I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am sharing time with Deputies Cahill and Butler. As Members of the House are aware, the quantity of illicit drugs on our streets and in our communities is at a level we have not previously seen. They are having a devastating effect on the lives of individuals and families and on communities. These are not just words; the evidence supports them in every sense. An Garda Síochána seized as many drugs in 2017 as were seized in 2015 and 2016 combined. Members of the House who are members of policing fora, joint policing committees or drugs task forces are very familiar with the issue.
It is raised constantly and members of all parties are dealing with it.
The Central Statistics Office figures, which referred to controlled drug offences for the year July 2018 to July 2019, have seen an increase in drug-related offences of 16%, year-on-year, and we see the number of people presenting for treatment has also increased. There are currently 10,300 people on methadone treatment and, regrettably, in 2016, 736 people died a drug-related death. The figures are appalling.
Today, Dr. Johnny Connolly published a report, Building Community Resilience. While it looks at a whole range of issues around drugs, gangland and crime, it specifically made reference to the issue of children caught up in the drugs trade. It followed on from a report at the beginning of last year, when the Blanchardstown local drug and alcohol task force published research which indicated that children as young as eight were working as drug runners and ten year olds were working as drug dealers, although many of us knew this information already. The use of minors in drugs distribution networks is appalling but occurs because, due to their age, there are fewer consequences if they are caught. The Blanchardstown local drug and alcohol task force report exposes the growing prevalence of coercing and exploiting children to supply drugs in our communities. Organised crime gangs appear to be targeting teenagers to handle drugs, knowing they are far less likely to attract attention. It also removes the risk of gang members getting caught with the supplies.
The promise of a lucrative lifestyle tends to prove irresistible for many teenagers. Supplying and dealing drugs in return for quick cash is easy when, in their minds, there is little or no sanction for getting caught with quantities of class A drugs. Younger generations may not necessarily be aware that a criminal conviction for drug offences can have a major impact on a person's future prospects, including when it comes to future employment and travel. We cannot assume that parents are encouraging their children to stay clear of the dangers associated with illegal drugs. Sadly, in some cases, it can be a parent or another family member who gets a child involved in drug dealing.
People regularly complain about the lack of gardaí on the streets, the easy tolerance of drug abuse and the open selling of drugs, including transactions on streets and on public transport, and people injecting drugs in plain sight. The use of cocaine is up 30% and cocaine use in Ireland is now the third highest in Europe. Europol's 2019 Drug Markets Report illustrates the degree to which violence, death, intimidation, stealing and spreading fear across every community in Ireland is now a feature and a consequence of our rampant drugs trade. The State's and the Government's response to date, notwithstanding the good work of gardaí, is not at a scale, or not comprehensive enough, to deal with what we are currently facing.
The unavoidable fact is that violence follows the drugs trade, and there would be no drugs trade without the end user. Cocaine is being consumed by all sectors of society and in every part of the country. However far removed geographically and demographically, each of those users bears some responsibility for the gangland deaths and the terror inflicted on communities by the drugs trade.
I have set out what I view to be an appalling vista for the young children involved. I want to refer specifically to the Blanchardstown local drug and alcohol task force report, based on research undertaken by Janet Robinson and Jim Doherty. They found the average age of drug dealers under 18 was just 14, with the youngest as young as ten. When it came to drug runners, who are used to transport drugs between dealers, they had an average age of 13, with the youngest just eight. These children are being groomed, they are vulnerable and they are being taken advantage of.
It is in that context that we are bringing forward a Bill to tackle the use of children in the distribution of drugs. We are open to working with the Government and other Members on any constructive amendments they may suggest. In that regard, I welcome the Taoiseach's comment today that the Government would support the Bill. I urge the Government to work closely with us to ensure it goes through the various stages and is enacted at an early date. The Bill creates two new criminal offences. If it is passed, it will become a criminal offence to purchase drugs from a person under the age of 18. It is hoped this will make drugs purchasers less inclined to purchase from minors and, in turn, those higher up the chain less inclined to use young people in the distribution network. The Bill also creates a new offence of causing a child to be in possession of drugs for sale or supply. It is hoped the combined effect of these two new offences will protect young people against getting involved in the drugs economy.
I refer to the provisions of the Bill, which is a straightforward and short Bill with just three sections. As I said, the main purpose is to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, as amended, to create two new criminal offences. The Bill criminalises the purchase of drugs from children and the use of children in drugs distribution. Section 1 is a standard general interpretation provision for terms which will be used throughout the Bill. A child is defined as a person under the age of 18 years. Section 2 introduces two new criminal offences into the principal Act. This section makes it a criminal offence to purchase drugs from a child or to cause a child to be in possession of drugs for sale or supply. An offence is committed under this section irrespective of the quantity of drugs involved. The section provides certain evidentiary presumptions in favour of the prosecutor. In prosecuting under this section, the prosecutor need not prove that the drug is a controlled drug. The prosecutor need not prove that the person being prosecuted knew that the child was a child. Offences under this section are hybrid offences that can be prosecuted in either the District Court or the Circuit Court. The maximum penalties in the District Court are a fine of up to €3,000 and-or imprisonment up to a maximum of 12 months. The maximum penalties if the case is tried in the Circuit Court are a jail term of up to ten years and-or a fine. Section 3 provides for the Short Title, collective citation, construction and commencement of the Bill.
From that point of view, the Bill is straightforward and simple. As I said, I welcome the Taoiseach's acknowledgement today in the Dáil that he is prepared to accept the Bill. He said he had some reservations and he wanted amendments, but that can be dealt with on Committee Stage. To other Members in the House who have said they will support the Bill and who had issues, I am prepared to work with them too. This is straightforward legislation that can be passed. On its own, without Garda resources, it will not be enough, but it will send a very clear message that Members of this House do not condone the use of children in the supply of drugs.
When we read the reports, it is clear the children who are involved are either dealers or runners. They are vulnerable children who are being exploited. This legislation will give the Garda additional legislative procedures to tackle some of those issues. It will make people think twice if they are buying drugs. If they are buying from a minor - a child under the age of 18 - it is a more serious, aggravated offence and, if convicted, the maximum conviction will be a sentence of up to ten years. I hope this legislation will be a wake-up call to people that it is no longer acceptable that vulnerable children would be exploited and used in this way. The legislation can be passed and enacted in a relatively short period of time. However, if it is not backed up with additional resources to the Garda drugs units, it will not have the effectiveness we desire. I appeal to the Minister of State, when responding to this debate, to make reference to the huge drugs seizures by the Garda in light of the continuing evidence that we have a growing drugs issue. Will the Minister of State confirm to the House that he will ensure the resources of the Garda increase to match the scale of the problem? I commend the Bill to the House.