Wednesday, 15 June 2016
Misuse of Drugs
I congratulate you on your election to the Chair, a Chathaoirligh. I thank the graduates of Trinity College for giving me the mandate to be here today. I also thank the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, for his time.
To give a bit of background, I spent the past 15 years developing addiction programmes on local drugs task forces. I have been involved in drug research on drug trends and the changing nature of drug use. I have also worked directly with those involved in low-level dealing. I was alarmed to read in the media last week about proposed amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Acts that would further criminalise the drug user. How we as legislators respond to the use and sale of drugs illustrates our values. I, along with others, was elected to advocate for a progressive drug policy. Criminalising drug users has been proven by international evidence-based research to have failed to address addiction and drug problems. All over the world societies are recognising that addiction needs to be treated as a public health issue, not a criminal one. If we look at the amendments in the light of recent developments on injection rooms, it is nonsensical; it is a case of one step forward and two steps back. For example, the Minister has named zopiclone as a drug that would be targeted by the amendments. Many of the people selling zopiclone are selling it to fund their own drug use. People who are addicted to zopiclone, a widely used street benzo, would be at risk of resorting to other substances that would create further harms to the individual and the community. The proposed change would also alter trends in drug use, which the services cannot keep up with in the absence of adequate resources. Many who use street benzos cannot access treatment for benzo addiction. Many people have suffered benzo fits from trying to detox themselves. The Bill does not help the matter as it potentially forces the removal of such drugs from the market without matching that with treatment beds, which pushes the addict further into harm. I expect that would not be the desired outcome for the Minister for Health.
I draw the Minister's attention to studies that clearly demonstrate the need to be progressive with drug policy, not regressive, which the amendments are mostly. In the context of the UN General Assembly on the world drug problem, a Brookings Institution report outlined that "socio-economic approaches for addressing drug-related crime and alternative livelihoods policies should be fully integrated into overall...economic development efforts". The report also stated: "Mass incarceration of users and low-level, non-violent pushers does little to suppress - and can exacerbate - the use of illicit drugs. It may also increase drug market violence."
Possession of street benzos and the legality of those puts extra strain on already under-resourced gardaí and potentially costs the State due to unnecessary imprisonment of low-level dealers. In another study, the International Drug Policy Consortium, an important point it made was that the level of harm is more important than the size of the market, and for me, the amendments are harmful. To further criminalise individuals will further alienate them, prevent them from moving on and having prospects, especially with the current Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill. The success of the Portuguese model has been well documented and I urge the Minister to explore the evidence for a decriminalisation model that includes a person-centred approach to drugs and addiction.
I call on the Minister to delay the introduction of the measures to allow for input from all involved stakeholders in order that policy is evidence based. Will he commit in the future to evidence-based drug policy that has harm reduction at its foundation rather than contributing to the cycle of criminality? How will the banned drugs be scheduled? Could the Minister indicate whether the control of the substances will be extended to the medical and pharmaceutical industries, as the over-prescription of the drugs has been much more harmful than the illegal street dealing. I understand that the Minister possibly feels compelled to respond to the incidents in the north inner city but I hope he will consider that the measures are regressive, potentially harmful to the users health, and ultimately will never affect those at the top of the drug trade.
I thank Senator Ruane and congratulate her on her election to this House. I take the point she made very seriously based on her experience but there are two issues involved and my contention is that they are somewhat separate in terms of what I am trying to do in this situation but also what the Government must do in terms of a national drugs strategy.
I wish to start with a brief explanation of the existing misuse of drugs legislation, which has two primary purposes. First, it aims to protect the public from dangerous and harmful substances which have no therapeutic or other legitimate use, for example, ecstasy or head shop drugs by establishing a system of tight control over those.Second, the legislation facilitates the safe use of certain controlled drug substances which have a medical and therapeutic value but which are harmful if misused, such as benzos, heroin and cocaine. The misuse of drugs legislation is an important element of the Government's arsenal in the fight against drug dealing and trafficking and consequent gangland crime. There is currently a problem in parts of Dublin and elsewhere with the on-street sale of prescription medicine such as benzos. To be clear, while it is already an offence under medicines regulations to supply or sell such products without prescription, the Government and An Garda Síochána are of the view that controlling these products under the misuse of drugs legislation will lead to more effective enforcement. Following the recent murders in Dublin's north inner city, I instructed my Department to expedite the drafting of the misuse of drugs Bill, which was originally scheduled for the autumn of 2016. I brought the Bill to the Government yesterday and received agreement to publish it. To be clear, the Government resolved to give the Garda whatever tools it felt it needed to respond to the situation in the north inner city and this was one tool the Garda asked to be put in its toolkit. This measure to address the issue was sought by the Garda and I am responding, as part of the whole-of-government approach, to what the Garda has asked the Government to do to address the ongoing worrying situation.
On-street drug dealers often carry relatively small quantities of drugs on their person, which can make it difficult for the authorities to proceed with the sale or supply charges. Therefore, the Bill seeks to make possession of controlled medicines an offence to enable An Garda Síochána to disrupt the activities of dealers and to protect local communities. If enacted, the Bill will provide for the drafting of regulations so that it will not be an offence for legitimate users, such as patients with a prescription and health care professionals, to be in possession of controlled drugs. In addition to controlling a number of prescription drugs, the Bill will also control a number of substances which the European Union or the United Nations have identified as harmful and open to misuse. These include substances in the NBOMe or N-bomb family of drugs that are implicated in the tragic incident in Cork earlier this year, in which one individual died and five others were hospitalised. The Bill will also control clockwork orange, a psychoactive substance that is being abused in the Border counties and elsewhere. This legislation is necessary and appropriate and is part of the suite of measures to assist in tackling crime and protecting public health.
Importantly, I intend to bring forward a second misuse of drugs Bill later this year, which will provide for the establishment of supervised injecting facilities for chronic drug users. I reaffirm the Government's commitment to doing this, which is a commitment in the programme for Government. I acknowledge the work done by Senator Ó Ríordáin in his time as Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy.
My colleague, Deputy Catherine Byrne, who is now Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, is currently developing a new drug strategy and in that context, I understand consideration is being given to the establishment of a group that would consider alternative approaches to dealing with simple possession offences. There will be public consultation on the drugs strategy in the coming months and Senators and others will have an opportunity to contribute to this process. The Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, would welcome an opportunity to benefit from Senator Ruane's own knowledge and expertise in this area. In the meantime, however, I ask for the co-operation of Members in enacting this legislation as just a piece of the jigsaw the Government has been asked to put in place by An Garda Síochána. I make the point clearly that this legislation is not my response or that of the Government and is not the new national drugs strategy. That piece of work will be undertaken and there will be a second misuse of drugs Bill in the autumn of this year. Moreover, a new national drugs strategy, which will be an action-based strategy to deal with the larger issues the Senator has legitimately raised, will be published this year.
I reiterate how the focus is on possession, which again mostly targets people who will be selling for their own use. As for N-bomb and clockwork orange, if one looked further into those cases, polydrug use is usually more the issue there than simply the use of N-bomb. Many of the recent deaths have been due to a toxic mix of alcohol, other drugs and this substance. It has not been proven to be due to this substance alone. I reiterate the programme for Government committed to a health approach to addiction and note my belief these amendments are regressive and retrograde in this respect and do not reach the intended target of high-level dealers. They just serve to criminalise further the most vulnerable in society.
I note the Senator's points and accept her bona fides on this issue. I hope she will accept mine as well that the Government intends to deliver on the commitment in the programme for Government to a health-based approach to addiction. I intend to prove this to the Senator and others through the second misuse of drugs Bill later this year and the new national drugs strategy. In addition, however, from my perspective, when An Garda Síochána asks the Government to give it a range of tools to deal with a specific problem in the north inner city, I feel obliged to act in that regard and that is why I am bringing forward this legislation, which I hope to have in this House before the summer recess.