential. The schools do not have as much influence as people would like to think. The GAA and other sporting bodies have such influence. Similar consideration should be given to the arts. Recently €500,000 was allocated to all the marching bands in the country. If people are not interested in sports they might be interested in the arts. Keeping young people interested in drumming or playing in traditional bands would have them usefully occupied and would keep them away from inappropriate activity. If I had the time I would speak about closed circuit television and other issues.

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Progressive Democrats)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, to the House. I thank everybody for their contributions to this debate. I do not want to be accused of trying to silence Senator Buttimer, which would be a considerable task. I do not mean he had no right to table an amendment to highlight areas where he feels there are shortcomings. However, I believe he will be impressed with the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, and how he recognises the shortcomings in the existing strategy. An audit needs to be done on the shortcomings and the things that worked well in the previous strategy to identify how the strategy can be improved and made worthwhile and workable in future.

Even though we will have a vote on the amendment, the spirit of what was intended in this motion was honoured in the debate. We got contributions from many Senators. The officials and the Minister of State, who stayed as long as he was able to stay, are keen to see this debate as part of a public consultation process in a public forum before the strategy is set in stone. That was my intention. People were able to make their contributions in a calm and informed way. The purpose of the motion was to cast more light than heat on the drugs strategy and I am glad contributions were made in that spirit. In particular, Senator Hannigan's contribution was very worthwhile in focusing on the harm reduction strategies of which we need to be cognisant as we formulate a new strategy.

The other benefit of this debate was that it gave Senators an opportunity to talk about extremely good work taking place in their communities in which people who have been touched by the ravages of drug addiction and other drug problems were able to speak knowledgeably of the work being done. Senator Donohoe in particular mentioned one of them. We need to be funding these kinds of organisations where the work is targeted at the communities and people who are suffering as a result of drug addiction and other drug problems. The debate gave us the opportunity to highlight the good work that is being done.

The new strategy needs to be based in reality and needs to face the problems as we see them. Most contributors in the debate suggested including alcohol in a strategy, with which I agree. Alcohol addiction is much more prevalent than we will admit. It causes great damage in families. We need to be more honest about the level of the alcohol abuse problem. People are now talking about alcohol as being as much of a problem as drug addiction. That is not a bad thing because it forces us to think about our attitudes to alcohol. As a nation we have a particular reputation for the way we use and speak about alcohol. We need to move beyond that point and have a more mature attitude.

Some important points were made about prevention and education. Children and more vulnerable people will be susceptible to drug pushers. The only way to build confidence is through education programmes. I hope they form a pivotal part of the strategy. I welcome the contributions to this debate and I thank the Minister of State for attending.

Amendment put.

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 18 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Jerry Buttimer, Paul Coghlan, Pearse Doherty, Paschal Donohoe, Dominic Hannigan, Fidelma Healy Eames, Nicky McFadden, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Joe O'Reilly, John Paul Phelan, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Liam Twomey, Alex White)

Against the motion: 24 (Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, Ciarán Cannon, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Déirdre de Búrca, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Lisa McDonald, Francis O'Brien, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Diarmuid Wilson)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Jerry Buttimer and Paul Coghlan; Níl, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson.

Amendment declared lost.

Motion put and declared carried.