Substance Abuse: Motion (Resumed).

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 188 No. 9

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The following motion was moved by Senator Larry Butler on Wednesday, 19 December 2007:

That Seanad Éireann recognises the epidemic in our society of alcohol misuse and illegal drug use, in particular cocaine and related substances, and acknowledges the need for a co-ordinated cross-departmental approach to this problem.

Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: Information on Brian Ó Domhnaill Zoom on Brian Ó Domhnaill I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, to the House. It is good to see her present for this important debate on the issue of drugs in society. I spoke last week about alcohol and, briefly, about drug abuse. I did not have time to make a few proposals about the national drugs strategy. A number of regional drugs task forces have been established under the strategy, which is running from 2001 to 2008. The task force in the north west is doing much good work in conjunction with the Health Service Executive. It is combatting drug abuse by working with community groups and organisations. It has funded an alcohol awareness initiative in my home parish and two neighbouring parishes. The initiative, which takes the form of an alcohol-free challenge, began today because it is the first day of Lent. A great deal of good work is being done.

As I said last week, the problem of drugs in society is becoming increasingly alarming as the [675]weeks and months go by. Prior to Christmas and over the Christmas period, a number of well-known personalities admitted to using drugs. Some high-profile fatalities occurred as a result of drug use around that time. Such events focused our minds on the prevalence of drugs on every street corner in this island and not just in our major cities as was the case a number of years ago. The Departments of Education and Science and Health and Children need to take control of this situation by implementing a clear and physical drugs education programme in secondary level schools throughout the Republic.

Responsibility for the programme should not rest solely with secondary school teachers, however. Teaching is a demanding job which involves staying up to date with the various elements of the education sector, for example. We should not put an additional burden on teachers. Specifically trained guidance counsellors should go to schools to liaise with principals and teachers and drive the message home to second level pupils, from first year to sixth year. Such a programme needs to be rolled out as quickly as possible.

The Department of Education and Science has done great work in rolling out the Walk Tall programme under the social, personal and health education curriculum. The programme provides for elements of drugs awareness to be taught within the primary and secondary curricula. We need to drive the message home by having a focused and clear curriculum as part of the educational dimension of our approach to this problem. People should visit schools to show students the harmful effects of dabbling in drugs, in particular, and alcohol. I recently picked up a sample of the material being used by a college in Dublin as part of its efforts to inform its students about the dangers of drug use. It gives details of common Irish drugs and highlights the risks and harmful effects of some of them, including cocaine. We need to encourage outside people to visit schools and use material of that nature to help teachers, for example, in giving practical advice to young people and illustrating the damage drugs can do to society and individuals.

I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, to ensure the officials in the Departments of Health and Children and Education and Science maintain the ongoing interdepartmental work aimed at tackling the scourge of drugs. As a public representative, I believe people on all sides of both Houses of the Oireachtas should work together to deal with this issue. Rather than making it a political issue, we should make it a real issue. We must work together to try to eradicate drugs. While we will probably not achieve full success in that regard, we must work on the basis that we will. We all have to work together. We should commit to making available the resources which are needed to deal with this problem.

I want to drive home the point that there needs to be an educational dimension to our approach [676]to this problem. While work is ongoing on the two programmes I mentioned, we need to raise the bar if we are to drive it home to students that the harmful effects of drugs can be real. We learn daily when we read newspapers and watch television of the problems associated with drugs. The consequences of drug use are evident in other parts of the world and in our country. The message must be driven home at local level. That can only be done in secondary schools. I hope it occurs sooner rather than later.

Senator Liam Twomey: Information on Liam Twomey Zoom on Liam Twomey The motion before the House concentrates on illegal drug use and the misuse of alcohol. It does not mention the abuse of prescription drugs to which many people in society are addicted. If we are to deal with such problems, we should consider alcohol and drugs separately. The problem of alcohol can only be solved if there is a change in Irish culture away from binge drinking. Alcohol causes a significant proportion of society’s problems. Drug use affects a minority of people. An even smaller minority of people take hard drugs. Those involved in the abuse of drugs tend to get wiser as they get older. They often reduce their consumption of illegal drugs significantly as time goes by. The opposite is often the case with alcohol. People often consume more alcohol as they get older. There is a greater acceptance of alcohol abuse among people who are older. A change of culture was achieved in the case of drink driving. Young people, in particular, turned away from drink driving whereas older people continued to drink and drive to a considerable extent. They made very little change to their behaviour.

When we talk about the need for cultural changes in our attitude to alcohol or policies which work in tackling drug use, it is important to focus on young people because they comprise the sector of society most likely to change their behaviour for the rest of their lives. Attempts to change the behaviour of older people do not tend to work. I do not want to suggest young people are somehow the cause of all ills in society because they most certainly are not. I have had practical experience of this in my surgery. Drug use begins in people’s teenage years, peaks in their 20s and begins to fade away in their 30s. It is a strong feature of the drug user’s life to take drugs during that long period of time. Irish society is unusual in that we mix drugs and alcohol. In most other societies one abuses either alcohol or drugs but seldom both. In Ireland we tend to abuse everything together.

The task force and national drug policies in place will work up to a point. I will not undermine them because when one deals with somebody who has an addiction, small, unglamorous steps are the way forward. Many who try to deal with drug or alcohol addictions take three steps forward and two steps back. Addiction is the problem. We should not always go for these glamorous headlines on drug and alcohol abuse because the majority of those who take drugs and [677]alcohol get on fine with their lives, including those who take cocaine and, to some degree, heroin. They can live their working lives. Some people in quite sensitive positions in Irish society abuse serious drugs such as cocaine and heroin and get on fine. Cannabis, for the majority or users, is a pretty innocent drug. When we talk about drugs and alcohol we should put matters into perspective. The problem is when people get a serious addiction that destroys their lives and the lives of those around them, and when people abuse drugs and alcohol by taking too much on an occasion.

Over use happens in Irish society, especially with alcohol at the weekends. Too many people consume too much at once. Patients come to me complaining of fatigue and lack of energy and they think there is something physically wrong with them. When I ask how much they drink, they almost straighten their backs, puff out their chests, put a big smile on their faces and say they can drink up to 16 pints on a Saturday night. Sometimes those who are not so boastful might say they consume 12 pints on a Saturday night, which is 24 units of alcohol, the maximum a man is supposed to drink in a week. However many of my patients who talk like this are women, and they are supposed to consume only 14 units in a week.

The acceptance of alcohol abuse in Irish society is unbelievable. People, not just 18 year olds but people up to their 40s, who are not alcoholics, go out on a Friday and Saturday night and consume up to 15 or 16 pints or the equivalent in alcopops or other drinks. Many managing directors say they have given up providing free drinks at Christmas parties because they have been astounded by the amount of alcohol people will consume before they collapse.

Alcohol abuse has got worse because we have become a wealthier society. There is a need for cultural change on alcohol and we have done little about it in the last number of years. We have made all sorts of excuses. We have seen the drinks industry set up its own organisations, we have patted ourselves on the back that we have done something about it but we must be honest and admit we have done nothing about it and it is out of control.

While the drugs issue gets many media headlines, we could probably take control of it better and deal with it easier if we were more genuine about it. I have read many of the contributions made in this debate and I found that people back the taskforces and feel more funding is needed. If these debates are to be worthwhile we should try to take on board something that might be more controversial when we discuss it. I do not completely support some of the controversial ideas proposed but we could debate them to see if they could work for Irish society. If we are to deal with addiction we need more places for rehabilitation, but one of the ways to reduce alcohol and drug abuse is mandatory drug testing. In my surgery, when we are looking at a separate [678]health issue we incidentally find people are taking far too much alcohol and drugs. Drink driving and the carnage that came with it was reduced because we introduced a simple roadside test for drink driving. We have the same ability to test for drink and drugs if we are prepared to accept that we should have mandatory drug testing. Airline and transport companies such as CIE have policies on mandatory drug testing for employees but it can be convoluted and is not carried out with any great sense of purpose. People are expected to travel from other parts of the country to Dublin to have their mandatory drug testing carried out. There is a template there for mandatory drug testing and we should examine that as a means of reducing consumption.

If we introduce mandatory drug testing we must be careful not to aim only to penalise people all the time. We should aim to educate people to reduce their consumption of alcohol and drugs, if they are discovered, and we should provide proper rehabilitation facilities. It is pointless for doctors such as me and people who deal with addiction to discover that people have a problem with drugs because there is nowhere we can send them to get proper rehabilitation. The people who suffer from the addiction aspects of drugs need to be found because they are destroying themselves and the lives of their families and children. However while I might be able to identify them, I have nowhere to send them. If there is to be a carrot and stick approach we should look at it like that. We should ask whether we should debate mandatory drug testing and not see it as a daft, right-wing proposal that aims to jail everybody. Once we identify drug abuse, how we deal with it can be taken up in a different way when the rehabilitation facilities are available for it.

This is a cross-party motion. Such motions are great for talking about issues, but the people elect the Government to make decisions. The Government must take up its responsibilities. In common with most politicians, I always hear that whenever there is good news, it is attributed to a Government decision. The Celtic tiger was supposed to have been developed by this Government, but as soon as it started to go sour the global economy was blamed. I have never heard the Government give any credence to the Opposition or cross-party work. The Government must deal with this and I want to see more policies. The task force and some aspects of drug policy work well, but the enforcement of legislation and rehabilitation have been a failure. I speak from the front line.

Senator John Hanafin: Information on John Gerard Hanafin Zoom on John Gerard Hanafin Hardly a family in the country is unaffected by the problems attached to drug or alcohol addiction. I am thinking in particular about the new scourge of drugs. During the heroin epidemic of the 1980s it was probably in Dublin’s inner city where we first noticed the worst effects of people dying from drugs. In Dublin’s Brunswick Street there is a memorial called Home that contains a flame and an open door. It represents the home the families wished [679]to tell those people affected by drugs was there for them at all times. That is part of the message we are giving here. There is support for people, we wish to do something about it and we want to help. That generation was, in many ways, lost. It would be deeply saddening if it were repeated. Many deaths have been reported from the abuse and misuse of cocaine and the adulteration of cocaine with other substances. On one occasion wet cocaine caused deaths. This is frightening and it is stark for us. There is great commitment, but the question is what we, as legislators, can do about it. We can legislate all we want, but if we build 12 ft. walls, drug dealers will get 13 ft. ladders. The issue must be addressed through our communities. Whatever is necessary, in terms of legislation, will be done by the Government. We will give the gardaí the support they need, we will listen to our communities and give them the sentencing that is required. However, an effort is required from the entire community.

I am very conscious of young people going out for the night. Like many Members, I have young children growing up and am conscious that they will be going out to discos and so forth in years to come. I would not worry about them when they are in the full of their health because I am certain they would say no to drugs. However, I would worry about them if they have had a few drinks and are at their lowest ebb. The drug dealers, who are ruthless, uncaring criminals, whose only motivation is money, destroy lives. That is what worries me. Children are being introduced to drugs when they are at their most vulnerable, both in terms of their age and their sobriety. They succumb when they have had a few drinks and pressure is put on them to take drugs.

As a community, there is great will to do something about the drug addiction problem. All of us are appalled by the number of drug-related deaths, which seem to keep happening. We must go into the schools and take an holistic approach. We must speak to pupils, teachers and parents to resolve the difficulty. The first part of our message should be about the danger in terms of having a criminal record. No young person wants to have a criminal record. That is one way to deal with the situation regarding recreational drugs, although there is no such thing as a recreational drug. Such drugs are illegal for a reason. They are illegal because they are dangerous if not taken at the prescribed time, under supervision. Having a criminal record can affect young people for the rest of their lives. If they have a criminal record, no matter what job they go for, that record will stand against them. They will not be able to obtain a visa for the United States of America, for example. Their movement will be restricted, as will their employment opportunities. That is not to mention the health problems associated with drugs. How many people have died from what are regarded as heart problems, but which may well be related to the fact that they have a [680]massively increased heart rate because of the abuse of prescribed drugs? I am also conscious that cocaine has become a major problem within the community.

We have good addiction counsellors. In times past, it became acceptable for people to say they had been drinking but were dealing with their problem. Perhaps we should now accept that people will say that they were abusing drugs but are dealing with that problem. The way forward is through the community. I hope it is through the community that we, as legislators, will support the people of the country, on a cross-party basis. I am delighted that the motion is cross-party because we are at one on this issue. We may not agree on the methods to deal with the alcohol and drugs problem, but we are at one in our wish to deal with it.

With regard to alcohol, we now have a particular difficulty with off licences. In times past, it was not very socially acceptable to drink at home. There was an expectation that if one was going to a pub for a few drinks, drinking would be monitored. It was expected that the bar man or the person in charge would make sure that nobody had too much to drink. While I know that did not always happen, surely it was still better than the current situation whereby people are able to consume vast amounts of subsidised alcoholic drink. That is what is happening, I have been told. In the supermarkets, alcoholic products are loss leaders and pallets of cheap drink can become available to young people. It is very difficult to restrict this because alcohol can be sold to a person who is over 18, with identification, who then goes outside and gives it to younger people. That cannot happen in a pub because people must consume alcohol on the premises. We should consider significantly restricting the capacity and opening hours of off-licences.

While it may be old-fashioned to say this, the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association has done wonderful work. In the 1850s, Father Theobald Mathew dedicated his life to the problems caused by the excessive use of alcohol. Ireland in the 21st century is a similar country in many ways, because we still have a drink problem. However, it is a land of contrasting fortunes. As the pastoral letter from the Irish Catholic Bishop’s Conference, Alcohol: The Challenge of Moderation, notes:

We find ourselves, in a relatively short period of time, as one of the wealthiest nations in Europe. The economy has grown at a rate we never expected. There are jobs for our young people, and no longer is emigration the scourge it was for previous generations. The government finances have improved dramatically, and as a result wealth can be redistributed for the greater benefit of society. There is no doubt that our new wealth has brought enormous benefits.

Materially, the majority of us have never been better off. We are rightly proud of the [681]success that modern Ireland has become. However, there are new stresses arising from the fact that very often both parents in a family are working outside the home and commuting, while the pressure to perform in the workplace is even greater...

We still have pioneers and others among us who, for a variety of motives, remain as total abstainers. We have others who drink in moderation and who find no difficulty in remaining moderate. We have others — perhaps a large proportion of us — with an ambivalent relationship with alcohol, struggling to keep a cap on our consumption.

As I said earlier, there is hardly a family in the country that has not been affected by alcohol. I commend the old, pioneer ways, where people made a commitment not to take alcohol. We, as legislators, have a duty to ensure that alcoholic drink is not freely available to young people and that we assist those in need of support.

Cocaine is a particularly worrying drug, not least because of the obscene amounts of money and the level of crime that appear to be involved in its trade. If only young people could see what drug dealers are prepared to do to protect their own turf. If only they could see the murder, mayhem and torture. Sadly, another murder was perpetrated abroad yesterday. According to news reports, the code is simple. Dealers order the drugs and if they do not pay for them, either they or members of their families are killed. Something must be done. We urgently need to put in place a system with Spain which will ensure the rapid extradition of drug dealers. We must deal with this problem properly. It is not acceptable that such people can live off shore and enjoy a lifestyle which is totally at odds with the poor people who are suffering here.

Senator Paul Bradford: Information on Paul Bradford Zoom on Paul Bradford I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this important all-party motion. It is especially appropriate that we are debating the motion on Ash Wednesday, a day of religious significance for many people. With that in mind, it is amazing, disappointing and indicative of the fixation we have with alcohol that, notwithstanding the right of individuals to comply with religious obligations, there still will be an enormous number of people here who will feel unable to endure a day without alcohol. Just as we have the circus every Good Friday, when the pubs are shut, whereby thousands of people feel unable to pass the day without having a drink. It is extraordinary. It is also depressing and shows that we, as a nation, are still obsessed with alcohol. It is many years since the temperance movement was begun by Father Theobald Matthew. To the best of my knowledge, last Sunday was Temperance Sunday. However, it would appear that in 2008, our problems with alcohol and other drugs, particularly illegal drugs, are greater than ever. One must wonder why.

I agree readily with everything Senator Hanafin stated. My colleague, Senator Twomey, [682]mentioned the need for a cultural change. While that is obvious, I do not know how to bring it about. Our obsession with drink and with having alcohol at the centre of every function, social occasion, sporting event and occurrence in rural and urban Ireland is worrying, disturbing and depressing. We seem to be unable to go beyond the links between drink and success, alcohol and sporting prowess and alcohol and social acceptability. It is a major problem and I wish I knew the answers.

I can see the problems all around me. Practically every family is affected by alcohol to some extent. Despite significant social problems, a considerable loss of earnings, enormous medical bills and grievous problems faced by tens of thousands of people, we seem unable to respond. This is my basic analysis of the alcohol side of the debate. Illegal drugs are of greater significance and pose a greater problem, but where alcohol is concerned, we must start by ensuring that young people and teenagers in particular have sporting and leisure facilities in abundance in order that they can see an alternative way of enjoying themselves at weekends and during long summer nights and know that their social experience need not centre on the local pub or night club culture.

Our sporting organisations are doing fantastic work. I commend GAA, soccer and rugby clubs and all types of sporting organisations. On the other side of the equation, however, too many of the national sporting organisations depend too much on drinks companies’ sponsorship. This must be reflected on and changed. We must break the link between sport and alcohol because the former should have no connection with the latter and should not need drinks companies for sponsorship purposes. There was a similar link between sport and the tobacco industry, but various Ministers and Governments here and at European and global levels introduced bans on tobacco companies advertising at or sponsoring sporting events. We must do likewise in respect of our major national sporting organisations and drinks companies. Guinness and other groups pour significant money into sport. This is welcome at one level, but the subliminal link between alcohol and sporting organisations must be broken. The organisations will have a major debate on their hands if they are to achieve that.

From the Cathaoirleach’s previous involvement in the GAA, he will recall how its former president, Dr. Mick Loftus, spoke eloquently and at length on this issue. He had first-hand knowledge of the damage caused by alcohol. He was and is a coroner in parts of the west and has experience dealing with the crisis caused by alcohol abuse. He made known his firm opinions on the sponsorship of sporting organisations, particularly the GAA, by drinks companies and we should take a message from him.

Regarding the drugs culture that seems so invasive, when the parties agreed this motion some weeks ago, presumably before Christmas, there was a great deal of national media attention [683]on the situation, particularly in respect of the death of a well known young lady from the celebrity — if one wants to accept that ridiculous word — world. However, the majority of the many deaths due to drugs do not feature in any media outlets or on any television or radio programmes. Nearly every community and certainly every parish has suffered as a result of the drugs epidemic. Some state it is the result of our affluent society. If so, it is a sad result.

While we must reflect on the fact that, on a worldwide scale, Ireland is no different from most other so-called modern countries, our history in terms of alcohol abuse and the difficulty in breaking the link between alcohol and social, cultural and sporting events present double difficulties when it comes to drugs. Given a society that made alcohol and its abuse common or, for certain young people, mandatory and popular — drinking to excess is a stamp of approval among a young person’s peers — it is understandable how we have allowed drugs to become so acceptable. While it is obviously unacceptable, it is understandable how the drugs culture became so prevalent and invasive in working class communities, where people with no jobs, incomes, hope or support of any description are easy prey for drug pushers and drug dealers. My heart goes out to all of those people because they did not walk into the drugs culture. Rather, they were led blindfolded.

On the other side of the equation, we hear and read about the so-called middle class’s obsession with cocaine and other dangerous drugs. Generally speaking, these people are well educated, well-off and, in many cases, well connected. It is disappointing to read some of our so-called celebrities, people who should know better and who are leaders of society in some ways, boasting about their drug-taking exploits. They give a shocking example to our young people and the community at large. People do not boast about drink driving or breaking the law. Middle class people and so-called celebrities who write about and make known their drug-taking habits have much to answer for given their attempts to make the reprehensible concept of drug-taking acceptable.

This debate requires a great deal of attention from the Government. I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Carey, on his sincere efforts, but we have a long way to go. Whether in respect of alcohol or other drugs, the need for a cultural change must be taken seriously before society is further ruined. Considerable damage has been done, but we may have enough time to stem the tide if a significant commitment is shown by the Government and all leaders of civic society.

Senator Fiona O’Malley: Information on Fiona O'Malley Zoom on Fiona O'Malley I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important matter on a cross-party basis. None of us knows the answer. Why is it that children, by and large, from particular addresses are more likely to be drug addicts than [684]those from elsewhere? This question is at the heart of the issue that must be addressed. Poverty has much to do with the issue. Some children grew up in households where there was an element of despair or hopelessness. Senator Hanafin alluded to the dark days of the 1980s and 1990s when there was a serious heroin problem in Dublin. I suppose the drugs problem has become more widespread throughout the country. All urban and rural centres have a certain level of problems. It stems from the fact that if one comes from a particular address, one is very likely to succumb to an addiction, especially to drugs. In many instances, it is the dealers who force addiction on young children who do not know better. We all are keen to solve this problem which is why it is particularly pertinent that the motion asks for a co-ordinated cross-departmental approach to this problem. It takes many Departments to deal with it, not least the Department of Education and Science because there is clearly a lack of education or awareness.

We must get to the core of why people in certain areas are more prone to being introduced to drugs and becoming addicted. We must invest considerable resources in these areas. More often than not they are areas where people must deal with challenging issues, be they rearing families in one-parent households, economically challenging circumstances or poverty. Therefore, they doubly need assistance. A motto which all our public services should abide by is: “A poor person can only afford the best.” This is why we should provide sterling education and health supports to vulnerable families or people dealing with addiction.

No one wants to face into a life of addiction, whatever about the excitement felt on being offered drugs initially and the rush one might get. I imagine that if he or she could talk to his or her child, any parent with an addiction would tell him or her not to succumb to the pressures in dealing with illegal drugs.

Cocaine seems to be much more socially acceptable than heretofore. We have reached that position over the past year. I take issue with the term “epidemic” because it is not an epidemic. There have been a few high profile cases where cocaine has been tampered with. I recall a case where I believe gardaí found large quantities of cocaine on a rat-infested halting site. I thought about people in a glamorous pub who supposedly look cool and wonderful being presented with cocaine that came from a rat-infested hovel. Where is the charm and glamour in that?

This is where there is a problem, particularly in respect of cocaine. People fail to make the connection between themselves and gangland crime perpetrated by ruthless thugs who place no value on human life. These thugs are essentially their suppliers. There may be intermediaries along the line but to the person receiving and consuming the cocaine at the end of the line, that is where it began and he or she is part of that chain. It needs to be drummed home to them in very forceful [685]ways. It is easy when one is in a club not to see where the product came from and the circumstances under which it was produced or supplied. It does not cause one to think. People must think much more clearly about where they source their supply of cocaine.

I hope this debate will heighten people’s awareness of the filth involved in the cocaine industry, whether they want to be part of it and where the glamour is in it. We need a hard-hitting report about it.

We have a lamentable attitude to alcohol. People talk about the convivial nature of the Irish people and the Irish pub has its charms. Do people think about what they say? One can think of the number of occasions when alcohol is referred to in a humorous but inappropriate way. I am a great believer in moderation in all things and I enjoy a drink. I recognise, however, that alcohol addiction is a major problem. When young people are introduced to alcohol, it is not done in a responsible way. This is regrettable because if younger people are taught to treat alcohol with respect, they might have a different attitude to it.

I have witnessed the difference between our attitude and that of French people. They do not go out to get drunk. If one goes down the road to Trinity College, one will discover it is no longer a question of going out to enjoy the company of one’s friends but a question of going out to get drunk. Sometimes, it is not even a question of doing that. In many instances young people drink raw spirits at home before they go out. One sees and certainly hears about them turning up in accident and emergency departments in a dreadful state. What is the point in going out when one is not in any fit state to remember what happened? It is quite appalling.

I am also concerned about the long-term effects of our alcohol consumption and, in many cases, abuse. This nation probably is more prone to alcohol abuse than many others. A previous speaker alluded to the fact that in every Irish house probably, there is somebody who has a story about an alcohol-dependent individual. This has been the case in several instances in my family and I am sure it is true of many Irish people.

The sense of hope coming from the motion is important and we should not lose sight of that. Treatment is important. There is no point in lamenting the problem; we need solutions. We need a cross-departmental response which recognises the vulnerability of people dealing with drug addiction and the number of spaces and treatments available to them.

Statistics are one thing but we are dealing with human lives. We need to get away from statistics and provide the services. I am inclined to refer to the methadone programmes which are not always the best way of dealing with the problem. They hide rather than deal with the problem. I welcome the opportunity to speak about it and look forward to a cross-departmental and co-ordinated [686]approach to dealing with these very vulnerable people in society.

Senator Terry Leyden: Information on Terry Leyden Zoom on Terry Leyden I join others in welcoming the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Pat the Cope Gallagher, to the House. When I was Minister of State at the then Department of Health in 1987, I was made national chairman of the drugs action committee. It was a revelation to me, coming from a rural constituency, to see the amount of drugs being used at that time, especially in inner-city Dublin. There was not as much knowledge or concern because the problem was very much contained within the inner city. Heroin was one of the most commonly used drugs at that stage and was more connected to the AIDS epidemic than it was to the question of drugs. Drug use led to the exchange of needles, which led to the spread of HIV-AIDS. That was our issue at the time. I recall being advised on that committee by prominent, hard-working people, including clergy, and it was a matter of bringing forward the needle exchange programme, which was radical at the time but we had no choice because HIV was being spread by the exchange of dirty needles. It was radical but it was as far as we could go at the time.

I recall also that we examined ways of making young people more aware of drugs but the danger was that we would heighten the attractiveness of drugs to young people. We could highlight the dangers of the different drugs but the difficulty was in trying to explain that abusing any drug, whether it is alcohol, cocaine, cannabis or any other drug, was the slippery slope. It is appropriate that today, Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, we would debate this motion and recognise the epidemic of alcohol and illegal drug abuse in our society.

It is my experience that this problem was very much contained at that time. It had not spread from within the deprived areas of Dublin. One might say the problem did not have the same attention in Government as it has now and we realise it has spread into every county. Most towns have access to drugs including speed, cocaine, cannabis and so on.

I compliment the Garda Síochána, the national drugs task force and the Revenue Commissioners for their excellent work in seizing one tonne of cannabis in County Kildare worth approximately €10 million. That puts in context the value and size of this trade. They were brought into the country in 40 foot trailers, probably on the route from Morocco into Spain and through the ports. It is difficult to man this area.

I record our appreciation and admiration for the work of the Garda Síochána who detected the drugs today and who have made many seizures over the years in different locations, including the coast of Cork where a massive amount of cannabis was dumped from a ship. We have a long and difficult coastline to police. It has been shown consistently that smugglers of illegal drugs have [687]the resources to keep up with and surpass the authorities in respect of the technology and techniques of smuggling, no matter how professionally and enthusiastically the Garda and other forces fight the importation of illegal substances. It is clear, therefore, that any strategy to combat the epidemic of drug abuse in our society must reduce and eliminate the demand for illegal drugs. If the demand is eliminated, the supply and suppliers will suffer and there will be a reduction in other crimes associated with the drugs trade. That is a significant point because there is no doubt that it is a demand-led industry.

A counter-drugs strategy must do more to raise awareness of the health implications of illegal drug use and of the misuse of controlled drugs. In this respect I commend the work in recent years of the local drugs task forces, the health promotion unit, which the Minister, Deputy Gallagher, is in charge of, the community and voluntary groups and many charities.

However, we must also raise awareness of the moral repercussions of illegal drug use. We must make potential victims of the scourge of drug abuse fully aware of the human rights abuses, criminality, violence and exploitation which is a direct result of the drug trade the users’ demand maintains. At every step of the delivery of drugs, from the field or factory to the user, crime is committed, rights are trodden on and lives are endangered. The spread of prostitution and other criminal activities are mostly linked to the illegal drug trade.

We read every day of the gang warfare here and elsewhere in Europe, resulting in the shooting in Spain in the past few days, which arises from the drug trade. That is only the tip of the iceberg. Awareness campaigns must inform people of the practices such as exploitation of minors in the supply chain of illegal drugs. Any awareness campaign which will turn potential users away from the so-called drug scene is a weapon in the struggle against substance abuse and will complement education about the direct dangers of drugs. I make that point in respect of all drugs. Some would advocate the use of cannabis. It is the gateway drug for users of illegal drugs. Equally, alcohol is a gateway drug.

I am aware the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has received the recommendations of a committee and he will consider the limitation of the sale of alcohol through filling stations and large multiples who sell alcohol at cut prices. This Christmas and last Christmas, alcohol was probably cheaper than it was ten years ago in many cases. There are many special offers. One only has to see the number of people carrying crates of beer from off-licences. A large number of people have house parties now as opposed to drinking in a bar or hotel where there was control by the licensee.

There are a large number of people who succumb to drug use as a result of their economic and-or social circumstances. The elimination of [688]such circumstances is an ongoing part of the quest for a better society and such efforts must continue. When I was in the Department the methadone treatment programme was at a very early stage. I recall representations being made to me on one tour of inner Dublin for a particular individual who wanted to use the methadone method to keep him on the straight and narrow.

The problem of drugs in gaols is very difficult to control. Despite constant supervision by the Garda authorities and the prison officers it is difficult to eliminate the problem in our prisons. It is clear, therefore, that recognising the epidemic of drug use is an important statement but it is just a first step. We must continue to crack down directly on everyone involved in the drug trade but our approach could broaden to incorporate real education about the nature of the drug trade.

The National Drugs Strategy 2001-2008 established an inter-departmental group to oversee the implementation of the strategy and as that strategy draws to a close we must redouble our efforts in this area. Despite the current worrying trends, in general Ireland has a relatively good record on illegal drug use but it must be remembered that in a successful, healthy, First World country, one death from drug use is too many.

The recent high profile deaths drew this problem to the attention of the public but we should renew our efforts to eliminate the importation and distribution of drugs. The undercover Garda surveillance is vital in that regard. There is a supply chain in operation for people who are very mobile, and I will say no more than that, but it is evident to me that this is the case. I ask the Garda Síochána and the new Commissioner to take a heavy hand in this regard and try to eliminate the availability of drugs in our towns and cities and among our young people.

Senator Jim Walsh: Information on Jim Walsh Zoom on Jim Walsh Human addiction of any sort is a serious affliction and while the motion deals with the misuse of alcohol and illegal drug use, I would be inclined to add to that the consumption of cigarettes which in itself is injurious and now fully accepted as a serious health hazard. Today, Ash Wednesday, is the appropriate day to talk about that because we all know people who, because of their addiction to cigarettes, make numerous attempts to give up the practice of smoking but find they are unable to do so because of their addiction to nicotine, even though they know it has an adverse effect on their health.

That is interesting because whether we are talking about drug barons, cigarette companies or whatever, they are all driven by profit. In some of the emerging democracies in eastern Europe and in the Far East, the smoking of cigarettes is at a much higher level because the cigarette companies target economies such as those. I wonder if any analysis was done of the socio-economic groups who suffer from various cancers as a result of smoking cigarettes because until recent years [689]advertisers were allowed sponsor various sporting organisations. We must be more in tune with the need to deal with the supply and demand issue, as identified by Senator Leyden. It must be tackled at both levels. Regarding supply, advertising and other practices of these companies should be prohibited. In the run-up to the budget, the Irish Cancer Society and other bodies call for the imposition of higher taxes on these products. I accept that price has an impact on the level of use.

Everything in moderation is acceptable, certainly in respect of alcohol. We have a serious drink culture in this country. A friend in the hotel business was reminiscing about going out for a drink in our younger days. He said that one never went out to get drunk. If one happened to have a few bob more than normal, one might have got drunk. He now sees young people coming to his premises and other establishments with the intention of getting stoned. The effects of this on their health, and on the health of others, is very serious.

I recall a project many moons ago in junior chamber, which identified alcohol as the fourth major cause of death in this country. We do not fully realise the health issue of alcoholism, apart from the adverse health effects of too much consumption. We allow these organisations to sponsor events that target the youth. We must be much stricter if we are serious about the issue. As is the case with all addictions, our education system must place greater emphasis on the dangers, risks and consequences of becoming addicted.

We respond to headlines in the newspapers. The Opposition benches would not be empty if this debate took place one month ago because a number of young people lost their lives due to the drugs situation in this country. It was topical at the time but, when that fades from the media, it is important that our intent and determination to tackle the issue is as strong as at the time of the publicity. It is sad to see so many young lives lost or blighted by the use of illegal drugs.

I do not know how we should tackle this. If we — I refer not just to the Government or Ireland but every state across the globe — continue to deal with it in this manner, Members will sit in this Chamber debating the same problems 50 years from now. We need new initiatives. I do not know enough about the topic to advocate examining the legalisation of some drugs. We cannot do that on our own but it strikes me that there is merit in the issue being examined at a European level, perhaps at the level of the Commission. This must be examined in a co-ordinated fashion.

Many young people tell me that any drug is available in any town or village within hours. Often, the public and the authorities know the players in criminal activity in the drug field. In recent days we have seen people involved in this trade fall foul of each other and murder each other. They are known to people in the media and gardaí in this city but they are free to operate. [690] This is true of cities in Holland as well as of Dublin. It seems our criminal justice system allows this to happen. Much of this is driven by ensuring that human rights conventions and entitlements are not transgressed. From society’s point of view, it seems illogical. If one was starting again, writing a code of laws, I doubt if one would allow known criminals, who bring such devastation on society — particularly on the younger generation — to be known and yet to be free. There is a contradiction in this and the whole area on the supply side must be examined.

When such major profits can be made we cannot continue to tackle it in this way. Despite the best efforts of the Garda Síochána the recent €10 million and €5 million drug hauls are the tip of the iceberg that is the multi-billion euro industry of the drugs trade. We can talk until the cows come home but we need action. We must examine this global criminal activity in a cohesive way across the globe. If we fail to do so, we will be discussing this issue many decades from now. If we combine a different approach on the supply side with tackling the demand side through greater focus on education and families, we can hope to improve on the current situation.

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher): Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher I pay tribute to the parties who agreed to this cross-party motion. That there is a cross-party motion is a statement of how serious is the problem of alcohol misuse and illegal drug use. I thank the Members who contributed to this important debate. As the Minister of State with responsibility for health promotion I will focus on alcohol. The Minister of State with responsibility for drugs, Deputy Pat Carey, contributed to this debate last week.

The motion raises issues of serious concern for our society. The problems associated with alcohol misuse and illegal drug use are extremely serious but I am somewhat reluctant to describe the situation as an epidemic. However, I fully appreciate the gravity of the situation facing us in Ireland today.

Let me begin by speaking on the problem of alcohol misuse. Alcohol harm is visible in every town and village, on the streets, in the courts, in the hospitals, in the workplace, in the schools and in the homes. Despite the tendency to blame under age drinkers, the vast majority of alcohol harm occurs among the adult population. It manifests itself for example in street violence, accidents, hospital admissions, drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, suicides, alcohol dependency and cancers. Some of these problems, especially the acute problems, arise where the light or moderate drinker drinks to excess on a single drinking occasion, while others result from regular heavy drinking over a longer period of time.

Our drinking patterns give cause for concern. In a study published by the European Commission in March 2007, Ireland was reported to have the highest percentage of binge drinkers of [691]25 European countries. This drinking pattern is adding to the burden of ill health and self-harm. Ireland is ranked as the highest among the 35 European countries in terms of the adolescents who regularly binge drink and second highest in reported regular drunkenness. The health behaviours of school-aged children study, which I launched last year, shows that half of the children aged from 15 to 17 reported that they are current drinkers and more than one third reported
they had been really drunk in the previous 30 days.

Alcohol consumption in the Irish population has increased by 17% in the past 11 years. This has had an impact on health whereby alcohol-related hospital admissions increased by 92% between 1995 and 2004. Alcohol related liver diseases increased by 147% between those years. In order to gain some perspective of the relationship between alcohol misuse and ill health, it is worth noting the findings of the World Health Organisation global burden of disease study, which shows that alcohol was the third most detrimental risk factor for European ill health and premature death and was only surpassed by raised blood pressure and smoking. Alcohol was slightly more important than high cholesterol and being overweight, two and a half times more important than physical inactivity, and four times more important than illicit drugs. I have no doubt that the European risk factors have greater relevance in Ireland than they have in many other European countries. All this research evidence and information just confirms to us what is all too late and all too visible in our society. Such research should serve to strengthen our resolve to tackle alcohol problems and to seek meaningful ways to address the problem.

The motion before us is an expression of the strong desire among public representatives across all parties to do something about this problem. We all have a part to play. We need to take responsibility both collectively and individually. We need to examine our social acceptance of alcohol and the signal it is sending, particularly to our young people. Alcohol has become too closely associated with many celebratory events and in people’s lives. We must ask ourselves if adults provide an appropriate, example to younger people regarding alcohol. It needs to become socially unacceptable for people to be excessively drunk our streets. This change can only occur when we stop excusing such behaviour. How many times can we remember smiling benignly at the friend, relative or family member who has had too much to drink and behaves inappropriately?

There is a developing scientific knowledge of what strategies work to reduce alcohol related harm. The World Health Organisation has stated that policies and programmes based on substantive evidence should use an appropriate combination of the following strategies: regulating the marketing of alcoholic beverages, in particular [692]those practices that influence younger people; regulating and restricting availability of alcoholic beverages; enactment of appropriate drink-driving policies; reducing the demand for alcohol through taxation and pricing mechanisms; providing easily accessible and affordable treatment services for people with alcohol-use disorders; and implementing screening programmes and brief interventions against hazardous and harmful use of alcohol, for example in primary care and accident and emergency departments.

Implementation of many of these policy measures requires cross-departmental support. That is why a cross-departmental approach holds out the best opportunity of achieving progress. I am conscious of the need for the Government to continue to respond to the problems caused by alcohol misuse and it is my intention to continue to seek support for the introduction of evidence-based measures to tackle these problems in our society.

The motion before us acknowledges the need for a co-ordinated cross-departmental approach to the problems of alcohol misuse and illegal drug misuse. This type of cross-departmental and cross-sectoral approach is already taking place regarding alcohol misuse. In July 2005, a working group on alcohol was established to help mobilise the stakeholders through social partnership to achieve a targeted and measurable reduction in alcohol misuse. The working group operated in the context of the special initiative on alcohol and drug misuse under Sustaining Progress. The group comprised the social partners, relevant Departments, the Garda, the national drugs strategy team and the Health Service Executive. It examined the issues of under age drinking, drink driving and high-risk drinking. The report, published in June 2006, recommended a set of actions on issues such as community mobilisation, workplace alcohol policies, labelling, and education and awareness. An implementation group was established in November 2006 to monitor and report on progress on the implementation of the recommendations. The implementation group is expected to report early this year. It is generally agreed that the Sustaining Progress initiative has allowed a broad range of stakeholders to work together towards the common goal of reducing the harm caused by alcohol misuse.

Arising from concerns about the effect that alcohol consumption is having on public order, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform established an alcohol advisory group to advise him on the measures that might be taken to address concerns regarding the sale and promotion of alcohol products. This matter was raised by a number of Senators. The alcohol advisory group is expected to report to the Minister by 31 March. An official from the Department of Health and Children and an official from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform are members of the advisory group.

Regarding cocaine, I would hesitate to use the term “epidemic”. I acknowledge there has been [693]an increase in the use of cocaine in recent years. Less than two weeks ago my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, launched the results of the drugs prevalence survey for 2006-07. This is a follow-up to the survey carried out in Ireland and Northern Ireland in 2002-03 and it covered the 15 to 64 age group. The survey shows that cocaine use has grown, albeit from a low base, particularly among the young adult population. A total of 5% of respondents reported having used cocaine in their lifetime. A total of 1.7% reported using it in the previous year and less than 1%, 0.5%, reported using it in the previous month. In the younger age group of 15 to 34, these figures rose to 8.2% for having used, 3.1% for use in last year and 1% for use in the previous month.

The increase in cocaine use is in line with the findings of the national advisory committee on drugs and the national drug strategy team report, completed in 2006. It concluded that, based on all secondary indicators including numbers coming forward for treatment, there was a significant increase in cocaine use, albeit from a low base.

There are existing synergies in the area of treatment for substance misuse and a potential for strengthening these. Historically the drug treatment services in Ireland, in particular in the greater Dublin area, developed primarily to deal with an opiate-using client group. However, drug use patterns have been changing, in particular towards poly-drug use, which includes alcohol, illicit drugs and legal drugs. The consequent changes in the problems which people bring to the treatment services mean that a more holistic approach is called for, based on the needs of the individual client. The national drug treatment reporting system maintained by the Health Research Board reports that one in five people receiving treatment for alcohol use in 2004 and 2005 reported problem use of at least one other drug, with more than 10% and 5% reporting problem use of two and three additional drugs, respectively. Of particular concern is the increase of 45% between 2004 and 2005 in the number receiving treatment for both cocaine and alcohol use. When cocaine is taken with alcohol it combines in the system to form the drug cocaethylene which is more toxic than using either substance alone.

To address these changing patterns of drug use, the HSE has been re-orientating its services towards a more integrated approach to both alcohol and drugs. It is working to include its addiction services in the primary care teams and social care networks which are currently being rolled out. It is considered that this setting offers the best opportunity for providing a continuum of care to clients, including people with substance misuse problems and meeting clients’ needs in a holistic way.

The 2006 joint report on cocaine by the national advisory committee on drugs and the national drugs strategy team, while recommending in the short term the need to consider [694]the provision of cocaine-specific clinics, recommended that in the medium to longer term, there is a need to move to the provision of a comprehensive substance treatment service tailored to the individual. This is recognised by the HSE as being suitable for substance use in general. The HSE has identified that many approaches already in use work well with cocaine misusers and it intends to build on this approach and re-engineer existing services to meet emerging needs such as cocaine misuse.

I refer to the combined alcohol and drugs policy. The suggestion of a single national substance misuse strategy has been mooted. However, for many reasons it is believed it is best to treat the addictions separately. For example, with respect to education and awareness, the messages communicated about alcohol are not necessarily appropriate to illegal drugs. A zero tolerance approach is generally warranted for illegal drugs whereas with regard to alcohol it is preferable to alert people to alcohol misuse.

The mid-term review of the National Drugs Strategy 2001-2008, contained the recommendation that a working group should be established to explore the potential for better co-ordination between alcohol and drug policies, and whether a combined strategy is the appropriate way forward.

A number of meetings of this working group, which is chaired by the Department of Health and Children, have taken place. The working group is cross-departmental and cross-sectoral. Membership comprises the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Department of Education and Science, the national drug strategy team, the Health Service Executive and the social partners, in addition to the Department of Health and Children. The membership reflects recognition of the need for a co-ordinated cross-departmental approach to the working group’s terms of reference. Work is ongoing in identifying areas of synergy and in considering whether a combined strategy is the appropriate way forward. I await with interest the conclusions of the working group on how we might move forward in this difficult area.

I do not underestimate the challenges ahead when dealing with alcohol and drugs. Addressing these challenges through cross-departmental and cross-sectoral working groups is the best opportunity for making progress. The benefits of cross-departmental working have yielded dividends in the past and I have no doubt they will do so in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Acting Chairman (Senator Paul Bradford): Information on Paul Bradford Zoom on Paul Bradford When is it proposed to sit again?

Senator Jim Walsh: Information on Jim Walsh Zoom on Jim Walsh Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.


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