Home > Dail Eireann debate. Written answers 2 & 5 - National Drugs Strategy [Head shops] [8489/10, 8488/10].

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Written answers 2 & 5 - National Drugs Strategy [Head shops] [8489/10, 8488/10]. (18 Feb 2010)

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

2. Deputy Jack Wall asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the steps he will take to close or regulate head shops in view of the serious public concern and the potential damage that can be caused by substances sold in these outlets; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

5. Deputy Catherine Byrne asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs his views on the proliferation of head shops here in recent months; the steps he will take to tackle the prevalence of legal highs and their mind altering effects; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Deputy John Curran): I propose taking Questions Nos. 2 and 5 together.
I have voiced my concerns about the activities of head shops and substances represented as “legal highs” sold in these outlets on numerous occasions since my appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy. My concerns about these substances centre on the potential health hazards arising from the use of these products and the possibility that their use may act as a gateway to the use of illicit drugs. This issue is causing concern across Europe and a number of countries have taken action, each adapting their approach to reflect their own laws and experiences. However, no EU member state has come up with a comprehensive response thus far.
The National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016, launched in September 2009, includes two actions aimed at addressing the issues involved. The identification of the head shop and “legal highs” issue in the strategy is a reflection of the concerns arising in families, communities and across the general population. As provided for under the strategy, I held a number of meetings in late 2009 with the Ministers for Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Education and Science. I have also met with the Garda Commissioner and with senior officials of various Departments and offices. Head shops and the sale of legal highs were discussed at many of these meetings and some possibilities for addressing the activities of head shops were suggested.
Following more recent communications with the Minister for Health and Children, who has overall responsibility for the Misuse of Drugs Acts, the primary legislation through which these substances can be regulated, she has indicated that her Department is currently preparing regulations to introduce controls on a range of substances. These regulations will make the possession and sale of these substances illegal and subject to criminal sanctions. In preparing the required regulations, officials of the Department of Health and Children are consulting with the relevant authorities to ensure that any legitimate uses of the substances involved are not impinged upon. The intention is that the regulations will be drafted within a month, but a three month notification process to the EU may be involved. In this context, the advice of the Attorney General is being sought by the Department of Health and Children before the regulations are implemented.
Meanwhile, the activities of head shops are also being closely monitored by the Garda Síochána and the Customs Service, with a view to ensuring that no substances that are currently illegal are being sold. I have also been in contact with the Attorney General about other possible approaches to the matter. I raised issues in respect of public liability insurance, product liability insurance and consumer protection with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, as well as planning issues with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The matters involved are being considered by the two Departments and I expect to have their views in the short-term.
The National Advisory Committee on Drugs is carrying out some research at my request on psychoactive substances sold in head shops. The National Advisory Committee on Drugs has established a research advisory group for this project and it will report periodically to me on progress. In light of the banning of a number of substances and groups of substances in Britain and Northern Ireland in December, I am especially concerned about the possibility of Ireland becoming a dumping ground for some of these products. From the level of engagement outlined, Deputies can be assured that I am very committed to pursuing appropriate and comprehensive responses to counter the potential threats of head shops and “legal highs”.
Deputy Jack Wall:    I thank the Minister of State for his detailed reply. This item has caught the attention of people in every town, village and city in the country. There are many different views on the subject. I have a similar view to the Minister of State that this must be addressed urgently, yet his former colleague Deputy McDaid said last week that it would be a mistake to ban head shops, because we would be driving the sale of these products into the black market which would be controlled by drug dealers. We have seen head shops vandalised and burned in Dublin and Deputy Costello is so concerned that he is seeking to bring a Private Members’ Bill to the Dáil on the issue.
We must not delay on this. The Minister of State has said that the legislation may have to go to the EU. When will it be ready? Will the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government be dealing with the planning aspects of this, or will the local authorities have to deal with the matter? Protest marches have taken place over the last few days in Castlebar and other places on the issue, so it must be addressed quickly. Kids from schools are frequenting these places, so every aspect of the legislation must be covered.
Deputy John Curran:    I thank the Deputy for his comments, but I would like to clarify a few points. He mentioned my colleague, Deputy McDaid. I take a completely different view to Deputy McDaid on the issue. I am concerned at the proliferation of these shops and the threat they pose, due to the sale of the individual substances and the health risk involved, but also due to the fact that they could be a gateway to illicit drug use.
Under the Misuse of Drugs Acts, the Minister for Health and Children indicated at the beginning of February that the controlled list would be increased to cover everything that was done in the UK until December. That would cover a certain amount, but we want to go a little bit further. We hope to be able to include the likes of mephedrone, which is often sold as “White Ice” or “Snow”, is one of the leading products and is quite problematic. I do not have a definitive answer on this and the advice of the Attorney General is being sought. The Minister for Health and Children will bring in that draft regulation by the end of February or the beginning of March. It may be necessary to give three months’ notice to Europe before it becomes effective. That will be totally dependent on the advice of the Attorney General, but the regulation will be drafted and ready by early March.
Local authorities have a role to play in planning, but I asked specific questions of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on planning regulations. At the moment, head shops open where retail use already exists. I am wondering if the Department could look at actions we have taken to require the likes of off-licences to require specific planning regulations. If that were to be the case, the local authorities have a role to play, but I have addressed the issue to the Department.
I take this very seriously and I am not prepared to have delays on it. I would like to expand on the issue briefly.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: There are many questions on this, so I would like the Minister of State to hold his fire while I let Deputy Catherine Byrne in.
Deputy Catherine Byrne: I agree with the Minister of State. I do not believe that closing these shops completely will help anybody. In the long run, that will drive people into a darker corner and drive them underground to get this stuff. However, it is urgent that we bring in legislation as soon as possible. I agree with Deputy Wall in this respect
There are very serious health risks associated with these legal highs, as has been demonstrated by many professionals. Many young people queue outside these shops on weekends to buy their products. Along with the regulation of the head shops, there must be council action on planning, because the shops have recently resembled off-licences and there is almost one on every street corner.
I know the Minister of State is seriously concerned about what is happening, just like every parent. This is particularly the case for young people, who really do not understand the consequences of what they are taking and how they take it. Young people, particularly those at college or secondary school, need to be informed about what they are becoming involved in. Once the analysis is complete, will the products in question be added to the list of banned substances held by the Department of Health and Children?
Deputy John Curran:    Yes. To ban a substance, it must first be clearly identified and shown to have a negative and detrimental effect on health. A process must be completed to ensure the legislation is robust. Shortly before Christmas a range of products was added to the list of banned substances in the United Kingdom. While I am not familiar with the technical names, some designer cathinones such as methadrone and methylone have not been added to the UK list. We hope to go a step further than Britain and include these products on the Irish list of banned substances. The products in question have brand names with which the Deputy may be familiar, for example, “Charge”, “White Ice” and “Snow Blow”. We intend to add a substantial number of products to the list of banned substances.
While planning and other regulations will have a role to play, it should be borne in mind that the primary concern relates to the substances given that a considerable number of them are available for sale on the Internet and are delivered by post. For this reason, closing off retail outlets will not be sufficient to address the problem. I have quizzed customs officials on this matter and they have indicated that if legislation is in place and products are illegal, they have the capacity to intercept these products. We are addressing this issue in a comprehensive manner.
Deputy Byrne is correct that education has a major role to play in this regard. The Health Service Executive has embarked on designing an awareness campaign which will focus, in particular, on addressing the mistaken impression that because these products are legal they are regulated. The problem is these products are not yet illegal and the message the HSE will try to communicate is that this does not mean they are safe. This will be the focus of the awareness campaign being developed.
Deputy Jack Wall: I concur with Deputy Catherine Byrne on the educational aspect of this issue. I ask the Minister to ensure the websites of his Department, the Department of Education and Science and the Health Service Executive carry warnings about these products. It would not cost much to provide information on all relevant websites, including, for example, those of local drug task forces and policing committees in each county. I hope this will be done as a short-term measure while work on analysing the products is being done.
Deputy Catherine Byrne: When will legislation on this issue come before the House?
Deputy John Curran: Deputy Wall makes a good suggestion on providing information on websites. I will ask officials in the relevant Department to take action in this regard.
I am not sure whether legislation will be necessary or if the measures can be taken by ministerial order and statutory instrument under existing legislation. It is intended to add this range of substances to the Schedule of the Misuse of Drugs Act.
Vol. 702 No. 4  
Controlled Drugs Sales
Thursday, 18 February 2010

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