Home > Dail Eireann debate. Questions 42 & 43 - National Drugs Strategy [23016/06].

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Questions 42 & 43 - National Drugs Strategy [23016/06]. (14 Jun 2006)

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42. Mr. Crowe asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if, in view of his responsibility for co-ordinating the implementation of the National Drugs Strategy 2001 to 2008, under which a series of 100 individual actions have been identified and that his Department is responsible for preparing six-monthly progress reports on the strategy for the Cabinet Committee on Social Inclusion, and an annual report on the strategy, if he will comment on the progress in completing the 100 actions, highlighting the areas where he is least satisfied with progress. [23016/06]

43. Mr. English asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if he has satisfied himself regarding the progress made in relation to the implementation of the recommendations contained in the mid-term review of the National Drugs Strategy; the recommendations which have been enacted on foot of this review; the recommendations which remain to be implemented; the reason they have not; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23110/06]

Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Mr. N. Ahern): I propose to take Questions Nos. 42 and 43 together. The overall aim the mid-term review of the national drugs strategy, NDS, was to examine the progress made to date in achieving the key strategic goals set out in the strategy and to enable priorities for future action to be identified for the remaining period up to 2008. As part of the review, the steering group undertook an extensive public consultation process. As the Government has positioned the drugs strategy within the context of wider social inclusion policy, the recommendations in the report were framed in this context and the focus of the strategy will continue to be on illegal drugs that do the most harm and on the most vulnerable drug misusers, their families and communities. The key conclusions of the steering group were that the current aims and objectives of the strategy are fundamentally sound and that progress is being made across the pillars.

However, the steering group also found that some adjustments were required to refocus priorities and accelerate the roll out and implementation of the various key actions in the remaining period of the strategy up to 2008. The review found that 49 of the 100 actions had already been completed or were ongoing tasks over the life of the strategy, progress had been made on 45 other actions with more work underway to deliver them and there were six actions upon which considerably more work was required. Also, the steering group’s recommendations resulted in 17 of the strategy’s existing 100 actions being either amended or replaced with a further eight new actions being identified. The six actions that were identified in the mid-term review where considerably more progress was required dealt with the following: the extension of community policing fora; review of the effectiveness of the prison strategy with respect to drugs; development of drop-in centres, respite facilities and half way houses; setting up of a pilot community pharmacy, needle and syringe exchange programme; drugs training for various professionals; and discussion of the national drugs strategy at meetings of the Oireachtas committees. Progress is being achieved under the national drugs strategy. Tackling the drug problem will remain a key priority of the Government.

Mr. Crowe: I asked about the areas where there was least progress and the Minister outlined six actions that were required. I accept more work must be done in the needle exchange area. Recently I was approached by a family in Cork whose son was in the local hospital. There was no room in the psychiatric unit so he ended up in the geriatric unit. The family informed me that their son must go to Dublin every day to get treatment. There is no methadone treatment in the Cork or Limerick area so people are travelling to Dublin every day. One of the difficulties for people in those areas is that if they want to move on or get a job, for example, their life revolves around getting another drug. It revolved around that before they went for treatment but the concept of the treatment is to move people forward.

The Minister should examine this because it is one of the issues that must be tackled. It is like a badge of courage for the health board in the area to say there is no methadone treatment there. There is a physeptone bus operating in Dublin. It has been operating for eight years. It was supposed to be a temporary measure. It is unacceptable because there is no anonymity and so forth. This should be reconsidered and action taken on it. With regard to treatment, according to a response from the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, there is a waiting time of 19 months for people in the Athlone area for treatment. That is unacceptable. The waiting time is six months in other areas. In my constituency it is nine weeks. Places on community schemes are not being taken up by the health service. Perhaps the Minister will deal with this. There is also the new drug, cocaine. One action could be dealing with the lack of cocaine drug counsellors. I accept there is a need to retrain people, but for the long term we must look to other countries that have had some success tackling this new problem. There are schemes in New York which have had huge success with the heroin problem. Perhaps the health service and the Department would consider them. We must look outside the box. I accept there has been movement on this issue but there is still a huge amount to be tackled.

Mr. N. Ahern: I thank the Deputy for his comments. I accept the needle exchange was a weakness in the operation of the strategy. While a number of centres in Dublin have needle exchange programmes, they tend to operate for only a couple of days per week or for only part of the day. Too many people, therefore, were coming to one or two main centres in the city centre. The HSE has provided extra money this year for extra services in that regard. With regard to the Deputy’s remarks about Cork, some towns and cities have a different philosophy. Some places deliberately try to adopt a drug-free approach. That is up to each local or regional drugs task force. However, one must accept reality. What one likes is one thing but it is important to provide services to people from a harm reduction point of view. I accept that, until recently, people outside Dublin who had a drug problem had to come to Dublin every day. Since we established the regional drugs task forces, they have helped the HSE to provide services at local level. That is the reason people can say that the number of people using services in, for example, Carlow or Portlaoise has increased by 300%. It has, because services are now being provided there and they do not have to come to Dublin to the extent they did previously. It is an ongoing battle. I accept there are drugs in other parts of the country. The services are being provided. The situation is not perfect yet but we are getting there. With regard to the bus, was the Deputy referring to the inner city?

Mr. Crowe: Buckingham Street.

Mr. N. Ahern: One of the Deputy’s colleagues spoke to me about that recently. The buses were geared at the more chaotic people who would not go to treatment centres. This was the thinking behind them. I will follow up on the matter for the Deputy. Many of the people who have a cocaine problem now were already attending services for other drug problems such as heroin. It is not necessary to have more counsellors specialising in a single drug. The HSE is upskilling many of the staff so they can provide a comprehensive service to clients, regardless of whether the drug is alcohol, heroin or cocaine. We look at other countries. There is an EU drug strategy. I do not know the position in America which is very much into law and order and where there is far less emphasis on harm reduction and treatment. It has often been said of America that unless one is in prison or going to prison one cannot access many of the services. At EU level officials are dealing with the EU drug strategy and we are observing and following best practice in trying to implement what is appropriate and good policy here. 3 o’clock

Mr. English: I will not go back over the drug strategy figures. All the areas and principles to be concentrated on are fundamentally correct. However, the solutions proposed for the various areas are not achieving results. There are drug addicts but the misuse of drugs by young people, and people in general, at weekends or every second weekend or once a month, has increased and appears to be more accepted. This House is not sending out a sufficiently strong message that drugs are bad. While the Minister of State speaks about it, I rarely hear the Government taking the lead or trying to deter people from using drugs. There is a lack of emphasis on the need to spend money to end the scourge of drug misuse. In the area of law and order we have failed through community policing to prevent people indulging in drugs and anti-social behaviour. I would appreciate the Minister of State’s comments on that. Responsibility for establishing youth centres or hang-out areas in all towns rests with the Minister of State’s Department, the Department of Education and Science and so on. This is what young people need. In any town or village one visits, the young people say they want a hang-out area. I have spoken with young people in Cork, Limerick, Galway and in County Meath on the matter. However, it is very difficult to get funding or sponsorship for such projects from any Department, yet there is €20 million in the Department of Education and Science from the dormant accounts fund for which there is no plan. Is there a real effort to do something for young people? If we do not spend money on services for them many more will end up on drugs and drink and the only culture they will know will be the drugs culture. That would be a great shame. In recent days we have heard much about culture and people who supported the arts. We have to look to what will happen in future if we do not tackle the problem now.

There is an urgent need for action. On the last day we spoke of the delays in getting methadone treatment and the fact that in some areas one has to wait for months. I also highlighted the issue of getting people off methadone. I accept we need to get people off drugs and on to methadone to stabilise them. However, we have to ensure they do not become addicted to methadone. There are massive problems here. There are social and economic reasons to get people off methadone. Should more money be pumped into alternative treatments or are there other approaches? I came across a document recently from the late 1800s or the early 1900s which stated that heroin was originally used as a cure. I have to admit I did not realise that. It was introduced originally as a cure for another problem, but look at the problems it has caused. I fear we are going down the same road with methadone. I would like to hear the Minister of State’s comments on that.

Mr. N. Ahern: I do not see the community drugs strategy as a failure. We are working with the community and all the statutory agencies. Drugs have not gone away and will not go away in the next year or two. As I said in my reply there may be people who are using drugs for recreational purposes. While on the prevention side we try to provide information to all sectors of society, our strategy is geared towards less well-off areas where people are dealing with illegal drugs and where drugs do most harm. The Deputy mentioned community policing. By the end of the year we will have 1,400 gardaí. The number of gardaí has rocketed during the past seven or eight years.

Mr. English: The figures have rocketed.

Mr. N. Ahern: The figures are impressive. The Minister said that by Christmas there will be 14,000 gardaí when one includes those in training. In 18 months’ time there will be 14,000 trained gardaí. There is a great deal of action. There are a few pilot joint policing committees in some areas of the city. The guidelines for same will come from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in the next few days and will go before the justice committee. Some of those policing committees operating on a pilot basis in parts of Dublin are working well. Members of the community have an opportunity to talk with the gardaí and the local authority and plan their work in a comprehensive way. I agree that different Departments fund youth centres. The Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism allocated millions of euro last week. We have the Young Peoples Facilities and Services Fund and have disbursed more than €100 million. That fund is exclusively for the drug task force areas in Dublin and Cork. Recently we gave some capital money to Waterford and Carlow. That was the first time, with the exception of Cork, that we had given capital money but we had given some services money to a few areas previously. That fund will be rolled out in a structured way. We have targeted mainly the Leinster towns. It is not a case of sending Deputies home with nice letters telling them a fortune is being spent on their areas. We have to cater for young people who are at risk from drugs based on the evidence.

Mr. English: That is the point I want to raise with the Minister of State. All our young people are at risk from drugs. I accept that most assistance has to go to those most at risk. We do not realise the problem is increasing in all areas. Drugs are beginning to get a hold on young people. The casual user will suffer long term. They start by taking drugs once a week or once a month and then more often. Drugs misuse is becoming a massive problem in all areas not only for those particularly at risk but for young people in general who are at risk. Mr. N. Ahern: In regard to the Young Peoples Facilities and Services Fund, in Dublin after the local and regional drug task forces were set up, we established a development committee comprising members from a drug task force, a local authority and a VEC, which looked at prevention. It is a case of trying to develop ideas that would help to provide facilities to give an alternative to young people. That will be rolled out over the next few years particularly in the Leinster towns and towns that have a specific problem. Methadone is a short-term solution not a long-term solution. There is a report on Bupenorphine which is another option. A special rehabilitation committee was set up, arising from the mid-term review, which is looking at the overall issue into the future. It is not a case of putting a person on methadone and hoping the problem will be solved. It is about training people and getting them back into education and employment, allowing them make a useful contribution to society. That committee will report in the next month or so.

Vol. 621 No. 5 Wednesday, 14 June 2006

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