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Home > Dail Eireann debate. Implementing the National Drugs Strategy: statements.

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Implementing the National Drugs Strategy: statements. (28 Jun 2018)

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Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Catherine Byrne) - I welcome this debate on the implementation of the national drugs strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery: A Health-led Response to Drug and Alcohol Use in Ireland 2017-2025. It is timely to have this debate, as next month marks the first anniversary of the launch of the strategy by the Taoiseach, the Minister, Deputy Harris, and me. On taking up my role as Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, I was tasked with developing and implementing our new strategy.

I know first-hand of the devastation that the misuse of drugs and alcohol can cause to individuals, their families and local communities. I have worked as a local Deputy and councillor in my community for nearly 20 years and long before that I worked in my community in a voluntary capacity. I have met many people along the way whose lives have been destroyed by drugs and, sadly, I know of far too many who have lost their lives to drug addiction. Their deaths have devastated their families; partners, parents and most of all their children. In some cases, some of those who died were practically children themselves, young teenagers who got involved in drugs at a young age. It is for all these reasons that I strongly support the adoption of a health-led response to substance misuse, one that focuses on minimising harm and promoting recovery and rehabilitation, which reduces drug-related deaths and gives people the support they need to live a healthier life.

The strategy is guided by a strong set of values, including compassion, respect, equity, inclusion and partnership. It is evidence-informed. During the public consultation carried out in advance of the new strategy, these values came to the fore and I am committed to progressing the implementation of our strategy with these values firmly at its core.

As a first step in implementing the strategy, I secured an additional €6.5 million in the budget in 2018 for drug-related actions. That is on top of the €250 million spent every year on drug and alcohol services and programmes across all Departments and State agencies. The €6.5 million additional funding is being used to expand the availability of drug and alcohol treatment services.

The main priority in 2018 is for the Health Service Executive to tackle pressure points in drug and alcohol treatment services and reduce waiting times. New initiatives include the establishment of a treatment service in Kildare; the enhancement of treatment services in other areas, including Wexford, the midlands, Tipperary and Limerick; enhancement of the capacity of Cuan Dara unit to provide treatment on a national level for people with the most complex drug and alcohol dependency programmes; and the expansion of naloxone training for 300 people as well as the purchase of 1,300 naloxone kits. In addition, an extra 200 people will be receiving Suboxone treatment, which can be an alternative to methadone, in 2018.

A total of €3.2 million has been allocated to the HSE in 2018 to facilitate the expansion of drug and alcohol services with a particular focus on strengthening governance structures and increasing access to opioid substitution treatment by reducing waiting times across community health organisation areas. Further measures include the recruitment of four new clinical leads and three nursing managers, the recruitment of two new drug and alcohol liaison midwives in Cork and Limerick and the establishment of a step up, step down intermediate care facility for homeless people with drug and alcohol addictions. A total of €750,000 has been allocated to the HSE in 2018 to provide for the establishment of a supervised injecting facility in Dublin at Merchants Quay.

I welcome each of these developments but I am fully aware that the demand for drug and alcohol treatment services remains high. Through my regional visits and discussions with public representatives I am aware of the many worthwhile community projects seeking funding. I have discussed these at my parliamentary party meeting last night and with many Deputies in the Chamber. Members of the Seanad have raised the issue of funding of the taskforce as well. I am pleased to announce funding of €1 million to support and enhance services nationwide. This funding will be allocated as follows: once-off funding of €290,000 for taskforces in the fourth quarter of 2018, an allocation of €10,000 for each local drugs and alcohol taskforce and €15,000 for each regional drugs and alcohol taskforce. I believe these latter groups need a little extra because they have a wider remit and a greater spread over the country. Moreover, €710,000 will be allocated by the HSE in consultation with the taskforces. The taskforces will make recommendations for the funding of priority projects and services as well as new initiatives in the nine HSE community healthcare organisation areas.

The Department of Health is developing two new programmes for at-risk young people in disadvantaged areas and community awareness of alcohol-related harm. These programmes will each have funding of up to €1 million in a full year. These arise from specific commitments in the Department's Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery publication. There will be a consultation process with the stakeholders to inform the development of the two programmes.

Having more resources is only one part of the challenge. We must also ensure that the money allocated for drug-related actions is spent wisely. I am strongly of the view that the resources should be directed towards projects most likely to lead to a reduction in drug and alcohol use. Measuring the effectiveness of responses to the drug problem is, therefore, a key objective of public policy. I am keen to progress the performance management framework to which we have committed in the strategy.

The health service is leading a two-pronged approach to address the hepatitis C issue. The approach involves a combination of specialised treatments to treat the disease and a range of harm-reduction initiatives to reduce the incidence of the disease. It is encouraging to see that the national hepatitis C treatment programme, which is run by the HSE from a budget of €30 million, has facilitated some positive developments in recent years. I understand that over 2,000 people have been successfully provided with treatment for hepatitis C since 2015. Moreover, all persons infected with hepatitis C through contaminated blood and blood products have been offered treatment as at the end of 2017.

In February of this year, it was announced that Merchants Quay Ireland would deliver Ireland's first medically supervised injecting facility in Dublin city centre on a pilot basis. This facility will help to prevent injury and death and will connect people with health services. It will also help to make our streets safer.

There is a strong overlap between addiction and homelessness. We have taken action to address the health needs of people who are homeless in line with Rebuilding Ireland. This includes the provision of funding for an intermediate care step up, step down facility in Dublin run by the Dublin Simon Community for people who are homeless and who require nursing and related care prior to hospital admission and post discharge from hospital.

The drug and alcohol taskforces play a key role in assessing the extent and nature of the drug problem and in initiating appropriate responses. They strive for a co-ordinated approach involving all sectors relevant to the problem of substance misuse in local communities. The taskforces are instrumental in harnessing the efforts of community groups, families and residents in identifying problem drug use and in building partnerships with the community and voluntary sector, statutory services and local representatives to address them. Taskforces actively support and promote the participation of service users and their families, including those in recovery, in local decision-making structures and networks as well as in feeding into regional and national decision-making structures. I secured additional funding of €250,000 in budget 2018 to improve the organisational effectiveness of the taskforces in implementing the national drugs strategy. The Department is currently processing the applications for this funding with a view to issuing approvals over the coming weeks.

The impact of drugs goes far beyond individuals. They impact on wider society. Drugsare strongly linked to criminal activity. We are all aware of the consequences of gangland feuds and how they can impact on local communities. The Government commissioned the Mulvey report on the north-east inner city to address this issue. There is now a project implementation board reporting to the Department of the Taoiseach. It is seeking to improve the reduction in criminality and improve living conditions in the area.

I acknowledge that many people in local communities live in fear due to drug-related intimidation. It is one of my priorities to help communities and protect them from intimidation because of drug use. An Garda Síochána and the family support network are looking at whether the current reporting system is working.

I am concerned, however, that criminal convictions for the possession of drugs can impact on a young person's life. For this reason, I set up a working group to look at alternative responses for personal possession of drugs. The group is due to report to me by the end of 2018. The working group is now asking the public for views. To date, there have been 16,000 responses to the online consultation from a broad spectrum of the population. It is encouraging to see people from all walks of life having their say on this important issue for society. Everyone will have had a chance to give views and outline experiences to the working group. This input will shape the recommendations we receive. I look forward to receiving the report from the working group and bringing it to Government at the end of the year.

On average, three people die each day as a result of drinking alcohol. Nearly four out of ten Irish people binge drink regularly. The Government is committed to reducing the widespread harm and pain that alcohol causes to those who engage in harmful drinking and to others who are affected. The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill sets out a number of measures to reduce the substantial harm alcohol causes in society. It is clear that the Department of Health and the Government are taking a pro-active and multifaceted approach to our drug and alcohol problems.

I thank Deputies for their engagement and I look forward to hearing their views. I thank the community groups and NGOs I have met through my journeys throughout the country. I thank them for the support they have given me in implementing the national drugs strategy. I thank the oversight forum and the standing committee, both of which are doing tremendous work on the national drugs strategy.

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