Ceisteanna – Questions. Priority Questions. - Drug Abuse.

Joe Costello

Question:

2 Mr. Costello asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if his attention has been drawn to the recent study commissioned on behalf of the national advisory committee on drugs which showed that there were now an estimated 14,450 heroin users in the country, of whom 12,456 were in the Dublin area; the steps he is taking to reduce the supply of heroin in view of these alarming figures; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17277/03]

As the Deputy notes, the national advisory committee on drugs (NACD) recently published a study on the prevalence of opiate misuse in Ireland. The estimate is based on statistics provided by three data sources for 2001: the central drug treatment list; the hospital in-patient enquiry database; and the national Garda study on opiate misuse and related criminal activity.

This is the first formal estimate of opiate users undertaken since a 1996 study which used the same methodology but estimated prevalence for Dublin only. It is worth noting that the figures are estimates and that there is a marked decrease on the previously reported figure for opiate users in Dublin – 12,456 in 2001 compared with 13,461 in 1996. I accept that these figures are statistical and I cannot vouch for their statistical accuracy. I can only say these are what are offered. The decrease in Dublin is encouraging, as is the finding that the numbers of users in the 15-24 year old bracket has reduced substantially, which may point to a lower rate of initiation into heroin misuse.

The Government remains committed to working in partnership with communities most affected by drug misuse. The continued implementation of the actions set out in the National Drug Strategy 2001-2008 remains a priority. A key performance indicator in the strategy is to increase the volume of opiates and all other drugs seized by 25% by end of 2004 and by 50% by end 2008, using 2000 seizures as a base. The Garda Síochána and the Customs and Excise Service are achieving considerable success in relation to this target to date and they are to be congratulated for their continued efforts.

Despite the fact that the Minister is encouraged by the figures I have to say they are discouraging. The figures changed for the better between 1996 and 2001 but the figure for 2001 showed an increase on the previous year. The figure of 14,450 is not the ultimate figure. A higher figure of approximately 15,500 could be given. There are not grounds for complacency.

Last month Independent Newspapers treated us to photographs of people shooting up in a public area in the city while gardaí, apparently, stood idly by. This brought home to the general public just how serious is the problem. At the same time the Merchant's Quay project, the largest supplier of services to drug addicts which operates on a voluntary basis, published figures to show it was under funded.

There has been an increase this year over last year. Approximately 86% of drug abusers are in the Dublin area but it is not long since there was no opiate abuse in other parts of the country. It is obviously expanding throughout the country. There has been a reduction in the facilities provided under the various projects. Almost no projects are going ahead under the drugs task force and funding has dried up for the RAPID programme and the youth services and facilities fund.

The Government does not appear to be serious about dealing with this problem. The number of drug addicts is estimated at between 14,000 and 15,000, with 86% in the city of Dublin. That is a huge number. Much crime is committed to feed the habits of these people.

What does the Minister intend to do to improve treatment facilities and the alternative social inclusion facilities? Has the Garda any indication that it will reach its seizure target of 50%? How can it determine a target like that? How can one know where the other 50% is? There appears to be very little differentiation between Garda seizures of cannabis and of hard drugs. The vast majority of seizures are of soft drugs.

I assure the Deputy that the incident to which he referred is the subject of a separate question from Deputy Gregory. I admire Deputy Costello's capacity to try to upstage Deputy Gregory in this respect.

He would never try that.

The Garda authorities have informed me that the street value of drugs seized by the force in 2002 was in the order of €49 million and that significant drugs seizures with a street value of more than €67 million have been made to date.

With regard to targets, the Deputy may have misunderstood me. They are not percentages of the drugs coming into the country. They are increases in the volume of drugs seized. I cannot say how many drugs are in the country so I could not possibly say it is my target to find 50% of them. That would be a wholly unreliable way to approach things.

There were 14,452 people using opiates in Ireland in 2001 and there were 12,456 opiate users in Dublin in 2001. This was reported to be a reduction of 1,000 over the 1996 figures. I am not complacent about these things but one ray of hope is that the number of users in the Dublin area seems to be on the way down and a second ray of hope is that younger people are becoming less represented in the cohort of opiate users. This suggests that things are progressing in the right direction.

The Deputy asked me what we are doing about this. Garda initiatives are along the following lines: conducting ongoing intelligence operations against criminal networks engaged in drug distribution; co-operating with other national law enforcement agencies in reducing the supply of illegal drugs into the State; undermining the structures and systems which support drug distribution networks through the concerted efforts of the Garda national support units, including the national drugs unit, the Criminal Assets Bureau and the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation; maintaining divisional and district drug units which are focused on addressing drug supply at a community level; and conducting pro-active operations such as "Cleanstreet" and "Nightcap" designed to address drug supply within communities.

Does the Minister intend to provide extra resources to the Merchant's Quay project?

I will consider that matter.