Home > Joint Committee on Health and Children. Illegal drug use: discussion (resumed).

Joint Committee on Health and Children. [Oireachtas] Joint Committee on Health and Children. Illegal drug use: discussion (resumed). (22 Sep 2011)

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

[previous meetings were on 08 and 15 September 2011]

Chairman: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, her officials and the members of the National Advisory Committee on Drugs to our meeting, which is part of a series of meetings dealing with the issue of drugs and illegal drug taking in our society. I congratulate the Minister of State and welcome her as our new Minister. I wish her well in her brief. We look forward to hearing from her. As she is aware, a concern has been expressed at some of our meetings regarding the fact that the Minister for drugs is no longer a member of the Cabinet. Also, as part of the deliberations concern has been expressed regarding the volume of alcohol consumption in society. This morning, prior to the meeting, I noticed that Diageo has started using Facebook and other social media to advertise its products. I hope the members of the advisory committee will discuss that also with this committee. The representatives are very welcome and we look forward to hearing from them.


Before calling the Minister of State I remind everyone of the position regarding privilege, mindful of our discussion earlier. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person(s) or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that Members should not comment or criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I call the Minister of State, Deputy Shortall.


Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall): At the outset I want to introduce my officials. On my right is Michael Conroy who is the principal officer in the drugs policy unit in the Department of Health. Beside him is Susan Scally, principal officer in the drugs programme unit in the Department of Health. On my extreme left is Brian Murphy who is the national primary care and social inclusion manager in the Health Service Executive and immediately on my left is Joe Doyle, the national rehabilitation co-ordinator in the HSE.


I very much welcome the opportunity to come before the committee to talk about the drugs problem. I very much welcome the engagement of the committee in this important issue, which unfortunately affects so much of our country. I would hope this is the opening session in regard to our engagement around this issue and that we might continue that engagement and conversation into the future in that we would return to the committee to talk to members at a later stage. I hope that we might examine ways of involving members of the committee more in the evolution of policy in this area in regard to both drugs and alcohol. I welcome the interest of members and look forward to dealing as best I can with their questions.


Like many members of the committee I have been concerned about the issue of problem drug use for many years and have been active in trying to address the consequences that arise from such use in our communities. Therefore, I very much welcome the opportunity I have been given in terms of fulfilling a role as Minister of State with responsibility in this area. I am determined to make significant strides forward in deterring young people from becoming involved with drugs and in improving the treatment and rehabilitation opportunities for those people who have drug related problems.


The overall strategic objective of the National Drugs Strategy 2009-16 is to tackle the harm caused to individuals and society by the misuse of drugs through a concerted focus on the five pillars on which we address this problem, that is, supply reduction, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and research. The Government is committed to providing renewed impetus to the fight against drugs and to ensuring the effectiveness of any initiatives taken. The strategy sets out a series of actions to be taken to ensure that the overall aims and objectives are met by the various sectors in the period up to 2016. Progress at a national level is reviewed through the oversight forum on drugs, which I chair, and drugs task forces play a key role at regional and local level. I emphasise the need for all parties to the strategy to renew their commitment to the achievement of the key objectives set out in the strategy.


It is particularly important to have accurate information on the extent of drug use and the drug prevalence survey, which is carried out at four-yearly intervals in line with stringent international standards, is the best source of such information. Field work for the 2010-11 survey has been completed and I am looking forward to the first results bulletin becoming available in November. This will give the key findings on drug use and will outline comparisons with the two previous surveys undertaken in 2006-07 and 2002-03. This information will subsequently inform policy for the coming period.


Regarding supply reduction, the Garda Síochána and Revenue’s customs service continue their efforts to reduce the supply of drugs into Ireland and the production of drugs within the country. The agencies co-operate very well together and also with other law enforcement agencies across Europe.


Cannabis grow houses have recently become a feature of the drugs trade. While many have been uncovered this development is a concern, especially as the cannabis now available is of a much stronger nature than that of earlier years. Such grow houses are also a common problem across much of Europe.


A year ago the activities of head shops in Ireland were a matter of great concern to the general public in view of the accessibility of psychoactive substances, the number of people frequenting these shops, the health risks involved and the possibility of use of these products acting as a gateway to the use of illicit drugs. Regulations under the Misuse of Drugs Acts were introduced in May of last year making the possession and sale of a wide range of psychoactive substances illegal and subject to criminal sanctions. The Minister for Justice and Law Reform subsequently introduced legislation making it a criminal offence to sell or supply substances that are not prohibited under the Misuse of Drugs Act but that have psychoactive effects on humans. The number of headshops has dropped from 102 to 12 and An Garda Síochána confirms that no psychoactive substances are being sold in the remaining outlets. Meanwhile, work is well advanced in my Department on the introduction of regulations under the Misuse of Drugs Acts to control a further extensive range of products.


I am concerned about the levels of usage of some prescription drugs, whether sourced in Ireland or bought over the Internet from abroad. As a first step, I have asked the HSE to carry out an examination of the prescribing patterns for benzodiazepines.


The further development of prevention measures aimed primarily at those deemed to be most at risk of becoming involved in illegal drug use, and at the younger population generally, is a critical element of the national drugs strategy. Along with this, it is necessary to develop awareness among the general population with respect to problem drug use, alcohol use and the misuse of prescription drugs.


As emphasised in the programme for Government, I see the school setting as being particularly important. The challenge is to ensure programmes continue to be updated to reflect current realities at any given time and to deliver them in the most effective way across the whole school environment. In that way, all our children will be better equipped to handle the real dangers they will face. In that regard, I can confirm that the Department of Education and Skills has recently set up a group to ensure the ongoing relevance of the messages being delivered in schools. I am determined that we will really impact on the treatment and rehabilitation of problem drug users during my time in office and I am already making some progress in this regard.


There are approximately 14,500 known opiate users in Ireland, of whom 9,300 are in receipt of methadone maintenance treatment. In total, over 12,500 people are in receipt of drug treatment. Clients can usually access methadone provision in Dublin within one month of assessment. The major focus recently has been on increasing the availability of services outside Dublin. Over the past 18 months, additional services have been put in place in Limerick, Tralee, Cork, Waterford, Kilkenny, Wexford and Dundalk. Further services are planned for Drogheda and the midlands. Enhanced detoxification facilities have also come on stream recently in counties Carlow, Kilkenny, Cork and Limerick.


A review of the methadone treatment protocol, entitled The Introduction of the Opioid Treatment Protocol, was published in December 2010. The review made a number of recommendations for improving services in the following areas: more involvement of GPs, more clients per GP and the placing of maximum emphasis on moving clients towards recovery, which I hope will be the hallmark of our approach to the drugs problem in the coming years; more opportunities for detoxification with appropriate follow-up; addressing service provision outside the main urban areas; use of drugs other than methadone, such as suboxone; and opiate substitute prescribing in Garda stations. I support these recommendations and will be following up with the HSE in regard to expediting their implementation.


Approval has recently been granted for the proposed provision of needle exchange services in approximately 65 community pharmacies at various locations outside Dublin, with part funding being provided by the Elton John Aids Foundation. A national liaison pharmacist has been appointed to oversee this programme, the roll-out of which will begin next month. Needle exchange services in Dublin are provided through HSE clinics, and through voluntary sector providers, so this initiative will facilitate broad national coverage.


I am particularly focused on ensuring increased emphasis on moving people on from drug treatment to a drug-free life where that is achievable. It is my belief that there has been insufficient focus on this ambitious goal. In short, we must present drug users with the opportunities to achieve a life of drugs.


The HSE has a national rehabilitation co-ordinator in place and the National Drug Rehabilitation Implementation Committee is working to progress the overall rehab response to empower people to access the social, economic and cultural benefits of life in line with their needs and aspirations. Recently, national protocols for inter-agency working and common assessment guidelines were agreed for all treatment providers and I hope that these will facilitate more successful outcomes. I will endeavour to ensure clients will be strategically case-managed towards successful exit from treatment, with step-down facilities and appropriate follow-on support being provided.


There is widespread concern, which I am sure all members share, in regard to the use and misuse of alcohol. This is primarily a public health issue, requiring a whole-population approach for successful implementation. The central aim is to reduce the amount of alcohol we drink. At the same time, harmful alcohol use is often associated with polydrug use and many of the treatment and rehabilitation services providers deliver services to both groups. Also, alcohol can act as a gateway to the use of illicit drugs for some people. Against this background, the Government will develop a national substance misuse strategy incorporating alcohol and drugs. A steering group, chaired by my Department and including representatives of other relevant Departments and agencies, in addition to the community and voluntary sectors and the drinks industry, is working on the finalisation of its recommendation on a new strategy and I expect to receive its report next month. These recommendations will then be considered before proposals aimed at tackling the problems of alcohol and drugs in a cohesive way are brought to Government later this year.


In conclusion, I stress that the Government is determined to tackle the issue of problem drug use over the coming years. The problems are major and resources are scarce, as members all know. Even so, in excess of €250 million will be spent this year across Departments and agencies in dealing with the drugs problem. I look forward to working with my ministerial colleagues and in partnership across the statutory, community and voluntary sectors to ensure real and lasting progress is made for the benefit of individuals, their families and their communities. I very much welcome the input of this committee regarding evolving policy in this area.


Chairman: I thank the Minister of State for her statement and her commitment to involve this committee in the evolution of policy. I welcome Ms Scally and Mr. Conroy.


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