I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to introduce the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill 2016 to the House. Everyone is aware of the devastation that drugs cause to individuals and communities across the State. Recently we have become all too aware of the on-street dealing in prescription medication, some of which is controlled under the misuse of drugs legislation and some of which is not. This Bill is intended to deal with this issue and forms part of an overall package of initial measures being introduced by the Government as a matter of priority to further strengthen the hands of our law enforcement authorities in tackling those involved in gangland crime, the devastating effects of which we have seen in the recent violence in our capital city.
Drug dealers on the street often carry relatively small quantities of drugs on their person which makes it difficult for the authorities to proceed with charges of sale or supply. Drug dealers include drug users and addicts. The primary purpose of this Bill is to aid the law enforcement functions of An Garda Síochána in tackling crime associated with the illegal sale of certain substances. This Bill is not about targeting addicts. It is about disrupting gangs who profit from the on-street sale of dangerous substances and giving An Garda Síochána the power it needs to do so. While the illicit trade in these substances is not confined to any area, it is clear that this trade has been noticeably prominent in the Dublin north inner city area. This is a particular problem which has been highlighted by community groups and representatives from the local area and by political colleagues as one of the priority issues to be addressed as part of the Government’s overall targeted response to issues affecting the north inner city area.
Following the appalling violence witnessed over the past few months, the Government examined measures which could help to tackle organised crime in the north inner city and elsewhere. One such measure, proposed by my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, is to expedite the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill which had originally been scheduled to be introduced in the autumn of 2016. The Minister decided to bring forward a shortened version of the Bill to aid law enforcement in tackling this serious issue.
This Bill aims to protect public health by bringing under the scope of the misuse of drugs legislation certain substances which are open to misuse and known to be traded on the illicit market. The Bill provides that certain prescription medicines currently being sold illegally on our streets and which are not already controlled drugs, will come under the scope of the Misuse of Drugs Act. These include so-called Z-drugs, such as zopiclone and zaleplon. Controlling the substances in the Bill is part one of a two-step process. Ministerial regulations are required subsequently to determine the level of control which is to apply to each substance and who may legally possess the substances. This would include practitioners and patients. Work is under way on drafting the regulations in my Department. The control of substances under the Bill will only be commenced when the associated regulations are ready. This should happen relatively quickly.
As Deputies are aware, this Bill completed its passage through the Seanad last week. I thank all the Senators who contributed to the debate and who made important contributions on many issues relating to drugs, drugs use, drug addiction, drug services and treatment. There were also contributions on the subject of decriminalising the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use. I want to reiterate the point I made in the Seanad last week. I do not want to criminalise anybody who takes drugs because of addiction. Some of these addicts fund their addiction through the sale of drugs to others. It is wrong for a person to unlawfully supply a dangerous substance to someone else - it is simply wrong - even if that person’s motivation is to fund their own addiction. That person is interfering with somebody’s life by supplying them with a dangerous or harmful substance, possibly leading to death.
In the Seanad, there was general agreement that consideration should be given to alternatives to criminal sanctions for drug addicts. There was also general agreement that drug dealing should be prevented.
Drug dealers on the street often carry relatively small quantities of drugs on their person, which makes it difficult to proceed with sale or supply charges under the medicines regulations. The gardaí have told us that enabling the offence of possession under the Misuse of Drugs Act will assist them in tackling this dangerous and illegal trade.
How do we help those addicted to drugs? In the programme for a partnership Government we have committed to supporting a health-led rather than criminal justice approach to drug use, including legislating for supervised injecting facilities. The Government intends to bring forward a second Bill later this year, which will legislate for supervised injecting facilities for chronic drug users. Drafting of this Bill is at an advanced stage and, subject to approval by Government, it will be published in the coming months. The programme for a partnership Government also includes a commitment to completing work and commencing implementation of a new national drugs strategy.
A high level review of the current drugs policy has been undertaken by a panel of international experts, which will highlight the key issues that need to be addressed under the new strategy. The strategy’s steering committee will consider the approach to drug policy in other countries and a review of international evidence on interventions to tackle the drug problem. Focus groups have been established to advise the steering committee on the relevance of the strategy in tackling the current nature and extent of problem drug use in Ireland, including emerging trends and cross-cutting issues. This aspect of the process will identify any actions that need to be undertaken under the new strategy to meet challenges ahead.
As Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, I will shortly announce details of a consultation process on the new strategy, which I intend to be as broad, comprehensive and inclusive as possible. I urge the Deputies and others to take the opportunity to contribute to this discussion. Part of that discussion includes alternative approaches to dealing with simple possession offences. Of course, one such alternative approach is decriminalisation of possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use. Decriminalisation is a complex social, legal and practical issue which has to be worked out properly before we can say that people should not be criminalised for carrying drugs on their person. The implementation of such a change in policy would need extremely careful consideration. Such consideration is being given through the national drugs strategy but it must also include the views of people providing and receiving services on the ground, experts and public representatives. It would of course need to be examined in great depth in conjunction with the Department of Justice and Equality. The matter is being looked at and I would not like Deputies to think otherwise. In the meantime, however, I ask for the co-operation of Deputies in enacting this legislation as just a piece of the jigsaw the Government is putting in place to assist An Garda Síochána in protecting local communities.
Most of the substances listed in the schedule to this Bill are already controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977. Some Deputies will recall all substances controlled by Government orders made under section 2(2) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 had to be recontrolled by emergency legislation last year on foot of the decision of the Court of Appeal striking down that section as unconstitutional. Therefore, the Schedule to this Bill includes substances already controlled, to which have been added several new substances. These include certain medicines, as well as substances which have no therapeutic value. These products have been identified as harmful and have already been the subject of much public and political concern. A good example of this is the synthetic drug called "clockwork orange". Concerns about the availability and use of clockwork orange", particularly its use in the Cavan-Monaghan region, have been highlighted recently. Calls for the controlling of this substance under our Misuse of Drugs Acts have been made in widespread media reports concerning this product. This product was also the subject of much attention and concerns expressed at a special joint sitting of the Oireachtas Joint Committees on Health and on Justice and Equality held last July where the harms associated with the use of this substance and similar products were highlighted.
Before I explain in detail the provisions of the Bill, it is helpful to give a brief explanation of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 which is to be amended by this Bill. This legislation has two primary purposes. First, it aims to protect the public by controlling access to substances which have a medical and therapeutic value but which are harmful if misused, such as benzodiazepines and heroin. The legislation facilitates the safe use of these controlled drugs by means of ministerial regulations and orders but provides that it is an offence to possess or sell these unless authorised to do so under the regulations. Second, the legislation aims to protect the public by establishing a system of tight control over dangerous and harmful substances with no therapeutic or other legitimate use. Well-known examples of these would be ecstasy or headshop drugs. These drugs are often manufactured by persons who try to stay ahead of the law by making relatively minor changes to the structure and chemical formula of a known drug. Accordingly, it is important we regularly update our drugs legislation and, where appropriate, include generic definitions which potentially cover a large number of substances, some of which have not yet appeared on the streets.
This Bill provides for a series of amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977. These include an amendment to section 1, the definition section, which provides that references in this Bill to the “Principal Act” mean the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977. This is a standard provision.
Section 2 of this Bill involves an amendment of section 1 of the principal Act, which is the interpretation section of the principal Act. It was amended by the Irish Medicines Board (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 with the insertion of a definition for “registered nurse” which was based on the Nurses Act 1985, and an amended definition of “practitioner”, consequent on the insertion of the definition of “registered nurse”. This was to provide that the Minister could make regulations allowing nurses to prescribe controlled drugs. In 2011, the Nurses Act 1985 was repealed by the Nurses and Midwives Act. The 2011 Act established a new definition of “registered nurse” and “registered midwife”. This Bill proposes to amend the definition applied to nurses and midwives so that it is updated to reflect the 2011 Act, and the definition of “practitioner” consequent on that.
Section 3 of this Bill amends section 5 of the principal Act which allows the Minister to make regulations to prevent the misuse of controlled drugs. Under this section, the Minister makes regulations setting out who may prescribe and administer controlled drugs. This section was amended by the Irish Medicines Board (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 with the insertion of provisions allowing the Minister to regulate the issue of prescriptions, and supply of controlled drugs on prescription, but providing that the Minister will not do so unless satisfied that it is reasonably safe to allow such prescribing and supply.
This Bill proposes to amend the provisions which were inserted into the 1977 Act by the Irish Medicines Board (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 by updated references to “registered nurse” and “registered midwife” consequent on the Nurses and Midwives Act 2011. Section 4 is an amendment of section 13 of the principal Act. The purpose of this amendment is to facilitate the commencement of a provision of the Irish Medicines Board (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 transferring responsibility for the issue of licences under the Act from the Minister for Health to the Irish Medicines Board, now the Health Products Regulatory Authority, HPRA. The HPRA already carries out all of the administrative functions relating to licensing, such as assessing and inspecting applicants but has to submit the completed licences to the Department for signing. This is an unnecessary administrative burden.
Section 5 is an amendment of section 21 of the principal Act. The purpose of this amendment is to facilitate the commencement of a provision of the Irish Medicines Board (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 transferring responsibility for the issue of licences under the Act from the Minister for Health to the Irish Medicines Board now the Health Products Regulatory Authority, HPRA.
The Schedule to the principal Act lists the substances which are to be controlled under the legislation. The 1977 Act had a Schedule which was amended by the addition of paragraphs 1A and 1B under emergency legislation in 2015. These paragraphs listed the substances which had been declared controlled under the Act by means of Government order made under section 2(2) of the principal Act. The Court of Appeal found this section unconstitutional and Government orders made under it automatically became invalid. The Court of Appeal decision was struck down by the Supreme Court on 22 June. The Supreme Court judgment is most welcome, as it means that the future control of substances under this Act can once again be made by means of Government order.
A number of ministerial regulations were confirmed under the 2015 emergency legislation. This gives them the status of an Act of the Oireachtas and means that they can only be amended or repealed by primary legislation. Section 7 provides for the revocation of these statutory instruments, coupled with the next section of the Bill which provides that the Act will come into operation on foot of commencement orders rather than on enactment. The Minister will be able to revoke and introduce new regulations simultaneously and at a time of his or her choosing. There will, therefore, be no time gap between the repeal of the regulation and the making of its replacement. Section 8 of the Bill sets out the Short Title, collective construction and commencement of the Act. It provides for the making of orders by the Minister with regard to setting the day or days on which different provisions of the Act will come into operation. This will allow the Minister to commence the amendment to the Schedule to the Act on the same day as he or she repeals regulations and makes new regulations. This is a standard provision.
As I said in the Seanad, I wish to reiterate my commitment as a citizen, public representative and Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy and that of the Government to addressing in a balanced and effective way the challenges posed by drug misuse to individuals and their families, neighbours, friends and, above all, communities. I hope that all in this House will fully back this Bill and help to ensure its smooth and speedy passage through the Oireachtas before the summer break.