I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am presenting the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill 2015 to the House today as an emergency measure on foot of a judgment earlier today by the Court of Appeal on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977. I would like to express my appreciation to Whips and the House for agreeing to deal with this Bill at such short notice.
The ruling by the court today means that numerous substances which have been controlled by Government order in the years since 1977 cease to be controlled under the Act. The court ruled today on an appeal against the High Court judgment of May last year. The High Court had upheld the constitutionality of section 2(2) which is the provision in the Act empowering the Government to declare substances to be controlled under the Act. The Court of Appeal concluded that this provision is deficient in principles and policies and, accordingly, is repugnant to Article 15.2.1 of the Constitution. This vests the sole and exclusive power of making laws in the Oireachtas. Accordingly, any order may under this power is invalid. While the State had no way of knowing how the Court of Appeal would rule, we planned for this possibility by preparing this Bill and ensuring it could be brought before the House without delay. This Bill aims to deal with the fall-out of today's judgment by reinstating the status quo ante in relation to substances controlled by Government order. I hope it will meet with the approval of this House.
By way of explanation, the Misuse of Drugs Act has two primary purposes. It establishes a system of control over certain drugs to protect the public from dangerous or potentially dangerous and harmful substances and facilitates the safe use of certain controlled drug substances, which, though harmful if misused, have medical and therapeutic value. Under the legislation, unless expressly allowed to do so, it is illegal to possess, supply, manufacture, import or export a controlled substance. Controlled substances under the Act are substances which are either known to be, or have the potential to be, dangerous or harmful to human health, including their liability for misuse or causing social harm. In general, these are substances which affect the central nervous system, producing some mind-altering effect. This may be stimulation, depression, hallucinations or other significant change. Additionally, many of these drugs have the potential to cause addiction or dependence, whether physical or psychological.
A substance may be declared controlled under the Act in one of two ways. The first is if the substance is listed in the original Schedule to the 1977 Act. The second is if the substance has been declared controlled by the Government by means of an order made under section 2(2) of the Act. Subsequent to a substance being declared controlled, the Minister for Health then makes regulations to place controls on the import, export, production, supply and possession appropriate to that substance. The Schedule to the Act lists over 100 substances which are controlled, including cocaine, heroin, cannabis, certain amphetamines and other well and less well known substances. These are not affected by today's judgment. However, the legislators in 1977 recognised that it was important to future-proof the legislation by providing a mechanism by which additional substances could be declared controlled without undue delay. This was far-seeing because as we all know numerous dangerous substances which might not have been known about, or might not have even existed, in 1977 have emerged on the drugs market in the intervening period. Accordingly, the Act provided under section 2(2) that additional substances could be controlled by means of Government order. Since 1977, this power has been used nine times by several Governments to control a wide range of dangerous substances, including ecstasy, and most recently head shop drugs.
Earlier today, section 2(2) under which Government orders are made was declared unconstitutional by the Court of Appeal. This judgment will be carefully examined by my Department with a view to considering its implications and what future amendments to the legislation may be required. What is clear is that, as of today, as a result of this judgment, all Government orders made under this Act cease to be valid. This means that all substances which have been declared controlled by Government order, many of which pose significant health risks for people who use them, are now no longer controlled under the Act.
Accordingly, the purpose of this short but important Bill is to resubmit these substances to control under the Act. The Bill does so by inserting these substances into the Schedule to the Act. In order to reaffirm the controls which may apply to these substances, the Bill also confirms a number of ministerial orders and regulations made under the Act, thereby giving these instruments statutory effect as though they were an Act of the Oireachtas.
Controlling substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act is an ongoing process which involves national and international co-operation and engagement. The drugs phenomenon is an international issue that needs to be tackled in a co-ordinated way and addressed in a global context. Two United Nations conventions provide the international legal framework for addressing the illicit drugs phenomenon. The fundamental objective of the conventions is to protect the health of people from the inappropriate use of controlled drugs and to ensure use of controlled drugs is restricted to medical and scientific purposes. Substances are scheduled under the Act in accordance with Ireland's obligations under these international conventions. Of course, it is open to parties to the UN conventions to extend the scope of control to a wider range of substances, which Ireland has done. Furthermore, substances are also scheduled under the Act in accordance with EU Council decisions or where there is evidence that substances are causing significant harm to public health.
The process by which substances are subjected to control by the Government under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 is highly technical and complex in order to ascertain whether the abuse potential is such as to warrant control. This work includes monitoring of trends of drug abuse in the national and international drugs markets and the identification of substances and classes of substances that are being used in the drug culture. It involves information exchange between Departments and State agencies regarding trends in usage, seizures and health effects of drugs. The development of highly technical legislative provisions which precisely describe individual chemical substances or groups of substances is an important part of the work of accurately controlling substances. Government orders have declared controlled a wide range of substances by means of generic definitions, thereby aiming to stay ahead of the clandestine laboratories which deliberately circumvent national controls by making minor changes to molecules.
Since 1977, nine Government orders have been made, of which seven continued in operation until today. The most recent order was made in December 2014 when a number of substances were controlled arising from EU Council decisions. Substances controlled by Government order range from substances which are useful medicines but which have abuse potential, such as benzodiazepines, to plants which have psychoactive properties such as magic mushrooms, to synthetic substances sold as "bath salts", "incense" or "research chemicals".
Members of this House will recall the head shop phenomenon of a few years ago. Some people mistakenly believed that because products sold in these shops were "legal" that they were "safe". Government orders in 2010 and 2011 controlled the substances then commonly being sold in head shops, including synthetic cannabinoids, BZP derivatives and mephedrone. These controls, coupled with the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010 helped to address this problem. Prior to the introduction of the 2010 Act there were more than 100 head shops operating in the State. Since the introduction of the Act, the head shop trade in Ireland has almost disappeared.
The speed at which new psychoactive drugs emerge is evidenced by data from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction which received reports of 15 new psychoactive substances in 2005 compared to 73 in 2012. The availability of detailed information regarding the chemistry of substances on the Internet, coupled with the availability of sophisticated technology and chemistry expertise, have contributed to the rapid evolution of the illicit drugs market, particularly in the past decade. It is important that we work together to counter the threat they pose to users, particularly young people. A key part of that work is the control of substances under this Act.
The mechanism under which new substances can be controlled in the future will require consideration on foot of today's Court of Appeal decision. This is not part of the proposed Bill as the matter will need to be considered further in light of the terms of the judgment. The Bill provides that substances which were controlled before the court judgment by means of Government order may be added to the Schedule in the 1977 Act, thereby providing that they will once more be controlled.
Section 1 is the amendment of the Schedule to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977. This provision inserts into the Schedule of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 the Schedule to this Bill. These are the same substances previously controlled under Government orders made under section 2(2) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977. The substances to be inserted into the Schedule are listed in paragraphs 1A and 1B to be able to specify which additional compounds, namely stereoisomers, esters and ethers, salts, products and preparations of substances, are also controlled.
Section 2 relates to the confirmation of certain statutory instruments. Certain ministerial orders and regulations made under the 1977 Act are confirmed as if they were an Act of the Oireachtas, thereby ensuring that they are not subject to challenge while the consequences of the Court of Appeal judgment are examined and addressed.
Section 3 is the Short Title, commencement and collective citation. This is a standard citation provision. It is intended the legislation will commence on the day after its passing, that is, the day after it is signed by the President.
In conclusion, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 provides for the control of dangerous substances and their regulation to ensure that they are only available for medicinal and other purposes in such a way as to prevent their misuse. This Bill aims to protect the legal framework of this country in relation to controlled drugs, by re-controlling substances which have been assessed as meriting such control. The House will appreciate that this is a very important Bill which has public health and community safety at its heart. I again thank the House and the Opposition for their co-operation in allowing me to bring forward this Bill as a matter of urgency. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Members during the debate and I hope the House will support the passage of the Bill without delay. I commend the Bill to the House.