Last night the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill 2016 was debated in the Dáil which aims to bring certain substances which are open to misuse and known to be traded on the illicit market under the scope of the misuse of drugs legislation including certain prescription medicines currently being sold illegally on our streets and which are not already controlled drugs, and so-called Z-drugs, such as zopiclone and zaleplon. The bill will give Gardaí more powers and make legislation robust in dealing with new drugs that come on the market. I brought up all of the points below during the Dáil debate particularly how the communities and projects have been calling for action on the “mini-Criminal Assets Bureau” idea and dealing with the Z-drugs for many years now. When the Minister, Deputy Harris, discussed this legislation in the Seanad he stated that it is an important element of the Government’s arsenal in the fight against drug dealing, trafficking and consequent gangland crime. The Bill deals with a very particular aspect but we all know addiction covers a wide field. I support what the Minister and the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, are doing but we must examine other issues.
One issue relates to the unintended consequences of the legislation. The projects that work with those addicted to Z-drugs and benzos are under major pressure. Their supply is going to be interfered with when the legislation comes into force. As a result, the projects are going to need support with the additional work that they are going to be doing. There are problems in respect of detoxing from these drugs. The projects have been seeing the difficulties for those addicted to benzos in trying to bring down their use so they can reach the point where they can get into a residential programme. We know we do not have enough rehab places and the coming into force of this legislation could be the wake-up call for some in addiction to tackle their problems, particularly if they can access rehab and other services at that point. We do not want them left in the precarious position of looking for alternative drugs. We know there are plenty of those around, from crystal meth to heroin to crack cocaine. The more addicts that get into recovery, the better it will be for them, their families and communities and also for our economy. We know the cost of this, through the health system and through the justice system.
Another aspect is the care planning and case management for individuals in addiction treatment, rehab and recovery. We must also look at the methadone protocol. I acknowledge the stabilising effect of methadone. I know young people and older individuals who were able to improve their lives because they were on methadone, but it is only a part of a treatment process. Methadone is not a stand-alone treatment, so there is a need for frequent monitoring and reduction of dosages. Those on methadone need access to other services and treatment through primary health care. Methadone, except in very extreme circumstances, should not be a long-term strategy. Diagnoses of HIV are increasing among those injecting the drug snow blow. I recently attended an event hosted by HIV Ireland at which this matter was highlighted and at which literature on harm reduction, which shows people what to do, was available.
The SAOL Project works with women in addiction and it developed a really valuable programme called Reduce the Use. Again, this was very practical, helping people to respond to their key drug issues and also for the professionals who work with them. It made practical suggestions about the skills and tools needed, about cravings and relapse prevention and about negative thinking. It was giving people in addiction the chance to work on their addiction at their own pace and in their own space.
Moving on to decriminalising possession of small amounts for personal use. It is not right that people are carrying this charge with them for the rest of their lives, but we also need to look at how some who are in recovery for quite a number of years are prevented from progressing in education and in study because they have a criminal record. The bigger picture relates to the question of the legalisation. We need a debate on this and I hope we can have it. The decriminalisation of the possession of small amounts is the easy part. Fr. Peter McVerry does not like the word “legalisation”. He would prefer to talk about controlling the supply of drugs. He sees it as the State taking control of the supply of drugs. We know one immediate effect would be getting at the criminal gangs and cutting off their sources of wealth.
I also want to mention the Recovery Academy, which came about as a result of a symposium of over 100 people, the majority of whom were in recovery. They were acknowledging the role of harm-reduction measures and getting people into treatment, but the challenge then was to encourage individuals to move from treatment into recovery. Again, the Recovery Academy came up with solutions that were practical, achievable and cost-effective. It was about reorienting services to a recovery paradigm. I hope the Ministers of State mention at the consultation process in which they are hoping to engage that those groups I have mentioned – the Recovery Academy, the SAOL Project and Soilse – will have a space there. They have been there before. They have been involved in other consultation processes. We are all talked out on this. People know what needs to be done and what can be done. At a recent Recovery Academy meeting I met a group from England that was presenting. With £1 million, they had been able to open Recovery Central. This is a café – with a space for business incubation units and with social enterprises – for those in recovery. It was on a high street, so it was visible and was, therefore, also making a contribution to tackling the stigma attached to being in addiction.
We know all the pillars of the national drug strategy – control of supply, treatment and rehabilitation – but prevention and education are the Cinderellas of the process, of that there is no doubt. I was involved with prevention and education in the North Inner City Drugs and Alcohol Task Force and we ran a number of conventions for young people. There were four in all, with about 400 young people attending. They came from fifth year and transition year classes in the north-east and north-west inner city. The conventions were facilitated by the youth leaders, but it was a listening exercise with young people and they were very willing to engage, because they appreciated that they were being listened to. There was no telling them because they were aware of all of those dangers. Some of them were prepared to take those risks.
We also looked at intervention and prevention. The levels of intervention and prevention varied greatly. I know I am a former teacher, but I really feel that we need to look at prevention and education in a different way. We should not just land it on schools because there are so many difficulties attached to schools in the context of this issue. The young people to whom I refer very much appreciated the fact that we were willing to listen to their views and we produced a report on foot of what was said. They were certainly willing to look at ways that would get those of them who were into drug and alcohol abuse to think. There was a significant number of individuals who were not into those things, but it was about getting those who were abusing drugs and alcohol to stop and think about what they were doing, why they were doing it, what the dangers are if they go this route, what else they could do or how they could help themselves in a better way.
I hope there will also be a space for young people in the consultation process, especially young teenagers from the areas that are most affected, to come in and give their views. Equally, I hope there will be a space for the users forum, UISCE, which is represented on the North Inner City Drugs and Alcohol Task Force. It has a really strong contribution to make in this area. What the Ministers of State are doing is welcome, and it will certainly be welcomed by the communities in the north inner city. However, it constitutes some very small steps on a much longer road.
After looking back over my own parliamentary questions that I have asked in the few years I have been in the Dáil, the list is never ending as well as within the Private Members’ business relating to addiction. I’ll start with a question I put in September 2014 to the Minister about dealing with the Z-drugs and I was told the problem was acknowledged and gardaí were working with relevant agencies. I also raised a Topical Issue matter on this in October 2015 in which I stated that communities were flooded with what was known as Z-drugs. They are used with other drugs and alcohol and caused havoc and distress, pushing people further into addiction and causing much pain for families and the wider community. They also contributed to anti-social behaviour and criminality. The communities I represent were looking at young men who were selling these tablets, as it is mainly young men, some of them only in their late teens. In the Topical Issue debate I offered to bring the Minister of State to a couple of places within the constituency where he could buy packets of Z-tablets without any problem. I could also bring him to the people living beside this activity, where they could tell him about the nightmare of living with that open drug dealing.
I was told on both occasions that this was a matter for the Garda but its hands were tied because of a lack of appropriate legislation. Gardaí were being pressurised by communities at numerous community forum meetings and at other committee meetings and asked why they were not doing anything about this drug dealing. We were told emergency legislation was needed and if it was introduced, places could be cleared of Z-drugs dealing very quickly. It was not a political priority and it is a frightening reality that it took several murders, which took place recently in daylight in a public street, a pub and a person’s home, for this legislation to happen. It took the murders and the responses of the communities, the residents and those working in the projects and services, to bring about a sense of urgency that has us debating these two issues. The communities and residents have been looking for that and pointing out the need for action to address the growing addiction problems. We know they are in Dublin Central but they are by no means confined to Dublin. There is not a village or town in Ireland that does not have an issue with drugs or alcohol.
We know the two relevant Acts were inadequate to deal with these tablets. A garda could have a reasonable suspicion of dealing and search a person but if tablets were found, gardaí had to give back a third of them so the person could do individual testing. The communities were looking at the open dealing and it was irrelevant to them as to whether the drug was heroin, cocaine, ecstasy or tablets; it was interfering with their lives. On a number of occasions I was on a quiet street and saw two or three young men emerge. Within seconds, there could be anything from 30 to 50 people arriving in taxis, cars or on foot. They heard through social media that the deal was on and the tablets were available. They were not just coming from Dublin as they came from far and wide. One can imagine an older person in particular living in that community, looking out the window and suddenly seeing masses of people around. The fear is palpable and gardaí were under pressure to act. They kept saying their hands were tied.
In 2012 I had a Private Members’ business slot dealing with addiction. I mentioned poly-drug use at the time, specifically the increase in use of dangerous substances that are illegal and unregulated. I also mentioned the increased use of technology in accessing those substances and harm through overdoses, fatalities, long-term ill health, suicide, mental health issues and homelessness. I called on the Government to prioritise addiction as a health issue and not primarily as a criminal issue. I called on it to ensure the necessary resources were provided. I also asked that legislation be introduced to deal with the Internet sourcing and accessing of drugs and that it would apply the harmonised EU definition of a medicinal product to a new psychoactive substance so the national medicine agencies could prohibit unauthorised importation, marketing and distribution. The motion was defeated four years ago and we are speaking about the same issues now.
I read what I called for in 2012 and the irony struck me because it is coming out again in discussions with the Taoiseach, communities and projects. We were talking about supports for those high-risk, lower socio-economic populations that experience social disadvantage, which leads to addiction problems. I called for improved supports in the areas of health care, education, housing and employment opportunities, and to refrain from further cuts to the services provided by the community and voluntary sectors for those in addiction, with continuing support for special community employment schemes for those in drug rehabilitation. As we know, those projects saw cuts of between 30% and 40%. It is ironic that in 2012 there was also a murder and a retaliatory murder carried out in front of young children. As I say over and over, the more things change, the more they stay the same.