Seanad debates

Thursday, 11 March 2010

12:00 pm

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, who is a constituency colleague of mine, and I wish him well in the initiatives he is taking in this area. I look forward to hearing what is currently being planned and what is the timeframe relating to the introduction of the various initiatives.

We are continuing a debate which commenced in the House a number of weeks ago. I am sure previous speakers outlined to the Minister of State the concerns of many communities, persons and health professionals about the risks posed to health and welfare by so-called head shops. The seriousness of this issue was brought home to me last week when a those representing a head shop which serves the areas of Lucan and Clondalkin delivered flyers to homes. The flyers to which I refer advertise the home delivery of products on sale at the shop. On the back of the flyer is a menu, which contains the declaration "Not for human consumption".

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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It is like a menu for a Chinese restaurant.

1:00 pm

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
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It is similar to such a menu. Rather than food, however, it advertises the various products on offer at the shop. It also contains the nonsensical declaration that products will be supplied only to those over 18 years of age and that photo ID will be required. That is a complete farce. Furthermore, the flyer lists information relating to delivery times, delivery charges and the fact the home delivery service applies to all areas of Dublin.

Parents are very concerned about this and I would like to know whether any action can be taken. What issues arise with regard to the distribution of and the information contained in the flyer?

I am sure that, like me, the Minister of State has been contacted by many concerned parents. I received a letter from a woman who lived in Spain at a time when the sale of blocks of cannabis resin through tobacco kiosks was legalised. She explained that the experiment was abandoned after two years as drug dealers undercut the kiosks and offered higher highs. She stated that it has taken Spain years to claw back from the social harm and questions whether it has done so. She expressed concern for her children because of the flyers coming in the door. It is a very particular issue.

The flyer describes a list of products available. People know the meaning of these products and the question of what is in the products and the dangers they may cause is very serious. We received a number of reports from hospitals and my colleague, Senator Buttimer, put on the record what was happening in hospitals in Cork. He mentioned that over one weekend five young people were examined in the Mercy University Hospital following adverse reactions to legal highs. The risks to young people posed by these shops are very serious. Doctors from accident and emergency units in Dublin and elsewhere have discussed the health effects of some of these products.

Flyers being delivered to homes raises issues about the availability of and access to these products. It heightens the concerns of parents particularly. It seems to be as easy to order products from these shops as it is to order a takeaway pizza. I have a number of questions on which everybody wants further information and clarity. What is the timeframe for the legislation to restrict the sale of these products? Does the Minister of State believe it can be done? What element of cross-departmental work is being done to pull together the various elements of addressing this issue? Issues are raised on planning, health, education and safety. Will the Minister of State provide an update to the House on the work being done to address the availability of these products at EU level? How does Ireland compare at present? What does the Minister of State consider will be the type of controls we will be able to put in place? Does the Government intend to work with local authorities to provide planning regulations to restrict the opening of these shops, limit where they can locate and restrict their trading hours? My colleague in the Dáil, Deputy Reilly, suggest that the Finance Bill might be used in an approach to license these shops, with a very high licensing bar put on them. He wondered whether this would be feasible to discourage the opening of more of these premises.

Issues are also raised for the Department of Education and Science. Teachers get very concerned when we ask schools to do even more but it is clear that schools are already very concerned about the use of drugs and alcohol and students presenting under the influence of these products in various ways. This is another issue in which there is a role for the Department of Education and Science.

It would be helpful for us to know about the actual health impact of what is being sold. How much data does the Minister of State have on this at present? Is there enough data available on it? There is much speculation and discussion on the products and what is in them and we have heard medical evidence that they have effects, but do we have much data available at either an EU level or in Ireland? Is the Garda Síochána clear that the products being sold are legal?

To deal with the issue, a multifaceted approach is needed. I do not think a vigilante approach is the right one but communities are concerned and have expressed their views on the establishment of these shops. The best way for the Government to act is to ensure all relevant stakeholders, namely, the Garda, health professionals, educationalists, the Government, local authorities, business communities and communities themselves are brought together, understand the approach, and are clear about the threats, what can be done and what the Government is doing to manage the issue. The availability of premises to open such businesses is also a factor.

Is it possible for the legislation to be brought forward? Is the Minister of State confident it will come through in June? Will he outline his response to the other issues I raised which impact on this matter? If we see action in planning, licensing, education and justice, the anxieties people have can be reduced. Will the Minister of State also address the matter of the flyers being distributed? Is it possible to do something about them or are the people involved cleverly getting around the law as they did in establishing the shops? I look forward to hearing what the Minister of State has to say about the Government's progress in tackling this very current issue.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I do not have a prepared script but I have a significant interest in this area. I encourage the Minister of State to tackle this appalling vista as soon as possible. I do not know where we are going in our lives. I felt like quoting something from Thackeray but I thought I would bore the House. There seems to be a phenomenon about getting high and getting over those highs. We also read much about threats to the head shops and a number of arson attacks have taken place, including two in Dublin. One wonders whether these are the work of concerned citizens or irreputable drug dealers who see the shops as eating into their ill-gotten gains. As a parent it is of concern that these head shops have sprung up almost unnoticed throughout the country. As far as I am aware, in my constituency of Cork South-West, which is remote although I know we have made a name for the importation of large quantities of drugs off our coastline, four or five of them have opened in towns.

Recently, I came across a constituent who, because business had gone quiet, closed a particular office and wanted to let out the premises to a legitimate small retail unit. Lo and behold he had to deal with all types of planning and restrictions and the Valuation Office re-rated the property even though very few changes were made, perhaps just a new front window and internal alterations. Is it appropriate that people selling hallucinogens or drugs of any description in chemical format can obtain permission for planning or change of use without any application? Do the enforcement sections of local authorities, be they the urban councils of old, county councils or city corporations, have any input on such properties or licensing? Is it possible to impose stricter controls on these? I am sure a person opening a chemist's shop would have to deal with regulations from the pharmaceutical industry and the profession on such shops being opened.

Recently in Limerick, and I do not doubt the rights or wrongs of the issue, a large public debate took place about somebody who opened a shebeen. It also happened in Donegal. Those responsible were brought to court for selling intoxicating liquor. Based on my life to date, the highs, or lows, experienced from imbibing a few drinks would not match the alleged intensity of hallucinogenic drugs taken primarily by young people who are the target market. Home distilleries for brewing the mountain dew, poitín, are like the dodo, nearly extinct. There are laws to deal with such activities.

I note the strong views of the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, who has responsibility for the area. He has expressed, in the House and outside of it, his deep and serious concerns on head shops. We should use a more appropriate name. The name head shop brings to mind a head massage or psychotherapy to clear one's thought processes. I do not welcome such outlets under any guise. The Minister of State explained previously that if one bans 25 types of drug or chemical components, within a year or two the drugs reappear under a different name with a slightly different composition. Given the situation, it is impossible to play catch-up. To use a fishing analogy, the approach to take would be to throw one's trawl deep enough and wide enough so that such shops should be licensed and require proper planning. They should not be allowed at all. Unfortunately, for various reasons, many in society need to go to pharmacists and doctors for drugs, perhaps to come down from a high.

I record my deep concern about the situation that exists which is uncontrolled and unregulated. It is about time the Minister of State grasped the nettle to deal with these atrocious outlets that drive primarily young people, many of whom are teenagers, around the bend. It is a concern for parents and we should tackle it with the greatest vigour. I have no doubt the Minister of State will do that. I have great faith in his ability to deal with the matter and his desire to tackle it head on.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Before I call Senator Glynn, I welcome my cousins, Pauline and Joe Kerins, to the Gallery. They are in the company of Senator Norris.

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)
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Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chuir roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach agus comhghairdeas a ghabháil leis as ucht an dea-obair atá déanta aige mar gheall ar an ábhar seo. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Curran. I thank my colleagues for the frank and open manner in which they have given their views pertaining to this important matter. We need many things in society but head shops are not one of them. In fact, we need them like a hole in the head because that is precisely what they are.

I have a menu in my possession that was given to me by a friend. It is not dissimilar to the one displayed by Senator Fitzgerald. Delivery services are on offer for a fee. There is another name for head shops. They are called "dealers in death" because, ultimately, that is where they lead. I am someone who has spent many years working in the psychiatric services dealing with people with addictions. Often one finds that people who become addicted to illicit substances end up dead, in some cases through taking an overdose or in other cases by their own hand.

There are two head shops in Mullingar. Soft drugs are displayed in them. They are gateway drugs in the same way as cannabis and marijuana lead to the taking of harder drugs such as cocaine, opium and heroin. There is a great antipathy on the part of local people towards such establishments, hence the attacks that have taken place. I believe a shop was attacked last night.

I compliment the Minister of State who has responsibility for this area on the strong and proactive manner in which he has dealt with the matter to date. In fairness to him, he has to deal with it in a legislative void. It is incumbent on both Houses of the Oireachtas to address the matter. As a Member of this House I wish to add my tuppence worth to assist the Minister of State in drawing up legislation. I exhort him, as others have done, to bring legislation forward sooner rather than later. Yesterday would be too soon.

I referred to the great antipathy on the part of local communities towards such establishments. A number of them have been attacked, including one last night. That indicates the ordinary Mary and Joe Citizen, who in the main are law-abiding people, are frustrated because they recognise the potential dangers of those establishments to young people who are our future.

Head shops are sending out flyers in large urban areas. On the flyers the words "Over-18s only" is written in very small writing. When I was in a taxi recently the taxi driver told me he saw two boys aged approximately 12 exiting one of those shops at an hour of the night when they should have been at home. That begs the question of where their parents were. It is a matter of parental control. Children are controlling their parents very well.

I am prepared for the House to sit until any hour of the night - as I am sure would every other Member - to pass the necessary legislation to put these establishments in a position where they ought to be - out of business. We must examine the implications of head shops and what they do. I have seen the results and they are not a pretty sight. The view is peddled by the proprietors that they are only harmless substances. Like hell they are. I raised on the Order of Business a report in a national newspaper of a boy of 12 or 13 years of age who was so disorientated after consuming one of these substances that contact had to be made with his mother. He did not know how to get home. That does not fit with the type of harmless substance the owners of head shops claim to sell.

Let us consider the financial implications. A considerable amount of money is being made by such shops. I have heard of a shop in a certain part of the country where the VAT returns amount to several thousand euro in a week. That speaks volumes. We owe it to our society and to our youth in particular to step into the breach and do whatever must be done to take appropriate actions that will meet this challenge head on. This is not a matter for other people as Members must do something about it. The Minister of State has indicated that he is doing something in this regard and he has my full support. The problem with making a contribution at this stage of the debate is that most of what I would like to say already has been said and I will not be repetitive. I again welcome the Minister of State to the House. May the good God strengthen his arm and the resolve of all Members to assist him in meeting this challenge head on. I wish the Minister of State well in his endeavours.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for his keen interest in this matter. I believe he has adopted a hands-on approach and is highly attuned to this serious issue. I raised this issue in the House approximately two years ago. I recounted how a mother had told me that her 14-year-old son had been about to take his own life in the River Shannon when she, for a reason she cannot explain to this day, decided to ring him. While this is the reason he is still alive, he ended up in intensive care in Portiuncula Hospital, Ballinasloe, and it took him months to recover from the induced psychosis arising from the substances with which he had tampered from such head shops. I am sure other Members can identify with me when I note that other parents of youngsters have approached me about this issue subsequently.

A number of such head shops operate in the Mullingar and Athlone areas. It is something of a myth to suggest this phenomenon is Dublin-based, as head shops exist throughout the country. As Senator Glynn has correctly observed, it is a huge revenue-generating business. Consequently, a double standard is in operation whereby the Government is prepared to take money from shops that Members simultaneously are castigating. This issue probably should be addressed, if possible. A disturbing feature is that head shops now remain open late into the night. They wait until after the closure of nightclubs and perform delivery services. I wonder whether it would be possible to use the planning laws to close them down. Another frightening fact is that scientific developments have enabled the manufacture of products which replicate heroin and cocaine. Although the packages in which such substances are sold are marked "unfit for human consumption", the vendors are getting away with it. Legislation should be put in place on this issue as a matter of extreme urgency. I believe that regulation is insufficient and that head shops should be closed down. They sell paraphernalia such as pipes and all sorts of equipment that can be used to smoke or inject illegal substances. Moreover, such products are being blatantly advertised in the head shop windows. Gardaí are wringing their hands in absolute frustration. They have expressed to me their frustration regarding the devastation such head shops are causing. One must wake up and acknowledge this blatantly is going on and, in the Athlone area at least, has been going on for years.

Another issue concerns the present vigilantism in respect of head shops. I notice the arson attacks on head shops in Dublin in which premises were burned down. Only yesterday in Athlone, the entire main street was closed down because two incendiary devices were placed outside head shops. This is a highly worrying trend because it appears as though the public now are beginning to take the law into their own hands. Alternatively, as a colleague noted in the House last week, drug barons may be responsible. The latter are losing their position because rather than going to drug pushers to get heroin and cocaine, young people are availing of the substances stocked in head shops. I believe such people are responsible. Moreover, the incendiary devices found in Athlone yesterday were not hoaxes but were life-threatening mechanisms and it was lucky that no one was killed. As for the siege-like conditions in Athlone yesterday, the question is whether drug barons or concerned people were responsible. I assume the former. Yesterday, I appealed to the people of my local area not to take the law into their own hands but to leave the issue to the legislation and to the Garda. This is the reason I believe it is incumbent on the Minister of State to urgently put in place legislation that will ban these people once and for all and will put them out of business.

I have nothing further to add except to thank the Minister of State for his concern and for the time he has spent in meeting people who are down on their luck, as some people think there is nowhere to turn, except to such substances. I appreciate the Minister of State's concern and involvement with those who are down on their luck.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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It has been interesting to listen to the contributions of Senators McFadden and Glynn, and events in Sligo last night clearly are of great concern. I must admit that as I did not know a great deal about head shops, I have investigated the subject to learn something. I apologise if I stick to some of the information about which I had no personal experience. For example, I have just learned about legal highs. I gather that since studying the issue, the Minister of State now knows a lot more than did he or any Member previously. Salvia is the name of one product that causes hallucinations and which often is on sale as "potpourri". Possession and sale of salvia has been banned in various countries, including Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Italy and Sweden. A person needs a doctor's prescription to use it in Estonia, Finland, Iceland and Norway, while Spain and Russia also ban its sale. Another substance, JWH, is an active ingredient that is considered addictive and has been banned in at least four European countries, namely, Germany, Austria, Netherlands and Switzerland. Another substance is mephedrone, also known as "bubbles" or "meow meow". The substance is often advertised as plant food or bath salts, which surprised me. The drug, which comes in powder or pill form, is banned in Norway, Finland, Denmark, Israel and Sweden and is restricted in both the United States and Germany. Doves, which are pills that according to experts contain certain properties that are similar to ecstasy, are packaged as plant food - I did not understand the reason but do now - and are advertised as encouraging healthy growth and strong root development. Moreover, Dr. John P. Thompson, who is a clinical pharmacologist at the University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff, has stated that doves are in the same family of drugs as ecstasy.

We are dealing with a situation in which there is a lack of scientific research into the effect of such so-called legal highs. However, it is known that the results of taking such drugs are often unpredictable and there have been a number of deaths linked to drugs bought in head shops. Such drugs are often taken in conjunction with alcohol, which increases the risk of serious harm. There is an argument to the effect that such drugs are merely drug substitutes but by that logic, the Government should ban cough syrups, glues and other material which could be used as drug substitutes. Consequently, I am unsure how this problem should be solved or resolved.

However, the effect of such drugs has been increasingly apparent in recent months. I read of a story from Scotland in which the police have issued a warning about the use of legal highs following the death of a woman in Dunfermline. The 49 year old is thought to have died after taking mephedrone, which also is known as "bubbles". The drug has also been linked to two deaths in Sweden and a number of other deaths in Europe. Amazingly, the substance is often advertised as plant food or bath salts. As I noted, the drug, which comes in powder or pill form, is banned or restricted in Norway, Finland, Denmark, Israel, Sweden, the United States and Germany. A group of Scottish psychiatrists has called for a ban on mephedrone because, according to them, it can cause hallucinations and psychosis. After researching some of its effects, they believe that mephedrone has the potential to cause similar physical and psychiatric complications as illegal drugs. In their opinion, there is an urgent need for the UK Government's legislation to reclassify mephedrone as an illegal substance. Their findings should be taken on board.

It is interesting that Cyprus is discussing a ban on so-called legal highs. A proposal is due to be approved to ban six of the most common active ingredients in so-called legal highs being sold there. When we legislate on these legal highs, a mechanism to counter these drugs, if they are dangerous, will be strongly required. Part of the purpose of the current initiative in Cyprus, according to the director of its State General Laboratory, is to put in place a rapid mechanism whereby new active ingredients can be banned so as to protect the island's youth and make things difficult for suppliers. The more I read on this matter, the more I discover how difficult it will be to handle. I do not envy the Minister of State's responsibility for finding a way around it. The Cypriot health Minister has stated that active ingredients in legal highs analysed by Cyprus's state laboratories will be added to the list of banned substances.

We must remember that one of the greatest legislative problems we face in dealing with the relatively new prevalence of legal highs is that, once one range of substances is legislated against, producers simply introduce a new range of substances with different ingredients. We need a mechanism through which it does not take months or years to examine new active ingredients. They should be analysed quickly in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the supplier. Otherwise, the supplier will move on.

We must also consider whether a ban will work. Last December, the UK banned a number of mind-altering drugs as a result of health fears. I am a little afraid to give any names out, as they could be of help to someone, but some substances, including GBL and BZP, became class C drugs, with a possible two-year jail sentence for possession. However, a BBC investigation in January found that many such drugs are still readily available in shops across the UK. They have a tendency to change name, a clever move, or move under the counter. A ban will not be a fix-all. It must also be remembered that, when magic mushrooms were banned in 2006, it reportedly resulted in users moving on to other substances.

A new legal high posing problems in the US is called K2. It is also referred to as JWH-018, "fake weed" and "spice". It is a new substance, smoked as a recreational drug, that claims to be marijuana-esque but poses more serious health concerns from seizures to life-threatening hallucinations and cardiovascular effects. The states of Kansas and Missouri are already moving to outlaw K2. This case demonstrates how quickly new drugs are pushed onto the market. Will K2 become available in Ireland or is it already available by another name and will we be debating its banning in the coming months? Will we then be discussing K3, K4 and K5? I imagine this is what the drug pushers will do. It is not an easy task to monitor the situation.

I noticed a story from San Francisco whereby a local community was worried about head shops. Of particular concern was a shop selling drugs paraphernalia, an issue mentioned by Senator McFadden, that could be used for illegal drugs. What are drugs paraphernalia? They include hand-held scales that could be used for weighing illegal drugs. We must examine this aspect as well. I do not know whether such paraphernalia are being sold in Ireland, but I would not be surprised. I would be against them being sold, as there is a real danger that they may encourage people to move on to harder or more hazardous drugs.

We must also take action against those head shops that are reportedly staying open until 4 a.m. I gather that the Dublin head shop referred to has a hatch through which one can be served. This does not seem to be logical, given that off-licences have much stricter rules on opening hours. Along with pubs, they must close earlier than 4 a.m. If we are to tackle this problem, I welcome the moves to introduce strict regulations and licensing laws for the premises of head shops as opposed to depending solely on banning the products they sell. However, there is no easy answer.

This debate is necessary and I am glad we have discussed the matter over two days. There are some obvious active ingredients in such drugs that must be banned. They can be banned quickly and will be banned shortly because they pose a real risk to health. However, we cannot let the situation be purely political and turn into a banning frenzy. I have touched on some of the difficulties in this regard. We need sound scientific evidence. Britain has just launched the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, ISCD. One of its first priorities will be to investigate legal highs. Such evidence must be heeded so that our decisions are made rationally and are not unduly influenced by the current media frenzy.

I am pleased this matter is getting attention, as there are reasons for that being the case. Many citizens, not just parents, are concerned about what is occurring. I am pleased the Minister of State is showing such an interest and that he and his team are taking this issue to heart. I am not sure what the answer is, but I wish him every success.

Photo of John CurranJohn Curran (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State with special responsibility for Integration and Community, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin Mid West, Fianna Fail)
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): I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. I thank all Members who have spoken on the matter today and on 3 February and I acknowledge the work of the Seanad in pursuing this important and immediate issue and for adopting a broadly unanimous stance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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There is no provision for further debate but I will allow Senator Glynn to ask a question.

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State mentioned drugs sent in the post. Some years ago, when I was spokesperson on health and children, I published a report on the harmful effects on society of pharmaceuticals. One of the issues raised was the ordering of drugs on-line, to which the Minister of State referred briefly. I would like him to elaborate because this problem must be tackled in a serious way.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I referred to the revenue generated for the Exchequer by head shops and the fact that many people were employed in them. Will the Minister of State comment on how this issue can be addressed? I acknowledge it is complex.

Athlone Drug Awareness is holding a public meeting tonight. I agree with the Minister of State that the drug awareness groups and drug task forces are doing excellent work.

Photo of John CurranJohn Curran (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State with special responsibility for Integration and Community, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin Mid West, Fianna Fail)
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Senator Glynn referred to products sent in the post. There are two distinctions. I am not dealing with medicinal products, but products sold as plant food and so on which are obviously not intended for human consumption will be added to the controlled list and made illegal. I met Customs officials to ensure they would be able to intercept these products in the postal system and take appropriate steps.

Senator McFadden raised the complex revenue issue. Until something is declared illegal, it can be sold and the normal tax liabilities apply. It is only after we declare a product illegal that we can take action. This is the dilemma in saying we will not take revenue and the shops can sell what they want, while, at the same time, the product is not illegal per se but we have gone after it.

Education and awareness are hugely important. While we address head shops and their products and try to reduce supply, it is equally important that we increase people's education and awareness of the dangers. The HSE is working on an education campaign. If we did no more than encourage young people to be aware that just because these products are currently legal, they are not safe, it would be positive. There are no guarantees with them. Task forces, youth projects and educators have a significant role to play in getting across this message because the perception of these products is as they can be bought in a retail premises, therefore, they must be legal and safe. They are not regulated or safe; because something is not illegal does not necessarily mean it is safe. It is hugely important to get this message across.

The drugs strategy has always been based on five pillars. We have addressed supply reduction, but if we are to radically address the drugs problem over a generation, it will only be done through education, increasing awareness and empowering young people to know the difference. When I visit classrooms, particularly those with junior and leaving certificate students, I often refer to the fact that in ten years or more they will be the parents of the next generation. This comes around quickly. We need to make people aware and change attitudes.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)
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At 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 23 March 2010.