National Drugs Strategy: Ministerial Presentation.

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Noel Ahern, and his officials to the meeting to respond to our report on cocaine and to speak on the national drugs strategy. While in private session, the committee discussed drug use and the launch of a European report on this issue. Therefore, it is well-informed. I call the Minister of State.

I thank the Chairman for inviting us to come before the committee to discuss its report, which was launched prior to the summer. At that time, I said I would be pleased to have additional information on cocaine use provided through the work of the committee. This report adds to the existing knowledge base on the use of illegal drugs in Ireland. The committee has rightly focused on cocaine, which has increased in availability and use in recent years. This increase mirrors cocaine trends generally in Europe, arising from increased production, particularly in Colombia, and a consequential drop in the street price.

The NACD drug prevalence survey is generally regarded as providing the most reliable baseline data on drug use in Ireland. That study, which surveyed 8,442 people aged 15 to 64 in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland between October 2002 and April 2003, reported that 3% of the population had used cocaine at some stage in their lives, 1.1 % had used it in the previous 12 months and 0.3% had used it in the previous month. Lifetime use, use within the past year and use within the past month are the three standard questions in any drug survey. Compared with similar population surveys undertaken in other European countries, these figures suggest that cocaine usage in Ireland is roughly in line with the European average.

That NACD survey was the first such general population survey on drug use, so there is no baseline figure against which to compare it. It does not, therefore, indicate whether cocaine is a growing problem in this country. However, the increased frequency and scale of cocaine seizures and related offences can be taken as a reasonable indication of increasing use. This increase in use would appear to be related to a perception among some people that cocaine is a safe drug. In contrast to heroin, it has a relatively clean and somewhat glamorous image, while compared with ecstasy, it is seen to be a natural product. Such perceptions are obviously false and dangerous and they need to be countered, not only by the Government but also by all responsible commentators. One of the big problems with cocaine is the way in which it is glamorised. In some communities, heroin is referred to as a loser's drug but cocaine is perceived to be clean and used by glamorous people. That is the problem we must face.

The national drugs awareness campaign has been ongoing since 2003 as part of the national drugs strategy. In Autumn 2004 and again in May this year, it focused in a targeted way on cocaine use. These campaigns sought to dispel the image that cocaine is a clean and safe drug. Awareness campaigns, although high profile, can only form one part of a prevention programme. Accordingly, since September 2003, social, personal and health education, which teaches life skills — including dealing with substance misuse — has been on the curriculum of primary and secondary schools. Through the national drugs strategy, we have sought to increase the availability of preventative activities through the programmes of the young people's facilities and services fund and the local drugs task forces.

The committee is aware that there is no substitution treatment drug for cocaine. Existing services, such as counselling and behavioural therapy, are the best treatments available. In this context, the health services have recruited additional counsellors and outreach workers in recent years. I also launched a number of pilot cocaine treatment projects earlier this year to examine different methods of treatment, as well as focusing on extensive training for frontline workers. It is important to point out that cocaine users are not a uniform group of people. Most of those in treatment are polydrug users who are using cocaine in addition to a number of other drugs, particularly heroin. The other main cohort, the so-called recreational users, have not yet presented for treatment in large numbers. With this group of people the challenge is to persuade them at an early stage that they have a problem. We need to get this message across, not only through media awareness campaigns but also through sustained efforts from all responsible commentators, including this committee.

A range of projects and initiatives are already operating in the local drugs task force areas through the national drugs strategy. Each task force has an action plan in place to tackle drug use in its area of operation, based on identified priorities in its community. These projects deal with supply reduction, prevention, treatment and rehabilitation for a range of drugs, including cocaine. As indicated earlier, we have to be aware that most drug users, even recreational users, engage in polydrug use, so projects should be focused on addressing this pattern of usage, rather than concentrating on one drug to the exclusion of others. I am confident that we can use this mechanism, as well as the many existing successful projects, to tackle cocaine use in the communities that are most at risk.

A somewhat similar approach is being organised in the regional drug task forces areas. Earlier this year, I approved financial allocations for the action plans of the regional task forces. This funding will allow them to roll out services and treatments at local level. The Health Service Executive already provides a range of services for those presenting with problem cocaine use. The services are focused on psychological support, counselling interventions and referral to appropriate residential services. These approaches are broadly in line with the treatment methods recommended by the committee's report.

We published the mid-term review of the national drugs strategy some time ago. The report was the culmination of a comprehensive review, which was launched last year and which included extensive public consultations. The review sought to assess the impact and direction of the strategy at the mid-point stage of the seven-year term, and it focused on identifying any required adjustments to the existing strategy and on highlighting priorities for the second phase. It was overseen by a steering group, which found that the current aims and objectives of the drugs strategy were fundamentally sound. The review found that our current approach to tackling the drug problem was proving to be effective. However, the review highlighted the need to refocus priorities and accelerate the roll-out and implementation of various key actions in the remaining period up to 2008. In that context, a number of new actions and amendments have been identified. This will help to refocus matters.

In overall terms, ten of the strategy's existing actions have been replaced, a further seven have been amended and there are eight new actions that aim to address issues such as the rehabilitation of drug users and support for their families. In respect of treatment for cocaine and other drugs, the recommendations of the review focused on improving treatment availability and reducing waiting times.

As the joint committee is aware, funding to tackle drug misuse is channelled through a number of different Departments and agencies. I have responsibility for funding the work of the local and regional drugs task forces, the young people's facilities and services fund and the National Advisory Committee on Drugs. This year our budget was €31.5 million, which was an 18% increase on the amount for 2004. Moreover, one can add approximately €20 million to that sum to allow for other projects which started at a local drugs task force level and which have subsequently been incorporated into the mainstream. Since 1997, the Government has allocated almost €200 million to fund the activities of local drugs task forces.

In addition, larger sums are spent by other Departments, particularly the Department of Health and Children, in tackling the issue of drug misuse. Other relevant bodies include the Health Service Executive, the Garda Síochána, FÁS and the Department of Education and Science. All of these bodies have considerable resources available to them and they have agreed to deliver a number of actions in a co-ordinated manner under the national drugs strategy and I am confident that good progress is being made.

I thank the committee for preparing its report and for the opportunity to come before it. I shall try to respond to any questions or comments.

Perhaps the Minister of State will take a group of questions together and then respond to them collectively. Yesterday, The Irish Times published an article which focused on parents’ acceptance that there is a drugs issue and their need for information. This appears to be quite a change. Can the Minister of State comment?

Significant drugs seizures have taken place, including one as recently as yesterday. However, has the Minister of State had, or does he intend to have, discussions with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Customs and Excise regarding an expansion in the number of drug sniffer dogs? While their training requires an investment, they are extremely effective. However, there are only of the order of eight or 11 sniffer dogs in the country. Every county should have such a dog available and under the control of either the Garda or Customs and Excise.

In the context of the forthcoming Estimates and in light of the joint committee's work, has the Minister of State discussed the mental health budget and the concept of providing integrated responses to families with the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Tim O'Malley? One issue concerned addiction treatment beds. While treatment beds can be used for cocaine addiction, equally they can be used to treat food or alcohol addictions. One clear message from this report is that, for many people, legal drugs are a slippery slope or, in other words, there is a fine line between legal and illegal use of such drugs. Has the Minister of State had an opportunity to speak with the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Tim O'Malley, with regard to the issue of suicide within the context of the mental health budget?

On another issue, I have been approached by service providers such as one in my constituency, the White Oaks Centre, which engages in drink and drug rehabilitation. Its management feels that, on a monthly or annual basis, it is reliant on local health executives to provide the requisite support to keep it in existence. Will this problem be resolved by the regional task force funds or must there be centralised decision-making in respect of the manner in which existing service providers are not currently supported?

When the report was launched, I commented that there is nothing romantic about doing a line when the line in question is cocaine. My final point concerns alcohol. The review of the national drugs strategy has not resulted in the inclusion of alcohol under its remit. Can the Minister of State comment on that?

I welcome the Minister of State. Before I became involved in politics, I encountered a man who stated that if he saw another report, he would puke. I share that sentiment because I do not believe any of this report's contents. It is obvious that, throughout the country, cocaine use and drug use in general have escalated. This Government is not doing enough to curtail the widespread use of drugs in general or of cocaine in particular.

I wish to ask the Minister of State some questions. What are the current waiting times for addiction treatment services? Have such waiting times been reduced during this strategy's lifetime? Is the Minister of State satisfied with the approach taken to deal with the rise of cocaine abuse? He has announced three pilot cocaine projects in Dublin to treat cocaine abuse, which is insufficient. Given that it is a drug of choice among young people, what services are being provided outside Dublin? The Minister stated that glamorous people are attracted to this drug. Such people also live in Cork, Galway, Limerick, Sligo and in Roscommon. Not enough is being done in this respect.

While cocaine abuse must be treated with extensive counselling services, the Department of Health and Children does not appear to have put in place additional services to deal with cocaine addiction. Again, this is particularly true in the regions. Another issue concerns the drugs task forces which are now up and running. Has the budget been increased? Why did it take so long for the drugs task forces to get under way? As far as the drugs task forces are concerned, everyone knows that if they want to make drugs seizures, they must wait for sniffer dogs to arrive from Dublin or wherever. This is not good enough and the problem on the ground is escalating while we produce reports.

The Minister of State referred to a report which was overseen by a steering group chaired by his Department and composed of representatives from the relevant Departments and agencies, as well as from the community and voluntary sectors. He noted that the steering group found the current aims and objectives of the drugs strategy to be fundamentally sound. Without being flippant, is this steering group independent or is it the tail wagging the dog? Who established it? We need an independent group in this respect.

The Government has allocated almost €200 million to fund these activities. While educational initiatives and cocaine abuse treatment centres are now in place and, as the Chair outlined, drug seizures are common, the requisite gardaí are not available to deal with this ever increasing problem. For example, I know of two women who approached a businessman and asked him for €10,000. When he asked why, they replied they wanted to buy cocaine and that, after three weeks, the investment of €10,000 would return a yield of €30,000. These people came from respectable backgrounds. When one is up against people who seek to make a profit, how can they be combated unless the forces are on the ground? Where are the 2,000 extra gardaí?

We do not have adequate resources in place and we have not treated this issue carefully. Unless we do so, while we can produce as many reports as we wish, the drugs problem and the cocaine problem will escalate. I have asked many questions and I await some answers.

What is being done about the growing problem of prescription drugs? The Minister of State has again stated that the abuse of alcohol, cocaine and other drugs must be stopped. What is the Garda Síochána doing to increase and strengthen local and regional drugs task forces? They look good on paper but unless they have resources, such as sniffer dogs and, more importantly, manpower, we are just talking nonsense. I would prefer to be able to congratulate the Minister of State but I cannot do so on this occasion because not enough is being done.

I share the view that we are in denial regarding cocaine. The figures in our report indicate that approximately €5.4 billion worth of cocaine got on to the streets in Ireland between 1995 and 2004. I tabled a parliamentary question yesterday in regard to how much has been seized since the beginning of the year. The information is not available. However, international norms indicate that approximately ten times the amount seized finds its way on to the street. In examining the mid-term review of the strategy, I am concerned when I read statements to the effect that there are encouraging signs of progress and that the current aims and objectives of the drugs strategy are fundamentally sound. One is tempted to say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This indicates merely that the intentions are good.

The abuse of cocaine peaked in the US in the 1990s. It has been estimated that during the 1990s there were 25 million users and 2 million addicts in the US. The indications are that the UK is heading towards the peak and that Ireland will follow that trend. We should, therefore, not be complacent. We should be extremely proactive in terms of anticipating what is coming and dealing with it.

Is the Minister of State satisfied that there is full co-ordination between the various agencies, the Garda Síochána, Customs and Excise, the health services, the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and the task forces? Are they really on top of the job? Is there an urgent focus on prioritising and anticipating further problems with cocaine, given that the problem is escalating rather than decreasing? In the UK, the judgment is that cocaine use has become more socially acceptable and, as in Ireland, the price has come down. My strong view is that we are in denial and are not preparing ourselves for the escalating problem.

The Minister of State mentioned polydrug use a number of times. Does this include the use of proprietary medicines? This was a problem in the 1990s in Holland — where proprietary medicines can be obtained in all sorts of different ways — when cocktails of such medicines were used by drug addicts. I see a situation in which services are inadequate, there is a lack of co-ordination, the problem is getting worse and there is no real focus or coming together in terms of getting to grips with it. This, effectively, will blight another generation of young people here.

I welcome the Minister of State and his officials. I agree, to some extent, with the two previous speakers. The significance of the problem tends to be understated. The figures we have here are three years old. They relate to the period from October 2002 to April 2003. According to those figures, one in 300 people surveyed had used cocaine in the previous month. It is reasonable to assume that figure has increased significantly since then but it is a remarkable figure and one that is worth dwelling on.

There is no doubt that cocaine is viewed as a glamour drug. When one looks to the glamorous areas of life, it is generally acknowledged that premiership footballers, for example, are habitual users of cocaine. It is probably not politically correct to say that, but if one asks anybody in the street, one will find that is an accepted fact. It is also generally accepted that among fashion models, the icons of young girls, there is a high level of cocaine use. The pop music industry is another area where it is generally accepted that there are high levels of cocaine use. In Ireland, there are some media personalities who seem to treat this subject very glibly as a matter for banter and craic while on the air. It is probably not politically correct to say all of that but the nature of the problem is such that political correctness is not important. The problem needs to be confronted. It is being confronted and I support the work the Minister of State is doing in this regard.

Two eminent experts came before the committee some months ago to discuss this issue. I asked them about the view that the war on drugs, and particularly on cocaine, is being lost internationally. There is a view locally that we are fighting a losing battle. I emphasise that I am not suggesting legalising drugs. Perhaps it is time, however, that we engaged in a debate on the pros and cons of legalising certain drugs, not necessarily cocaine, to try to address the issue. I do not believe that we can eradicate drug use here and make this country into a utopia or some sort of shining star in the world firmament. That would be utterly unrealistic.

It is equally unrealistic to try to fight the use of cocaine or any other drug on a national basis, divorced from all international efforts, or to try to do it other than in the way it is being done at the moment. There is a huge international industry which is probably worth more than our entire national economy. To try to take it on and change the way the world is revolving on its axis would be totally unrealistic on our part. What we are doing — I refer here to the efforts the Minister of State is heading up — is the right way to proceed. We are very much a minnow in shark-infested waters. I ask again, without for one minute suggesting that this is the way to go, whether it is not time we examined the entire question of legalisation.

If nothing else, it will reinforce the view that we are taking the correct approach.

Another member of my party has responsibility for speaking in this debate. However, I am glad to be here. What strikes me is that the NACD drugs prevalence survey is outdated and that the statistics would be different if it were to be carried out now. To give an example, in my home town, a small town of 3,000 people, there was no seizure of cocaine two years ago whereas to date in 2005 there have been seven. That tells us that in a town where there was never a word about cocaine it is now in plentiful supply. That is a microcosm of what is happening all over the country. I am convinced that the supply lines of cocaine have penetrated all parts. The Garda Síochána must be commended for the successful seizures of cocaine, but the number of seizures suggests towns must be awash with cocaine. As it is very important to have baseline data, I wonder when the next baseline will become available?

The cocaine comes from Colombia. I wonder what steps are being taken to cut off the supply lines. Obviously, there is an Irish connection and one particular party in the State seems to have a deeper connection than others. Are we working with Colombian officials to identify possible supply lines to this country? Trying to cut off the supply is one way of addressing the issue, but whatever we are doing, we are not successful in reducing the large amount of cocaine coming in. Cocaine is addictive and there is no substitute drug to take its place. It is the glamour drug, as previous speakers stated. It is being promoted by people in responsible positions who treat it as a joke.

When I was teaching some years ago, we had a very good drug education programme as part of the physical education curriculum. The social personal and health education, SPHE, programme incorporates a module on drugs, but from speaking to young people from different schools, I do not know how seriously or what depth the issue is dealt with. One lesson is not enough; education on drugs must be continuously reinforced. During the formative period of a young person's life, he or she could be caught up in a drugs culture overnight. Education on drugs must be ongoing under the SPHE programme.

The task force on drugs does not have a sufficiently high profile. I see little evidence of the public profile of drugs awareness in the national or local media. I am not putting the blame on the Minister, but the message is not getting through. What we are doing in terms of public education is not effective.

Is the Minister of State proposing to legalise the use of cannabis resin for terminally ill persons? Are too many Garda Síochána man-hours being lost in chasing those using soft drugs? Should a garda or a detective prosecute a young person with a piece of cannabis resin the size of a finger nail, he or she must stay in court for three or four hours waiting for the case to be called. Would his or her time not be better spent chasing up on hard drug suppliers? Is it not time to give the Garda Síochána increased powers to allow it to issue a warning on the first occasion a young person is found with soft drugs, a fine on the second occasion and on a third occasion to bring him or her to court? This would free up Garda time if it was invested with that power.

As cocaine is available in every town and village, I hope we are not losing the battle against drugs. The powers of the Garda Síochána need to be strengthened to combat the use of readily available hard drugs.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, and his officials.

Education is the way forward. People must be educated from a very early age — the earlier the better — on the evils of drug taking. Drug use is having a horrendous effect on communities. Unfortunately, there are a great many customers and no matter how much we appeal to them, they do not seem to be listening to us. They have been asked on numerous occasions to stop buying drugs. If there were no customers, there would be no dealers. Young people may think they can take a once-off chance. We suggest parents ask each child if he or she is taking drugs.

I take this opportunity to congratulate the Longford Garda drugs team on its success. It has put in long hours of work.

Serious reform of the law needs to be undertaken. I honestly believe there should be mandatory jail sentences for possession, even of the smallest amounts of drugs. One reads the reports of court cases in the newspapers and it is the same old story. A young person appears in court, the court is told this is his or her first offence, that it was a complete fluke, that he or she will never do it again and that he or she is getting a job the following morning. That is bunkum. The people in possession are the same people, depending on their age, who were in possession five or ten years ago. They will continue to be in possession over the next five to ten years. Things have gone too far and will have to be stamped out. Unfortunately, one must be cruel to be kind. We cannot tolerate these activities any longer because of the horrendous damage being caused in our communities, all of which is down to the evils of drug taking.

To be fair to the Minister of State, he is doing his best and passionately believes that he can solve the problem. However, I have seen a great many instances in which people have got away with suspended sentences. It is unbelievable that a drug dealer can get a suspended sentence when everybody in the country is aware of the crowds going to his house. Other members of the dealer's family who are involved receive suspended sentences because of the sad tales they tell in court about how imprisonment would affect them. They should think about how they are affecting the lives of everyone else. Each of my constituents is affected by this problem. The major local problems they come to see me about are all down to drug taking. I ask the Minister of State to keep up the good work and to do what he can. We must appeal to people to, for God's sake, stop buying drugs.

We are not in denial in the Department and are in no way complacent. I realise the seriousness of the situation and I accept that cocaine use has spread significantly over the last couple of years. While the drug was always available here, until a few years ago cocaine was perceived to be used, due to its expensive price, by middle class people in their late 20s. A few years ago we were concerned about ecstasy and similar drugs but cocaine is now the main issue because it is being used by much younger people and is much cheaper than heretofore. In many respects, it has surpassed some of the other drugs. Heroin was the most significant problem, especially in disadvantaged areas of our cities, and while it spread to other Leinster towns, it did not spread to the whole country. Cocaine has very quickly established itself everywhere.

Many of those using cocaine previously used other drugs and are known to the treatment services for heroin use. The more recreational user has not come forward for treatment to a significant extent to date, which is one of the problems with cocaine. For all its sins, heroin was very much in one's face; it had a negative image and ran a person's health down very quickly. People could easily see the problem. While cocaine is a very serious drug which can have extensive effects on one's health, those effects are not as obvious and tend to reveal themselves only in the long term. People find it much more difficult to recognise and admit that they have a problem with cocaine and are, therefore, much slower to come forward for treatment. Their families and friends will also find it more difficult to identify a problem.

The things identified in the committee's report are precisely the actions being taken, including prevention and early intervention. The social, personal and health education curriculum contains an addiction module which does not concentrate exclusively on drugs but which aims to build self-confidence and awareness to allow people to make decisions for themselves. We have had general and specific campaigns on cocaine which are not necessarily best targeted through radio and television. The last round of cocaine awareness advertising was focused on pubs and nightclubs and the target group for sales of the drug. Funding has been provided to address the various items identified in the committee report, which I could go through in great detail. We are targeting campaigns, providing services and trying to disseminate knowledge, to which ends funding has been built up considerably. If people do not come forward, it is not possible to address treatment.

Which member mentioned legalisation of drugs?

I mentioned a specific matter.

I understand. We will not take that approach at all, nor will we even consider it. It is not really an answer. The Garda addresses drugs at central and local level and each division has a drugs unit. When we carried out the mid-term review, I took the opportunity to meet gardaí who are working in this area. They are in place everywhere.

They are not in my constituency.

They are in every Garda division. Gardaí do not spend their time chasing kids or small-time misusers in possession of the smallest possible amounts of cannabis. Their resources are targeted very much at significant players and dealers. While there has been a great deal of fuss about cannabis use in the UK in recent years, it is possible in that jurisdiction to receive a prison sentence for one conviction for possession for personal use. Even if one is brought before the courts for such an offence here, it is usually dealt with through a fine on the first two occasions on which one is caught. Many gardaí on the ground use their heads, employ the warning system and, if a case comes to court, fines. It is often a complaint from communities, in fact, that gardaí do not go after individual, small-time users. I think they are targeting their resources properly.

If one were to even consider legalising a drug, one should be aware of the UK experience. While the categorisation of cannabis changed a few years ago in the UK, the authorities there have very quickly begun to think about changing it back. Holland, which has its coffee shops, was deemed to be the liberal haven of Europe but many signals are coming from there that a tougher approach will be adopted. They do not want foreigners in their coffee shops.

The Minister of State might have misunderstood. I referred to legalisation for terminally ill patients.

I am answering questions in general. Deputy Breen asked about legalising cannabis for medicinal purposes but I think there may have been a misquotation of something I said in the Dáil this morning. That is not a matter for us. Different substances, including heroin and morphine, are contained in licensed prescribed drugs. If the Irish Medicines Board decides to licence, for medicinal purposes, the use of any prescription drug containing an extract of cannabis, the usual process of seeking a licence would have to be undergone. I have repeatedly stated that this is not a first step towards legalising cannabis for recreational purposes. If cannabis — and it would be an extract, not a joint — is used in any prescribed drug, it is a matter for the health services and the Irish Medicines Board. Some people who are on the liberal wing believe that if that happened it would be the first step towards legalisation. That has nothing to do with this. The two are poles apart.

I was asked whether the Garda Síochána is monitoring the routes from Colombia and elsewhere. I recently met senior gardaí who informed me that they are in contact with police authorities in other countries and they have very good information on how drugs get here. There is no one route, no one dealer; there are many. This is big business. Much of the cocaine comes through Spain and Portugal. Many of the big dealers who left Ireland a few years ago now live in Spain and Portugal and may exploit the connections between South America and that part of Europe. The fact that many of our ex-Mr. Bigs now live in Spain and Portugal means that these are important routes. There are many contacts at senior Garda level. Some senior gardaí work from time to time on a short-term basis with colleagues in other countries.

There is not merely one route. Drugs come through Mexico, with tourists and in many different ways. It was suggested that a person from a respected family might borrow €10,000 to invest in drug dealing and make €30,000. Such people may be from good families but they are not respectable if they are making their fortune from other people's misery. There are very few such people dealing in drugs. Most are serious criminals, with very sophisticated networks, who are into drug dealing in a major way. They are not idiots, they are very clever. Gardaí are also very clever but they have to catch the drug dealers and they must do so when such individuals are in possession of drugs. Sometimes the rules and regulations do not favour gardaí. They recently suggested possible changes in the law. They have strong connections with police across Europe and across the main supply lines.

I could go through the points that were made but perhaps it might be better if members asked a few questions to guide me towards the main issues.

The baseline data is outdated. Could it be updated?

It will be a few years before that can be done. When we see data from 2002 to 2003 it might seem outdated, but it was only a couple of months ago that we issued the third report of that breakdown. There is more to come from the NACD. It will probably be another two years before we have anything. The next survey has not been carried out. One can conduct simple surveys by asking people to complete forms but these are very detailed and thorough surveys. They contain the best information available. I accept, from information obtained from the Garda, people involved in the health services and so on, that drug use has increased and spread in the past couple of years. I do not deny that. However, drug users are not yet coming forward in serious numbers for treatment.

Regarding the three pilot products that were approved, it is necessary to try programmes and evaluate them. There is no point in establishing many programmes only to realise after a number of years that they were a waste of money. They must be set up and evaluated over a number of months to see whether they are achieving anything. If they are, they must be mainstreamed into the system. Some of them have not so far attracted that new cohort of people we would deem to be recreational users. These individuals are not coming forward for treatment in the numbers we would like and that may result in major problems in the future.

Mental health was mentioned. The NACD published a report last year on dual diagnosis. The drugs services look after people they see as drug addicts. The mental health services deal with people they see as having a mental illness. In between, there is a cohort of people in respect of whom it is unclear whether they have mental health problems or drug problems and they are sent from one set of services to another. The purpose of the report on dual diagnosis was to establish a structure and a service provision so that people are not referred by one consultant to another because some consultants want to deal only with the mental health problem and do not want to recognise the drug element of it. The Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Tim O'Malley, established a committee to implement the recommendations of the report so that, for example, people with drug problems would not find themselves referred to somebody else because their problem included mental health issues.

Will the Minister of State comment on the ad hoc nature of funding for services, sniffer dogs and so on?

I am responsible for funding amounting to €31.5 million and the €20 million extra for projects that have been mainstreamed. In that context, for projects that started at local drugs task force level, there is approximately €50 million per year. The HSE is spending €57 million this year. My Department does not have all the funding. Much of what the Garda Síochána does is funded from other sources. I do not know whether there is anything in the strategy about sniffer dogs but they are extremely important. They do not work eight-hour shifts and they need a great deal of rest. Is the Chairman saying there are not enough dogs?

There were eight at one stage and it was hoped to increase that to 11, which, in a national context, is very few.

Are there not more than that? Does that figure not apply to Dublin Airport alone?

No. I tabled a number of parliamentary questions on this matter.

We will obtain the information for the Chairman.

Customs and Excise has a number of sniffer dogs. I am told the Garda Síochána also has a number of dogs. That might account for a few more. They are essential to finding big drug hauls at the airports. We have gone to airports where one would see five dogs in the baggage handling area.

We will find out the number of dogs available. What was the other issue about which the Chairman wanted information?

I inquired about the centralisation of funding for some of the centres that are operational.

The regional drugs task forces got their first funding this year. The plans they brought forward catered very much for gaps in services. My Department does not have responsibility for all the services. If a group receives funding through the HSE, it will continue to do so. Sometimes people in Departments and agencies try to point everything in our direction but that should not happen. The Health Service Executive should be trying to obtain extra funding for services at local level that are clearly under its remit. Funding of €5 million for the regions was announced this year and it will probably increase during the coming years. That should help. The regional drugs task forces have brought people together. Outside Dublin, community groups in particular were working in isolation without a proper source of funding. This new body will put forward a regional plan, as well as co-ordinating the various groups. We are funding the plans as they are brought to us.

For those wishing to import drugs or sell them further down the line, the prize is great. We do not have the personnel in place to combat this phenomenon. Does the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, think sufficient Garda manpower is allocated to the national drugs task force or the regional drugs task forces? If a person in receipt of social welfare is selling drugs, even on a small-time basis, he or she can make up to €2,000 to €3,000 per week. Should punitive measures be taken — for example, ending their entitlement to social welfare payments — in respect of those imprisoned for selling drugs? Are we being tough enough on these individuals? Are we dealing with the issue by trying to sort it out without solving the problem?

To rephrase the Senator's question, €31.5 million is being spent annually on dealing with this problem but the value of drugs seized each week is approximately €1 million.

The street value of cocaine from 1995 to 2004 was in excess of €500 million. Must there not be a money trail? I get no indication that this money is being traced or identified. I accept that it is not specifically within the remit of the Minister of State but I wonder how this amount of money is hidden in an economy such as ours.

Should we bring someone in to talk about the Criminal Assets Bureau?

I accept Senator Feighan's point that the prize is great. There is a fortune to be made from drugs. Deputy Kelly questioned whether we are too soft on drug crime. We were responsible for passing the law, which allows for a mandatory ten-year sentence for those who are caught with drugs with a value of €13,000 or more. It is not appropriate for me to comment on the Judiciary but we would like to see more consistent sentencing. As part of the mid-term review, we received a submission from the Garda Association of Sergeants and Inspectors, where one member carried out an analysis of Circuit Court cases in Leinster over a number of years. It found that the drug problem was particularly bad in some Leinster towns and not so bad in others. The Garda felt that this, at least in part, had to do with the particular judges on the circuit. In other words, some judges sitting in certain towns were lenient and would be taken in by the line fed by the accused. whereas others were very tough. As a result, many of the dealers would go 20 miles down the road to get away from a particularly tough district justice.

The independence of the mid-term review of the steering group was questioned. A number of weeks ago the Government got a right bashing for hiring consultants. We employed a consultant to help us on the steering committee. The steering committee was comprised of representatives from Departments, State agencies and the community and voluntary pillar. To have our report rubbished for not being independent, because we did not pay a fortune to consultants, is unfair.

I did not mention consultants.

That point was previously made by one of the Senator's colleagues.

I raised a question about the independence of the steering group.

I am totally against the idea of employing consultants just to be seen to be fair and independent.

I did not refer to consultants.

This seems to be a consistent line from the Senator's party. The officials attended the Joint Committee on European Affairs and were ballyragged on the same issue.

Order, please. A list of people involved was given to the joint committee. Everybody can make up his or her own mind on the independence of the steering group.

My point is that many people have a deep knowledge of the health problem. They do not have to be brought in from outside the system.

Members were complaining——

I did not mention consultants, I stated that there were independent people who do not have to come from the same organisation as the Minister.

That is fair enough. Will the Minister of State comment on alcohol not being brought under the national drugs strategy? Some people may not think this is not relevant but it was clear to the committee that addiction to drink or tobacco almost always led on to other addictions.

This issue was considered during the mid-term review. I accept that some of the local drugs task forces are becoming involved in alcohol projects but one would probably have to consider from where they came. In the mid-1990s, drugs, and heroin in particular, were a very serious problem in disadvantaged parts of Dublin. Special task forces were required to deal with the disadvantaged young people with difficulties in this regard.

Alcohol is a legal drug which is abused by all age groups and social categories of society, whereas heroin was the drug of the disadvantaged people. There are differences. Under the SPHE programme, when schoolchildren are being taught about the dangers of addictions, one does not talk about drugs today and alcohol tomorrow. At this level of raising awareness, efforts are combined and the issue of addiction is raised. There are significant differences between the use of drugs and alcohol because one is a legal drug and the other is illegal. In schools, however, there is a linkage in the prevention strategies for drug and alcohol addictions. At present, the strategy for alcohol addiction is under the Department of Health and Children, whereas drug addiction falls under the remit of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

We have debated the issue quite well. The final point referred to something which frightens most of us most of the time whether the issue is one of health, justice, education customs or social welfare. Many Departments have a foot in the door on this issue and one hopes there will be continued integration among them to ensure that duplication is avoided in the strategies that are adopted. If the Departments fail to work together, the battle will be more difficult to fight.

Dr. Barry was asked a question at the launch of our report about the issuing of another such document. She responded to the effect that it was very important to keep highlighting the issue of drug abuse. I am pleased to see some members of the media here today because not every meeting of the joint committee garners their interest. We hope there is something valuable to be gained from our contributions today but at least the issue has been aired once again.

Many of the recommendations in the committee's report are in line with what is being done. One of the recommendations I did not mention related to the idea of vaccination, which is at a very early stage with trials ongoing in the USA. While it may be of interest and some benefit in the treatment of chronic users by helping to prevent relapse, the view is that vaccination is very much in the early days of its development. If it comes forward, it will do so in the way of any prescribed drug. Application will be made to the Irish Medicines Board and delivery will be through the health system. While the committee made a recommendation, the concept is only in its exploratory phase.

It would be a panacea. If one could stop people from craving the drug, no one would seek it and, therefore, no one would sell it.

It will not be introduced today or tomorrow.

I thank the Minister of State and his officials and the members and their support team.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.35 p.m. sine die.