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.