I am pleased to have this opportunity to address the Dáil on the National Drugs Strategy 2001-2008 and the mid-term review of that strategy, the outcome of which was published in March 2005. The operational timespan for the current national drugs strategy is drawing to a conclusion and I see today's debate as opening the process of drawing up a new strategy for the coming years. Already I have sought nominations to a steering group, which will be made up of representatives of various Departments, agencies and the community and voluntary sectors, to facilitate the development of a new national drugs strategy for the period 2009 to 2016.
I am very much aware that the current national drugs strategy grew out of the work done by Members of various parties in the second half of the 1990s. This included the first and second reports of the ministerial task force on measures to reduce the demand for drugs in 1996 and 1997, and much work subsequent to the finalisation of these reports. I acknowledge the work and commitment of all involved at that time. I pay particular tribute to Deputy Rabbitte, under whose tenure the report was published, to Chris Flood who was the first Minister with responsibility for this area and to subsequent Ministers for the work they have done, and for the co-operation the strategy has received both inside and outside the House from the various political parties.
I see today's debate as contributing to the formulation of the new strategy and I am keen to listen to the views of Members and to consider any proposals they have on how to address the issue of problem drug use in society. This debate gives an opportunity to Members, as elected representatives of the people, to contribute in a significant way to the framing of the review of the strategy. I look forward to engaging with Members of the Oireachtas as the new strategy is developed. The Government is determined that it will facilitate the tackling of the illicit drugs problem in a comprehensive and effective way.
Problem drug use is a complex and difficult issue. This is a global problem and no country has succeeded in coming to terms with all aspects of it. Our efforts to tackle it in Ireland must be seen in that context. However, the National Drugs Strategy 2001-2008 has achieved considerable success in reducing the hardship caused by problem drug use to individuals, their families and the wider community. The main broad achievements include the hugely increased level of drugs seizures by the Garda and the Customs and Excise service; under the prevention pillar, the SPHE and Walk Tall programmes have been rolled out to all schools — in that regard I have asked the Department of Education and Science to examine what might be done to sharpen the focus on senior cycle students in regard to drugs awareness; various awareness campaigns have been run.
A new national drugs awareness campaign, focused on cocaine and utilising modern media, is in preparation; and tremendous achievements have been made under the young peoples facilities and services fund, run by my Department; treatment facilities have increased significantly. Approximately 8,500 people are now in receipt of methadone, and a range of services are being provided across the statutory, voluntary and community sectors for various types of problem drug use. The research outcome longitudinal study in Ireland, known colloquially as ROSIE, undertaken by the national advisory committee on drugs, focused on outcomes for opiate users in treatment and showed that considerable success is being achieved. Their experience after the first year of treatment indicate that most service users have been retained in treatment leading to substantial reductions in drug use. Participants also reported substantial decreases in their involvement in crime and significant improvements in general health. Members will be aware of the recent study carried out by the Keltoi Centre in St. Mary's Hospital in the Phoenix Park which showed significant outcomes in terms of rehabilitation in particular. Research continues in areas such as drugs prevalence, cocaine, treatment outcomes and families and drugs, informing our current progress and helping towards the development of a new strategy.
Arising from the mid-term review of the national drugs strategy, rehabilitation became the fifth pillar of that strategy. Subsequently, the report of the working group on drugs rehabilitation was published in May this year and the implementation of the recommendations therein have been included as a commitment in the programme for Government. I am determined to press ahead with this work as a priority. The specific achievements of my Department under the strategy include the programmes developed by local and regional drugs task forces, capital projects developed under the premises initiative fund and preventative actions undertaken through the young people's facilities and services fund. The 14 local drugs task forces have been in operation for nearly ten years and they support approximately 300 interim-funded community-based projects employing more than 300 people. More than 100 further projects that started at local drugs task force level have been mainstreamed. These projects deliver a wide range of services and supports for problem drug users, their families and their broader communities. Currently an evaluation process on the interim-funded local drugs task force projects is nearing completion and it is hoped that the results of this will help to inform our ongoing efforts at community level. Since my appointment I have visited all the local drugs task force areas, met with representatives of the various task forces and visited many projects. I was impressed by the general quality of the projects and by the enthusiasm and commitment of those working on the ground. There is no doubt that much has been achieved. Too often the drugs problem attracts negative headlines but there is also a positive story to be told regarding the prevention measures, the help being given and the real improvement in the lives of many people.
Ten regional drugs task forces were established in 2003, thus ensuring that all parts of the country benefit from the operation of a drugs task force. It has taken time to get regional drugs task forces fully up and running, and some managed to progress more quickly than others, but they are now pressing ahead towards full implementation of their plans over the next year or so, at a full cost in excess of €14 million per annum. The Government is committed to making this sum available and the programme for Government confirms our commitment to develop and strengthen the range of projects being undertaken through drugs task forces. As in the case of the local drugs task force areas, I am also undertaking a series of visits to regional drug task forces and many of their projects, to hear at first hand what are regarded as the issues on the ground and to assess the response in hand so far. In the past ten days I have held meetings and visited projects in Athlone, Cork and Waterford and I hope to visit Sligo, Longford and Carlow next week. While progress countrywide varies, huge improvements are being made and the same spirit and commitment is in evidence around the country. I see my role as being truly on a national level and it is my intention to ensure that we are in a position to respond to drugs issues wherever they occur.
The young people's facilities and services fund was established to assist in the development of youth facilities, including sport and recreational facilities, and services in disadvantaged areas where a significant drug problem exists, or has the potential to develop. Earlier this week I opened Knocknaheeny youth "Link-Point" project in Cork and the Farronshoneen Youth and Community Centre in Waterford — two hugely impressive developments, substantially funded by the young people's facilities and services fund, that will bring great and immediate benefits to the youth of those areas. Overall, the main aim of the fund is to attract "at risk" young people in disadvantaged areas into these facilities and activities and divert them away from the dangers of substance abuse. The target group of the programme is young people in the age range of ten to 21 years who are defined as "at risk" due to factors such as family circumstances, educational disadvantage or involvement in crime or substance misuse.
To date, allocations totalling over €130 million have been made to nearly 500 facility and services projects in LDTF areas in Dublin, Bray and Cork, as well as in Galway, Limerick, Waterford and Carlow, all of which are currently in the operational areas of the fund. Indeed, building on the significant success of the operation of the YPFSF to date, the programme for Government envisages the expansion of the fund to further towns, mainly in Leinster, and I will be considering such expansion in the short term.
I have spent much of the first five months as Minister of State building on my knowledge of the drugs issue through meetings and interaction with service users and service providers in those projects operating in communities around the country. Apart from the extensive contacts that this entailed with the community and voluntary sectors, I have engaged with statutory and nationally focused bodies such as various representatives of the Health Service Executive, judges of the drugs court, whom I met last week, the Garda and the Irish Prison Service. I have been impressed by the range and quality of the work being undertaken and by the dedication and commitment of the people involved, working in the main under various actions of the national drugs strategy.
A theme that repeats itself across all my interactions is the importance of inter-agency co-operation, crossing statutory, community and voluntary sectors. Such inter-agency working to maximise the impact of initiatives for the benefit of problem drug users and the various clients of drug initiatives is something that we must aim to foster across all our work. Indeed, where it works well, as is the case with the young peoples' facilities I opened this week in Cork and Waterford, the benefits to the target group who will use these facilities is obvious and very encouraging. Through the new strategy, we must ensure that groups work together consistently in the coming years to maximise benefits. I ask everybody to support that as the way forward.
I have already spoken about some of the prevention measures under the national drugs strategy. Since my appointment I have repeatedly emphasised my particular focus on prevention — if we can prevent people starting a drug habit we can avoid the heartache and pain, as well as the expense, that arises as a result. In regard to prevention, I pay tribute to the fine supplement on drugs that was circulated with theIrish Examiner last week. This was indeed a timely, useful and thought provoking publication and I applaud all involved.
My other main stated focus is on rehabilitation — if we can facilitate people to become fully involved in the process of regaining their capacity for daily life from the impact of problem drug use through a continuum of care we will, in each individual case, achieve a great deal and facilitate a better life for many. Rehabilitation became the fifth pillar of the strategy arising from the mid-term review. The programme for Government commits the Government to implementing the recommendations of the report of the working group on drugs rehabilitation and I am determined to progress this quickly with inter-agency support and co-operation.
The key recommendations involved are an effective inter-agency approach based on a continuum of care for the individual; an expansion of the range of treatment options; building on the rehabilitative impact of community employment schemes; broader life issues including medical support, access to employment, access to education, housing, particular issues relating to the rehabilitation of offenders, child care, the role of families in the rehabilitation process; and research. The substantially increased focus on rehabilitation is very significant in the context of the preparation of the new strategy. It is most important that we go the extra distance to ensure that people are empowered to access the social, economic and cultural benefits of life in line with their needs and aspirations.
Implementation of the recommendations of the report will be led by the HSE and co-ordinated through a national drug rehabilitation implementation committee. In keeping with the national drugs strategy generally, the process will involve in-depth cross-departmental inter-agency co-operation in liaison with the community and voluntary sectors. The aim is to ensure that such co-operation is achieved from the top policy level to the implementation of the care plans of individual recovering problem drug users. Linked to the rehabilitation report this year is an allocation of €150,000 made by my Department for the further development of a family support network for families affected by problem drug use. This allocation will facilitate the development of the network as a national organisation, thereby ensuring a more co-ordinated approach to the issue of family support within the national drugs strategy.
Problem drug use can have a devastating effect on the family. I have long been of the view that it is particularly important to have appropriate, accessible and timely services in place to help these families to overcome the problems they face, very often in situations where problems of this kind were never envisaged by the people involved. While primarily focusing on the provision of support to the families of problem drug users, the money being made available to the family support network will also indirectly help to facilitate an increased involvement of these families in supporting the recovering drug users. This is in line with the recommendations of the report of the working group on drugs rehabilitation. That report, while recommending increased support for families, also called for increased inclusion of families in the rehabilitation process of their loved ones, thus more fully unlocking the potential that families have to aid recovery.
Meanwhile, the drugs situation in Ireland is constantly evolving and we must continue to be flexible in our attitudes and policies so that we can adapt our approach to meet whatever challenges arise. Thus, we are endeavouring to tackle the cocaine problem in a proactive way. It is only when the second national drug prevalence survey is completed — the first reports from which will be published in January — that we will have an up-to-date picture of the prevalence of illegal drug use, including cocaine use, in our society. However, it is clear from the previous prevalence survey, as well as from international evidence, that young adults, especially males, in the 15-34 age group are the key at risk group.
The national advisory committee on drugs publication, "An Overview of Cocaine Use in Ireland", which was published in March, brings together all available data on cocaine use in Ireland. It concludes that data sources indicate an upward trend in cocaine use, albeit from a low base. The report highlighted the extremely high risks associated with cocaine use, risks that are often underestimated by users, as was sadly the case in Ballybeg in Waterford city last weekend. I send every good wish to those who are seriously ill in Waterford and I hope they make a full recovery. However, incidents such as this will happen when people take illicit drugs — which by definition are open to adulteration with various substances, if they were not dangerous enough in any case.
Cocaine causes physical problems such as heart conditions, strokes, nasal problems and respiratory ailments. Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, agitation, compulsive behaviour and paranoia can occur. On top of these risks are the financial, social and dependency issues that arise and the increased threat of crime and violence. Furthermore, cocaine is particularly dangerous when combined with alcohol and other substances and the messages on the real dangers associated with its use need to be brought home to users. I stress again the dangers associated with so-called recreational or weekend cocaine use and the glamorising of cocaine in some quarters. Apart from damaging themselves in various ways, such users cause social and economic harm to their families and to the communities that bear the brunt of the behaviour and criminal activity associated with the supply and use of cocaine.
Individuals have to take personal responsibility for their actions and they must consider the negative implications of their behaviour on other people when taking so-called recreational drugs. Their use of drugs such as cocaine is impacting on others, including people in some disadvantaged communities where we are witnessing violence, including murder, notwithstanding the wholehearted efforts of the Garda and other statutory, community and voluntary organisations.
The NACD report makes a number of recommendations, principally in regard to treatment, but also covering supply, prevention and research. A key conclusion of the report is that treatment, primarily in the form of counselling, can and does work and that there is no need to be unduly concerned by the absence of a replacement drug, as in the case of heroin. In regard to treatment, some stimulant specific treatment interventions are recommended although it is accepted that drug services generally should be capable of catering for the individual problem drug user, regardless of the drugs they use.
Recommendations in regard to the training of front line personnel to deal with cocaine issues are being followed up both by the HSE and by my Department. Indeed, my Department has already funded training initiatives as well as four pilot cocaine treatment projects to examine different methods of treatment for cocaine use. The HSE is currently rolling out appropriate training to service providers both within the HSE and in the community and voluntary sectors. Furthermore, under the emerging needs fund of my Department, six cocaine specific projects in local drugs task force areas have been funded and allocations have also been made under the fund in support of a further nine projects aimed at polydrug-cocaine use. My Department also sponsored a highly successful conference, organised by the SAOL project and the NDST in Croke Park last June, on the response to cocaine through shared good practice. A very useful resource pack for workers in the field was launched at thatevent.
Overall, it is my priority to closely monitor the progression of the implementation of the recommendations of this report as appropriate through the HSE, the Department of Health and Children, the Garda, the Irish Prison Service, drug task forces and others. I am co-ordinating this through my chairmanship of the interdepartmental group on drugs, where reports on implementation are a standing agenda item. The challenges posed by cocaine use are significant, but I am confident that we can deal with these challenges through a co-ordinated approach utilising the structures of the national drugs strategy.
As I indicated, I have initiated the process that will lead to the formulation of a new national drugs strategy for the period post-2008. I have long been of the opinion that the problems of alcohol and illicit drug use are interlinked so I will be stressing the need for synergy in the approach to these issues. Again, the formulation of the new drugs strategy will involve collaboration between Departments and agencies and the community and voluntary sectors. We will face many challenges over the coming years but I am confident that with a concerted effort by all involved we can build on our experiences and achievements to date and successfully tackle the problems presented over time by the evolving drugs situation. As I said at the outset, it is important that Members of the Oireachtas contribute to the development of a new national drugs strategy. I look forward to hearing the views of Members on this important matter.
I wish to avail of this opportunity to apologise to Deputy Byrne, who has just come into the Chamber, for not being present to take a matter on the Adjournment last week. It was an oversight on my part and I apologise to the Deputy for it.