I am pleased to present this Bill to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977. I hope that, with the co-operation of Senators and Deputies, it will be possible to have this short but important legislation enacted before the Houses rise for the summer recess. The primary focus of the misuse of drugs legislation is the protection of public health through the prevention of the misuse of dangerous substances. This legislation is also an important element of the Government’s arsenal in the fight against drug dealing and trafficking and consequent gangland crime.
I am presenting the Bill as one part of the whole-of-government approach to dealing with serious crime in the north inner city of Dublin. Following the recent murders in Dublin’s north inner city, the Government decided to expedite the drafting and publication of parts of the Misuse of Drugs Bill originally scheduled for the autumn. Accordingly, the primary purpose in bringing the Bill forward at this time is to aid the law enforcement functions of An Garda Síochána in tackling crime associated with the illegal sale of certain substances. These are dangerous substances if used incorrectly and every effort must be made to prevent their unlawful sale.
The misuse of drugs legislation has two primary purposes. First, it aims to protect the public by controlling access to substances which have a medical and therapeutic value but which are harmful if misused such as benzodiazepines, heroin and cocaine. The legislation facilitates the safe use of these controlled drugs by means of ministerial regulations and orders but provides that it is an offence to possess or sell them, unless authorised to do so under the regulations.
Second, the legislation aims to protect the public by establishing a system of tight control over dangerous and harmful substances with no therapeutic or other legitimate use. Well known examples would be ecstasy or headshop drugs. These drugs are often manufactured by persons who try to stay ahead of the law by making relatively minor changes to the molecular structure and chemical formula of a known drug to produce one which may not be controlled and, in effect, produce one which is legal. The fact that it is legal, however, does not mean it is safe. Accordingly, it is important we regularly update drugs legislation and, where appropriate, include generic definitions which potentially cover a large number of substances, some of which have not yet appeared on the streets.
The substances controlled under legislation are listed in the Schedule to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 which was amended in March last year by emergency legislation which was enacted following a Court of Appeal judgment. The court had struck down the section in the 1977 Act under which the Government could make orders declaring substances to be controlled. As a consequence, all substances controlled by successive Governments since 1977 became legal to possess. The 2015 emergency legislation recontrolled all of these substances. It also confirmed several ministerial regulations and orders made under the Act, thereby giving the instruments statutory effect as though they were an Act of the Oireachtas.
The State appealed the judgment to the Supreme Court which handed down its judgment yesterday in which it stated the Court of Appeal judgment should be set aside. This judgment is most welcome, as it means future control of substances under the Act can once again be made by means of Government order. The rationale for the control of substances under the Bill is still sound, given that we did not know when the court would hand down its judgment until recently, nor could we be sure it would uphold the constitutionality of the legislation.
There is a problem in parts of Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland with the on-street sale of prescription medicines. This is especially true in the case of some medicines not controlled under the misuse of drugs legislation such as zopiclone, a legitimate medicine used for the treatment of insomnia. Although its sale is illegal under medicines legislation, it is nevertheless being traded on the illicit market owing to its abuse potential. There is ongoing co-operation between the law enforcement agencies concerned, including An Garda Síochána, Revenue’s Customs service and the Health Products Regulatory Authority, HPRA, in tackling this illegal trade, with operations and searches carried out where unauthorised activity in prescription medicines is suspected. All of this work is most welcome and to be applauded, as many of the unregulated products which are the subject of this trade clearly pose potential serious health harm.
Notwithstanding this, it is still clear that we urgently need to strengthen legislation in this area, in particular, to tackle street trading in some of these prescription medicines which, in tandem with the increased prevalence in polydrug use seen in recent times, has become a feature of the drugs landscape. Some of the most prevalent products being sold on the street, for example, the zopiclone products used to treat insomnia, remain solely under the medicinal products regulations rather than the Misuse of Drugs Acts. It is possible for persons selling prescription medicines to be charged under the medicines legislation. However, this legislation is framed as a regulatory measure to govern the legitimate trade in these products rather than as a criminal code. It is clear there are persons who are exploiting this for their own criminal gain.
There are also problems with abuse and the on-street dealing of other medicines already controlled under the misuse of drugs legislation such as benzodiazepines. However, on-street drug dealers often carry relatively small quantities of drugs on their person, which can make it difficult for the authorities to proceed with sale or supply charges. Accordingly, it is proposed to make unauthorised possession of controlled medicines being traded in this way an offence. Bringing uncontrolled medicines within the scope of the Misuse of Drugs Acts, with applying tighter levels of control governing their supply and that of already controlled medicines, was requested by the Garda. The measures being proposed will certainly help law enforcement authorities in addressing the criminal street trade in these drugs.
While the illicit trade in these substances is not confined to any area, it is clear it has been noticeably prominent in Dublin’s north inner city. This problem has been highlighted by community groups and representatives from the local area, as well as by political colleagues, as one of the priority issues to be addressed as part of the Government’s overall targeted response to issues of concern affecting Dublin’s north inner city. In this respect, the Bill forms part of an overall package of initial measures being introduced by the Government as a priority to strengthen further the hands of law enforcement authorities in tackling those involved in gangland crime and the devastating effects owhich have been so appallingly seen in the recent violence in the capital city.
Similarly, the introduction of controls for the new psychoactive substances listed under the Bill is also essential. These products have been identified as being of harm and the subject of much public and political concern. A good example in this regard is the synthetic cannabinoid-type substance, known colloquially as clockwork orange, which the Bill will bring within the misuse of drugs legislative framework. Concerns about the availability and use of this substance, particularly in the Cavan-Monaghan region, have been prominently highlighted in recent times. Calls for the control of this substance under the Misuse of Drugs Acts have been made in widespread media reports on this product which was also the subject of much attention and concern expressed at a special joint sitting of the health and justice Oireachtas committees held last July at which the harm associated with the use of this substance and similar products was highlighted. It must be borne in mind that such products are being sold by people who are totally oblivious to the potential threats their use presents. They have already been linked with serious adverse effects, hospitalisations and, sadly in some cases, fatalities in Ireland. Obviously, such an illegal and dangerous trade is totally unacceptable.
To make unauthorised possession of substances an offence, there is a two-step process. The first is to bring under the scope of the Act substances which are not controlled. This will be done by amending the Schedule. The second step is to introduce regulations to tighten the import, export, prescribing and dispensing controls on these substances and on others which are already controlled but not at a high enough level. During the summer months work will continue in my Department in drafting the regulations. We anticipate that there will be a gap of a number of weeks between enactment of the legislation and the finalisation of the associated ministerial regulations and orders required before the controls can be applied.
The Schedule to the Bill will replace parts of the existing Schedule to the Misuse of Drugs Act. It contains substances controlled by means of the emergency legislation passed last year, as well as the substances to be controlled under the Bill. These are prescription medicines, or so-called z-drugs, namely, zopiclone and zaleplon, used in the treatment of insomnia, as well as lisdexamfetamine, an amphetamine-type medicine authorised for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD. The Schedule also lists two substances found in products selling as clockwork orange, as well as substances which Ireland is required to control as part of our obligations as a member of the European Union and as a party to the United Nations Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961 and the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances. These are new psychoactive substances known as 25I-NBOMe, 25C-NBOMe, MT-45, 4,4'-DMAR and benzodiazepine phenazepam. A synthetic cannabinoid known as MDMB-CHMICA which is under risk assessment at EU level is the final substance on the list to be controlled. Such new psychoactive substances have already been identified as being of harm, including where their use has been implicated in a number of hospitalisations and, in some cases, fatalities in Ireland and elsewhere.
As previously mentioned, listing the substances in the Act is the first part of a two-step process. Regulations are required to regulate the legitimate use of these substances and subject them to the appropriate level of control. Accordingly, the Bill provides for the revocation of the existing regulations. This will enable new regulations to replace them so as to take account of the new substances and regulate their import, export, supply and possession.
The Bill provides for a number of updated definitions of midwives, nurses and practitioners, all of which are consequent on the enactment of the Nurses and Midwives Bill 2011 and the commencement of a new register of nurses and midwives under that legislation. This will ensure references to these persons in the regulations to be made will be up to date.
The Bill provides for the amendment of two sections of the Act to allow for commencement of section 7 of the Irish Medicines (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 which provides for the transfer of responsibility for the issuing of licences under the Act from the Minister for Health to the Health Products Regulatory Authority, HPRA. The proposed amendments will mean that all references in the Act to licences will correctly refer to the authority. While unrelated to the primary purpose of the Bill, it was considered an opportune time to make these amendments so as to finally allow the completion of the transfer of licensing functions from the Minister to the HPRA. While the authority will be responsible for the issue of licences, the Irish Medicines (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 provides that it will comply with any directive or guideline issued by the Minister to it in respect of policy on controlled drugs.
The final provision in the Bill is a standard one to provide for a collective citation and that the Bill and preceding misuse of drugs legislation can be construed as one. Significantly, this provision also allows different sections in the Bill to be commenced at different times, thereby allowing the necessary flexibility to revoke confirmed regulations and orders and update them on a phased basis.
Of course, drug supply measures which is what these provisions represent form only one aspect of our overall response to the complex problem of drug misuse. I want to be clear on this because Senator Lynn Ruane and I discussed the matter in a recent Commencement debate. This is not the Government's response to drug addiction; that is to come in the second misuse of drugs (amendment) Bill which is due in the autumn and the new national drugs strategy led by the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, which will be published this year. We must continue to prioritise and resolutely address all aspects of the problem which is so corrosive for our society. In that respect and as I previously stated in the House, the Government intends to deliver on the commitment in the programme for Government to having a health-led rather than a criminal justice approach to drugs use. It includes legislating for injection rooms, as I am happy to confirm again. Accordingly, I intend to publish a second misuse of drugs Bill in the autumn to provide for supervised injecting facilities for chronic drug users. I have heard incorrect commentary that we are moving away from that commitment and I am very pleased to correct the record. I know that this will be welcomed, in particular, by Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin who advocated for these changes during his recent tenure as Minister of State with responsibility in this area.
A further programme for Government commitment concerns the development of a new national drugs strategy. The strategy is within the remit of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne. A wide range of stakeholders in the statutory, community and voluntary sectors have been working hard under an independent chairman to oversee a comprehensive review of the current strategy and develop proposals for the future to address this complex human and social problem. The Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, will take the rest of this legislation through both Houses of the Oireachtas. We will have an opportunity to hear ideas from Senators and Deputies on this and future Bills.
There is significant debate, both nationally and internationally, on the issue of decriminalisation and-or alternative approaches to the current criminal justice approach to the simple possession of small quantities of illegal drugs for personal use. The issue is also live here as part of the ongoing discussions on the drafting of a new national drugs strategy. The development of the new strategy will include a public consultation phase which will provide an opportunity to have a constructive and wide-ranging public dialogue on our current policies and approaches to the issue. It is expected that the steering group will present its report to the Government towards the end of 2016.
By introducing import and export controls and an offence of unauthorised possession for personal use or the supply of these medicines, it is intended to assist the Garda in dealing with the public on-street dealing in these medicines. The Garda is supportive of the legislation. In introducing it we are also taking the opportunity to control a number of dangerous psychoactive drugs, including clockwork orange and drugs from the N-BOMe family.
The Bill is not about targeting addicts but about disrupting gangs and giving An Garda Síochána the power it needs to do so. I hope all Senators will consider backing the Bill to help to ensure its smooth and speedy passage through the Oireachtas before the summer break. I look forward to the more detailed debate on drugs policy, the national drugs strategy and injecting rooms that will take place in the autumn.