Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 4 May 1977

Vol. 86 No. 9

Misuse of Drugs Bill, 1973: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

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.

I want to say at the outset that we welcome the Bill introduced here by the Minister. Its very title reminds us of the fact that there has been misuse of drugs ever since the beginning of civilisation. The Bill is more or less concerned with the misuse of drugs which are otherwise very useful, particularly in surgical hospitals, in dentists' rooms and in various other places. History tells us that Red Indians and tribes in Africa and other areas discovered thousands of years ago that certain drugs existed and there has always been a certain amount of trafficking and drug pushing.

Drugs were meant in the first instance to relieve pain. Whether that pain was mental or physical, it was important to the sufferer that some method would be found to alleviate it. Today we have many different types of drugs. They are used not just for humans but also used for animals and plants. They seem to have a very great effect on every one of these categories.

To control the use of drugs at present is often rather difficult. Small quantities of drugs can be very potent and dangerous. They can be very easily smuggled from one country to another and transported from place to place. Consequently it requires an enormous amount of detection work by the staff at ports around our coasts and at airports. Even then, despite the minute searches that may be carried out by customs officials, these drug pushers are probably able to evade them. Coupled with that, there are the hardships caused to other innocent travellers who may be delayed because of the suspicion that certain people may be carrying drugs.

The Minister has mentioned certain controls in the Poisons Acts. When the Minister mentioned this I immediately thought of certain types of drugs or chemicals used to kill plants or weeds, in particular, I thought of paraquat, which is deadly dangerous. It causes the loss of many lives from year to year. Very often in the case of drugs which are prohibited the reaction is to change the name and they appear again in a different form. Could the same thing apply to the various drugs, in particular cannabis, mentioned by the Minister?

The problem of drugs is a social one. It transcends national frontiers. If the use of drugs is commonplace in the United States and elsewhere it is only natural to expect that the same situation will exist here, but perhaps not on the same scale. Nevertheless, pushers are able to cross national frontiers and reach teenagers with their drugs.

It is stated—I do not know how reliably—that there are many drug pushers operating in this city and drugs are being offered in bars, discos, dance halls and various other places where young people congregate. Our young people are a highly educated sector of the community. The media should warn them about drug pushers and point out to them the medical effects that such indulgence will have both on themselves and their families in years to come. I would welcome such a campaign by the media. Very often we find in some of these horror films that the hero becomes a superman through using drugs.

Before imposing penalties it is important to see if we can effect a cure of some kind. We should try to marshall all available resources to point out the dangers. It is easier to do that than to wait until the drug pushers have been caught and the teenagers have had the experience of drugs, possibly leading to addiction. At that stage it is very difficult to cure them. Many hospitals and doctors are trying to combat this problem. Rehabilitation of people who have been addicted is a very difficult process. It behoves us to have the best possible medical advice, whether we get it here or abroad. A large proportion of our population is in the 18 to 30 age bracket. Younger people are more likely to try drugs to see what kicks they can get from them.

To speak of penalties is a difficult matter. I am not au fait with the situation but I believe that some of the drugs are very expensive and thousands of pounds worth could be carried in a very small container and the imposition of a £50 fine on drug pushers does not seem to be a great deterrent.

There is also the question of a prison sentence. This is also a difficult matter, but if it would help to prevent this problem it should be welcomed. These drug pushers are doing no service to the nation or to future generations. In so far as we can, we must be firm with them. There is no place for kid gloves. If they commit this offence on several occasions they should be sent to prison. They are a nuisance to the nation as a whole.

I do not know what techniques the Garda and the Special Branch use or how well-equipped they are to deal with this problem. A garda who is in uniform is at a disadvantage. This is a situation in which it would be beneficial to have some trained group of young people who would check the spread of drug taking at the roots. The misuse of drugs is not prevalent among elderly people.

I am in agreement with the opinion of the Special Committee regarding the confidentiality of patients attending doctors and the consulting of medical records. It would be wrong for some individuals to have the power to inspect the medical records of any person. There should always be a certain amount of confidentiality between the patient and the doctor.

The Minister is to be commended on the introduction of this very important Bill. I can assure him of every possible help from this side of the House in trying to eradicate this problem.

I always enjoy speaking on the Government side of the House although it may not be my station.

I should like to say a few words on this Bill as I have a particular interest in it. Being the officer in charge of student discipline in Trinity College, the drug problems impinge on me and have done so over the years. I can only speak about the student community. Six or seven years ago there was a very severe increase in the problem of drug taking but, I am glad to say, that has now decreased and the problem, so far as I have been concerned, has been minimal over the past couple of years. We were faced five or six years ago with a very severe drug problem among the student community. I would guess this was a reflection of the general situation in the country as a whole. Perhaps this tied up in some way with the world-wide situation. I have been disturbed to read some reports recently of very severe problems in some of the continental cities where the problem seemed to be increasing rather than decreasing. It is as well that we should update our legislation. We should be prepared for the sort of eventualities that we may have to face, even though the problem may not be as severe here as it has been.

I agree with the basic tenor of the Bill. The people to get at are the pushers. They are the people to deal with severely. They are the ones who are making money out of this. They are exploiting drugs to the detriment of others and they are in it for the money.

I agree with the Minister that rehabilitation of offenders at an early stage is the best course. I have a special interest in rehabilitation. A great deal can and has been done for first offenders, people who have been led into the fringes of the drug scene. The best approach is to wean them away from it. I am glad to see that this is the approach of this Bill. We are not dealing solely with first offenders and with the soft drugs. The Minister has mentioned the problem of distinction between the various classes of drugs.

Debate adjourned.
The Seanad adjourned at 8.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 5th May, 1977.