I thank the Senators for their contributions. As was mentioned, this is my first official visit to the Seanad. I was on the far side of the glass partition any time I was here previously.
I thank the Seanad for the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the development of a new national drugs strategy. I welcome it and it is important that Members of this House have an opportunity to contribute to what will be a new national strategy.
I am conscious of the fact that the current national drugs strategy grew out of the efforts of Members of the Oireachtas across various parties in the mid to late 1990s and I acknowledge the work and commitment of all involved at that time. The Government is determined that the new strategy will facilitate its tackling of the illicit drugs problem in a comprehensive and effective way.
Senator Buttimer passed significant comment on the current strategy and raised a number of issues. He can put forward figures on what was not done and find flaws with the strategy and I can rebut them and point out the aspects of it that worked. It is much more important that we analyse the current strategy and ascertain what worked well, why it worked well and what did not work. It is important that we embark on a new national strategy because the problems we face today are somewhat different from those that were faced when the first strategy was formulated. In many ways the first strategy reflected a problem of the time — a particular drug was prevalent in particular areas. The scene has changed completely now and some of the gaps the Senator indicated are in areas that traditionally would not have had a drugs problem. It is in that context we need a full debate on a new national strategy to tackle this problem.
I agree with the Senator about the need for an analysis of the current strategy. That is taking place as part of the public consultation process. We must learn from the mistakes made but we also must learn from our successes and achievements. We need to recognise what is working well and why. I agree with the Senator that the services provided throughout the country are considerably different. That all forms part of our debate on this issue.
The issue of problem drug use is complex and difficult. It is a global issue and no country has succeeded in coming to terms with all aspects of the problem. Our efforts to tackle it in Ireland must be seen in that context. The current strategy represented our first attempt to develop a fully co-ordinated response to the threat from problem drug use. It grew out of the threat posed at that time, by heroin in particular, to individuals, families and communities.
It is important to put on record that the strategy has had many achievements. One is the significantly increased level of drug seizures by the Garda and Customs and Excise. I wish to make a point in this regard. Senator O'Malley made the point that this may represent only 10% of the total volume of drugs in circulation. That is the figure that is generally referred to in the media. There is no certainty in this regard. For example, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, EMCDDA, suggests the EU-wide seizure rate is 25%, while the UN goes further in stating that 40% of world drug production is seized. By their nature, the figures are not definitive and there is a broad range of views, from the 10% usually put forward by the media to the UN estimate of 40%. We must be careful, therefore, when discussing the figures. What is certain is that any critical analysis would show that the Garda has become much more successful both in terms of the number of seizures and the quantities of drugs intercepted.
There has been a significant increase in the availability of treatment facilities, with the national drug treatment reporting system, NDTRS, indicating that more than 12,700 people are in treatment for problem drug use in a range of services provided across the statutory, voluntary and community sectors. Approximately 8,600 of these are in receipt of methadone. Preventative measures have been put in place, such as the roll-out of the social, personal and health education, SPHE, and Walk Tall programmes in schools. The success of the young people's facilities and services fund is such that it is being extended to operate in Arklow, Wexford, Athlone and Dundalk. Research is taking place in areas such as drugs prevalence, cocaine use, treatment outcomes and the effect of drugs on families which inform our current programmes and help us to map out our future approach.
I take this opportunity to outline briefly the process by which the new national drugs strategy is being developed. A steering group was appointed at the end of 2007 to develop proposals and make recommendations on a new strategy. This group comprises representatives of the key statutory, community and voluntary interests involved in tackling problem drug use. Consultants have also been appointed to assist the steering group in its work. The group is examining the progress and impact of the current strategy, considering the degree to which it continues to be relevant in a changing Ireland and looking at the operational effectiveness of the structures involved. It is also monitoring developments in regard to drug policies at EU and international level to ensure any new developments and approaches are considered for incorporation into our strategy.
To obtain the views of as wide a range of interested parties as possible, a broad consultation process has been overseen by my Department. I am directly involved in these consultations. As part of this, a series of 15 public consultation meetings was held throughout the State. Meetings with relevant Departments and agencies are now nearing completion and a series of meetings with key sectoral groups and organisations working in the drugs area is about to commence. Further meetings are planned with appropriate focus groups, including problem drug users, young people at risk and immigrant groups, while submissions in writing and by e-mail will continue to be accepted until the end of this month.
I have attended several of the public consultation meetings and most of the consultation meetings with the relevant agencies. Some of the bodies with a role to play include the Health Service Executive, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Garda Síochána, Customs and Excise, the probation and welfare service, the Courts Service and the Department of Education and Science. We have had consultations with all these parties on the aspects of the drugs strategy for which they have responsibility. My role is largely to co-ordinate the services, in education, health and so on, which are delivered by other Departments and bodies. The consultation process thus far has been extensive and detailed. Senator Buttimer asked whether it involved a review of the current approach. That is the correct way to begin any process — by looking at current practice and moving on from there — and that is what we have done.
The public consultation meetings are central to the work of formulating a new strategy. These meetings sought to identify the concerns facing individuals and communities, the successful aspects of the existing strategy and the gaps that must be addressed with a view to identifying the main priorities for any new strategy. We recognise that the current system is not perfect. That is why we are affording the public the opportunity to have an input into how it might be improved. Most of the people who attend these meetings are directly affected by drug abuse. They know what they are talking about. There would be no point in my claiming at these meetings that everything is perfect. This public consultation process proved to be a genuinely beneficial exercise at which we learned more than we would by sitting in Leinster House. We engaged directly with the public and received excellent feedback from those who are involved in this area daily.
While there were interesting regional variations, there was a reasonably significant level of consistency in the views expressed at these meetings. Some of the concerns identified were the level of heroin use outside Dublin and the availability of drugs services generally outside the Dublin area. Other issues identified were addiction to prescription and over-the-counter drugs, the level of acceptance of alcohol abuse in Ireland, the importance of engaging and supporting families, and issues of family intimidation. In regard to the latter, the need for increased supports for families, as referred to by Senator Buttimer, came across strongly.
In terms of efforts to deal with the problem of drug misuse, participants in the public meetings acknowledged the increased rate of drug seizures and the improved performance of the Garda in this regard. Other improvements that were mentioned included increased funding, the usefulness of integrated services when they are in place, and the increased utilisation of a community partnership approach. The latter was of particular importance to participants, with many emphasising that the new strategy must have links to the community. People also referred to various individual initiatives in different areas.
Senator Donohoe asked about the Criminal Assets Bureau going after middle-tier dealers. It is often the case that some aspects of illegal drugs activity receive little media attention because they are not seen as glamorous. However, at my meetings with the Garda I have been given clear indications that they are going after the middle men. For example, they have seized vehicles and other assets from what we would loosely refer to as middle dealers. This is something the Garda and Criminal Assets Bureau have already embarked upon.
Key priorities for the future were identified at the public consultation meetings. These included the provision of preventative initiatives in schools as well as in out-of-school settings; an increased range and availability of treatment services, with a continuum of care for individuals and an integrated multi-agency approach; more widespread availability of methadone, with options to move on from this treatment; a greater focus on rehabilitation of problem drug users; more family support measures; and a more integrated approach to the problems of illicit drugs and alcohol, with some favouring a joint strategy. This gives merely a flavour of the views expressed. Comprehensive outcome reports of the 15 public consultation meetings are being posted on my Department's website,www.pobail.ie.
There has been a quantum leap in the range and quality of work being undertaken under the existing strategy compared with what was in place in 2000. In that regard, I acknowledge the dedication and commitment of those involved at the coalface in delivering these services. In speaking to some of these people since my appointment, a constant theme that arises is the importance of inter-agency co-operation across all sectors and organisations. That type of inter-agency co-operation to maximise the impact of initiatives for the benefit of problem drug users and for society generally is something we must aim to get right. This is also emphasised in the report of the working group on drugs rehabilitation, the implementation of the recommendations of which is envisaged under the programme for Government. In that regard, the HSE is progressing the recruitment of a senior rehabilitation co-ordinator and will establish the national drugs rehabilitation implementation committee by September.
The drugs situation in this State and worldwide is evolving constantly and we must endeavour to be flexible in our attitudes, structures and policies so that we can adapt our approach to meet whatever challenges arise. I stress that the relevance of all aspects of the current national drugs strategy are subject to scrutiny, whether the five pillars, the structures for implementation, the roles of the various players or the more detailed actions outlined in the strategy. The partnership approach of the statutory, voluntary and community sectors has been key in achieving progress thus far. While a continuation of that partnership approach is envisaged, we now have an important opportunity to look at the structures through which we deliver that partnership and to consider whether there are more effective ways of achieving our goals.
Ireland has changed significantly since the current strategy was activated in 2001. Our increased prosperity has had many benefits for our people. However, prosperity has also brought challenges, not least in the context of drugs. We must not underestimate the need to continue to focus on the heroin problem, particularly in the context of social disadvantage. At the same time, cocaine has emerged as a significant problem. In addition, polydrug use, involving a combination of illicit and legal drugs, including alcohol, has become common during the lifetime of the current strategy. The use of illicit drugs now occurs across all social strata and, it would appear, is increasingly spread geographically across the country.
The joint report of the national advisory committee on drugs, NACD, and the national drug strategy team, NDST, on cocaine forms the basis of a co-ordinated response to the emergence of the cocaine issue and many of the recommendations of the report are in the process of being implemented. The central conclusion of the report was that treatment in the form of counselling works and the Health Service Executive, as well as some community-based services, are working to develop and re-engineer services so that those who present with a cocaine habit can receive appropriate treatment.
Apart from the appalling consequences for the people directly involved, drug use also causes social and economic harm to families, friends, communities and society as a whole. Despite the best efforts of many, some communities are experiencing anti-social behaviour, intimidation and violence which is linked to the criminal activity associated with the supply and use of drugs. Furthermore, great economic loss to the country is involved through the waste of the potential input that many people who get caught up with drugs could have made to society and through the costs that arise from their involvement with drugs, particularly in the areas of health care and the criminal justice system. People are increasingly exercised about the issue of alcohol use, and alcohol as a gateway to illicit drugs is also a real issue. The process of developing a new national drugs strategy affords the opportunity for debate on how synergies between alcohol and drugs policies can be improved and, indeed, whether a single substance misuse strategy is now appropriate to cover all.
I am cognisant of the all-party motion passed by the Seanad in December recognising the problems of alcohol misuse and illegal drug use in our society, and acknowledging the need for a co-ordinated cross-departmental approach to these problems. I am determined to tackle the problems arising into the future and the new strategy is vital in forming the framework through which this will be done. The comments and suggestions of the Members who have contributed to the debate are appreciated and have been noted. This might be a Private Members' debate but I am using it as part of the public consultation process. I have listened carefully to the points and noted them.
One of the Senators spoke about education. There are various relevant modules within SPHE and the education curriculum. One of the keys to dealing with this issue is prevention, so we must develop those models further. It is my belief that education and prevention must be stronger. We have created awareness. However, as a father of two schoolgoing children aged 11 and 16, who would be mad if they heard me mention it, I am, perhaps, conducting my own research and evaluation in the home. The education aspect is one I wish to see further developed and examined. I thank Members for the opportunity of participating in this debate.