Ceisteanna – Questions. Priority Questions. - Garda Operations.

Tony Gregory

Question:

5 Mr. Gregory asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the response he received from the Garda authorities outlining the policy regarding homeless heroin addicts following the recent media controversy. [17268/03]

I was in touch with the Garda authorities following the newspaper reports concerning incidents of drug abuse activity in Temple Bar. I was informed by the Garda authorities that two separate incidents occurred at Copper Alley, Temple Bar on 28 May, 2003. In the first incident at about 2.45 p.m., two Garda personnel responded to a call where they encountered three males who appeared to be injecting a substance. Details of the individuals' names and addresses were noted. They were searched but controlled substances were not found and they were directed to leave the area.

In the second incident, at about 4.50 p.m. on the same day, two different Garda officers responded to a call to Copper Alley. On arrival, they saw two men in the process of what appeared to be injecting themselves. In this case also, details of names and addresses were obtained, both individuals were searched, again with no controlled substance being found, and they were directed to leave the area.

I am informed by the Garda authorities that the Garda response to both incidents was prompt. However, I am also informed that further action is available to the Garda and was called for in such circumstances such as conveying the individuals to a Garda station for the purpose of thorough search and the seizure of syringes for forensic examination. That was not done. Instructions have been issued on ways to deal with such situations in the future.

In making these points I do not seek to minimise the hazards faced by gardaí in dealing with these situations. Neither however, do I wish to suggest that it is somehow acceptable or should be regarded as routine that the general public should have to witness drug abuse on our public streets. It is completely unacceptable and it is manifestly right that whatever action can be taken to prevent it should be taken, including the course of action I referred to earlier.

Will the Minister agree that many of these homeless, chronic heroin users probably became addicted at a very young age, at a time when the drugs problem was being grossly neglected and ignored by successive Governments? I trust and hope that it is not the intention now to scapegoat these victims of drug dealers because they appear in Temple Bar. The Minister's reply gives the impression that it is fine if it happens on the stairways of inner city flats complexes. It has been happening there for 20 years. Will the Minister agree that more appropriate action would be consideration being given to the provision of whatever services are required to ensure that these people do not continue to put their own health at risk and the health of the general public?

I listened to the Minister on the "Rodney Rice" programme. He was about to endorse a medically supervised facility on the Swiss model when he abruptly missed his conversion and made a U-turn and then dismissed such schemes out of hand. There is expertise available. The Merchant's Quay project and other people are working on the ground with these chronic drug users. Now that after 20 years some members of Government and some members of the public have discovered the drugs crisis and come up with an appropriate way of providing—

On a point of order, Chairman. Now that the Independents have decided they want to be in a party, can we now have the sort of expenses they have, €30,000 paid tax-free at the beginning of each year, for example?

I am not sure if that is a point of order, Deputy.

The seats were empty.

These people are using the post illegally to allow people call illegal meetings. They are using the Oireachtas post.

Acting Chairman

Deputy, we are in question time.

They are paid €30,000 at the beginning of every tax year into their hands as Independents and now they want to get on to the party seats as well.

Acting Chairman

That is a matter to be sorted out between the Whips.

I was wondering if I could have the same €30,000 as Deputy Gregory and Deputy Finian McGrath.

The Deputy was not present in the Chamber.

Acting Chairman

Are you finished with your question, Deputy Gregory? Please resume your seat, Deputy Mitchell.

These people are trying to sit in party seats while drawing their very large allowances of 30 grand a year. They put it in their pockets and now they want to be in the Fine Gael party as well.

My colleagues in the Labour Party generously invited us to their front bench.

Acting Chairman

That is a matter that will have to be resolved between the party Whips.

The seats were empty. Deputy Mitchell is playing games.

Acting Chairman

May I inquire if the Deputy is finished?

How naive I am. I thought for a few moments that this increased attendance by the Fine Gael party had something to do with being interested in what I had to say.

What about the lack of attendance on that side of the House?

It now transpires they were in effect doing what is colloquially known as "doughnutting" Deputy Gregory.

We are trying to deal with real issues.

I will deal with the serious questions which the Deputy raised. It is a very serious problem. As I said in reply to Deputy Costello, the heroin problem is very serious. There are between 12,000 and 15,000 heroin users in Ireland. The Deputy referred to me nearly being dragged into committing political suicide by Rodney Rice on his programme.

Perhaps the Minister was giving his true opinion.

He was very persuasively suggesting to me that the State should provide rooms where heroin addicts could inject themselves with heroin. The appropriate response by the State must be to take a stance against heroin addiction, to use whatever methods, including methadone treatment centres, to guide people who are addicted – it is a terrible scourge to be addicted to heroin – away from that addiction and to help them. The notion that the State should become a heroin supplier or alternatively that the State should become the proprietor of premises where heroin is self-administered, is not an appropriate response. The Swiss example, to which the Deputy referred, shows that this is a cul de sac approach. It was eventually found that the establishment of public facilities where people are free to engage in such behaviour was a bad idea.

We have to make clear our priorities across the board. I wish to make clear that the State cannot get into the business of supplying opiates to heroin addicts. That is a clear proposition. Methadone treatment should not be a long-term palliative as its aim must be to help to reform heroin addicts and to get them off the habit, rather than transferring their dependence from one drug to another. If heroin is legalised it will become much more available on a much wider basis. Even if it is supplied in certain controlled circumstances, there will be a black market, in effect, which will ensure that the problem will become ten times worse. I am about to launch a programme which considers our approach to this problem in places of detention and I will also attend a conference of prison governors on the issue. I am not at all happy with the approach taken by the State to the use of opiates in prisons.

Hear, hear.

I believe we have to strike a new course in relation to the issue.

Is the Minister making a Second Stage speech?

Acting Chairman

No.

I had to fight my way through a turf war on the other side of the House to be heard.

There are no such problems on the Government side.

Acting Chairman

That completes the questions nominated for priority.

Surely I am entitled to ask a supplementary question.

Acting Chairman

We have far exceeded the time available.

Every other Member has—

Acting Chairman

There were too many long-winded contributions during Deputies' preambles to their questions.

The Minister should have been more concise.

Acting Chairman

I will allow a brief supplementary question.

Deputy Gay Mitchell disrupted the debate.

I hope the Minister is more informed on most things than he is on the Swiss model, which has not failed but is working very well. The system that was in place in Switzerland before the medically supervised model that is there at the moment failed.

I was referring to the initial system.

The medically supervised model that is now in place has resulted in a reduction in crime levels, an improvement—

Acting Chairman

The Deputy should ask a question. Will he get to the point?

The Deputy is an expert on the Swiss model and should be allowed to continue.

Will the Minister, at least, take on board the proposition that appropriate facilities are required to ensure that chronic drug users do not end up doing what certain people were doing in Temple Bar recently? Perhaps the Minister will talk to those involved in the Merchant's Quay project and others who are working with chronic drug users so that he can decide whether an appropriate compromise facility can be established to respond to these problems. It is a simple question. Will the Minister talk to those people who have been working with chronic drug users for years?

This is a Second Stage speech.

Such people have an idea of what is needed. The Government may be able to do something to assist projects such as Merchants Quay to help chronic drug users. It is clear that the State is failing quite a number of these people at present.

I will talk to those involved with the Merchant's Quay project. My door is always open to people, including to the Deputy, who wishes to discuss ideas. I do not envisage that a decision will be taken to provide a programme of State-subsidised or State-sponsored heroin administration to heroin addicts. As I said earlier, the State must attempt to help people to break the habit and it must provide a substitute in the form of methadone. I remain to be persuaded that the approach I favour is wrong.

Has the Minister studied alternatives to methadone?