The main purpose of the Bill is to bring the law on narcotic drugs up to date. The Bill also provides for certain amendments of the Poisons Act, 1961 and other Acts, which are purely technical and have no direct relevance to the provisions in relation to the misuse of drugs.
Although the Bill is a complex one, in the sense that it is designed to deal with a difficult social problem as well as meeting our international obligations as a member of the United Nations, its general layout and construction—excluding the provisions relating to the amendment of the Poisons Act—can be summarised under four main headings. The Bill first of all specifies certain offences which are directly or indirectly related to the suppression of illicit traffic in drugs. Next, there is provision for a wide range of controls over the production and supply of controlled drugs, the general aim of which is to ensure that these drugs will be used only for legitimate medical or scientific purposes and will not be diverted into illicit channels. Thirdly, there are clearly defined provisions for enforcement including powers of inspection, search and arrest, allied to which are the provisions for penalties and the concomitant provisions for treatment and rehabilitation of drug offenders. Finally, there are miscellaneous supplementary and ancillary provisions such as the procedures for dealing with cases of irresponsible prescribing in sections 7 to 12.
It is scarcely necessary for me at this point to comment in detail on each of these four broad segments of the Bill, especially as there will be greater scope for discussion and clarification of their salient features at Committee Stage.
I would like, however to say a special word about section 28. This section, which is largely an extension of the penalty provisions in section 27, contains the provisions relating to treatment and rehabiliation of drug offenders. These provisions deserve special mention because they are innovative in modern drugs legislation and add a new dimension to the disposition by the courts of persons convicted of certain drug offences.
Heretofore the courts had no option, once a person was convicted of an offence, other than to impose a fine or sentence of imprisonment. This frequently resulted in the rather harrowing spectacle of a young person with a drug problem, who was not a criminal in the real sense, being committed to prison to no real purpose. Under the Bill it will now be possible for the courts, and mandatory in some cases, to obtain a report on the health and social circumstances of the convicted person before finally deciding how the case should be disposed of.
As the House will be aware, the Bill as originally introduced in Dáil Éireann was referred to a Special Committee of that House. In commending the Bill to this House, let me pay particular tribute to the very effective manner in which it was dealt with in the Special Committee of Dáil Eireann whose members, Government and Opposition alike, contributed significantly to making it a more effective legislative instrument.
Whilst this was a logical procedure for a Bill of such complexity, it also proved very useful in the sense that it helped to resolve more readily a number of issues which could otherwise have proved tedious and on which a consensus would have been difficult to achieve in Committee Stage debate of the full House.
The first of these issues was in relation to the penalties for offences involving cannabis. There was a strong body of opinion in the Committee that there should be some relaxation in the maximum penalties for "simple" possession of cannabis. The view had been put forward that cannabis should be legalised but, when the issues involved were comprehensively discussed by the Committee, a consensus emerged that such an approach would be too drastic and could not be justified in present circumstances, particularly as there is considerable debate in scientific circles as to the effects of cannabis, especially in the long term.
There was, as I have said, a very full and frank discussion on this subject in the Committee characterised by a willingness on all sides to responsibly and constructively face the issues involved, both from the point of view of the offenders and the public good. In the event it was decided that for first or second offences involving possession of cannabis for one's personal use the maximum penalty should be a fine of £50 or £100 respectively, without the option of a prison sentence. Only following a third or subsequent offence with this drug is the option of prison sentence given to the court. I feel that the structure of the penalties for possession of cannabis provided for in the Bill reflects broadly the general feelings of the public at large on the subject.
This decision necessitated the amendment of section 27 of the Bill and the consequent restructuring of the schedule of controlled drugs. The more complex system of classifying the drugs in three separate categories for penalty purposes was abandoned in favour of a single list, the only distinction now remaining being that between cannabis and all other drugs in the case of the particular offence to which I have referred.
The second aspect of the Bill which underwent substantial alteration as a result of Committee Stage consideration was in relation to enforcement. For instance, in the case of section 24 there had been strong representations by the organised medical profession and other bodies to the effect that the section as originally drafted was so wide that it could be interpreted as enabling the Garda or an officer of the Minister to enter a doctor's surgery and inspect confidential medical records. This of course was not the intention of the section as drafted. For this reason, and also because I considered the section unsatisfactory in other respects, I suggested certain amendments which would more clearly and precisely reflect its real purpose, which is to enable enforcing officers to inspect the premises and records of persons producing or distributing controlled drugs in the ordinary course of commercial business. These amendments were unreservedly accepted by the Special Committee and I am satisfied that the new section meets the case made by the medical profession.
For the same reasons I proposed, on Report Stage in the Dáil, the deletion of a specific reference to forged prescriptions in section 23 and this proposal was also unreservedly accepted by the House.
Section 25 of the Bill, dealing with the power of arrest, was the subject of protracted discussion at Committee Stage. In its original form this section conferred an unqualified power of summary arrest on any member of the Garda Síochána who was of opinion that a person had committed an offence under the Act. Some members of the Special Committee expressed serious concern that this power was excessive and too all-embracing.
While accepting that the provision for summary arrest was not without precedent and that a strong case could be made for the original section on the grounds that the nature of drug-trafficking and the ease with which evidence of it can be concealed called for flexible powers of the Garda, it seemed to me that a balance had to be struck by defining the circumstances in which the power of summary arrest could be used, while at the same time retaining the original unrestricted provision for the more serious offences.
Although it was not possible to reach finality on this issue on Committee Stage, the Special Committee had expressed its approval in principal to an amendment of section 25 on the general lines which I had indicated, on the understanding that I would introduce such an amendment on Report Stage.
Section 25 of the Bill as passed by the Dáil represents a substantial modification of the original section. It provides an unrestricted power of summary arrest for an offence under section 15, that is, "pushing" or "peddling" of drugs. Such provision is absolutely necessary to cope adequately with the problem of pushers whose "stock in trade" is extreme mobility. For all other offences this power is qualified—the Garda must be reasonably satisfied that the suspected offender will abscond or evade the course of justice or that he has given a false name and address and so on.
In my view the section as it now stands represents the best possible compromise in a difficult situation. It is adequate and suitable to deal with the drug problem in this country as it is at present or as it is likely to be in the foreseeable future. At the same time it safeguards the rights of citizens against arbitrary or unreasonable use of police powers.
I commend the Bill to the House.