I welcome the debate on drugs, whether legal or illegal, because society has never fully got to grips with drug abuse and the availability of drugs. I understand the motivation of Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan in tabling the motion and the Bill, but I will not support the motion. I encourage an open and informed debate on drugs. I have encouraged my party to continuously have such a debate; to look again to see whether there is an alternative way to tackle the scourge that is drugs. I do not refer to illegal drugs only because one of the biggest drug scourges in the country is alcohol. People must bear this in mind.
One of the ways I have always measured the debate is by asking why we would legalise another drug in this country when we cannot cope with the legal drugs, namely, alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs. We have seen the consequences of the use of the legal drugs and also their consequences for society. We cannot cope with the situation and until such time as society gets to grips with drugs – legal and illegal - we should not seek to legalise further drugs.
The constituency I represent is one of the hardest hit in Europe by the illegal drugs scourge but also by legal drugs. It has one of the biggest producers of a legal drug - Guinness. The factory is regulated and operates within the law. Alcohol has been regulated in society for decades and centuries, yet we still see the consequences of its abuse every day in accident and emergency units in hospitals. The abuse of alcohol is also evident in prisons, schools and everywhere in society but, in particular, in those areas which are poorest and most disadvantaged. Drugs do not respect class boundaries and affect people across the spectrum.
I have heard the argument that cannabis, weed or hash, whichever description one uses, is not that bad. It is said it does not affect people that much. Hundreds of thousands of people in society use it or abuse it every day. However, because something is common practice does not make it legal, nor does it make it right. I have some sympathy for the argument in favour of decriminalising cannabis. I understand the consequences for young people who are caught with a few spliffs, which can affect the rest of their lives. However, if we were to use the same argument, one could suggest we should decriminalise joyriding or other activities in which young people engage. The way to tackle those who have been caught on the wrong side of the law for what some would term minor offences is through the introduction of legislation on spent convictions. For someone who at the age of 15, 16 or 20 years got caught up in illegal drug use, there should be a way out for them in the future in order that they are not condemned to suffer the consequences of their mistake forever and a day.
There is another side to illegal drug activities in society. It is for that reason that I caution against any change. People have benefited from a lack of seriousness in tackling drugs in society. There has been the lack of a proper planned approach to drugs in terms of the criminal aspect of it and mental health issues such as self-awareness in schools. The ones who have benefited are the drug dealers. The legalisation of one drug will not prevent them from plying their trade. I have no truck with the argument that the hash-head down the road is okay, that he is only selling hash and does not sell anything else. In my constituency and right across this city those who sell hash are the same people who are bringing guns, heroin and cocaine into the country. Everybody has seen the consequences of that trade for young people who get caught up in violence and intimidation, who are in prison or will end up dead as a consequence of drugs wars or being in debt to a local drug dealer for money owed for weed or cocaine. These are the facts of what happens in communities. We have seen entire communities destroyed as a result.
People say the war on drugs has failed. I do not believe it was ever fully declared by the State. This is an island nation and we could have done a lot more to prevent the importation of cocaine, heroin and hash. We could also have done much more in catching young people at an early age to ensure they did not become dependent on any drug, whether legal or illegal. We could have done a lot more to ensure education was properly focused. Currently, no drugs unit is attached to Kevin Street Garda station, yet it is an area that is one of the hardest hit by the drugs scourge in this city. The problem relates to promotions and a lack of replacement, but there is no drugs unit in the area. During the years there has not been sufficient concentration within the Garda Síochána on drugs units. Neither has there been sufficient concentration by the State on the funding of drugs task forces. For example, once again in the budget, the Government has introduced a 7% cut in the budget for those who are specifically tasked with addressing the problem of illegal and legal drug use. Only a few years ago under a Fianna Fáil Government it was decided that drugs task forces should also deal with the alcohol problem. I do not have a problem with this, but the budget was not increased accordingly and ever since funding for drugs task forces has been cut. One could ask what kind of message that sends to those involved in trying to highlight the dangers of drugs when the Government continuously cuts the funding allocated. I urge the Minister at the very least to rethink the 7% cut announced in the budget.
I am concerned about the systematic increase in the potency of cannabis in recent years and, accordingly, the consequences for abusers.
For instance, the proportion of THC, the psychoactive ingredient that gives an individual a high or euphoric feeling, has increased. With hash, it has increased from 3% to nearly 15% in some cases. With weed, it can range from 15% to 40%, which is absolutely scary because there is a consequence to an increase in potency and a decrease in the antipsychotic element, which is the counterbalance. At present, the drugs being sold in Ireland are increasing in potency, with consequent aggression, paranoia, irritability, disturbed sleep, psychological dependency, mental illness, self-harm, suicidal tendencies and, because of dependency, involvement in criminal gangs and the like. I urge Members to continue to debate this subject but also to consider the alternatives to ensure we ramp up the war on drugs, both legal and illegal, in this country.