I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne.
Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill 2016: Committee Stage
Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 3, after line 28, to insert the following:
"Amendment of section 3 of Principal Act
3. Section 3 of the Principal Act is amended by the insertion the following subsection:
“(2A) That possession of the substances listed in Part 1 and Part 2 of the Schedule not be subject to prosecution for amounts equating to personal use.".".
The relentless warfare on drugs has failed. It failed long ago. It fails every time an addict dies from the effects of an unknown substance. It fails every time a parent has to pay the drug debt of a child. It fails every time we imprison an addict for possession and it fails every time we introduce legislation to further criminalise the addict. The addict has become collateral damage in the State's fight to dismantle the drugs trade. Legislation that criminalises possession reinforces the stigma associated with addiction. We cannot continue to try to separate the addict from the dealer. I have had dozens of conversations in recent weeks with people who both sell and use substances. I refer to two of the contributions which I raise in order to communicate the reality of the amendments and the people they affect. A 34 year old woman from Tallaght said:
Even after I was raped, imprisoned, battered, pimped and hospitalised I have been refused treatments for benzo addiction. Apparently I am not ready, or so some stranger likes to decide. I sell benzos, not a huge amount, just enough to fund my own use and to do some food shopping. I often have boxes of benzos in my possession.
A young 17 year old male from Crumlin said:
My brother and I started taking tablets after weekend sessions. We used to rob my Mam's zimos when we were children and I deliver benzos for my cousin so I can get some for myself. I would like to join the Army some day but I can't seem to stop messing around, ever since my brother died and my cousin was murdered. Both of these used zopiclone amongst other tablets.
That young boy will never make it to the Army if he is prosecuted for possession and the woman from Tallaght risks being imprisoned again if treatment for benzo addiction does not become the priority instead of treating her like a criminal.
In Portugal, if the two individuals in the cases outlined were caught in possession they would have a greater chance of access to much-needed services. A commission for the dissuasion of drug addiction convenes when an individual is found with drugs. These commissions are made up a social worker, a solicitor and a doctor or a psychiatrist and the outcome is a fine or treatment. Nearly 16 years on, Portugal has not seen an increase in addiction. In fact, statistics from the Transform Drug Policy Foundation shows a decline in the population reporting to have used drugs. Statistics also show that drug use declined in the most at-risk group, namely, 15 to 24 year olds.
We cannot continue to ignore the positive progression of Portugal's decriminalisation policies. The British Journal of Criminology in 2010 found that Portugal also shows a decrease in imprisonment for drug-related charges and there has also been a surge in visits to addiction centres. We will never control the flow of drugs by banning them. Instead, we should create policy that increases access to drug treatment and addresses inequality and poverty. Leaving the most vulnerable at risk of arrest reinforces the cycle of criminality. Addiction begins and ends with pain. Before Members vote today I urge them to consider the fact that criminalising drug possession, which will affect the addict, just adds to the cycle of pain. We live in a culture emotionally, psychologically and economically that punishes those already suffering. The moment we flip those policies on their head and move away from criminalisation, the closer we move to opening up the pathways to recovery and support for our friends, communities and values. I hope Members will take that into consideration when considering the amendments today.
There are very few issues in public policy that I feel more strongly about than this. I was in the position of the Minister of State not that long ago. In public life, it is very rare to come to the conclusion that everything we are doing is wrong. We have come to the conclusion that the issue with drugs lies with the substances and that if we just control them, everything will be fine. Addiction, however, is not just about the substance, it is about circumstances, disconnection and marginalisation. For the life of me, I cannot understand why we still think it is a good idea to effectively criminalise marginalisation and addiction.
What my amendment is trying to achieve - it is very similar to Senator Ruane's amendment - is to stand by what the programme for Government said that drug policy would take a health-centred approach and not a criminal justice one. It makes absolutely no sense to try to dissuade somebody from a life of addiction by criminalising him or her for his or her drug use. My amendment clearly states that it should be a defence for anybody caught in possession of an illegal substance to argue that it was for his or her own personal use. As Senator Ruane has quite correctly said, Ireland could follow the example of Portugal by saying to individuals that we understand they are addicted, they have a medical need and that they need help and compassion and that we are not going to blame the victim. What happens in this Republic is that we blame the victim and all the resources that could be spent dealing with the pushers and the trade are being spent on the victims of the trade.
There are silent victims of this industry who nobody ever hears about. I mentioned in the House a couple of weeks ago that in March of this year two people were found dead on the streets of our capital city from heroin overdoses but that never made it into the newspapers. One gentleman was found dead in the public toilet of Connolly Station and another gentleman was found dead after two nights in the open air in Foley Street. The stories did not make it into any newspaper, there was no protest and there was no political comment about it because on some level, in this society, we have decided that these people are to blame for their own addiction. We blame the victim and criminalise the victim.
If one speaks to any group from the equality sector, whether the LGBT community, the Traveller community, people with disabilities or migrants, they will all say that there is disproportionate drug usage issue in these communities because of disconnection and marginalisation. When a person falls into addiction, surely our response should not be a criminal justice one but a health one. I am not sure if the Minister of State has been to the Drug Treatment Court, which is an initiative to try to keep people away from the criminal justice system, but all one sees there is a bunch of sick people sitting in a court room. It makes no sense whatsoever.
Fundamentally, what we are trying to achieve here is to ensure the victim of this trade, the addict or the drug user, is not a criminal because of his or her drug use. The people who sell, trade in and profit from drugs should be criminalised. They should be taken out of circulation and we should use the criminal justice system to do that. However, the victim, the addict or the user, should not be criminalised because of his or her medical need or medical condition. What we propose is common sense. It would shift the whole drugs issue away from a moralising pathetic attempt to say Ireland is black and white to actually humanise the individual who is affected by this.
I refer to our friends in the media. We, in Ireland, constantly use terminology that dehumanises people who need services and resources, and the media is culpable in this. We call them names; we call them junk. When we do that it inevitably results in the public consciousness believing that, in some way, these people are less worthy of resources. Let us take a course of action that might actually work because what we are doing at the moment is not working. We should look at what they do in Portugal and we should say to citizens that they have an addiction and they are not criminals but that they are patients with a medical need and we will treat them as such.
Senator Reilly is next. A number of Senators are offering but we will get to everyone.
I welcome the Bill because we have a serious issue with prescribed drugs being made available on the street and the trade in them. It is an ever-increasing problem. The point made by the two previous speakers on the amendments they have put forward are points that are very well made. The key here for many people who are addicted is to access treatment for addiction and that is an issue that remains to be addressed. Coincidentally, when I was with President Michael D. Higgins in Portugal last year, I had the pleasure of speaking with the Minister who brought in this system into Portugal. The measure is working very well and I believe it is something we should examine and introduce. The system changes the offence to an administrative offence rather than a criminal one. I agree with previous speakers who spoke about the implications for a person who is caught, in his or her youth, with a joint or a couple of tablets for his or her own use and is criminalised and has a record for the remainder of his or her life, with all that implies from the point of view of job prospects and further training abroad. That is clearly wrong and society has moved on. What we want to do is to protect people from drug abuse and a system such as that introduced by the Portuguese should be brought in here. It may need to be tweaked from the Irish perspective but I know that the Minister intends to examine that in the future and to bring in a more comprehensive legislation to address that issue.
I do not believe it is acceptable to supply others with drugs to maintain one's habit. That person is a pusher, regardless of what the motivation is. It is an entirely different matter if one is addicted and one is caught with a small quantum.
I could not agree more that, in many instances, it is in areas of deprivation and marginalisation that people turn to drugs. This benzodiazepine prescribing goes back to the time when much of the inner city was moved out to the outer rounds of Dublin which, on the face of it, looked wonderful in that there was a house with a garden. However, the aunty was not down the road anymore, the brother was not up the street anymore and the infrastructure was not there to support families in the extended family way people had been used to up to then. When people suffered frustrations, distress and anxiety, tablets became the cure and sadly that became a really big problem. Now we have more enlightened ways, through counselling, of dealing with issues like this but the bottom line is that we need to control these drugs. They have become a major problem. I know from talking to people that very often the source of the tablets is a well-meaning older person who gets them from the doctor but who allows somebody younger to take them off his or her hands.
I support the Bill as it is and look forward to the Minister bringing forward more comprehensive legislation in the future to address this area, the issue of the places in which to inject and other supports for addicts.
I welcome the Minister and the Bill. I also thank the two Senators who tabled the amendments for setting out their stall, or their case. The bottom line is that drugs are the scourge of all communities. They know no bounds. I accept that while there are major problems with drugs in certain deprived areas, there are also drugs in very affluent areas. Cocaine is to be found on the high streets of Dublin, in the suburbs of Dublin and in the well-to-do places all over Ireland. There are all forms of drug addiction but I am of the view that it is a health issue and not a criminal one and we must support the people who are the victims of the drug barons and those who have peddled these drugs in our society for years.
I live in Dún Laoghaire where the settled community has constantly resisted the drugs and rehabilitation centre on Patrick Street. Communities say that people are coming from way beyond the community. Drug rehabilitation and treatment has to be in each of our communities and each community has to take responsibility.
The sad reality in many cases is that local representatives in councils, Deputies, Senators and politicians of all hue have been an obstacle to allowing the rehabilitation of people in their communities. People respond to those who complain and speak the loudest. Politicians respond to people who engage in the voting process. Many people who are marginalised by drugs do not necessarily play a full and active role in their communities for various reasons; that is not to condemn them, but to acknowledge the fact.
I am more interested in hearing about rehabilitation. I am more interested in having small micro-services in every community on the island of Ireland. For far too long, politicians have said one thing but do not follow up with the necessary supports. In my own community, two drug addicts live very close to me. I remember when they were children. They were someone's two sons. Their parents set out with high ideals and ambitions for them. They sent them to school. One did well in sport and one got an amazing leaving certificate. Where are they now? They are walking around our town and my community alienated, forgotten, condemned and considered hopeless. What hope have they got? Is it enough to put them into some detention centre and condemn them, or can they get support? Another mother called to my home two weeks ago to say her daughter's daughter had been in a hospital in the west for six months after being born. This is another victim, someone who was detox-born. These are decent, ordinary people who have aspirations. Until we bring it home and talk about our brother or our sister, our mother or our father, our child, then it becomes a different story. We have got to make it more human. These people are victims and they need support.
While I accept that what the former Minister for Health, Senator James Reilly, has said is true, many drug users do push drugs to fund their habit. They are drug pushers and we cannot apologise for that. That is the dilemma with this problem. How can we say that a person can be permitted to have a certain amount of drugs when in effect many of these drug pushers have no control over anything they do because they have fallen so low? These are the dilemmas and the problems, and we all know them. If we are truly honest, we must know people involved at some level, be it sniffing cocaine, doing drugs, tabs or whatever it is. It is a human tragedy that is the scourge of our communities. I want to hear the Minister of State's response to these two amendments. I am interested in hearing what she is going to do and how she is going to empower our communities, our families and our friends in the form of rehabilitation so that these people can have meaningful lives for themselves but also play a meaningful role for their families, their children and their communities.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and introducing the legislation. It is important that it be enacted at the earliest possible date. It is important also that we take account of the amendments tabled, but not in the sense of incorporating them in this legislation. Instead, they might be incorporated into a more comprehensive Bill, which I understand will be introduced in the autumn, on this whole area. There is the issue of users and the issue of pushers. Coming from a legal perspective, the problem for the courts is trying to decide on who is not the pusher. That is the reason we have to be very careful in regard to the legislation. It is an issue we need to examine very carefully. I accept that the Senators who tabled these amendments have vast knowledge and expertise in this whole area and have quoted Portugal as an area where some success has been reported. We should now look at that. In the past four or five years, and even before that time, there have been cutbacks in support services. We need to know how we can help restructure these to ensure the funding is adequate and can support the people who genuinely want to move away from the drugs problem.
This legislation is necessary. If we cannot incorporate the amendments tabled today we should consider them in the context of the new legislation in the autumn to ensure the necessary procedures are in place for dealing with those who are not involved in the pushing or sale of drugs but want support from the services.
Last week I spoke in favour of the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill 2016 presented by the Minister. In his contribution, the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, outlined the reason the Bill is required. He said drug dealers carry relatively small quantities of drugs on their person and this then makes it difficult for authorities to proceed with sale or supply charges. Having spoken to representatives of community groups in the areas most affected by these substances, I cannot support the two amendments proposed by Senator Lynn Ruane and Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin. These community groups have expressed the view that making these small quantities illegal prevents drug pushers from operating and therefore prevents young people from falling into the cycle of drug addiction. I accept the contributions from Senators who have outlined that this will not help the addicts. That is unfortunate. Perhaps Senator Colm Burke's suggestion that these amendments be incorporated into an overall strategy for addiction services could be taken on board, because it is important that we help addicts. It was clear from the debate last week that adequate addiction services are not in place for addicts of all substances, but particularly those set out in the Schedule to the Bill.
I call on the Minister of State to outline her response to the amendments and to the requests in the House. While I welcome the Bill, I will not be supporting the amendments.
I thank the Minister of State for another visit to the House. A previous Senator used the word "alienation". I think I have used that word previously in discussing the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill. Swathes of communities and swathes of young people have been alienated because of drug misuse, drug abuse and drug addiction.
The global war on drugs, which has continued for more than 50 years, has failed. We are playing catch-up all the time and running around in circles while the big drug barons seem to be laughing from their lofty heights. The policies we have tried have failed miserably. There are too many people incarcerated for behaviours connected to addiction and drug possession. Unfortunately, this has not reduced the population addicted to drugs; instead, it is increasing.
The funds spent on imprisoning a person or dragging him or her through a policing or court process should be given to rehabilitation and treatment services. Realistically, these people need support. This is a waste of time, resources and energy. We must bring forward public health measures to increase harm reduction processes. Given that the Government has committed to approaching drugs as a public health issue, I urge it to accept these amendments or bring forward its own amendments. There are options for the Government. It could introduce statutory threshold quantities if it wants to amend it so that only appropriate persons are targeted by this legislation; a maximum use quantity threshold could attempt to distinguish between trafficking or sale offences and possession. We may examine the introduction of an amendment on Report Stage. Alternatively, the Government could introduce a provision to the effect that a personal possession offence be subject to an appropriate administrative penalty or non-prosecution.
Portugal, which appears to be a leading light within Europe, has made huge strides in its approach in recent years.
This panel of experts listens to the arrested person to understand his or her situation and tries to halt what would otherwise be the ongoing alienation and criminalisation of the individual. There is a huge difference between those manufacturing and importing these drugs and an addict who has been legally prescribed them and is selling them on to fund other drugs or an addict who is a problem user of one of the drugs listed in the Schedule to the Bill. This is also something we could examine.
Other jurisdictions allow police and prosecutors to decide whether individuals would benefit from a treatment programme rather than deal with them through a court process. We need to put this approach at the heart of what we try to do. The difficulty in doing that in Ireland, however, is the appalling level of treatment services available for those with drug problems. Coming from a medical background, I know that there are only four detox beds in the State for drug addicts who are under 18 years of age. St. James's Hospital in Dublin South-Central has just one bed and its availability is extremely limited. This is the biggest hospital in the country and is located slap bang in the middle of areas ravaged by drugs, gangs and barons dealing in drugs and profiting from them. These areas are seeing an increased incidence of addiction and, unfortunately, a lot of fatalities, including fatalities in recent months. It is outrageous that there are only four of these beds in the country. While we may go down the same route as Portugal and applaud what it does, we need to ensure we have the infrastructure and services in place to care for, nurture and provide a new future to those who have been caught up in addiction.
Many of those in the throes of addiction are self-medicating following a lifetime of trauma, illness and poverty. Throwing them into the penal system will not address their issues and will not put a stop to the organised crime that is endemic in Ireland. I repeat that it is the lack of investment in these areas, groups and communities that have been alienated for years that has caused this result. We reap what we sow. In this case, we did not sow so we will not reap any positivity. The use of the penal system is a lazy and dangerous policy and it does not work. On that basis, I urge the Government to accept the amendments or to introduce its own. Sinn Féin's Better For Health policy outlines in detail the approach we believe should be adopted in regard to the treatment of the misuse of drugs. It should be treated as a public health issue and not a criminal one. There should be a holistic, health-based approach to addiction.
We note the comments of the Commissioner, Nóirín O'Sullivan, who has welcomed the debate on decriminalisation and given a commitment to contribute to it further. We also note the comments of P.J. Stone of the Garda Representative Association. He has called for a halt to the criminalisation of addicts and for addicts to be dealt with in a way that gives them a better chance. We request that Garda resources currently used to criminalise addicts be redirected to fighting the major drug barons and criminals who are destroying communities and families throughout the State. We reaffirm our request that from here on in drug addiction be addressed as a public health issue rather than a criminal one. This approach should be suitably and effectively resourced. This would lead addicts on to a new chapter in their lives and would support them to live those lives.
Sinn Féin acknowledges the intent of both amendments and agrees that most drug users are the victims of addiction. Sinn Féin policy clearly states that addiction is a public health issue. It is important that we try to avoid criminalising people for possession of drugs for their own use. We support both amendments. I wish also to note that I reserve the right to introduce further amendments to the Bill on Report Stage.
I commend my colleagues, Senators Ó Riordáin and Ruane, on these amendments. I really feel that we need to consider this issue fully. Senator Ó Ríordáin, when last in office, worked closely with those working in the field of addiction. We can see that in the fantastic work he has done. Senator Ruane has worked in the field of addiction and has done fantastic work and I work in the field of addiction also. I work with families daily. Mothers, fathers, grannies, brothers, sisters, adult children and people like the Minister of State are devastated when watching their loved ones go down the route of self-destruction and addiction. The heartbreak I deal with daily is horrendous. Now we are trying to criminalise these family members. It is awful. Are we to criminalise the loved ones of those who come to me pleading and asking about services? They ask where they can get help for their sons, fathers, daughters or grandchildren. What we are saying here is that we should just put them in prison. It is horrendous.
I worked with a group of women in the Dóchas prison who were trying to step from addiction into recovery. None of these women - they all said it to me - would have been in there only for their addiction. They do not want to be in there. Children do not say that when they grow up they want to be in prison or suffering from addiction. No one says that. This is not something people choose.
Will the Minister of State look at this as a public health issue? I implore her to consider these amendments. It is vital that we think of the families. We have to consider them. I ask the Minister of State to show compassion. She is a mother and a grandmother. I ask her to please listen to what we are saying. Three of us have worked in the field of addiction. Will she please listen to us? We know what it is like. I second these amendments.
I compliment my colleagues, Senators Ruane and Ó Ríordáin, on tabling these amendments. They are valuable and have led to a useful discussion. I have spoken on this issue in this House for 30 years and I have always favoured decriminalisation. However, it is becoming much more complex, as is evidenced by the fact that there are four pages of jaw-breaking drugs that people have never heard of listed. People do not know the effect of these substances on the individual and that is very dangerous. I agree that we should look to the medical treatment of this situation rather than criminalising it. Criminalising it does nothing for the addict.
There is another aspect to this issue, which is the use of cannabinoid drugs for the relief of certain illnesses. Will the Government examine this closely? I have a series of harrowing letters from parents and people with specific illnesses that can only be effectively treated by cannabinoid drugs, but they are not available. They should be available. Here is a situation where we have the possibility of prescription by a doctor to get access to drugs that will relieve the symptoms. I cannot see any argument against that.
Virtually everyone has spoken in favour of this approach, which is interesting, except of course for the spokeswoman for Fianna Fáil. I listened with great interest to what she had to say. I accept that there is a problem in that we now have a situation where there is a drug dealer and a runner so that they are only in possession of small amounts, but surely that could be dealt with by police evidence in court. They know who the drug addicts are and who the pushers are. It should be possible to isolate the pusher on the grounds of this evidence, which would be given in court under oath. There is also something a little inconsistent in making that point, which is very well made, and then saying we can introduce the amendments later. If they are wrong now, they will still be wrong later. I will support the amendments, if it comes to a vote.
With regard to my earlier intervention when I said I did not hear the bell, I should have pointed out that I was in the outside space. I would ask the Cathaoirleach to recommend to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges that it puts a bell in the outside space because one just does not hear the division bell. I am not worried about the number of times I vote. I vote pretty regularly in this House. In the old days, columnists in the newspapers with nothing else to do would count up the number of times one voted and print it. Now they do not bother. It does not take a feather out of me if someone counts the number of times I vote.
I will vote if and when I can. I will certainly vote with my conscience on these amendments and I will support both of them.
I will pass on the Senator's request.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I will be opposing the amendments not because I do not agree with their essence, but because the Minister will bring forward far more comprehensive legislation which will address this issue. In Portugal, they have a system, allied to the courts system, which deals with this area. If one is caught with drugs for one's own use, one does not walk away with a smile on one's face. There are consequences. People caught in this way are brought to an administrative court setting where they are offered options in the way of treatment or attendance at an outpatient service. They are monitored and have to go through a certain process before getting clear of the system. That would require legislation here because no such system is in place at the moment.
There is probably nobody in this room more experienced in dealing with communities and drugs than the Minister of State over her long political career. I include myself in that, a GP who dealt with drug addiction and attended Trinity House to look after young girls addicted to heroin who were being used by unscrupulous individuals, even within their own families, who pimped them on the streets. This is a very serious issue and I believe the Minister has the knowledge to deal with it and is going about it in the right way. I commend the two Senators on putting forward the amendments as they have raised the issue and it is something we should pursue. However, as Senator Ó Ríordáin will know, the legislation has to be complete in order to support amendments like these. At the moment, it is nowhere near being so.
The Fine Gael group is supporting the Minister and will not support the amendments. It is important we debate the matter but that these things are taken into account in future legislation.
I will make a few comments in response to comments from Senators and then I will refer to the amendments. I made it very clear in this House last week that I do not want to criminalise anybody who takes drugs because of addiction, but decriminalisation is a complex issue which has to be worked out properly before we can say that people should not be criminalised for carrying drugs in their pockets. This is because, if it is a person's intent to make a profit or simply to pass on an illegal substance, it is wrong. That person is interfering with somebody's life by giving them a medication they should not take and the consequences for that person can lead to death.
In answer to Senators Ó Ríordáin and Ruane, I know the victims of drugs as I have lived beside them all my life. I can give the Senators the names of families which have lost not just one child, but three or four. There is nothing as bad as going to a funeral where a family is being wiped out because of addiction. It leaves one haunted for the rest of one's life to see what happens to people who have grown up in an area with one's own children and friends. At the 21st or 30th birthday parties that come around each year, and to which I am invited, I sit and wonder if Mary, Jack or Paul might have been there had things been done differently. We need to do things differently but this is a very complex issue. Senator Boyhan hit the matter on the head when he said that in the past, when services were opened, there was huge hostility towards them and people, including myself in my own area, were marching on the streets against them but this was because proper information was not given to communities about what it was that was being opened. It created a them-and-us situation, and they should never have done that as tomorrow it could be my son, my daughter or my grandchild.
I bear this in mind as we look at how we deal with addicts who live on our streets or come from our own homes. This is how we should deal with addiction now. Millions of euro are going into local drugs task forces, community projects and addiction services but people are still becoming addicts and dying on a daily basis. What is going wrong and why are those services not working? If they are not working, we should find out why as a lot of money goes into them and we have to be accountable for every penny that is spent in communities because it is public money. If addiction rates remain high in certain communities, we need to look at the reasons. If funding is going into the wrong places, maybe we need to take it out and try to do something different. That is what this document, outlining the Portuguese model, is all about.
I understand Senators' frustration and appreciate that they are in touch with community groups which they represent. Senator Máire Devine asked about detox beds and I agree with her 100%. There should not be just four detox beds and only one for people under 18 in St. James's Hospital. That has to be looked at because it is a significant part of any addict's attempts to come off a drug. There are huge numbers of people on methadone in this country and who have not moved on. It is scary that we all know people in our neighbourhoods who go to work every week but survive on methadone and this is a challenge we have to take on. We cannot continue to imprison people in a drug that does not bring people anywhere and we need to find a solution. I entirely agree with Senator Norris that it is a medical issue. Anything that affects our health is a medical issue.
Everybody has spoken about the Portuguese model and I read the report of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality on a harm reducing and rehabilitative approach to the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs. It is an excellent piece of work and should be commended as a model we should follow. I am sorry, but we cannot just follow it today. This is a complex issue. One recommendation of the committee was that a health counselling treatment approach may be more effective and more appropriate for those found in possession of a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use rather than imposing a criminal sanction resulting in a lifelong criminal record. We need to look at this model and to take it, dissect it and decide what is suitable for the country in which we live. This is possible and we all have a part to play in it. This is not a political issue for me as it covers the political divide. We need to pick out the good bits from this model and modify them for where we are in this country. This can be done but we need the co-operation of everyone to do it. I have spoken to people about the Portuguese model more than about any other issue in the past few weeks. I do not intend to fly out there to have a look at how it operates in practice as I have enough information from people who have told me how good it is. I suggest all Senators read the report as it makes good sense. It is common sense not to criminalise people who are mentally and medically sick. We have to find a mechanism to avoid criminalising these people.
I will not be accepting the amendments of Senators Ruane and Ó Ríordáin and I will explain why. I understand that the aim behind the amendments proposed by the Senators is exactly the same, namely, to remove the offence of possession of small quantities of controlled drugs for personal use.
During the Second Stage debate last week it was made clear that the Bill is one part of a whole of government approach to dealing with the serious crime situation in the north inner city of Dublin. This Bill is not about targeting addicts but about disrupting gangs and giving the Garda Síochána the powers it needs to do so. The primary purpose of the Bill is to aid the law and enforcement functions of the Garda Síochána in tackling crime associated with the illegal sale of certain substances.
As Senators know, drug dealers on the street often carry relatively small quantities of drugs on their person, which makes it difficult for the authorities to proceed with sale or supply charges. I shall back up my comments by relaying a personal story. My son is a garda and a few months ago he stopped somebody who had a small amount of drugs in his possession. My son could not arrest the man and had to let him go. This law will change that situation by giving the Garda Síochána and customs officials an opportunity to deal with these situations on the street. I have outlined a typical example. My son is a garda and he is on the streets day and night doing his job. Heretofore, when he encountered people with small amounts of substances in their possession he could not arrest and charge them. That is why the legislation is being introduced and it was long in train before I came into this job.
Last week here in the Seanad the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and myself addressed the issue of an alternative approach to the current criminal justice approach to the simple possession of small quantities of illegal drugs for personal use. We intend to address the matter. That is why we are having a national drugs strategy and it is why we are having public consultation because we intend to listen to the concerns of people. We want to look at the model used in Portugal and see if the good bits will work here. I am very much in favour of doing so, with everybody's help in this Chamber and in the Dáil.
As we stated last week, consideration of the issue is part of the ongoing discussion on the drafting of the national drugs strategy. This will include a public consultation phase which will provide an opportunity to have a constructive public dialogue on this and other drug-related issues. I have spoken to a lot of people in the past couple of weeks, particularly because of my ministerial position. A lot of people have told me that they have no voice and nobody asks for their opinion. I can confirm that people do have a voice. We must listen to the opinion of people because they are living in these communities. We not only have to listen to the people who are involved in the services to combat drugs, we have to listen to the people living on the outside. We can no longer have a community of people working in drugs who look inward and instead they must look outward. We must look at the "Mary" and the "Joe" who live down the street perhaps beside the Merchant's Quay project. They may not like what goes on in there but accept it is providing a service. The service must also show respect for the people who live in the neighbourhood.
I believe it would be completely wrong to move on a complex social and legal issue such as this without first having that debate. The implementation of such a change in policy would need extremely careful consideration. Such consideration must be done through the national drugs strategy but it must come from the people on the ground and the public representatives. Accordingly, I do not propose to accept amendments Nos. 1 or 2. I hope, over the next couple of months in the run-up to the national drugs strategy and the public consultation, we will look at models such as the one used in Portugal. We must analyse how we treat people in communities and, in particular, how we deal with people who want to avail of a detox bed yet find themselves trapped because suitable services do not exist. Services to help addicts recover should form part of the national drugs strategy.
Do Members wish to make further contributions?
I thank the Minister of State. It is really positive that so many people in the Chamber view the system used in Portugal as a possible way forward.
The Minister of State mentioned that an "us and them" scenario was created when projects were set up but I assert that it was created not by the setting up of the project but by the people who decided to oppose the scheme. As a result, people who wanted to attend the projects did not attend and there were marches against the projects. It was the other way around. There is a misconception that the project created an us and them.
The Minister of State spoke about doing things differently. She has an opportunity to do things differently by not pressing the Government amendments and holding off until we discuss the legislation and how to implement the Portuguese model, instead of further pushing criminalisation. We should wait until we have had conversations.
The Minister of State shared her personal story and I shall do the same. As a 13 or 14 year old child I was a benzo user and we used to buy them in packets in Tallaght. Had I been arrested for doing so my life would not have gone the way that it has. Instead, I received support and I am now standing here today as someone who has worked in addiction services for 15 years.
We spoke about talking to the people on the ground. I talk to them every day and I am speaking on their behalf. If Members want me to fill the room and committee rooms with those people in order to facilitate discussions then I will do so.
I ask Senators to consider the following. If we agree that the Portuguese model is a good one then I suggest that we completely remove the amendments to the Bill until those discussions have taken place.
I am only here a few weeks. I was very taken by the Minister of State's very passionate argument. She has made a cogent case. I am impressed. I do not doubt the Minister of State's commitment and her track record in her own constituency. She is someone who comes with a long tradition of consultation and engagement in her community. I want it to put it on record that I have been amazed by her contribution here. She has come across with passion and conviction. It is not the usual old script that is read into the record. I am impressed by the way she has stood up and her understanding of her community. I held a different view but having listened to the Minister of State that is somewhat changed. That is important. It is the job of any Minister to come to the House and make a strong case for his or her argument and I thank her for doing so.
In terms of future plans and timetabling, the Minister of State has stated that she wants to bring forward legislation. When will that happen? We need to strike a balance because what Senator Ruane has said is also true. That is the dichotomy and the dilemma we are faced with but there is a will to do something. Can the Minister of State reassure us by telling us when the Portuguese model will be rolled out? What about the four acute detox beds? What is she going to do about that? She is the Minister of State. Can she give me and the Seanad an undertaking that this will be her No. 1 priority next week? In two weeks' time what if I call the Minister of State back to the House and ask her, "What have you done about the four detox beds?" She made the valid point that people who wish to be rehabilitated have nowhere to go and there is no further progression for them. I want to hear about timescales and timeframes. Has she enough resources and money to provide services? There is also the issues of the detox beds and rehabilitation. Two valid arguments have been made here. I would be inclined to support the Minister of State if she can convince us in terms of the timeframe being within a matter of weeks, rather than months.
I understand that we are taking Report Stage tomorrow. I withdraw my amendment on the basis that I shall resubmit it tomorrow on Report Stage. Therefore, I give the Minister of State 24 hours to consider my amendment.
I am a bit taken aback by Fianna Fáil's suggestion that unnamed community groups are jumping up and down because they have been upset by this proposal. That is not the case for the groups that I have dealt with such as Citywide, the USI and Peter McVerry. The political parties in both Houses have changed their position all of the time such as the Green Party, People Before Profit and AAA. Also, the justice committee of these Houses, as indicated by the Minister of State herself, also supports this position.
I am not convinced that we will have this conversation at a later stage because the legislation was also supposed to include the provision for medically-supervised injection centres and that measure has been separated from the Bill. I do not accept the suggestion either that the Bill is a response to what is happening in the north inner city because the Bill before us is a reaction a year later to the High Court case of March 2015. I do not accept the suggestion that the Bill is motivated by the recent murder spree in the north inner city because it is a response to a legislative need arising, as I indicated, from a High Court ruling. It is not acceptable to constantly state we can have the conversation some other time.
I got support from the Minister of State’s colleagues in Cabinet in the previous Government. The Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, was very supportive of the idea to have injection centres. The initiative was passed by the Cabinet and was to be included in the Bill before the House but it has been separated and we will have to deal with it another time. The Minister of State indicated the Bill would be likely to come before us in the autumn. She said we would deal with decriminalisation at some other stage. There were 679 drug and alcohol-related deaths in 2013. Addicts have very limited access in terms of having a voice. What Senator Ruane, Senator Black and others have said is that it is surely a humane approach - that in the cold light of day in a courtroom situation, it should be a defence for somebody to admit to being an addict and that he or she is in possession of drugs because of the addiction. I am sure any prosecuting garda, judge or jury would be able to make a determination that the nature of the addiction is a reasonable defence for the individual.
To reinforce what we have always done because we have always done it does not stand up to scrutiny. I will press the amendment on Report Stage tomorrow. I urge the Minister of State to reflect on her position between now and then. I also ask those Members who have spoken against the amendment to think again about it and perhaps to re-engage with people who know what they are talking about. I mentioned the CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign, Fr. Peter McVerry, and the report that was done by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence. USI has again come out in favour of the decriminalisation of drug use. We are not resiling from the ideal of a drug-free society. That is absolutely not the case, but what we want is for it to be realised that somebody with an addiction needs help, support, compassion and medical attention, and does not need to be sitting in a courtroom or have a criminal conviction because of the nature of his or her medical need.
I listened carefully to the previous speaker and he has removed some of the reason for me to speak, but only temporarily. I was going to ask the Senators to withdraw the amendments given the fact that the vast majority of people in this Chamber are in agreement that this is a health issue and we do need to decriminalise it, but that in order to achieve that it requires a comprehensive piece of legislation and we cannot just do it as an amendment to the Bill. As I already outlined, there are all the other parts of it that the Portuguese have put in place that we do not have in place.
Notwithstanding the terrible tragedy of the deaths of which Senator Ó Ríordáin has spoken and the fact that behind each of those individuals lies a real person and a family bereaved and distressed and a community suffering loss, there must be a real organised approach to the issue. Accepting the amendment today will not bring any of those people back or prevent any more deaths from occurring unless it is supported by the ancillary issues I have already mentioned in terms of how to deal with people when they are caught in possession and how to help steer them away and keep them out of the criminal system. Some addicts will become drug pushers, not the big noises, but there is a chain and we must start somewhere within that chain. I concur with everyone in this Chamber who said this is a health problem and it should be treated as such, that people should be supported to get off drugs and they should not be criminalised for being an addict. I fully agree with that but we must do it in an organised fashion and in a way that will work and will deliver and will not create more problems for us.
The approach of the Minister of State is correct. I ask the Senators to consider withdrawing the amendments on Report Stage as well, given the fact that the Minister of State has undertaken to come back to us in the autumn for a debate which will result in comprehensive legislation to address the issue and to provide the infrastructure that is required. I again commend the Minister of State.
I also commend the Minister of State on her contribution, but I advise my colleagues that there is a legal aspect to the issue as well in terms of the interpretation the courts can give. The amendments tabled will cause problems in terms of taking action against any pusher if the amendments, as tabled, are adopted. I am coming purely from a legal perspective. If accepted, the amendments would cause legal technicalities to arise and that must be taken into account as well. The Minister of State has given a commitment to come back to the House at the earliest possible date with a more comprehensive package. We must also ensure we have comprehensive structures put in place to deal with the situation.
I wish to address one or two points before I conclude. Does Senator Devine wish me to tell her now, tomorrow, next week or the week after that there will be four new detox beds in St. James’s Hospital? I cannot do that, but I will give a commitment that I will do everything I can within my role as Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy to make sure that we make rehabilitation and detox beds very much part of the national drugs strategy and to increase the number of beds. There is no point in us bringing people through a process of working in the community with drug addiction, bringing in counsellors and project workers and trying to co-ordinate the area of substance misuse if when people come out the other end there is nowhere for them to go. It is not adequate to have only a small amount of detox beds and that is something on which I will give my personal commitment. I do not have a chequebook but I give my personal commitment that I will come back to the House on the issue.
The public consultation will be announced near the end of July and people will have an opportunity to feed into the national drugs strategy. Then it will go back to the commission and when the national drugs strategy is being formulated, people will also have a chance to look at it and to contribute to it.
In response to Senator Ó Ríordáin, ten years ago when I was spokesperson on the drugs strategy for Fine Gael in opposition, one of the key points I made was about medically-supervised injection centres. That has not gone off the radar. It is there. The Bill is coming in the autumn and we will ensure it will happen. I will not give the Senator a commitment on a date, for example, that we will open a project on 31 December but I will give a commitment that in 2017 if I am still in this position I will prioritise and push for the establishment of medically-supervised injection centres because they work. They have been shown to work in various countries around the world. The issue has not gone off the radar. Is Senator Ó Ríordáin going to withdraw the amendment?
I will resubmit it tomorrow.
Is Senator Ruane pressing amendment No. 1?
No. I will resubmit it on Report Stage.
Sections 4 to 7, inclusive, agreed to.
Amendment No. 2 has already been discussed with amendment No. 1.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 5, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following:
“Possession of controlled drugs for personal use
8. Notwithstanding anything in the Misuse of Drugs Acts 1977 to 2015, in any proceedings for an offence under those Acts it shall be a defence to prove that the defendant had in his or her possession a controlled drug for his or her personal use and for no other purpose.”.
Is Senator Ó Ríordáin pressing the amendment?
No. I will withdraw it with a view to resubmitting it on Report Stage.
When is it proposed to take Report Stage?