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Home > Joint Committee on Health Debate. Illicit drug trafficking: motion.

[Oireachtas] Joint Committee on Health Debate. Illicit drug trafficking: motion. (08 Feb 2017)


Chairman: This meeting has been convened to consider the motion that Dáil Éireann approves the exercise by the state of the option or discretion under protocol 21 on the position of the UK and Ireland in respect of the area of freedom, security and justice annexed to the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning in the European Union to take part in the adoption and application of the following proposed measure:


Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Council Framework Decision 2004/757/JHA of 25 October 2004 laying down minimum provisions on the constituent elements of criminal acts and penalties in the field of illicit drug trafficking, as regards the definition of drug, which was referred to the Joint Committee by Dáil Éireann on 31 January 2017.


 The motion was referred to the joint committee by Seanad Éireann by a similar order. Members will have received briefing material prepared by the Department. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, Deputy Catherine Byrne, and her officials, Mr. Eugene Lennon and Ms Mary Dowling. I invite the Minister of State to make her opening remarks.


Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Catherine Byrne): I thank the Chairman. I am seeking the joint committee's approval for the opt-in to the provisions of the directive as provided for under Protocol 21 to the Lisbon treaty. The directive is part of a package reforming the legislation on new psychoactive substances. In short, the purpose of the directive is to add new psychoactive substances, often known as "head shop drugs" or "legal highs", to the list of drugs subjected to criminal law provisions on illicit drug trafficking.


From a public health perspective, this is a very important measure. New psychoactive substances pose significant public health and safety risks. In 2009, 24 new substances were reported to the European early warning system. By 2015 this figure had increased to 98, bringing the total number of new substances monitored to more than 560, of which more than 400 have been detected in the past five years alone. The consequences for those who use these drugs are often fatal. In 2014, the most recent year for which figures are available, there were 13 deaths resulting from the use of new psychoactive substances in Ireland.


The effect of the directive for Ireland is that prohibited psychoactive substances will come under the standard criminal regime for dealing with drug trafficking under Irish law which is provided for in the Misuse of Drugs Acts 1977. Under this legislation, new psychoactive substances are controlled either by name or by generic definition, a precise definition of a group of substances which share the same compounds or molecular structure. This approach has served Ireland well and ensures a quick response to new emerging substances. While the substances are already illegal under Irish legislation, the directive will streamline and clarify the EU framework and ensure a swifter and better co-ordinated response at EU level for the benefit of all member states, including Ireland.


As well as extending the criminal law provisions which currently apply to substances covered by the UN conventions and synthetic drugs to new psychoactive substances, the directive also includes a definition of "new psychoactive substance", a provision to include new psychoactive substances in control measures and a provision which allows member states to maintain or introduce national control measures. The directive is part of a legislative package designed to improve the European Union's response to the rapid emergence of new psychoactive substances.


There is an accompanying regulation which is designed to improve monitoring, early warning information exchange and risk assessment for new psychoactive substances. Taken together, the legislation will ensure a quicker response to the emergence of new psychoactive substances by EU member states, including Ireland. The European Council adopted its position on the package in December and negotiations with the European Parliament are expected to start shortly.


Under Protocol 21, Ireland has discretion to opt in to measures relating to criminal justice co-operation on a case by case basis. Prior Oireachtas approval is required in accordance with Article 29 of the Constitution. As the legal basis used for the directive, Article 83(1), is a Title 5 measure covering freedom, security and justice, it is subject to the opt-in clause. This is the first time my Department has managed an opt-in process under Protocol 21 and it is also the first time the committee has had to consider such a request. Under normal circumstances, the process is handled by the Department of Justice and Equality. However, as it is the misuse of drugs legislation which falls under my Department that will be used to give effect to the directive, it was agreed by the two Departments that my Department would take the lead. Therefore, the process involves motions being placed on the Order Papers of the two Houses of the Oireachtas, either for debate or referral to the appropriate committee. In this instance, the motions were referred to the committee for consideration. If approved, the directive will then be referred back to the Houses of the Oireachtas with the recommendation to approve. Once approved formally by the Houses, the EU institutions will be notified.


I am here to ask the committee to approve Ireland’s opt-in to this important public health measure. The directive will allow for a more effective and efficient EU response to new psychoactive substances which appear on the EU market at an unprecedented pace and pose a risk to public health and safety.


Chairman: Do members have observations to make or questions to ask?


Deputy Billy Kelleher: If it helps the joint committee, I approve of the motion. We were asked to consider and have considered it. I thank the Minister of State for her explanation.


Deputy Catherine Byrne:  I thank the Deputy.


Chairman: That concludes our consideration of the motion. I thank the Minister of State.

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