Home > Dail Eireann debate. Priority question 73 - National Drugs Strategy [7944/07].

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Priority question 73 - National Drugs Strategy [7944/07]. (28 Feb 2007)

External website: https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/dail/2...

73.  Mr. English asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs his view on whether the national drugs strategy, which comes to an end in 2007, has failed in view of the significant increase in drugs misuse nationally. [7944/07]

Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Mr. N. Ahern): The national drugs strategy, which runs until the end of 2008, is achieving considerable success across a range of different areas. The main finding of the mid-term review of the strategy, published in 2005, was that its current aims and objectives are fundamentally sound and that progress is being made in all pillars through which it operates. It is difficult to determine if a significant increase nationally in drugs misuse has occurred. The most recent comprehensive figures for drugs misuse come from the all-island drug prevalence survey in 2002 and 2003. Fieldwork for a second survey is in progress and will be completed in April, with first reports becoming available in the autumn. While the most recent data on heroin use comes from a study published by the national advisory committee on drugs in 2004, a similar study will be commissioned in 2007. When completed, this research will give a clearer view of the prevalence and changing nature of drugs misuse. At my request, the NACD and the national drug strategy team, NDST, recently prepared a joint briefing paper on cocaine, based on existing data in Ireland. The paper, which is to be published next week, concluded that all data sources indicated an upward trend in cocaine use. Several recommendations are made in the paper, principally in regard to treatment, but also covering supply, prevention and research, and those are being followed up with the relevant Departments and agencies.

With regard to the resources available, I am delighted to have secured a 16% increase in my Department’s funding to tackle drug misuse in 2007, especially as it follows very significant increases in the previous two years. The allocation of €50 million shows an increase of 87% on the corresponding figure for 2004. The significantly increased figure illustrates the importance that the Government places on tackling the drugs problem across the country. This year, substantial progress is expected by the regional drugs task forces in implementing their action plans. Meanwhile, through the emerging needs fund, the local drugs task forces will be able to address the most pressing issues arising in the evolving drugs situation in their areas. In addition, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, announced an increase of €6 million as part of this year’s budget to address the health-related aspects of the national drugs strategy. The overall Government allocation across several Departments to tackle the drugs problem in 2007 will be well in excess of €200 million. (Additional information not given on the floor of the House.) There have been encouraging signs of progress in recent years in the areas of drug seizures, the expansion and success of treatment services, the development of prevention programmes in schools, the expanding and ongoing work of local and regional drug task forces, and the valuable work being done through the young people’s facilities and services fund. I assure the Deputy that through the structures and actions set out in the national drugs strategy, the Government will continue to tackle the problem.

Mr. English: The Minister of State may be wondering why I tabled this question. The main reason was that the Taoiseach claimed there was no serious drugs problem in every village, community and locality. He was backed by others in the Government, but there is just such a serious drugs problem. Until those on the Government benches accept that we have a major problem, we will never solve it.

Acting Chairman: Does the Deputy have a question?

Mr. English: This is the background to the question. The Minister claims the drugs strategy is working, but that is not true. Every report, college-funded, independent or from the Government, shows an increase in use. Seizures last year reached €74 million. Assuming the figure in question represents 10% of use, one can see how much drug sales and use have increased. Even in the context of falling prices, one can see how lucrative it is. Cocaine seizures have risen by 500% since 1995. The Government may claim the rise is owing to the great job being done in seizing drugs, but we are still only hitting at the same rates.

Acting Chairman: The Deputy is making a Second Stage speech.

Mr. English: That is not true. The Acting Chairman should not worry about that. I welcome the Minister of State’s increased funding, but can he not encourage colleagues across all Departments to realise that they must reflect on our problems with drugs? Every Minister should admit that we have such a problem and commit the Government to tackling it. Community gardaí are a major feature of the drugs strategy, but it has been a total failure. There are now fewer people in the Garda drugs squad than ten years ago. It is not simply a matter for the Minister of State’s Department but for all Departments. The matter is not being tackled, and that is why I argue that the drugs strategy is failing.

Acting Chairman: Does the Deputy have a question?

Mr. English: What will the Minister of State do to co-ordinate other Ministers and urge them to play their part in tackling drugs problems? In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that €24 billion is spent on drugs. No doubt the Irish figures are far lower, and we will collate the data over the coming months. I am sure the Minister of State has been involved at a European level. What joint efforts are being undertaken to tackle the drugs problem properly using a cross-Continent approach? We have a serious problem, and I am very concerned that it is not being admitted; the same is true of other governments. Is the Minister of State involved with other countries to improve the strategy in Ireland and cut supply?

Mr. N. Ahern:No one denies that there is a drugs problem.

Mr. English: The Taoiseach has done so twice.

Mr. N. Ahern:No, he has not. Mr. English: He did so this week and last week.

Mr. N. Ahern: Deputy English referred to a “serious” problem, and I congratulate him on using a reasonably sensible word. Normally his colleagues speak of “crises”. I am sure the question put to the Taoiseach was whether there was a crisis, and there is none.

Mr. English: Is the Minister of State saying there is not a serious drugs problem? Is that the Government line?

Mr. N. Ahern: The Deputy should hold on, since I listened to him. Drugs are a serious problem for those affected, but our strategy is working. The Deputy asked regarding Europe, and one must consider the situation in the context in which our strategy and efforts are placed. The supply of drugs has risen substantially. The amount seized is now massive, and prices have fallen. That is the background against which we operate our strategy in this country. The supply of drugs internationally has increased a great deal, and the price reflects that. It would be almost naive to believe that Ireland might be different or separate from the rest of the world in that regard. There is great co-operation internationally. The funds in the Department amount to approximately €50 million, mainly for expenditure at a community level, and we have mainstreamed perhaps €25 million, meaning that approximately €75 million a year is now going on projects that started at a community level. As they are evaluated, they are moved to other Departments. Perhaps 650 or 700 people are now working in the community on projects that did not exist eight or nine years ago. However, because of heroin from Afghanistan and so on, supply has increased so dramatically that things have become very difficult. There is always a problem with joined-up government, but we have the interdepartmental group, IDG, in which the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Health and Children; Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Education and Science; and Enterprise, Trade and Employment are involved, together with all the agencies. There is a co-ordinated response, and that is the strategy. They all answer for what they are doing or not doing at that level. The context is the international supply of drugs, and despite the fact that gardaí and the Customs and Excise have been so successful with their seizures, as we have heard today, it is obvious that great quantities of drugs are getting through. We can only equip people with knowledge and awareness, giving them the information on the dangers of such drugs and providing treatment facilities for those who have sadly become users.

Acting Chairman: We must move on, since we have greatly exceeded the allotted time.

Mr. English:Perhaps I might ask one more brief question.

Acting Chairman: A very brief question.

Mr. English: Regarding international supply, the Minister of State mentioned Afghanistan, where 90% of UK and Irish heroin originates. Has there been any serious talk at a European level of buying out the crop locally before it reaches the market? I do not expect the Minister of State to have all the answers.

Mr. N. Ahern: I am no expert on that. It is difficult to blame an Afghan farmer, since what he can get for an acre of opium is likely to be several times what he could get for any other crop. I will get the Deputy the information on that, but the question of building up the Afghan economy is much wider. We must settle that country’s problems, build up trade and give people other crops that will support their livelihoods. At the moment, the attraction is felt at an individual and agency level.

74. Mr. O’Shea asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the proposals he has to encourage and promote extensive research into the extent of illegal drug-taking in the State; and the reasons there is an apparent increase in illegal drug-taking across the whole community. [7880/07]

Mr. N. Ahern: An important element of any policy is the knowledge upon which it is based. In the context of the national drugs strategy, I strongly recognise the need for good information on the nature and extent of drug misuse in Ireland to influence the development and roll-out of the strategy. Research is one of the five pillars of the NDS. The key objective under this pillar is to have valid, timely and comparable data available on the extent of drug misuse in Ireland. In that context, the national advisory committee on drugs was established six or seven years ago to advise the Government on the prevalence, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and consequences of problem drug use in Ireland, based on its analysis of research findings and information available to it. As regards prevalence, the Deputy should note that the NACD, in conjunction with the drug and alcohol information and research unit in Northern Ireland, published a series of bulletins based on results from an all-island drug prevalence survey 2002-03. That study found that 19%, almost one in five, of respondents on the island of Ireland reported ever having taken an illegal drug. Cannabis was the most commonly used illegal drug. Lifetime prevalence rates for cannabis were 17% in Ireland and current rates of use were 2.6%. Aside from cannabis, the most common drugs ever used were: ecstasy 5%; magic mushrooms, LSD and poppers 4% each; amphetamines 3%; solvents and cocaine 2% each; heroin 0.4%, and crack 0.3%. The second all-island drugs prevalence survey is currently in progress and it is expected that preliminary results will be available in the latter part of this year. This will give much greater clarity on the overall current prevalence rates of drug use in Ireland.

Mr. O’Shea: I thank the Minister of State for his reply. In the context of research, it is more pertinent nowadays to examine some issues with a view to developing solid data on them. For instance, why are people taking up this habit in ever growing numbers? According to recent statistics, drug seizures in Ireland last year amount to €40 million. If one takes the lower international seizure rate norm of 5%, it means that €800 million worth of illegal drugs were coming in here. If one takes the higher seizure rate of 10%, the total would be €400 million, which is still a great deal of money. The Minister of State will recall that issues arose in committee reports where, for instance-----

Acting Chairman: Does the Deputy have a question?

Mr. O’Shea:Yes, but I am trying to provide some background. Essentially, one of the recommendations was to examine more closely the damage that cannabis does, particularly to pregnant mothers and their unborn children. Why do people take up the habit and what are the inherent dangers of using specific drugs? Such dangers may not yet be fully recognised, so we need to investigate that situation further. Why are a growing number of middle-class people using cocaine for leisure, while seemingly being in denial that the proceeds of this trade are going to some of the most ruthless criminals we have ever had in this country. We need to focus more research outside the capital. Will the new drugs plan place greater emphasis on research?

Mr. N. Ahern: Research was one of the original four pillars of the strategy and rehabilitation is now the fifth. Research is very important and the NACD is undertaking many good projects in this respect. While such research projects are mainly national, it has also funded some local ones. The strategy ends next year and there will be a consultation phase, either late this year or early next year, on a new strategy. That will provide all of us with an opportunity to tweak it or change it fundamentally, as necessary. It is difficult to know why certain people use certain drugs, but it may be due to supply and the fact that there is plenty of money around. The country’s demographics, including its age profiles, have changed hugely. Ireland is booming in many ways. There are many young people with a great deal of money and, I suppose, there is a desire to experiment. The NACD has done much good work. Our job is to try to get across to people the fact that even cannabis, which might not be as dangerous as other drugs, can have negative mental effects on a significant number of people. Much depends on how often one uses the drug and at what age but it is difficult to get that knowledge across to people. We have the research and are continually running awareness campaigns. In recent years, school SPHE classes have run modules on drugs, which try to get through to young people the damage they may be causing to themselves. Many of them already know it. According to one survey, university students who dabbled with drugs in November, December or January, desisted once their examinations approached in April or May. They are aware that drug use does not do their memorising capacity any good, although they may flirt with it. It is wrong to give the impression “One puff and you’re hooked for life”. That is not true because most people can experiment and walk away from it. Sadly, however, a significant cohort does become trapped in drug abuse. They are the ones to whom the policy is geared.

Acting Chairman: I will only allow the Deputy a brief supplementary because Priority Questions are at an end.

Mr. O’Shea: There is some scientific evidence of the damage being done to unborn children when their mothers smoke cannabis, particularly in early pregnancy. For instance, there is a propensity for such children to develop disorders like ADD and ADHD. Does the Minister of State agree that we should examine this matter more closely? When solid evidence becomes available one way or another it should be communicated effectively to the target group.

Mr. N. Ahern: Common sense dictates that even diet and exercise affect babies, so I agree with the Deputy that as more information becomes available it should be communicated to pregnant women.

Mr. O’Shea: Should we not seek to discover that information more urgently and spend resources on doing so?

Mr. N. Ahern: Yes, but they are probably not the cohort on which we would spend most of our energy. I take the Deputy’s point and will examine what data currently exists in that regard. Pregnant women may not be major users of cannabis but if any of them are doing so I agree that we should impart such information to them in a targeted way. It does not have to be done on television; it could be done through pre-natal classes, for example. I will take up the Deputy’s point with the Department of Health and Children to see whether such data is made available via maternity hospitals or elsewhere. Vol. 632 No. 5 Wednesday, 28 February 2007 Dail Debates. Priority Questions. National Drugs Strategy.

Repository Staff Only: item control page