I welcome the invitation to address members of the Joint Committee on Health and Children and the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality on the national drugs strategy. I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to take on a ministerial role in this area. I see it as a vital role that needs the attention of a dedicated Minister. From my work as a teacher and principal in Dublin’s north inner city, I am aware of the devastating consequences of drug abuse and the damage it causes in communities. I am deeply committed to doing all I can in my role, as Minister of State, to ensure that drug users are given the support they need to overcome addiction and once again live fulfilling lives.
Since taking up my new role, I have met many people who share my concern about the extent of the drug problem in Ireland. A lot of people have said that they would like to see a change of attitudes to addiction and a more compassionate health oriented approach to those who are dependent on drugs. Too often those afflicted by addiction suffer from stigma and a lack of public understanding and education which can hold back their recovery. It is against this background that I am delighted that the justice committee is inviting public submissions on its drug policy review, with particular reference to the question of whether an alternative approach to the possession of small quantities of illicit drugs for personal use should be considered. I very much welcome a discussion on this important issue.
The national drugs strategy aims to tackle the harm caused to individuals and society by the misuse of drugs through a concerted focus on supply reduction, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and research. The strategy encourages inter-agency working in a difficult cross-cutting policy and service area.
The oversight forum on drugs, which I chair, monitors the progress in implementing the strategy. As part of the work of developing a new strategy to cover the period from 2017 onwards, I intend to carry out a comprehensive assessment of the extent to which the current strategy has provided an effective policy response to the drugs problem. I will speak in more detail later about my plans in this area.
In order to have an informed evidence-based approach to drug policies, we need accurate information on the nature and extent of drug use. The national drugs prevalence survey, which is carried out by the national advisory committee on drugs and alcohol, is a key source of such information. Fieldwork for the fourth wave of the survey in 2014-2015 is at an advanced stage. I look forward to the first results bulletin becoming available later this year. This will give the key findings on drug use and will enable comparisons with the three previous surveys undertaken in 2010-2011, 2006-2007 and 2002-2003.
The nature and scale of the drugs problem is constantly changing. While levels of illegal drug use stabilised between the 2006-2007 and 2010-2011 surveys, drug use in Ireland has increased over the past decade. Cannabis is now the most commonly used illegal drug in Ireland with 6% of those surveyed reporting use of the drug in the year prior to the survey. The increasing trend towards polydrug use, involving a combination of alcohol, illicit drugs and prescription medication, is a major concern for me and the Government. Our treatment services are also seeing an increase in the use of benzodiazepine and z-drug. The fact that this often occurs in the context of multiple substance use is a particularly worrying trend.
Unfortunately, because of the hidden nature of heroin use, we do not have good data on its usage in Ireland. We know that there are in the region of 9,800 people in methadone maintenance treatment, which is an indicator of the extent of the problem. The NACDA is currently undertaking a survey, which will provide us with an up to date estimate of heroin users later this year. Even without this data, I am satisfied that heroin represents a substantial element of our drug problem and I am determined to find the most effective way to tackle this blight on communities.
I have already highlighted the multi-sectoral nature of our response to the drug problem. I would like to pay tribute to An Garda Síochána and the customs service for their role in the significant drug seizures that we have seen in recent years. The continued disruption of the supply of illicit drugs remains a key priority and this is also reflected in An Garda Síochána's policing plan for 2015.
The emergence of new psychoactive substances, specifically designed to circumvent drug controls, has been a matter of particular concern in recent years both in Ireland and at international level. The Misuse of Drugs Regulations and the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010 have had a significant effect in closing head shops and reducing the supply of the substances. Recent research conducted by Trinity College shows a significant fall in recent and problematic use of head shop drugs among young people, following the national ban that was introduced in 2010, a measure which had cross-party support.
I met the UK Minister for Policing, Crime, Criminal Justice and Victims, Mr. Mike Penning, during the British-Irish Council summit meeting in June. He was keen to discuss with us the practical impact of banning so-called legal highs, as the UK Government has introduced a Psychoactive Substances Bill, currently going through its Parliament, which is modelled on the Irish experience.
The problem of new psychoactive substances is a constantly changing phenomenon. New substances are emerging all the time. We continue to monitor the problem through our national early warning system which enables authorities to identify new drugs, describe new trends in use and report the serious and unusual consequences of drug use.
I view it as vitally important to continue to highlight the potential dangers associated with taking illegal drugs. Evidence-based awareness raising and prevention programmes also play a key role in promoting healthier lifestyles and changing attitudes. Education programmes, such as the SPHE, facilities and services for young people in disadvantaged areas and diversionary programmes for young people at risk, all help to equip young people to make more positive lifestyle choices. However, the drug problem is a wider societal issue and cannot just be addressed within the educational system. As I often say, children and young people do not live in schools. Parental involvement and community concern play a role in protecting young people against substance misuse. Young people have been handed this problem by a previous generation and we should resist the temptation to blame such young victims who are merely continuing and mirroring what their parents and grandparents practised.
I am delighted to confirm that funding of €1 million will be allocated from the Dormant Accounts Fund later this year for substance misuse prevention. Grants of between €30,000 and €50,000 will be available for proposals developed by drug and alcohol task forces to mobilise communities to tackle drug and alcohol-related issues.
As I mentioned earlier, approximately 9,800 people are currently availing of opioid substitution treatment. The number of new entrants to treatment whose main problem drug is heroin is in decline. However, services are seeing an increase in the number of people whose main problem drug is cannabis, as well an increasing incidence of poly-drug use. The HSE is committed to achieving improved health outcomes for problem drug users and has reoriented its services in recent years to cater for those with poly-drug use issues.
Waiting times for access to services, particularly outside Dublin, have been considerably reduced. The latest figures indicate that in the region of 95% of clients over 18 are accessing treatment within one calendar month of assessment, while almost 100% of under-18s are accessing treatment within a week. Additional funding of €2.1 million has been provided in the HSE budget for 2015 for measures targeting vulnerable drug users, bringing the total allocation for addiction services to almost €109 million. The extra funding includes support for an additional 53 beds, creating 439 new treatments.
The Government has also stepped up the effort to reduce drug-related deaths. In 2012, there were 633 drug-related deaths in Ireland. While there has been a small decline in the overall number compared to 2011, drug-related deaths remain at an unacceptable level, and every death is a tragedy in its own right.
I especially welcome the HSE-led pilot project on naloxone which has been launched recently. Naloxone is an antidote used to reverse the effects of opioid drugs such as heroin, morphine and methadone upon overdose. This innovative project involves training lay persons, such as the family and friends of a drug user, in administering the naloxone injection to overdose victims. Research shows that providing increased access to naloxone for people likely to witness an overdose is an effective way of reducing overdose deaths. I have no doubt that lives can be saved as a result of this initiative. We have an overdose problem in Ireland. I think we have the third worst rate of overdose in Europe.
There is a problem with street injecting in Dublin and elsewhere, which is unhygienic and unsafe for both drug users and the general public. Medically supervised injecting facilities exist in a number of other countries, and have been suggested as a response to the problem of street injecting in this country. I have recently received a draft legislative proposal in relation to this matter, and I have asked my officials to examine the issues in more detail.
Those struggling with drug problems are often the most marginalised in our society. They may have multiple, complex, interlocking needs, such as poverty, housing, poor health and education. This underlines the importance of services working together, through a client-centred approach, to foster client progression. The Government is committed to the full implementation of the national drugs rehabilitation framework, which aims to ensure continuity of care for the recovering drug user through shared care planning.
I would like to outline for committee members my priorities for the remainder of the lifetime of this Government. The first relates to the Misuse of Drugs Acts. In March of this year, the Minister for Health brought forward emergency legislation to deal with an adverse Court of Appeal decision regarding the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977. The ruling had the effect of decontrolling all substances that had been controlled by Government order, including ecstasy, new psychoactive substances and benzodiazepines. This meant that it was no longer an offence to possess these substances. The Oireachtas passed emergency legislation on 11 March to restore the controls on such substances by placing these in the Schedule to the Act. I intend to bring forward another Bill by the end of the year to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act so as to allow the Government to declare substances to be controlled, thereby meeting our EU and international obligations to control substances that are dangerous and have the potential for abuse.
The Bill will clarify the provisions under which Ministerial orders and regulations are made. This will once again allow regulations to be made and, if necessary and appropriate, allow the introduction of stricter or less strict controls on substances that are already covered under the legislation.
Second, as Minister with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, I will be leading the development of the drugs strategy for the period after 2016. My intention over the coming months is to lay the groundwork for a concise and focused policy, placing a clear emphasis on the practical implementation of actions. An examination of the approach to drugs policy and practice in other jurisdictions will also help to identify any additional evidence-based approaches which might be considered in an Irish context. The development of the new strategy gives us the opportunity to have a constructive and wide-ranging public dialogue on our current drug policies so that we are in a strong position to develop a fit-for-purpose response to the drug problem which will meet challenges into the future.
I will endeavour to answer any questions that members of the joint committee may have.