National Substance Misuse Strategy: Ministerial Presentation.

We are meeting to discuss the two important reports we launched in July, The Inclusion of Alcohol in a National Substance Misuse Strategy, and What Everyone Should Know about Cannabis. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Noel Ahern, and his officials, who are present to respond to the reports and indicate what we are doing right and the direction our strategy should take.

The recommendations have been circulated to the members. One recommendation in What Everyone Should Know about Cannabis was that a national strategy should be drawn up with the aim of reversing the exponential rise in cannabis use over the past decade, especially among women of child-bearing age and their offspring, bearing in mind that young people in general are vulnerable to mental health problems and psychotic illnesses. The second recommendation was that there should be further neurobiological and clinical research to examine the long-term cognitive impairments associated with heavy cannabis use, particularly those impairments related to heavy use in adolescence and to prenatal exposure.

We wanted to draw attention to the physical effects of cannabis use and wished to point out that the health risks were greater than those posed by conventional tobacco-smoking because of the higher number of carcinogens and the higher tar content. That the cannabis trade is worth more than €375 million indicates it is the largest component of the drugs trade in the country. Those who gain financially from the trade should be pursued more proactively. Public information campaigns on cannabis need to focus on young people and their parents, and prevention strategies are needed to reduce the number of new cases of cannabis use. Secondary prevention is required to lower the rate of the problem and tertiary prevention is required to address disability associated with cannabis use.

The committee recommended an integrated treatment programme for those with concurrent mental illness and substance abuse because these individuals face particular difficulty in receiving diagnostic and treatment services, even though these disorders are treatable when not concurrent. Having spoken recently at a drugs conference in Bray organised specifically to respond to our report, I am grateful a debate has begun and that the Minister of State is present to air his views.

The only recommendation the committee made in The Inclusion of Alcohol in a National Substance Misuse Strategy was that alcohol should be included in the strategy with the effect of cementing alcohol policy at Government level, thereby satisfying growing public demand for an integrated policy response to alcohol and related problems. This contextualises why we invited the Minister of State to appear before the committee.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to comment on the two reports. As Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, I accept the reports raise important issues and warrant careful consideration.

Members will be aware that the recommendation that alcohol be included in a new national substance misuse strategy is not exactly new and has been mooted on a number of occasions, as pointed out in the report. The Department of Health and Children, which has overall responsibility for the co-ordination of alcohol policy, is examining this issue and has just set up a working group which, by coincidence, is meeting for the first time today. This group, which arises from action 80 of the national drugs strategy, will comprise representatives of the Department of Health and Children, the Health Service Executive, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the national drugs strategy team and my Department.

The issue of addressing both drugs and alcohol in one national strategy has been raised a number of times, certainly during my time as Minister of State, most clearly during the mid-term review of the national drugs strategy, which we completed in 2005. The steering group appointed to oversee the review was struck by the number of times the issue of alcohol abuse, particularly binge and teenage drinking, was brought up during the consultation process and the confusion felt over the fact that there were separate strategies to deal with the issues of illegal drugs and drinking. A number of contributors to the process felt alcohol and illicit drugs could be addressed through one overall policy. I accept that the farther one travels from Dublin into rural areas, the greater the number of people who regard alcohol as the main problem and ask that drugs and alcohol be encompassed by one policy.

While the steering group dealing with the mid-term review of the national drugs strategy considered that the question of a combined alcohol and drugs strategy was beyond its remit, it pointed out that although separate policies are involved in many cases, services addressing issues of substance misuse locally are not separate. With respect to the key areas of prevention, treatment and supply control, the steering group was of the view that there was potential for synergies between the two strategies, but that there were also areas of divergence.

Most educational activities focused on the prevention of substance misuse in general rather than on any specific substance or group of substances. However, the messages of public awareness campaigns must be credible and effective and the steering group was of the opinion that addressing alcohol and illicit drugs together could be problematic given that the messages communicated regarding alcohol are not necessarily appropriate to illegal drugs. Generally speaking, a zero-tolerance approach is warranted for illegal drugs, whereas with alcohol it is more about alerting people to the dangers involved and getting across the message that people must develop a sensible attitude to drinking.

The greatest opportunity for synergies may lie in the area of treatment for substance misuse. Clients have different needs and the Government is seeking to put in place drug treatment that is client-centred, thus addressing all the issues personal to the individual problem drug-user, including alcohol-related treatment where necessary. Many of the people now presenting exhibit problems related to polydrug use. This more holistic and integrated approach is reflected in the establishment by the HSE of a working group on residential rehabilitation in recent months. This group, on which my Department is represented, is looking at the residential rehabilitation needs of misusers of all substances, including alcohol. It is due to report to the HSE soon.

In the context of supply reduction, the legal status of alcohol compared to illicit drugs make closer links between policies difficult to achieve. Having said that, under-age drinking is illegal and I strongly agree that the laws relating to the sale and supply of alcohol to those under age should be rigorously enforced.

On a combined national substance misuse strategy, drugs task forces have tended to have varying views, with regional drug task forces tending to be more open to the idea. In the past, local drug task forces generally were more of the view that the policies should be kept separate. The LDTF view probably related to the nature of the illicit drugs problem and the need for a focused response that reflected the reason they were set up — the heroin problem in disadvantaged areas at the time. From my interactions with drugs task forces recently, I perceive that there may be a lessening of that view. Ten years ago, if we had told local drugs task forces to get involved with alcohol problems, they would have opposed the move but that attitude is not so strong now.

Internationally there is no single approach to the issue, although the recently released 2006 annual report of the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction reports "signs of a broadening of the scope of strategies" to encompass licit addictive substances such as alcohol, tobacco and medicines, as well as illicit drugs. As Chairperson of the British-Irish Council sectoral group on the misuse of drugs, where I meet Ministers from other Administrations, I know there is no one policy. Ireland, England and Scotland have separate polices, with the other five jurisdictions having a combined approach. To an extent, the policy approach may be driven by whether jurisdictions view their response to substance misuse as primarily a health issue or a legal issue.

Overall I welcome the report and I have an open mind on the matter. The important thing is that any national substance misuse strategy should retain and build upon the successful aspects of the national drugs strategy while simultaneously addressing the alcohol issue in a more co-ordinated way. Meanwhile, I await the outcome of the new committee established after the mid-term review of the national drugs strategy and I hope the working group will significantly facilitate decision-making on the best approach to adopt. It might recommend one policy or greater linkage but that remains to be seen.

I turn now to the cannabis report, which made seven key recommendations, some of which are beyond my direct remit, particularly to those relating to the provision of support for further neurobiological and clinical research and integrated treatment programmes for those with concurrent mental illness and substance abuse issues. While I am generally favourably disposed towards the points made, both of these issues fall under the remit of the Department of Health and Children at a policy level and the Health Service Executive at an operational level, where full consideration of the issues involved must be addressed.

I was glad to see that, along with pointing out its connection with mental illness, the report drew attention to the physical effects of cannabis use and made the point that the health risks are greater than those for conventional tobacco, with more carcinogens and a higher tar content. We must continue to stress this in our fight against the use of cannabis because those who are seeking to have cannabis legalised gloss over its harmful effects. It is also worth pointing out that if society had known of the negative effects of tobacco at the time it was introduced, the approach taken to it might have been very different. If tobacco were not legal, would any Government today make it legal?

With respect to the call for a national strategy specific to cannabis, and for prevention campaigns to be drawn up with the aim of reversing the increase in cannabis use over the past decade, the national drugs strategy has been in place since 2001 with a view to providing a co-ordinated response to all illegal substance use. While acknowledging that the primary focus of the strategy, particularly in its early years, was on disadvantaged areas where the opiate threat was most pronounced, our aim now is to have a strategy that is capable of adapting to meet the evolving challenges thrown up in the drugs area. In this context there is continuing focus on cannabis. It is not out belief, however, that we should break up the main strategy into sub-groups.

In respect of the education sector, the main focus of the national drugs strategy is on preventative strategies around the misuse of all substances. Thus, programmes have been developed targeting the primary and secondary school levels, as well as the informal education sector. All schools now have substance misuse prevention programmes, such as the Walk Tall programme and the social personal and health education programme, included on their curricula. As a consequence, we are equipping all students with knowledge about the dangers of substance misuse.

In my Department, under the Young People's Facilities and Services Fund, more than €1.5 million has been allocated to a number of the major youth organisations to recruit drugs education officers or to put in place drugs education programmes. The aim of the Young People's Facilities and Services Fund is to divert from that path young people who are in danger of misusing drugs. To date more than €107 million has been allocated under the fund to approximately 460 facility and services projects employing more than 300 people.

The committee's call for awareness campaigns focused particularly on young people and their parents, and the need to understand that the problem of cannabis is primarily a health issue, has already been acted upon, although I accept that a renewed effort may be appropriate at this stage. In the three-year period from May 2003 a series of campaigns was undertaken, focused on raising awareness about drugs among the general population and empowering parents to facilitate more open communication with their children. We had a campaign dealing with cocaine which was targeted at the 15 to 34 year old age group and a campaign on cannabis for the 13 to 17 year old age group.

The committee adopted as a first principle the belief that cannabis is as socially unacceptable as harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin, and that those who profit from it should be pursued with the full rigour of the law. I am not sure where the committee found the estimate of €375 million for the value of the illegal market in cannabis but I agree that cannabis is the most common illegal drug used and must be seen as being as socially unacceptable as harder drugs. I emphasise that the Government views all drug-dealers equally and has funded the Garda to tackle criminal drug activity to an unprecedented level. We do not distinguish between the drugs at that stage.

There is probably no clearer indication of this commitment than the 2006 budget for the Garda Síochána, which exceeds €1.3 billion in gross terms. This is more than double the budget in 1997. The Garda has never been better resourced in manpower, equipment or other facilities. Among other things, this funding will enable the continuation of successful anti-crime measures such as Operation Anvil, Operation Clean Street, Operation Encounter and Operation Nightcap, which aim to prevent and detect crime such as gangland murders, organised crime, drug-trafficking, racketeering and other criminal activity that gives rise to serious community concern.

The Government treats substance misuse seriously and will continue to address it. We will continue to focus on cannabis in a determined way as part of our strategy. The national drugs strategy concludes at the end of 2008 and we will consider the evolving situation then and the advice that becomes available in regard to the overall strategy for the following years. I hope I have addressed the committee's main points and made recommendations.

We very much welcome the establishment of the working group. It is no coincidence that it is meeting this morning. It is good to hear important news when we have issued a report. I also welcome the fact that the European Community has given the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction responsibility for alcohol but I do not appreciate the fact that it is confined to alcohol in polydrug use. I made this point at the launch of the centre's annual report this day two weeks ago in Brussels.

One point made at the European monitoring centre was that the focus should not be on whether cannabis is legal or illegal. People abuse alcohol, which is legal, medicines, which may or may not be restricted by prescription, and illegal drugs. The core question is why people are trying to get out of life by using something that takes them into another world, or trying to keep up in this world by abusing some substance. We should try to address that question rather than the legalisation or otherwise of cannabis.

That connects with the Minister of State's comment on whether these are legal or health questions. Does he agree that people want a strategy for alcohol, given that some responses to our reports expressed concern that we had moved away from asking that alcohol be brought under the national drugs strategy? They wondered why we had changed it to the national substance misuse strategy. Will the Minister of State reiterate the point that the communities dealing with the drug problem are more vocal about the need to deal with alcohol?

Many other EU states have at least brought their alcohol strategies under one Department so that while there may be parallel strategies, one Department deals with them. The question of whose remit it is comes through clearly. The Minister of State said that the steering group dealing with the mid-term review of the national drugs strategy viewed the question of a combined alcohol and drugs strategy as beyond its remit. Who gives it the remit? If it regards dealing with all sorts of substance misuse as relevant, surely it is time for us to give it the remit.

The Minister of State also said that our points on cannabis misuse are not only the responsibility of his Department but also of the Department of Health and Children and the Health Service Executive. Whose remit is it to pull these strands together, or must people always fall between stools? That is why we asked for a national strategy within the national drugs strategy, to ensure a continuous focus on alcohol, cannabis or the harder drugs. There are so many Departments involved that it surely requires a co-ordinated strategy to pull them together.

I accept that people from the various Departments are beginning to come together. We have seen how in New Zealand, Chile and other parts of Europe these matters are covered in a more co-ordinated fashion. It does not matter whether it involves the justice, legal, health or mental health sectors or others, people co-operate rather than wear their different hats and deny responsibility.

I welcome the Minister of State and his officials today. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, said many years ago that the Department of Health and Children was like Angola. I suppose the Minister of State's brief on drugs problems is like Iraq because he cannot keep everybody happy but much has been done. I welcome the substance misuse prevention programmes in schools. I know young people who have availed themselves of the programme in my area and students, teachers and parents have praised it highly. That is a good start.

We seem to set up task forces for everything. While people may have expertise, we seem to have lost a sense of vocation. The task forces may be only talking shops. The Garda Síochána needs to do more work on the ground. Talking shops for officials from various Departments take away those who should be at the coalface of tackling drug misuse. Once they are established, no work is done on the ground. The western regional drugs task force has been up and running for four years but not one cent has been spent in County Roscommon. Is the Minister of State claiming that drug misuse only happens in counties Galway and Sligo? In other rural counties this issue has to be addressed. I accept some work has been done but much more could be done.

There is a tolerant attitude to cannabis, which has even been eulogised in song. Research shows, however, that cannabis use can be harmful. Many young people, through heavy cannabis use, suffer from mental illnesses and psychosis. The effects of cannabis use are detrimental to young people's health.

The Minister of State claims the 2006 budget for the Garda Síochána was €1.3 billion. However, no extra gardaí have been put on the streets, while crime and drug misuse are escalating. We know the cost of resources for the Garda to have successful detection rates. Instead of allocating funds through the regional drugs task forces and various committees, they should be given directly to the Garda. There has been enough talking; more action needs to be taken. In County Roscommon the Garda must wait two months for sniffer dogs to be made available from Castlebar or Galway. It is a little like the Keystone Cops. Resources must be given to the Garda to ensure the drug barons profiting from this evil trade are targeted and put behind bars. I accept much has been done but there are areas where not enough is being done.

It is difficult for the Garda to ensure a successful arrest for drug distribution. The simplest solution is the use of CCTV cameras. Many towns are still waiting for funding to provide them. CCTV systems may simply move drug-selling off the main streets but their provision is another armament in the Garda's battle against drugs.

I welcome the Minister of State and his officials. I thank him for his comprehensive and thoughtful presentation on the two reports published by the committee. I am heartened that he still has an open mind with regard to whether alcohol should be included in the new national strategy for substance misuse. He has stated there is no unified approach among EU member states to the issue.

Ireland has a particular problem with binge drinking and teenage drinking, while polysubstance misuse is prevalent. The Minister of State has claimed alcohol is often the gateway to other drug misuse. Some young people can be exposed to the misuse of alcohol at home. I spoke with an individual involved with a sports organisation who informed me some young people were exposed to their parents using cocaine at home. A student informed me that at student parties smoking cannabis was now accepted and not seen as unusual. We hear anecdotal evidence that cocaine is being openly taken at discos. The game has moved ahead. We need to deal with a situation where there is a general tolerance of cannabis use. The committee's reports seeks to get that message across.

The targeting of resources is a major issue. There are demarcation lines between Departments and agencies. Only when there is co-ordination will the best effect from resources be achieved. The best way to achieve this co-ordination is by recognising the young people at risk at an early age. In the education Bill I sought to have educational welfare officers granted statutory powers. In cases where children are showing signs of dysfunctionality, there should be one person with responsibility for them. However, no one has final responsibility in applying resources to a particular case.

There is a pattern in drug misuse. Young people will start drinking alcohol, which they can access at home. In time, they move on to substances. There are cases of petrol abuse, in which young people get an instant hit from inhaling petrol fumes. There is the gradual move to cannabis and other drugs. For many, their addiction relates to a mixture of alcohol and cannabis. A co-ordinated approach is needed in approaching substance misuse. In cases in which parents are in dereliction of their duties or setting a bad example, the State needs to have mechanisms to intervene. It must deal not alone with the problems of the young person concerned but also those of the family. That is the only way to achieve substantial improvements on any type of broad base in what is happening. A point was made by the Minister of State and the Chairman as to why people abuse drugs. They abuse drugs because there is a certain element of running away and low self-esteem, and issues such as that. These are based within society, more particularly in the lack of support and a bad example being shown in the home. The next national drugs strategy should be inclusive, obviously, of all substance abuse but more particularly should focus a great deal more on co-ordinating services around the families the drug abusers are coming from.

I do not propose to talk about policing and so on. The Minister of State asked where the figure of €375 million for cannabis came from. Generally figures such as this are calculated on the basis that international norms show that somewhere between 5% and 10% of drugs that come into a country are seized by the authorities. Calculations are made on that basis. However, I have heard the word "paranoia" used very frequently in connection with cannabis. All the mental health aspects are outlined and I take the Minister of State's point that, unfortunately, as matters stand responsibilities range across a number of Departments and agencies. I do not believe this is the most effective way forward. Whatever Minister of State has responsibility for the national drugs strategy should have the wherewithal to organise in a co-ordinated manner the services that are needed.

The Minister of State mentioned that the proposal on alcohol abuse being included in the national drugs strategy was mooted before. It was, but nothing has happened in this regard. From what the Minister of State is saying, it seems that there is a type of kick-into-touch approach being taken, which precludes this issue being addressed. There are commercial influences which do not want this innovation to be introduced. If we are to serve best those who live with major problems of substance abuse, we must do this, however. Bold strokes must be made because to some extent there is a degree of sleep walking by the State in terms of how bad the situation is, and how it is escalating. Radical approaches, additional resources and new thinking are crucial in terms of making any substantial inroads into the problem.

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a few comments. I apologise that I will have to leave shortly for another meeting. However, I wish to touch on a few matters, although many of them have been covered already.

I welcome the Minister of State and his officials and the opportunity to discuss the reports. I cannot say I am happy with progress. The Minister of State and I have debated this a good deal, so I am not going to go into it. The fact is, however, that we are failing as regards the whole area of drugs and matters are getting worse, not better. I accept efforts are being made. There is a good deal of talk about strategies but not sufficient urgency attached to action to drive change and achieve results. I am not blaming any individual, but it is a Government and an interdepartmental issue. We are being given various excuses, but not enough is happening. The figures for drug misuse are getting worse, not better. We cannot pat ourselves on the back continually and say things are being done. The strategy is not working.

The Minister of State in his speech says the drugs strategy will finish in 2008, yet we are still debating some of its review recommendations from 2005. There is a complete lack of urgency and direction and it is not being driven sufficiently by the Government. The Minister of State will accept this, as I know he genuinely wants to confront these issues and make the necessary changes. However, I do not believe the Government wants to put sufficient effort into it.

As regards the two reports, I am in favour of including alcohol in the national misuse of drugs strategy, as is the committee. There is no point having two different strategies tackling the same issue. Both drug and alcohol abuse are symptoms of other problems. I know sections of the strategy deal with criminality, but there is no reason for not having an overall strategy to tackle both areas. There are more than 100 actions proposed in the strategy in any event, so it does not matter if various messages are being sent out as regards different headings, for example, cocaine, cannabis or alcohol. One strategy co-ordinated by a single group or Department is certainly the way to go forward. Substance abuse in its various guises is causing serious abuse in our communities and we need to tackle this, one way or another. The message should be put across that abusing alcohol is as bad as taking drugs. It is a drug and its abuse is just as bad as abusing any other drug.

I made the comment earlier that a governmental approach to the problem was not enough. The Minister of State has conceded that a single strategy has been mooted for a considerable time, and yet the working group meets this morning. I rest my case. If it has been mooted for so long, why is it being discussed only this morning? There has been one report after another and everyone is talking about it, but things are not happening. We are constantly being told that one side of the problem is being dealt with by the Department of Health and Children, another by the HSE, etc. The idea of a drug strategy is that somebody should be in charge.

The Deputy's committee might have agreed, but no one else does.

I accept that not everyone agrees, and the Minister of State says he has an open mind on the subject. His mind is a complicated place. When does he believe he will bring closure to the problem, because he is the person who can drive this matter forward? Somebody has to make clear decisions and drive this. Does he fully agree with what the committee is saying here, and will he drive that? Will his Department officials enter these discussions and say they want one strategy, or is he not sure — because someone has to be sure? I am concerned about the lack of drive.

Many of the educational programmes can be co-ordinated towards tackling drug misuse and many of the advertising campaigns can deal with the misuse of any substance.

On the issue of the campaigns, I know the general approach is to tackle the drugs problem holistically. However, there is a problem within the communities in that neither young people nor people of any other age fully believe cannabis is dangerous and has serious effects. The committee is trying to get this across. Indeed, it is one of the worst drugs in that it can foment a chain of problems, and perhaps leads to the misuse of other drugs. That message is not getting across, so there need to be varying foci within the one strategy. Perhaps each category of drugs should have a different message in the context of the overall approach.

We all agree there are not enough residential and rehabilitation places for drug and alcohol abusers. More places are needed. Quite a number of people suffering from mental illness, as well as those who are not mentally ill, have problems with alcohol and drugs. There is a significant mixture in both categories.

As I read the end of the Minister of State's speech I get the impression these paragraphs might have been written by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. We must face the fact we are living in a different country from the Ireland of ten years ago. I was entering my first year in college ten years ago. I am now a Deputy trying to fight some of these problems with the Minister of State. Everybody else has changed a good deal in the last ten years. This country has moved on. If we do not wake up, we will have a drugs culture bigger than that of any other country. To say that there are sufficient gardaí to tackle the drug problem is an untruth. It is unfair and needs to be erased from our minds. There is not a specific drugs unit in every Garda station in the country.

Senator Feighan mentioned that it is difficult to get a conviction for drug-related offences. If there are no gardaí detailed to deal specifically with drugs, they will deal with other crime first because they will get quicker results. There might be more divisions, but divisions cover a wide area. Each Garda station needs to have specific people in charge of drugs. That would be a real commitment to the problem. We are told there are enough manpower, equipment and facilities to tackle drugs, but that is not the case. The drug dealers are way ahead of us with equipment and machinery and they are laughing at the Garda. The Garda cannot even compete with their mode of transport.

The best example is in my home town. There are fewer gardaí in my home town than there were 20 years ago, even though the population has trebled. Most towns are in the same position. The population and the crime rate have risen dramatically, but the rise in Garda numbers has not matched that. If we are so convinced that there are enough gardaí to deal with the problem, can we compare the number of incidents per garda with ten years ago? There are more incidents of crime, so the workload of the Garda has trebled. Therefore, there are not enough gardaí out there to tackle the problems. We should face reality on this issue. We are not taking it seriously. We are given statistics and figures and are told that it is the fault of someone else, but these reports only touch on the change of direction needed. We need effort and somebody to drive this.

We are told there are ongoing negotiations. I just want someone to tell us that we will get answers and decisions as soon as possible.

The message is clear. We have put a fair effort into the two reports and the people with whom we worked have spent a lifetime working in their remit. There is an unacceptable tolerance of cannabis and alcohol use and we have to find a way to make it culturally less acceptable. In New Zealand an alcohol advisory committee is part of the country's drugs strategy and drinking and driving is not tolerated there. Serving an intoxicated person with alcohol is not tolerated. The issue of tolerance of alcohol and cannabis and the co-ordination of the Departments in this respect is the key.

The bigger question is why people are abusing their bodies. The Minister of State has heard our blunt views on this. We want him to take this ball and run with it. We hope he gets the support needed to bring everything under his remit.

On the point made about having one strategy, there was one strategy under the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The drug issue developed into a major problem and the Government of the day was accused of being slow to react it. Arising from great concern ten years ago that the structure of the Government and its agencies made it difficult to deal with the problem, the local drugs strategy was set up. The strategy was pulled out of the system, as drugs misuse was not getting the attention it needed within the existing structure. The local drugs task forces were set up to deal with a particular drug problem on the ground.

I was on a local drugs task force and if one had suggested at that time that those task forces would also deal with alcohol, one would have been run out of the room. The local drugs task forces were set up to deal with an opiate problem that was ravaging certain areas and the members wanted a concentration on that issue. They felt the issue was being ignored in the general system. The notion that everyone is clamouring for one strategy is entirely untrue.

People then came along and said there was a drug problem outside the local drugs task force areas and regional drugs task forces were set up to deal with the drug problem on the ground. If people from rural areas are saying that it was a mistake to set up regional drugs task force areas because the problem was related to alcohol, that it is a different issue. I accept that even in Dublin, many local drugs task forces recognise that there are links between drug abuse and alcohol abuse. However, not everybody is out there screaming for one strategy on substance misuse and claiming that only the Government is opposed to it. There is a mixed view on the issue. We can argue about the value of it, but people in local drugs task force areas often strongly express the view that if they were linked with anything else, their particular problem would be swamped by a bigger issue. These task forces were set up to deal with a particular problem that is still severe. Many resources have gone into this problem and they fear the Government might suddenly take the foot off the accelerator and their problem would be swamped by other concerns.

There are similarities between the drug and alcohol strategies. I am not responsible for the alcohol strategy, which is under a different Department, but I could turn the report on its head and say the Government has given much attention to a national drugs strategy and it has moved ahead, resources are being put into it and we are dealing with the issue as best we can. The committee members might complain that the Department of Health and Children has not moved with the same speed on the alcohol issue. Alcohol is legal for people over 18, at certain times of the day, at certain strengths and so on. Drugs are illegal, so there are similarities but there are also differences. It is a case of how we handle it.

There are five pillars to our strategy. Supply reduction is enforced by the Garda and customs, prevention is achieved by education and awareness campaigns, and addicts are treated by the HSE, while the final two pillars are research and rehabilitation. We discovered that putting people on methadone was not a long-term answer; it was only a short-term solution. If the Department of Health and Children set up a working group on which my Department and the national drugs strategy teams served, and if I came up with a clear view, I would be told that I was pre-empting the situation. If I say that I have an open mind, I have an open mind. If I am asked to debate the issue either way, then I could debate it either way. There are similarities and links. It would be stupid for someone to give a lecture on the danger of drugs today and give a lecture on the danger of alcohol tomorrow. That needs to be done in a co-ordinated way so that we are speaking at the prevention and awareness level. If one wishes to give resources to youth workers to deal with young people, one does not split the resources between a drugs awareness worker and an alcohol awareness worker. The resources should be provided for the overall project.

One can make the argument differently. I accept that as one moves further west, urban areas favour a separate strategy whereas rural areas, where drink is the bigger problem and drugs the smaller problem, would see it differently. The mid-term review did not see it as part of its job to make recommendations, because it came under a different Department, but it recommended that it be considered. It is a matter for Government and Cabinet to decide whether there should be one overall strategy. In the three or four years I have been in the Department, I have seen increased linkages and synergies. I can certainly foresee its going in that direction. Whether it turns out to be one strategy is another question. It was plucked out because the drugs problem was being ignored in certain areas. If the Deputy asked me to have a debate on society, I am sure I could debate the point either way. We will have to wait and see. Ultimately, it comes down to how the Government views the problem.

On the question of why people use drugs, I do not know the answer. Perhaps young people, and some not so young, are looking for something sexy to do, or looking to play with danger. They may want to experiment, have a bit of fun or increase the buzz. While opiates are looked on — indeed, almost accepted — as a loser's drug, cannabis and cocaine are presented as recreational drugs. That image is presented so often that many young people feel they can try these drugs. At the same time, however, young people know the dangers. Deputy English noted that cannabis is being treated almost as normal at some college parties. Perhaps that is the case but, equally, many students understand its effects. I read a survey in which students who had been interviewed said that as it was November, they were smoking a few joints of cannabis but that they would give it up in April because they had exams in May or June and knew it affected memory retention and so on. Even those who are using it know it has its dangers.

Cannabis is a dangerous substance. It may not be quite as dangerous as some other drugs but it is very serious for the person who uses it at a young age or the person who uses it to a great extent. It can cause many problems, not just with regard to its tar content but because there is a clear association between cannabis use and schizophrenia, which is accepted. For those who might be vulnerable to schizophrenia, cannabis can bring them along that road and can create the risk of relapse for people who might already have developed symptoms in that direction. It also has many physical effects on blood pressure, heartbeat, breathing, birth weight and with regard to bringing on epileptic seizures.

There is much statistical association between cannabis use in adolescence and the use of other illegal drugs. It is a gateway drug. There may be many people who use it during college days and I accept it is not as addictive as other drugs — I am not suggesting it is a case of one puff and a person is hooked for life, which is unfair. However, a number of people get sucked into regular use of cannabis, cocaine or other drugs afterwards. Those linkages are known.

Cannabis damages memory, attention span and the organisation of complex information, which was admitted by university students who took part in the survey to which I referred. They felt it was something to be played around with over the winter but they made sure to walk away from it later. The NACD carried out a survey, not of the views of people of my age but of fairly regular users of cannabis. It asked whether those who had been regular users were still using the drug. Many had given it up and when they were asked why they did so, a significant number said it was because of the side effects. The notion that it is all fun and recreation is very misleading. Cannabis use is laden with dangers to the individual, including to his or her health.

Senator Feighan said my brief in the Department is like Iraq. I have never felt that. The drug problem is an international one. I would sound foolish if I forecast that drugs will be gone from the country by the time of the next general election or the following one. It is an international problem which we will not get rid of. It is a case of coping with it, educating our people to realise the dangers and providing treatment services for those who develop a problem.

The Senator takes a hard line with regard to regional drugs task forces. He might be confusing regional drugs task forces with community policing fora. The regional drugs task forces were set up under the strategy as a sort of duplicate of the local drugs task forces, of which there were 14-12 in Dublin, one in Cork and one in Bray. They now cover the whole country. They are not talking shops, although talking happens. They have staff and resources. They were talking shops in the early days because they were asked to pull together the different strands of people on the ground.

There are two ways to run government. On the one hand, somebody on high can hand down directives to do this or that, or spend money here or there, or, on the other hand, an attempt can be made to involve people. The partnerships are about involving the key stakeholders at local level, be it in Dublin or throughout the country, such as the statutory agencies and local volunteers, parents and groups. The task forces were set up three and a half years ago. Initially they were asked to come together and their first job was to examine the situation in their region and then come forward with ideas as to where they thought gaps existed. That took time but approximately a year and a half ago they came forward with their plans for what they saw as the gaps in their areas. It was not as if I or anyone else told the task force in Roscommon it needed X, Y or Z, for example.

It needs more urgency.

They have come forward with their plans, which are being resourced. I cannot, off the top of my head, tell the Senator what is in it for Roscommon but the local regional task force is getting resources. Not everything will happen immediately. It got its funding for this year and the full plan will probably take two and a half or three years to be rolled out. That is happening. I do not know specifically what is happening in Roscommon, as that depends on what the Roscommon regional drugs task force submitted in its plan. However, the plan is being resourced and is being put in place. It may have been a talking shop in the early days.

The Senator stated that cannabis was harmful. I have probably covered that issue. I sincerely hope the task forces are not talking shops and that much good work is being done. The funding they are getting is intended to fund what they saw as the gaps and to do what was not being done by the Departments of Health and Children, Education and Science, and Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

Deputy English referred to the use of cannabis at parties. The last national drugs prevalence survey was conducted three years ago and the latest one is under way. The data from that survey, which will not be available for some months, will provide key information. The previous study found that 19% of respondents admitted to having used some type of illegal drug at least once, while 17% of all respondents said they had used cannabis. There is no doubt, therefore, that cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug. Cocaine might account for 1% or 2% and heroin for less than 1% of drug use.

Some members asked why I claim not to be responsible for some aspects of drugs strategy. The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs is the co-ordinating Department in this regard. However, many specific activities in this area are under the remit of other bodies and Departments, including the Health Service Executive, local authorities, and the Departments of Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Education and Science. These are all part of the national drugs strategy team. Questions might well be asked about why my Department, rather than either the Department of Health and Children or the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, has responsibility for co-ordinating the strategy. Such questions of ownership can sometimes cause difficulties but the most important issue is that Departments and other State bodies co-operate on these matters.

Our role as the co-ordinating Department is to act as an honest broker in trying to push forward various initiatives. The national drugs strategy team has an important role to play. At political level, I chair the interdepartmental group which includes senior officials from the relevant Departments and agencies. I report progress in this group's activities to a Cabinet sub-committee at regular intervals. This type of co-operation is the basis of our strategy, which incorporates five pillars and 108 actions. If other agencies or Departments are not delivering on their articulated commitments, we use our influence to encourage them to do so.

Deputy O'Shea referred to concentrating services around families. That is very much our strategy. Families represent an important resource, although we may have been slow to realise this. We have regular dealings with the network of family resource centres. The work of the rehabilitation working group is leading to a better realisation that the families of drug users represent a significant resource. There is a need for more family support workers, who do important work. Several reports into this aspect of efforts to combat drug abuse have been launched recently. Drug abuse has an enormous impact, not only on the user but also on his or her family members. The people who work in the family resource centres, many of whom have a family member who abuses drugs, are well informed on the issues and give great time and commitment to help others. They are always in need of assistance and we try to support their efforts in various ways.

I assure Deputy English that I am not suggesting the situation is perfect. I know that is not the case. It is only reasonable, however, that I should outline the Government's investment in this area. Our budget amounts to some €43 million, which represents an increase of approximately 60% in three years. This is not the only money we spend, because every project we undertake is initiated as a pilot project. As a particular project is evaluated, it is rolled out to other Departments. Some €70 million per year is spent on projects to assist drug-users — young persons in particular — which began at community level. The HSE spends some €80 million per year, and the Garda and other agencies also allocate resources to this area. In all, almost €200 million per annum is being spent by the State on different aspects of the drugs problem.

More than 300 people work in the young persons' facilities and services fund and the same number in drugs services. In all, close to 700 people are working on programmes and projects that did not exist eight or nine years ago. I am repeatedly told by community workers that more funding and resources are required. The reality, however, is that up to 700 drug project workers, youth facility workers and so on are working on projects under the different pillars. This activity is entirely separate from that undertaken by the Garda and other State agencies. Much of this work was initially concentrated in Dublin but is now being undertaken in other urban areas such as Waterford and Carlow town.

Deputy English spoke about mental health issues. The NACD recently published a report on dual diagnosis, which relates to those persons who have both mental health difficulties and drug addiction problems. It seems there are differing views among professionals as to whether priority should be afforded to treating such persons' mental health difficulties rather than their drug-abusing behaviour or vice versa, or whether there should be a co-ordinated approach to treatment. This is a matter for the professionals and is not an issue on which I can suggest a definitive approach.

If there are fewer gardaí in Navan than there were ten years ago, this must mean that other places have a disproportionately large allocation of officers. There are now 14,000 gardaí, including recruits, while there were only some 10,300 ten years ago. All of us are paying for these gardaí through our taxes and we can be sure they are doing the work for which they were recruited. Not all of them walk around in blue uniforms because some are members of special units, including drugs squads, the CAB and so on. The numbers of gardaí sitting in a particular station are not necessarily the central issue, because many are assigned to other duties.

It is natural that I should provide the committee with facts and figures and outline how funding is allocated. I do not mean to be cold or callous in doing so. My intention is to provide background information to our activities. The drug problem will not go away but we must keep trying to impress on young people the dangers and risks to their health and future of abusing drugs. It is an ongoing battle and one that is being fought internationally. We are part of the big bad world and must conform with the requirements of the UN's International Narcotics Control Board and so on. Members will let me know if I have omitted to answer any questions.

The Minister of State was comprehensive both in his speech and in his response to members' questions. Notwithstanding the negative aspects of this issue, members will recall that when we travel abroad we see that the CAB and various initiatives such as the strategy to combat drugs in sport are recognised internationally. The job of this committee, which encompasses the remit of both the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism and the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, is to keep all the balls in the air at the same time and ensure these issues are kept to the fore.

These two issues are particularly important for this committee. Rather then producing a report that may be left on a shelf, it is our role to continue both supporting and challenging the Minister of State. I thank his officials for their assistance in completing the report I produced for a recent meeting of the Bray Drugs Awareness Forum.

When one considers the statistics, one sees that the amount of money going to real projects being driven by the local task forces is both significant and important. It is up to members collectively to keep the pressure on everyone to ensure such investment and the profiling and prioritisation of significant local issues are maintained.

I thank the Minister of State and his officials for their attendance. The joint committee will adjourn until 9.30 a.m. on 13 December, when it will again consider the draft amendments to the regulations pertaining to the Official Languages Act 2003.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.10 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 13 December 2006.