Other Questions.

National Drugs Strategy.

Gay Mitchell

Question:

105 Mr. G. Mitchell asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs when he expects to see the publication of the first annual report of the national drugs strategy considering it has been in existence for almost three years; the reason this report did not meet its deadline for publication by the end of 2003 as promised in his Department’s strategy statement for 2003-05; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7642/04]

The Department has responsibility for co-ordinating the implementation of the national drugs strategy 2001- 08 and is preparing a report which will cover the first three years of the strategy. This comprehensive report will present an overview of progress made to the end of 2003 and will address issues such as progress in the implementation of the 100 actions contained in the strategy, the structures involved in delivering the strategy and the nature and extent of drug misuse in Ireland. It will also include the latest available statistics on treatment, seizures and data from relevant surveys and research undertaken in the period.

Delays were experienced in obtaining up-to-date statistical information from a number of sources which has delayed the overall preparation of a report. I am anxious that it be published as quickly as possible. I have asked the Department to expedite this matter and I hope it will be published in the next three months.

The Deputy may wish to note that updates on the drugs strategy, the local drugs task forces and the young people's facilities and services fund are included in the annual report of the Department. In addition, the national advisory committee on drugs recently produced a comprehensive progress report covering its work from July 2000 to July 2003 which has been widely circulated.

Since the national drugs strategy was launched in May 2001, considerable progress has been made by Departments and agencies in implementing the actions set out in the strategy. The interdepartmental group on drugs, which I chair, meets regularly to assess progress by Departments and agencies in achieving their set targets and obstacles to the implementation of any of the actions are brought to light at these meetings. Approximately one third of the 100 actions have been completed or are ongoing for the life of the strategy. With the exception of a few actions where work has yet to commence, work is in progress on the remainder.

As the Minister with responsibility for the co-ordination of the national drugs strategy, I present a six-monthly progress report on the implementation of the strategy to the Cabinet committee on social inclusion which reviews performance against targets set.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The critical implementation path is in the final stages of publication and will be ready for broad dissemination in the next few days. The critical implementation path is a step-by-step plan showing how Departments and agencies are fulfilling, and intend to fulfil, their commitments and actions under the strategy. It also lays out the path to be taken for each Department and agency to meet their objectives.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. However, one of the main reasons for this delay has been the considerable length of time spent in setting up the regional drugs task forces. I am unhappy that it has taken so long to get a report. The nature of the drug problem is changing with the increasing use of cocaine as opposed to heroin. How is the Minister of State addressing this matter? The increase in cocaine use is of increasing concern to people.

All ten regional drugs task forces have been operating for some months. They are assessing problems in their relevant areas and identifying gaps in the strategy. The regional drugs task forces are now reporting back. We accept that drug use is no longer just a Dublin-wide problem. The heroin problem was mainly Dublin based but there were still 2,000 users outside the Eastern Regional Health Authority region. I agree that drug use is changing. The heroin problem is not exactly under control but there are 7,000 people in treatment for heroin use. However, I agree that the strategy must always be adjusted as new drugs and problems come on the scene. There will be a mid-term evaluation of the strategy later this year. This will give us the opportunity to see whether the strategy is still relevant, needs serious alteration or is flexible enough to tackle new problems, such as cocaine use, which are arising.

A report released yesterday showed Irish people under 30 years spend an average of 9% of their income on alcohol compared to the next high spenders, the Swedes, at 1.9%. Irish people spend almost 4% of the their weekly household income on alcohol compared to 0.2% of the rest of the EU. Will the Minister of State accept that alcohol is the largest drug used in Ireland? Its use has repercussions in terms of street violence, property damage, family discord and links to suicide.

Will the Minister of State agree to the incorporation of alcohol use in the national drugs strategy at its mid-term review? The drugs issue has changed and alcohol has come more to the fore. Statistics show that alcohol is consumed by all age groups. The only age group in this report shown to be at the EU average is the 55 to 64 year age group. However, of the over 65 year bracket, 62% drink regularly compared to an average 28% in the rest of Europe.

Who opens more pubs in the country?

It is not I.

The Taoiseach.

When the local drugs task forces were originally set up, they were concentrated in 14 of the most disadvantaged areas where heroin was the big issue. Seven years ago in Dublin if it was suggested to a local drugs task force to take responsibility for alcohol, there would have been an expression of shock-horror as it would have been felt the Government was downplaying the importance of heroin use. However, things have changed. With regard to the regional drugs task forces, some argue that the biggest problem outside Dublin is alcohol use and not drugs.

The national drugs strategy covers illegal drugs. There is a separate strategy for alcohol, which is under the control of the Minister for Health and Children. When I speak of the four pillars of the national drugs strategy, there is an overlap with prevention of drug and alcohol misuse. When one speaks to school children on prevention, these two issues overlap. However, they are covered by two different strategies. The alcohol strategy also differs from the national drugs strategy because alcohol affects different age groups and classes in society. The national drugs strategy is aimed at disadvantaged areas and people in particular age groups. Perhaps in time, the two strategies will come together. Currently, they overlap in terms of prevention.

I recall in the mid-1990s, in Amsterdam for example, heroin addicts were looked on as losers. They were seen as a product of the 1960s when film stars and others were into this drug. One pattern that emerged in Amsterdam at the time was people getting their trips on more readily available proprietary drugs. Is there a significant increase in the use of proprietary drugs instead of heroin? Anecdotal stories about cocaine use would lead us to believe that there is a significant supply of cocaine throughout the State. How bad is the spread of cocaine use?

It is true that in some disadvantaged areas, heroin is sometimes perceived as a loser's drug. Last year's survey showed that there were fewer people in the 15 to 24 year old bracket using heroin in Dublin. Sadly, they are probably not out playing football and have probably moved on to other drugs, but fewer young people in Dublin are moving on to heroin. There is a great deal of poly-drug use, in which people use anything and everything, legal or illegal, such as alcohol and a mix of whatever is available. The days in which people used and abused one drug have gone, and a certain section of society is using whatever is going, so some proprietary drugs and drugs that are dispensed by chemists are also being used.

The overall national population survey was carried out last year, and I remember one aspect of the results was that major misuse of illegal drugs occurred among men when they were in their 20s. As they got older, they did not use illegal drugs to the same extent and probably used legal drugs such as alcohol. Women went almost the other way. The use of illegal drugs by women in their 20s was much lower than that by men in their 20s, but the use of legal drugs, namely, valium and such benzodiazepines, was extremely high among women as they got into their 40s, 50s or 60s. That does not come under my strategy, but there is no doubt that poly-drug use is a major issue, with people playing with and dabbling in whatever is available.

Ruairí Quinn

Question:

106 Mr. Quinn asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the total estimated number of heroin abusers at the latest date for which figures are available, in Dublin and the rest of the country for each of the past five years; the steps being taken to counter such extensive heroin use, especially in the context of the implementation of the national drugs strategy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7700/04]

Question 106 touches on some of the issues with which we were just dealing. In May 2003, a study was published by the national advisory committee on drugs, which estimated that there are 14,452 opiate users in Ireland. This estimate was based on statistics provided by three data sources for 2001: the central drug treatment list, Garda data and the hospital in-patient data. This was the first formal estimate of the number of opiate users undertaken since 1996. However, it should be noted that the 1996 study, which arrived at an estimate of less than 13,500, estimated prevalence for Dublin only. The latest study estimates that there are 12,456 opiate users in Dublin, with a further 2,225 users outside the capital. The Deputy should note that the Dublin and outside Dublin figures do not add up to the national total as all three figures are the result of separate statistical calculations and are performed independently of each other.

I am sure the Deputy will agree that the drop in prevalence figures in Dublin is encouraging. Equally encouraging is the finding that the numbers of users in the 15 to 24 year old bracket has reduced substantially, which may point to a lower rate of initiation into heroin misuse. In this context, the Deputy should note that, since 1996, the availability of treatment for opiate dependence has increased significantly and this may be a factor in explaining the latest estimates. For example, in 1996, 1,350 places were available on the central methadone treatment list, whereas currently there are approximately 6,900, which is ahead of the figure that we have in the strategy.

While many of the study's findings are encouraging, I strongly believe that we cannot afford any degree of complacency. The Government is committed to working in partnership with communities most affected by drug misuse, and the continued implementation of the 100 actions set out in the national drug strategy remains a priority. In broad terms, the strategy seeks to increase the seizures of heroin and other drugs and to expand the availability of prevention, treatment and rehabilitation programmes while also conducting more focused initiatives through the task forces and the young people's facilities and services fund in areas where drug use, especially heroin, is most prevalent.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The strategy provides for an independent evaluation of the effectiveness of the overall framework by the end of 2004. This will examine the progress being made in achieving the overall key strategic goals set out in the strategy and will enable priorities for further action to be identified and a re-focusing of the strategy, if necessary.

I agree with the Minister of State that it is encouraging that there seems to be a fall-off in the use of heroin in Dublin but, unfortunately, heroin use has spread to other areas. The Minister of State rightly says that we cannot be complacent about that in any way. I recall from the rehabilitation services in Amsterdam that heroin addicts reached a point at which they no longer got the buzz from heroin. That point allowed a window in which to effect rehabilitation. Otherwise the addicts would find alcohol as substitute which meant that there was no progress. That ties into what Deputy Keaveney talked about.

The Minister of State does not seem to have figures for cocaine or crack cocaine. The problem with cocaine, as he knows, is that the trip does not last as long as it does with heroin. That means that the need to acquire the money to feed a habit will lead to the development of a higher level of crime.

I assume that the Minister of State does not have any figures on the development of the use of proprietary drugs. The fact that heroin use in Dublin is declining is welcome, but I imagine that the Minister of State is concerned, as I am, that some substitute for heroin might be lining up for addicts to use and that the fact is not that the drug-abusing fraternity is diminishing, but its preferences are changing.

Yes. Cocaine use is increasing, although as the national population survey shows, the figures are quite low. The survey showed that 3.1% of the population had used cocaine, 1.1% had used it in the past 12 months, and 0.3% had used it in the past month. Compared with similar surveys undertaken in other European countries, these figures suggest that cocaine use in Ireland is roughly average, or perhaps slightly above average. It appears that cocaine use is a growing problem. These are the national figures including all age groups, but they would include more younger people.

Those who misuse heroin come to notice quite quickly because it is injected and the problem is more in your face. The problem is that, although there is a treatment for heroin users, namely, methadone, which we have encouraged over a number of years, there is no equivalent of methadone for cocaine. Cocaine has serious effects on the user's memory and mental state, but it is a much longer-term problem which does not manifest itself as quickly as heroin use would. The illness problems do not arise as quickly, so users may be seriously affected without indication. There is no substitute treatment; all that we have is counselling and behavioural therapy. Cocaine users are much slower to come forward for treatment because we cannot give them a substitute and they do not recognise that they have a problem, which is itself probably part of the problem.

We must monitor cocaine use. We are upskilling some of our staff in the Eastern Regional Health Authority. There is a special clinic within the city clinic to deal with people who come forward, but the problem is getting them to come forward. We must adapt the strategy, our staff and our expertise as the problem evolves.

Is it not the case that, in every second level school in which there are children aged over 15, at least one person in each class, which should have at least 30 students, has taken cocaine, that the incidence is one in 20 and that the age cohort in which cocaine is most used is the 15 to 24 age group? It is not acceptable for the Minister of State to say that there is a low level of uptake of treatment when he does nothing about it and has no strategy to deal with cocaine abuse. The problem will get much worse and, if the Minister of State does not deal with it, it will be much worse than the alcohol problem. Does cocaine mixed with alcohol not result in the fiercest and most violent assaults in our country? Is the Minister of State not too complacent about the issue and does he not have any real plans or finance to deal with it?

I hope that the figure of one in 20 of our schoolchildren having used cocaine is not correct.

It is a fact. It is a fact in that age cohort.

Different types of surveys exist. The national advisory committee on drugs did an extremely detailed nationwide survey, which involved in-depth interviews, lasting 30 to 40 minutes, in people's homes. Those are the figures on which we are going.

Other surveys have been done, including the Slán survey, which is done in a classroom setting with people handing out and filling in forms.

The Minister of State is not familiar with his brief. He has it wrong.

We do not want to ignore any survey but I believe more in the surveys that are done in people's homes than in those done in a peer group setting, in which everybody is acting macho and asking each other what they wrote. However, I agree with the Deputy——

On a point of information, this is the health research board report. It does not consist of silly answers from students. It is based on facts. The Minister of State does not seem to know this.

The results come from the Slán surveys. I am not ignoring them; I am just saying we regard our other survey as more professionally done. I am not complacent. I realise the dangers of poly-drug use, which is a serious problem. Mixing together heroin, cocaine and alcohol or anything else can result in a violent reaction. Many people are unaware of this. We all have different personalities and physical make-ups and this is a factor in what happens.

That is the problem with cocaine. It is harder to get through to people that they are seriously damaging their memory and mental state. Some people might be able to dabble and then walk away while others will suffer serious long-term effects. People are slower to realise that something is having a long-term effect because they think they are just having a great time. It can take some years to see the damage resulting from cocaine use. We can only get around this by working on the basis of prevention. We must educate people. We need campaigns to make people aware of the damage they can cause to themselves. Ultimately, we cannot have a policeman, nurse or health board worker on everybody's shoulder. People must be responsible for their own well-being and health. However, we are trying to give them the knowledge they need to make informed choices.

In most other European countries, a larger number of cocaine addicts present for treatment — up to 20% or 30%. Here, 1% of addicts present for treatment under the Minister of State's strategy.

It might be that things are happening later in this country.

The Minister of State is doing nothing about it. He is sitting back.

Sometimes we can be of the view that only people who are less well off dabble heavily in drugs. Some of the anecdotal evidence that has come my way, however, suggests there is a significant number of well-off people who use cocaine as a leisure drug at the weekend. These people would not turn up in the Department's statistics.

That is correct. Heroin has always been associated with disadvantage. This resulted in the establishment of the local drugs task forces. Cocaine has always existed but was considered a drug for the professional classes who used it on a Friday or Saturday night and were fine again by Monday morning. We have had greater problems with cocaine recently because more of it is available and it is cheaper. This means others are using it and perhaps mixing it with heroin or other substances. It is not just the poor or disadvantaged who suffer major problems as a result of drug use. Middle-class and professional people also have these problems, but such problems are slower to manifest themselves. That is why our educational programmes in schools and so on are targeted at all young people instead of being specific to certain areas.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.