Home > Dáil Éireann debate. Written answer 37 – Drug dealing [nitrous oxide] [18055/23].

[Oireachtas] Dáil Éireann debate. Written answer 37 – Drug dealing [nitrous oxide] [18055/23]. (18 Apr 2023)

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

  1. Deputy Mark Ward asked the Minister for Justice the laws that are in place to seize nitrous oxide cannisters that are being misused; the penalties for those illegally distributing them; the number of confiscations by gardaí by year since 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18055/23]


A young person who is taking nitrous oxide is playing Russian roulette because they do not know the effects the gas will have on them until they take it. There have been reports from medical experts of the adverse side effects. What laws are in place to seize nitrous oxide canisters that are being misused and what are the penalties for those illegally distributing them?


Simon Harris Minister for Justice: I thank Deputy Ward for this important question. As the Deputy will be aware, and as I am from my past political life, the Department of Health leads on Government policy in the area of drugs, and this policy is guided by the national drugs and alcohol strategy which is called Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery - a health led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017-2025. This strategy, while led by the Department of Health, endeavours to provide a whole-of-government response to this problem area in our country. Revenue's customs officers are responsible for monitoring and seizing importations of nitrous oxide into the State. Deputy Ward will also be aware that the Garda Commissioner is by law responsible for all enforcement operations by An Garda Síochána. I say that to be helpful.


Nitrous oxide has various legitimate uses - medical, non-medical and industrial - and, because of this, it is not currently a controlled drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act or under the international drug conventions.


However, under section 3 of the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010, it is already an offence to sell, import or export a psychoactive substance for human consumption, including nitrous oxide. The Deputy may remember that this legislation is probably more commonly know as the headshop legislation which was brought in 2010 by the then Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern. There is already an offence there which would include nitrous oxide if someone was seeking to sell, import, or export a psychoactive substance for human consumption. The purpose of that Act includes the prevention or the misuse of dangerous or otherwise harmful psychoactive substances and the provision of offences relating to the sale, importation, exportation or advertisement of those substances.


For example, the Act provides that a person who sells, or who imports or exports, a psychoactive substance, knowing or being reckless as to whether that substance is being acquired or supplied for human consumption, shall be guilty of an offence. This Act does not provide for an offence for personal possession.


A person who is guilty of an offence under this Act shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding €5,000, or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or both. On conviction or indictment, a person who is guilty is liable to a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or both.


I have also been informed by Garda authorities that a number of significant seizures of canisters containing nitrous oxide have been made in recent years. I do not have specific data on that at the moment.

Deputy Mark Ward: I thank the Minister for that comprehensive answer in relation to the Act but why is it not being used at the moment? You only have to walk into any housing estate or any park and you will see discarded nitrous oxide canisters lying around. It is commonly know as laughing gas. When it first came out it was in small silver bullets and was called one hit wonders. It has been replaced by these larger canisters which are being sold on the black market for €40 or a dealer might do a deal of three for €100. Its use is widespread.


A recent report by the HSE adolescent addiction services has shown that 22% of young people attending its services admitted to taking nitrous oxide on occasion, reflecting an increase of 175% compared to 2021. That is a huge increase in the number of young people using nitrous oxide. Why is the Act not being used, because it does not seem to be? Does the Minister think additional legislation is needed to resolve this matter?


Simon Harris Minister for Justice: I thank the Deputy. His colleague, Deputy Crowe, was good enough to talk to me about it the other day and I am aware he has brought forward a Private Members' Bill on this and I have given him an undertaking that I will consider it and engage with him when it is scheduled to be debated. I also note that the Child Care Act 1991 falls under the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, and I think there is some interaction there in terms of that Private Members' Bill.


I have been informed by Garda authorities, and I will seek more information for the Deputy on this, that a number of significant seizures of canisters containing nitrous oxide have been made in recent years so I am pushing back slightly on the view that nothing is being done. This is an issue An Garda Síochána is taking very seriously. The Deputy may wish to note that both the HSE and An Garda Síochána are aware of the issues surrounding nitrous oxide. The HSE is committed to increasing awareness of health risks associated with substance misuse, including nitrous oxide. That education piece is also important among young people, parents and youth organisations.


An Garda Síochána will continue to target those involved in the sale and supply of illegal drugs through Operation Tara, which has a strong focus on tackling street-level dealing across the country. I understand the gardaí recently seized 2,000 canisters of nitrous oxide, alongside €2.8 million worth of cocaine.


Deputy Mark Ward: As recently as December this year, a neurologist specialist, and I was on one of the radio debates with her, spoke about the long-term damage that nitrous oxide could be causing young people. There is a range of sensory issues among patients who have presented, including numbness in their hands, feet and extremities, as well as serious issues with balance, problems with their heart rates and mental health issues. I have also submitted additional legislation to the Bills Office, in conjunction with Deputy Seán Crowe, which would strengthen the legislation the Deputy has submitted. It is to regulate the sale of nitrous oxide to commercial use only. This legislation is similar to what was introduced in Holland, where the authorities are regulating the use of nitrous oxide outside the medical and catering industries. This Bill would not criminalise the young person at the end of the process but it would give the Garda the power to seize the canisters from young people. As said, young people are playing Russian roulette. This is something on which we could work on a cross-party basis.

I hope to get the Minister's support when this Bill is introduced.


Simon Harris Minister for Justice: We will of course engage with the Deputy to consider the legislation and seek views and opinions on it as well. For clarity, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 is the responsibility of the Minister of Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and we may need that engagement aspect as well. I get what the Deputy is trying to do here, though, and I fully respect his motivation, which is a concern around the impact this situation is having on young people and the dangers involved. I refer to the Deputy's description of it as roulette. As I said, nitrous oxide does have some legitimate uses and this is why traditionally it has not been on the Schedule to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 nor, indeed, covered by the international drugs convention.


Offences in this regard do already exist, however, and I think the question from the Deputy concerns whether enough is being done to enforce them. I will certainly raise this matter with the Garda based on this discussion. For the record of the House, for anyone who follows these debates and for young people and their parents, I note it is already an offence to sell, import or export psychoactive substances, including nitrous oxide, for human consumption. This stipulation already exists under the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010. We must get this message out and get the educational aspect out, and I will certainly be happy to consider the legislation.

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