Seanad debates

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Commencement Matters

National Drugs Strategy

2:30 pm

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister of State for her time. Last week, as I was submitting this Commencement matter for debate, it struck me that what I want to discuss is how best the two briefs in the Minister of State's remit can be combined. It is no coincidence that responsibility for communities and the national drugs strategy were placed with the same Minister of State portfolio, as it seems extraordinarily clear that a close and symbiotic relationship exists between the two issues.

The Health Research Board's report shows that in 2014, 697 drug-related deaths occurred, which is a 62% increase since 2004. The community has a clear and vital role to play in how we formulate drug and alcohol policy. I call on the Minister of State to formally recognise this crucial role in the new national drugs strategy and include community as a pillar.The inclusion of a new community pillar in our national response to drugs would place communities at the centre of our drugs strategy in a number of ways. The principal reason that a national drugs strategy exists in the first place is because of the actions of besieged and desperate communities in the 1980s. The slow State response to the heroin epidemic that ravaged our communities in that period empowered them to apply upward pressure and force the State to respond in the form of the Rabbitte ministerial reports and the establishment of local drugs task forces. As a result, communities became responsible for the creation of a strategy and supporting it from the beginning despite their role not formally being recognised.

I am calling on the Minister of State to give that formal recognition now, given the risk of problematic drug use being medicalised and overtly focused on the individual drug user as well as the risk of a new drugs strategy operating without any reference to the social context in which drug use happens. Drug use is entrenched in our communities and, as a result, community participation is central in addressing its multifaceted nature. The strategy's effectiveness would be amplified by unequivocal support for communities on the ground. Community development could be the methodology through which we built bridges between drug users, the wider community and the national strategy. If we do not do this but continue viewing drug use as an issue that only affects the individual, the socioeconomic origins of problematic drug use will not and cannot change.

I hope that the call I am making is a constructive one. It could allow a new national drugs strategy to have a successful and long-term impact. A community pillar is a question of creating equality of conditions in people's lives. A new strategy needs to incorporate how we address the inequalities that result in issues relating to drug use. If the Minister of State wishes the strategy to have a lasting and meaningful impact, we must recognise these inequalities and determine how to can change the nature and patterns of drug use and the conditions in the lives of our citizens that lead to them in the first place. There is a strong and clear relationship between drug use and inequality. A successful drugs strategy needs to recognise this.

The Department has just completed a public consultation on the strategy. While I welcomed the opportunity given to stakeholders to contribute to policy formulation, I was concerned that the relatively short six-week period might have meant that community organisations were unable to make sufficiently detailed and robust submissions. That is why I am raising this matter.

The strategy is nearing completion and a community role would need some time to be developed at a policy level. I call on the Minister of State to include a reference to a community role that would allow her Department and stakeholders to work on the practicalities. I recognise the important work that the Department is doing and there have been several thousand submissions. I wish the Minister of State well in that endeavour and look forward to working with her when the strategy is complete.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The national drug-related deaths index was published this morning. The figures are shocking. There is a serious issue that needs to be addressed, not only within communities, but as a Government and a nation. I will not say that we will continue monitoring the situation, as monitoring is not good enough. Through the national drugs strategy, we will identify why so many people are losing their lives due to addiction and poisoning.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to outline the development of the new national drugs strategy. The overall objective of the National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016 was to tackle the harm caused to individuals and society by the misuse of drugs. Concern focused on the pillars of supply reduction, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and research. I am keenly aware from my work in my community that the drug problem is a complex and challenging issue that has damaging consequences for those who use drugs, their families, their wider communities and society. The impact of drug-related intimidation and criminality threatens the safety and security of many communities. This has been particularly evident in light of the recent events in Dublin's north inner city and other areas throughout the country.

Drug-related deaths are a stark reminder of the impact of the drug problem in our communities. The latest figures published by the Health Research Board today indicate that almost two people died each day in 2014 as a result of poisoning, trauma or medical causes linked to drug misuse. More than 690 people died in 2014, similar to the number reported in 2013.Many of those tragic deaths were premature, with half of all the deaths in 2004 among those aged 39 years or younger. This illustrates the need for a strategic approach to deliver better outcomes for those affected by addiction.

As the House will be aware, a steering committee has been established to advise me on a new national drugs strategy. The committee has been mandated to develop an integrated public health approach to substance misuse in line with the commitment in the programme for Government to support a health-led approach to drug use.

I am aware that the Senator led calls for the inclusion of a community pillar in the new strategy in the course of the recent public consultation process. While the structure of the new strategy has not yet been agreed by the steering committee, I agree that it is important to maintain the focus on communities. whether it is achieved by having a dedicated community pillar or through other means.

The Senator is correct in identifying the fact that we received a substantial number of contributions during the public consultation process, but we also had more than 2,000 questionnaires returned. More than 350 submissions received, with many telephone calls. For the first time there was a real opportunity for communities to participate not only by telephone and through community groups but also by means of a questionnaire. We are processing all of the contributions received. The process will take some time to complete, but we are moving in the right direction.

The Department of Health is developing a performance measurement framework for drug and alcohol task forces which will provide an objective way of targeting funding allocations having regard to the drugs problem and demographic factors in task force areas. This work will feed into the new strategy and help to ensure resources will be directed towards the communities which are facing a higher risk of substance misuse. I understand the steering committee is continuing its deliberations. I look forward to receiving its final report on the new national drugs strategy early in the new year.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I wish to make two brief comments. I thank the Minister of State for her contribution. I reiterate how vital the community pillar is, even in underpinning the existing pillars. The vast number of contributions the Minister of State has received shows the level of community participation that is necessary. I urge the Minister of State to include it, notwithstanding any reference in the submissions to the need for a community pillar. The fact that the community sector engaged shows the need for a community pillar, even if it did not have the ability to overtly call for such a pillar. I hope the Minister of State will take this into account when the submissions are being reviewed.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I very much appreciate the Senator's contribution to and participation in the public consultation process. As she is aware, I come from a community-oriented background and know and understand the difficulties and the work being done in communities. This morning I was in Tallaght visiting various groups and was taken aback by the work being done on the ground. If we intend to tackle the drugs problem, the work must begin in the community. It cannot be started in the Taoiseach's office or anywhere else. Actions can only take place if support comes from the top down, but the people who know what is best are working on the ground and living in the communities they represent. They deal on a daily basis with the individuals, including young people, who are being used for criminal activity. They also include older people who for whatever reason have been dragged into addiction problems and find themselves in their late 50s and 60s still very much engaged in substance abuse.

When I have the draft report on my desk, I intend to make sure I will be very happy with the content. All I can tell the Senator is that nothing has been ruled out. I give her a commitment that if I feel something is missing, I will make it very clear to the Department and the Minister for Health that without specific pillars being identified in the report, it will not work. We must bring communities with us as part of the national drugs strategy. They are the ones who on a daily basis try to involve others to have some normality in their lives. I again thank the Senator for raising this very important matter.

Sitting suspended at 3.25 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.