Home > Dail Eireann debate. Topical issue debate - Misuse of drugs.

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Topical issue debate - Misuse of drugs. (06 Oct 2015)

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

Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan:  While I appreciate that this topic has been chosen, I would have liked one of the Ministers or Ministers of State directly involved in this matter to be here to provide answers. I do not mean any disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy English, when I say that. It was rather difficult to find a relevant Minister this week. Given that next week is budget week, I did not want to take the chance of losing this Topical Issue matter completely by deferring this debate.


Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan:  While this is certainly a health issue, it is much more than that and it requires co-operation between the Departments of Health, Justice and Equality and Social Protection. I know this is not confined to Dublin but that is what I will speak about because that is what I know. The reality in Dublin is that communities are flooded with what are known as Z-drugs. These tablets are being used with other drugs and with alcohol and are causing havoc and distress. They are pushing people further into addiction and causing an awful lot of distress and pain for families and the wider community. They contribute in a major way to anti-social behaviour and criminality.


Communities are looking at young men - and it is mainly men, some of whom are only in their late teens - openly selling these Z tablets. I could bring the Minister of State right now to a number of places in the north inner city where this open dealing is going on and he could buy whatever number of Z tablets he wanted. I could also bring him to the people who are living beside this open dealing who will tell him about the nightmare of living beside it. A very fine report was published some time ago, which all of the stakeholders in the various communities bought into, called A Better City for All. While it makes wonderful suggestions and recommendations, glaring gaps persist, such as this one regarding tablets. There is a lot of talking but no action on this matter.


The Minister of State might say that this is a matter for the Garda, and it is, but its hands are completely tied because of the lack of appropriate legislation. Gardaí are being asked by the communities why they are allowing this drug dealing to continue. The answer is that they are powerless to do anything. Emergency legislation is needed, and I am reliably informed that if legislation were enacted to deal with Z-drugs, places could be cleaned up in a week. We would all like to see more gardaí on our streets, but in this case more gardaí is not the answer unless legislation is enacted which will enable them to do their work. Unfortunately, it would appear that these working class communities that are devastated by drugs are not high on the priority list.


The difficulty is that there are two relevant Acts here, one being the Irish Medicines Board Act, which was amended in 2006, and the other being the Misuse of Drugs Act, but they contain loopholes. Neither Act is appropriate to deal with tablets because tablets are not controlled drugs. At the moment, if a garda has a reasonable suspicion that somebody is engaging in drug dealing, he or she can search that person. However, if tablets are found, the garda must give one third back to the person so that he or she can do his or her own individual testing. The issue of tablets has never been addressed and in the meantime it continues. It is causing havoc in communities. People are looking at this open drug dealing going on in their areas but they are not overly concerned as to whether it is heroin, ecstasy, cocaine or cannabis. They are concerned about the actual dealing, which is all part of that same milieu or world of drugs. It is open and blatant, but the hands of gardaí are tied.


Deputy Damien English: I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for raising this issue. She will be aware that the Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, is out of the country and unable to respond personally. The Government's response to the problem of drug misuse in our society is set out in the National Drugs Strategy 2009-16. The Minister of State is aware that in recent years the nature and scale of drug misuse has changed, with an increased prevalence of polydrug use and the use of Z-drugs, benzodiazepines and other prescription or non-prescription tablets, as Deputy O'Sullivan has just outlined. Treatment figures for 2013 indicate an increase in the number of people seeking treatment for benzodiazepine use.


Z-drugs are prescription medicines and, as such, may be supplied by a registered pharmacist only on foot of a prescription. It is an offence to supply them by mail order. While it is not an offence to receive them, recipients are not entitled to possess them, and this provision is availed of by customs officers and the Health Products Regulatory Authority to confiscate such medicines. Some medicines, including Z-drug Zipeprol, are subject to stricter controls under the misuse of drugs regulations because of their high potential for abuse and misuse.


A substantial amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 1988 to introduce additional controls on benzodiazepines and Z-drugs was the subject of a consultation process. It included the introduction of import and export controls and tighter prescribing and dispensing rules. While substantial work was done on drafting these amended regulations, departmental resources had to be reallocated to deal with a challenge to the constitutionality of section 2(2) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, under which the Government declares substances to be controlled under the Act. The Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Act 2015 was enacted in March 2015 following an adverse finding by the Court of Appeal.


The 2015 Act also reconfirmed existing ministerial regulations and orders made under the 1977 Act, including the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 1988. This means that amendments are required to the Misuse of Drugs Act before any new regulations can be made. Work is under way on drafting a second Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill to amend sections of the 1977 Act. The Bill is listed in the Government's legislative programme for publication in 2016.


Of course, it is important to point out that the problem of abuse of Z-drugs will not be solved by regulations alone and that prescribers need to ensure that these controlled substances are only prescribed as appropriate and for a very limited time. Clinical guidelines are set out in the Department of Health's document, Good Practice Guidelines for Clinicians, for the prescribing of benzodiazepines. The HSE's addiction services provide a comprehensive substance treatment service orientated towards those with polydrug issues. Consequently, problem drug users attending such services who are dependent on benzodiazepines or Z-drugs have this addressed as part of their treatment. Clinical protocols for benzodiazepine treatment are currently under consideration by the national clinical effectiveness committee, and some HSE addiction services are piloting these protocols. The Department of Health is beginning work on the development of a new national drugs strategy. The process will include a comprehensive consultation with key stakeholders and the public on the current national drugs policy and future priorities, including treatment. Along with my colleague, the Minister of State Deputy Ó Ríordáin, I would urge all interested parties to engage in the process.


Deputy O'Sullivan is right that there is no one solution to this problem. It will require a combination of efforts from several Departments. It is not just a question of more gardaí or more legislation. A co-ordinated effort is required to tackle this problem. I do not have all of the answers to the Deputy's questions today, but I am sure that the Minister of State will respond to her in person in the coming days.


Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan: I know that the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, is aware of this because he has attended meetings of quite a number of community projects in the north inner city, as well as meetings of the North Inner City Drugs Task Force. Last September I put a question to the Minister for Justice and Equality on this matter. At that time I was told that this is acknowledged as a problem in the Dublin city centre area. That was the gist of the answer I received. I was also told that An Garda Síochána continues to work closely with all of the relevant State agencies, but I have just outlined what gardaí are saying to me. I got that reply over a year ago, and in the meantime the situation has become much worse. We are not seeing the urgency that is needed here. I want to acknowledge the work of the drugs squad in Store Street and the sterling work of Inspector Des McTiernan for the urgency he has brought to this matter, but his hands are tied. That is the bottom line here.


The answer I have just been given does not get to the kernel of the issue. The Minister of State has said that it is an offence to supply these tablets by mail order, but they are coming in all the time through the Internet and various other means. While it is not an offence the receive them, the recipient is not entitled to possess them, but people are possessing them all the time. Even when gardaí find people in possession of these Z-drugs there is nothing they can do about it.


If we ever get around to drafting the legislation referred to, we cannot just try to control the Z-drugs issue, because no sooner will that be controlled than we will have Y tablets or X tablets or some other drug, such is the inventiveness of the chemists and dealers. I have absolutely no doubt that Z-drugs will be replaced by something else, which is why there is a need to get people together who really know what they are talking about to work on the legislation.


Deputy Damien English: I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for the additional points she has made, which I will relay to the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin. As the Deputy herself said, this is an issue that cuts across several Departments, including Health and Justice and Equality. Unfortunately, the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, could not be here today either. The Government is conscious that a co-ordinated effort is required and there will be an attempt during the drafting of the legislation due in 2016 to involve all of the relevant agencies to ensure that we put the best possible legislation in place. The new national drugs strategy, on which the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, will lead, is important, and it will adapt to the changes in society over the last four or five years. The strategy will ensure that we have the necessary legislation in place and the resources required to target the new phenomenon of abuse of Z-drugs. As Deputy O'Sullivan has pointed out, this will change again in the coming years, so we need to have a drugs strategy that is capable of adapting to current crises in terms of the demand for certain drugs. I will relay all of the Deputy's concerns to the Minister of State at the earliest opportunity.

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