I call the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney.
Head Shops: Statements.
With the permission of the Cathaoirleach, rather than making an opening statement, I would like to hear the contributions of the Senators and then respond to them. It would be more meaningful if I could respond to what they have to say.
Is that agreed? Agreed. I call Senator Feeney.
I am rising before my time. I did not believe I would be called so soon. I welcome the Minister to the Chamber and am delighted she is present to hear what Senators are discussing. I am sure Senator Buttimer agrees. These statements highlight the concern surrounding head shops.
I did not know much about head shops until a few people contacted me about them just before and over Christmas. This correspondence reminded me that I had been contacted around 2006 by a lovely family in south County Dublin who had lost a son very tragically because he had taken a drug he had bought legally in a head shop. I remembered the heartache and trouble visited on that family, from which they probably still suffer. The talk about head shops has not died down. It is in the print media and on the radio and television.
When I looked up the definition of a head shop I noted "head shops [. . .] sell ‘legal highs', products that are legal but can provide experiences similar to those offered by outlawed drugs". The products sold in head shops mimic the effect of illicit drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy. I read that the shops "also sell paraphernalia associated with drug taking such as hash pipes and bongs".
When I was researching this subject, I became a little bit of an expert. They say a little knowledge is a bad thing but, in this case, it is probably a good thing because I am now very familiar with words such as "Snow Blow", "Nirvana" and "Stone Zone", which the Cathaoirleach will not know. One can buy all the legal highs in outlets that have lovely names such as Happy Daze, Dreamland Promotions and High Times. One does not have to be too bright or too up to date with what is going on around one to know that if one is shopping in a shop with such a name and buying items that carry names such as Snow Blow and Nirvana, one knows well what one is buying. One does not have to be too bright to know these are a gateway to harder drugs. The products are deliberately aimed at the young population, which is worrying.
I watched "Prime Time" last Tuesday. It has always brought such terribly sad viewing to our living rooms, yet it is very realistic. I was talking at the weekend to my daughter's friend who is 23. She was telling me she works off Dame Street and knew there was a head shop in the area. She said she had seen perhaps one or two customers coming and going and that the shop never really caught her eye. However, when she left work at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, the night after "Prime Time", there was a queue a quarter of a mile up the street to get into the head shop. With regard to highlighting the dangers of head shops, one is damned if one does and damned if one does not. "Prime Time" was right to highlight the terrible plague on society that they constitute. Our hands are tied because technically the shops have the right to exist, yet they have no right to exist in the minds of God-fearing, good-living people. It is a catch-22 situation in that if one highlights the terrors of head shops, one opens the door to people who are looking for products such as those on sale therein in that they now know where to find them.
Head shops are a plague on society. Dozens have opened, not only in big towns but also in small towns. I was in the town in which I grew up, Tullamore, at the weekend and saw it has a head shop. The shops are open until 4 a.m. and at weekends to attract young people coming out of nightclubs and bars. That is the age group they target.
On the way to the Chamber I was talking to Senator Twomey who I know has young children. I told him I feel sorry for a parent such as him. At least my children are young adults who I hope and pray have the sense not to frequent head shops. For parents with young children, the head shops must be a nightmare. When one is a young teenager, one believes one's parents know nothing and that one's friends know everything. One is very easily influenced. The people I see hanging around head shops – I am not out too late at night – are young teenagers under 18. Perhaps they are not sold the goods when they go into the shops but they probably have somebody buying them for them.
The United Kingdom has banned certain so-called legal highs. What it has banned is now flooding into the Irish market. The Minister is only too familiar with BZP pills, party pills, which mimic ecstasy, and the synthetic cannabis called Spice. It is very difficult to be on top of all this because no sooner is one substance banned, whether in the UK or in Ireland, than a chemist or other scientifically minded person will have a new component to add. It could be a component used in rat poison or other veterinary products. Young people do not know what they are putting into their system when they buy such products. It is so difficult to keep up to date with what is happening, especially in the world of science and chemistry. There are always little components that can be tweaked to make things more glamorous, but they are dangerous or even fatal to those taking them.
I commend the Minister who, I know, was very taken by that family who lost their son in 2006. We had direct contact with that family and, as a result, our hearts went out to them. It was terrible for a tragedy to befall such a lovely family. As a result of that person's death, however, magic mushrooms were banned. That was as a result of the Minister's good work. In addition, BZPs have been banned since last year through the good offices of the Minister, Deputy Harney, and the Minister of State, Deputy Curran. I watched him on that "Prime Time" programme and he is doing great work in this regard. No matter how much work we put into this, however, a bit of tweaking can always bring about something even more dangerous.
A Kildare newspaper — I think it was the Leinster Leader — reported that gardaí in Naas have received numerous complaints about head shops. The one they are looking into is called Dreamland Promotions, which is close to two boys’ schools. The people running such head shops obviously pick these locations deliberately. I was surprised to read in that report that the landlord of the shop is a member of the Judiciary. There is nothing illegal in owning a shop premises and leasing it to somebody who will run a business there. If I had my way I would ban these head shops. In that way, parents and others could sleep easily in their beds at night. Realistically, however, that cannot be done so we must examine the options.
There has been such a growth in head shops that one cannot but notice them. None the less, they are not subject to any health and safety or commercial regulations. Meanwhile, we have stringent laws that apply to other outlets, including off-licences. The Minister has attended this House on previous occasions to discuss the consumption of alcohol by youths who send older people into off-licence premises to buy drink for them. We have come down rather heavily, particularly on opening hours and fines for off-licences which sell drink to under age youths. Despite this, we know that seriously dangerous drugs are on sale in head shops. One can push open the door and ask for "Snow Blow", "Spice", "Stone Zone" or "Nirvana". One can have anything there on request.
It was interesting to see a man from one of the Dublin head shops on the "Prime Time" programme. He was pathetic and said: "I'm selling bath salts. You put them in the bath." However, we saw a young man who had inhaled or ingested that substance — I am ignorant as to what people do to get high from these substances — and he was incoherent. He could hardly put two words together. There must be some way we can allow the Garda Síochána to visit head shops and ensure regulations are not being broken. Let us see what the Revenue Commissioners think of such premises. Is there anything more sinister behind the already terrible vista arising from the sale of such substances?
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. This debate is both timely and necessary but we should have had it before now. There has been an exponential growth in the number of head shops throughout the country. As Senator Feeney said, these shops sell legal highs designed to give people a feeling of elation. Such premises should be subject to strict regulation immediately because they are dangerous and are causing untold damage. There are numerous reasons people buy such products in head shops, including quick stimulation, unemployment, lack of community facilities, personal issues or boredom. Over one weekend in January, five people were treated at the Mercy Hospital in Cork because of adverse reactions to drugs purchased at head shops in the city centre. These head shops have attracted national attention in recent weeks. I commend Joe Duffy's "Liveline" programme for its continual coverage of the effects and dangers involved. From the stories on that programme as well as e-mails and my personal contacts with people, it is frightening and upsetting to see the effects of such substances. Head shops have become embedded in larger towns and cities, in particular over the past 18 months. It is time we got real about these premises The products sold by head shops seek to create the same effects as illegal and highly addictive drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy and hash. Some substances sold in head shops may have seemingly innocuous names but their side effects are damaging.
The irony is they are sold in legally owned or rented, tax-compliant premises. That is the first problem. The substances sold in head shops produce many of the same social ills as their proscribed counterparts. We need to change the law in this respect. The Minister of State, Deputy John Curran, recently told an Oireachtas committee that this is a complex matter, which it is. We accept that, but we must change the law. We started by taking action on BZP and other products, but the law urgently needs to be changed in this regard.
The Irish Medicines Board has no control over products sold in these shops. Due to the lack of regulation on production, strength and consistency, no one knows exactly what these products contain. We talk about the lack of medical assessment in using such products, but no medical advice is sought or given prior to their use. We should examine the current uncontrolled use of these products which are frequently taken in conjunction with other head shop products, drugs, medication or alcohol, with a profound impact. There is no control on the age of those who purchase them, so anyone can walk into head shops.
The national drugs strategy specifically mentions that local community facilities need to be improved so that young people will not engage in anti-social behaviour, including experimentation with drugs. Many new communities which sprang up in recent years have no joined-up thinking on planning. Therefore the Government and local authorities should join forces to provide such communities with facilities where young people can engage in healthy activities while staying away from head shop products.
In January, Dr. Chris Luke, with whom the Minister is familiar, wrote in the Irish Examiner:
In the past few months we have seen a relentless rise in the number of seriously distressed young adults and teenagers being hospitalised due to head shop highs, with panic, paranoia, delirium, psychosis and chest pain.
If that statement from a learned professional man is not a damning indictment of the products which are sold legally in these shops, then what is? It is also an indictment of Government, which profits from the sale of these products, that we have not put in place a proper drugs awareness and education programme. The national drugs strategy has not worked entirely and has failed in some areas. It is a damning indictment of society also that we failed to tackle the thorny issue of drug use and addiction. Research has shown clearly that a certain percentage of people who use soft drugs progress onto other drugs. We know that is the case with alcohol, tobacco, hashish and other drugs. The reality, which I accept, is that many young people will experiment and graduate on to other drugs but we are all missing the fundamental point. There are devastating personal, familial and social consequences which carry a huge economic cost in terms of the health service but, more importantly, in terms of the human lives that have been destroyed by the use of these drugs.
A link has been established between the use of drugs and the head shop product and the emerging mental health need, through use with other drugs and alcohol, and it will result in an increase in public health and social health difficulties. There must be a clear commitment from Government that we will fund local communities as part of the five key pillars of the national drugs strategy.
In 2006 theIrish Examiner, which has been a pioneering newspaper regarding the sale and use of illegal drugs, revealed that drugs up to five times the strength of ecstasy were being sold over the counter in at least 15 head shops throughout Ireland. These were class A drugs, which are banned in the United States since 2001. We banned party pills in April, BZP being their main ingredient, but it must be a criminal offence to buy, sell or possess the drugs often called pep pills, which are sold under the names “Jax” or “Smileys”.
Under the Fine Gael proposal the planning permission criteria for head shops will have to change to make it more like the planning permission criteria for sex shops. I have an open mind on whether we should ban them outright or have strict regulation.
In regard to the national drugs strategy, it is imperative that the emergence of these new markets, in terms of the supply of these shops, is tackled immediately. If one does research on head shops, as Senator Feeney and I have done, as has Senator Healy Eames, who has been to the forefront on this issue in this House, one will discover that many of these products are labelled "not for human consumption". If one goes onto the websitewww.Irishheadstores.com one will see that the label on a product called “Oceanic” states that it will give one “wave after wave of amazing euphoric sensations! A fantastic herbal high!”. One of the reviews on an on-line message board by people who have taken these products stated: “It is not for human consumption”. Another stated: “I took four lines on a night out”. Another stated: “No fuss, no mess. Two lines, one pack and your [sic] set for the night”. “Oceanic” is being sold as a bath salt.
It is clear from talking to people and meeting with parents and young people who have been engaged in this, and from listening to Dr. Chris Luke and others, "Liveline", the Minister, Deputy Harney, and other Senators, that we must put in place a mechanism in law and a change in regulations because young people who are computer literate have access to information and access to credit and laser cards and can buy these products on-line. If the Minister starts in Temple Bar and travels to Cork and all the provincial towns throughout Ireland she will find that more and more people are trying these products because they believe they give them confidence and do not pose any threat to their lives. They believe there is no need for concern as would be the case if they took "E" or other tablets. The reality is that it is false advertising and the damage that can be caused is horrendous.
Deputy James Reilly, our health spokesman, has laid out a number of criteria and steps to be taken, including that the labelling of these products must come under the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the Irish Medicines Board and that these substances must be properly labelled. It is wrong to sell a product under the guise of a bath salt or plant food when the common practice is for young people to misuse it by consuming it.
We must have joined up thinking on this issue. Any analog of these banned substances must be put into quarantine until they are analysed and approved by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the Irish Medicines Board. Also, these products must have product liability insurance. As a minimum, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government must come into this House with legislation on planning to cover head shops.
These products are harmful to humans. We are talking about people's lives in this debate, not the profitability of those people who, unashamedly, have been on national television and radio saying they have done nothing wrong other than make money. In some cases they are making profits of €1,500 to €3,000 a week, and more in other cases. Young people are dying, families are being ruined, and mothers and fathers are upset. As Dr. Chris Luke said, the mind-altering behaviour that occurs is frightening.
These products are a clear and lasting danger to people. I accept we must have balance and that we cannot become a prohibitive state and ban everything but as a teacher, an educationalist and Fine Gael spokesman on drugs in this House, I have become acutely aware of the inordinate damage these products cause. We must ban certain products and have a tighter regulatory imposition on head shops.
Magic mushrooms and BZP have been banned but as Senator Feeney rightly said, these people are coming up with smarter and different ways to sell their products. We do not have to wait for another human tragedy to occur. We can act collectively. Those of us on this side of the House will work in collaboration with Government to bring in legislation to limit the damage these products can cause. The time for rhetoric is at an end. It is action we require. The Minister has a commitment from her Department, as does the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, but we need legislation and regulation as a matter of urgency.
I concur with previous speakers in terms of the major problem caused by these head shops. In 2009 alone, €104 million was spent on addiction treatment. The people who use the products sold in these head shops will eventually progress to harder drugs, which will cost the Health Service Executive a great deal more money because they will become addicted. There is no question about that. As somebody who served on the health board for almost eight years and visited addiction centres throughout the country, I saw the problems that arise with addiction at that level. Those particular substances are banned but the problem with these head shops is that young people — my grandchildren, for the sake of argument — believe that if these shops are selling these products they must not be harmful. That is the terrible position we are now in and we need to take immediate action. There is unanimity on the need to do something as responsible parents and adults, particularly in this House where legislation is important. It is our job to ensure we introduce the necessary legislation to ban these substances.
We can look at the figures in other countries in Europe but there are an estimated 14,500 opiate users in this country. That was the figure in 2009 and I am sure it has increased. These people are ruthless and are only in the business to make money. They do not consider the devastation this causes for young people who do not have the sense to realise these substances may damage their health. Many of them will graduate to using harder drugs. Spice has already been banned in Austria, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Lithuania, Estonia, Sweden and Hungary and will soon be banned in the United Kingdom.
The Minister will agree good addiction programmes are in place in the health service. I was involved with the health boards in setting up many methadone centres which have worked extremely well. However, methadone is a very addictive substance and we have not yet found a way of taking people off it.
All drugs sold by chemists are tested but none of the products in head shops is. Will the Minister introduce a scheme under which any product sold over the counter that could affect people's health would have to be tested? Health and safety are to the fore in the workplace; one cannot walk onto a building site without wearing a hard hat and boots. The same must apply in this case.
"Prime Time" and the Joe Duffy show broadcast good items on the dangers of the substances sold in head shops and how they were affecting young people. It is an urgent matter which I appeal to the Minister for Health and Children to address through legislation. The Seanad has sat late to discuss banking legislation. If we have to work late into the night to pass legislation dealing with head shops, so be it.
We do not have exact figures for how many young people have suffered from using substances sold in head shops. These young people will feed into long-term addiction programmes and could easily double the amount needed by the HSE to maintain the programmes to €200 million a year, a colossal sum. New legislation will have to be introduced to deal with these shops involving the planning sections of local authorities. Will the Minister introduce such legislation as quickly as possible? While I accept it is not an easy area in which to legislate for, I believe the Seanad has the expertise and the will to ensure it can be done.
I very much welcome the opportunity to make a statement on this topic and, in particular, the time and trouble the Minister has taken to come into the House. I certainly have some suggestions to make as to how this matter can be addressed.
This issue has been evident for quite a while but in a minor way, although there have been tragic casualties resulting from the ingestion of magic mushrooms, psilocybin and other similar products. The Minister has acted directly under existing legislation, particularly the control of medicines Act, to outlaw the sale of magic mushrooms. However, that can only be partially effective, as people can still identify the fungi, pick them and take them. However, their sale in shops has been effectively curbed. The same has happened to BZP, benzylpiperazine, which has been shown to have serious adverse effects.
This issue was dormant and the Minister had examined certain aspects of it. That was until I heard some weeks ago a radio interview with a young doctor. He indicated that there had been an influx of people into casualty departments as a result of taking head shop substances which led to panic attacks, severe and recurring psychotic episodes and, like LSD, caused unpredictable results further down the line. It is clear head shops, so-called, have proliferated in the last while. According to the Garda, they are developing at the rate of one a month. As a result of this, I tabled a motion on 20 January seeking their regulation.
Subsequently, I heard Joe Duffy on his radio programme claim no one in Leinster House was listening to the concerns expressed about these shops and that the politicians, as usual, were doing absolutely nothing about it. I e-mailed him to say I had tabled a motion to that effect, raised the matter on the Order of Business and that the Seanad was moving towards all-party agreement on the issue. There were suggestions the motion be taken without debate but I am glad we decided on the making of statements. Mr. Duffy was on again today about the matter and I am glad Miss Grainne Kenny, a well known campaigner on the issue, drew his attention to the fact that Seanad Éireann was debating it. This shows we can be relevant, at least sometimes.
I know Miss Kenny would not agree with my position on drugs but I have been consistent on the issue. For many years I have said the way to address the drugs problem is through legalisation, regulation and quality control. Accordingly, the number of deaths would drop substantially. The level of crime would certainly be more than halved, even by 80% in inner cities, and the prison population would drop dramatically. However, I recognise this is a large political problem and cannot be tackled by one small country on its own. What I have recommended for illicit drugs, however, I recommend for head shops.
The traditional danger posed by head shop products is that they are untested, with very little oversight required in bringing them to the market. They are not tested on human beings and most of the data gathered are based on user reports. We only know their effects when a person appears in hospital or at his or her GP's surgery. There is even less information available on these products and their possible side effects when combined with other drugs such as alcohol, prescription medications, other head shop products or cannabis, heroin and cocaine. The medical profession has often stated there is a real problem of multiple addiction through the interactive use of these substances which can be very dangerous. The chairman of the national advisory committee on drugs, Dr. Des Corrigan, said the majority of these products would not meet basic standards of quality control. That makes them even more dangerous. As I indicated, the Minister has acted and some of the substances that were available in head shops have now been banned.
There are difficulties. Even in the United States which traditionally has had a strict drug enforcement policy head shops continue to operate and have proved difficult and expensive to remove, as they operate in a grey area, as I have seen here in Dublin. They sell bongs, with which I am sure the Minister is unfamiliar, which allow the most efficient inhalation of the fumes of cannabis resin which is burned using a water pipe, frequently made of glass. They are marketed as water pipes. One is told rolling paper is used to roll ordinary tobacco.
Then there are legal drugs and herbal supplements, some of which have been mentioned, including bath salts. I must say that was laughable. If there is such a demand for bath salts, how many go into a pharmacy to say they would like a packet of Radox because they want to stick it up their noses? The answer is very few; it would probably be quite dangerous if they were to use in this way. However, because they are sold as herbal medicines, bath salts, disinfectants, garden products, etc., they are queasily obviating their moral responsibility for what happens to those who take them because they are selling them in the sure and certain knowledge that the label on the packet is just a device to evade the law. Some of the products are naturally occurring and genuinely herbal. I did an experiment while I was in Cyprus where I read a detective novel in which one of the characters got high smoking nutmeg, a perfectly ordinary domestic product. I put some in a cigarette and smoked it to see if I could smoke something in the kitchen that would have an effect. It was an interesting experiment. Nothing happened — it was extremely disappointing — until I went to sleep when I had the most extraordinary collection of nightmares I had ever had in my life and it did not encourage me to repeat the experiment. That indicates how difficult this issue is, if these substances are mind-changing or hallucinogenic and are available in the kitchen. One cannot start to ban spices. We are in a difficult position.
That is one of the other reasons regulation is better. Instead of attempting to close all head shops, we could place the focus on researching the effects and properties of these legal products which make one high. It is important that we provide funding for research into these products, that there be an oversight committee responsible for their quality and which would also be able to ban anything that contained illicit drugs or products, as in the case of magic mushrooms.
There is a Misuse of Drugs Act which was amended in 1988, 1999, 2006 and 2009. However, the problem is that, although portions of it were changed or updated, the portion relevant to this debate has remained the essentially the same. The problem is that Act classifies illegal drugs by their specific chemical composition and the manufacturers have got very clever. By altering one or two elements, or making small changes to the molecular composition of drugs, they can produce something which is very close to cocaine but with which, legally, they have got round the definition and which is not defined under the law as an illegal drug. Many of the legal drugs involved produce similar results to the illegal ones such as speed, cocaine and cannabis, but they are demonstrably chemically distinct and, therefore, not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act. By making drugs similar in chemical composition to the illegal ones but not the same, they avoid the ban.
What is the solution? I do not know whether the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, has looked at the American legislation, but there is on the Statute Book in the United States an Act entitled the Controlled Substances Analogues Act. This American law could be helpful in the regulation of head shop products. Essentially, it states any substance, the effect or chemical composition of which is substantially similar to controlled substances may also be considered illegal. I recommend to the Minister that such should be the nub of whatever we introduce here, in other words, any substance, the effect or chemical composition of which is substantially similar is also outlawed. That is part of the solution. It would be a clean, simple and effective way of getting right to the nub of the matter.
In the United Kingdom the Medicines Act 1968 governs the supply and manufacture of medicines. Three categories of medicines are provided for: prescription only medicines, medicines provided by a pharmacist without a prescription and general medicines bought in a store. They have made progress by prosecuting people for the use or possession of certain head shop products on the assertion that they are medicinal in nature and thus misusing or possessing them without a prescription is illegal. This has met with marginal success, as it is only an offence to have prescription medication without a prescription if that medicine is covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act. It will, therefore, be difficult to ban them outright. As a libertarian, I am not sure I am 100% in favour of such a move. However, we can use this information on the American legislation and the United Kingdom precedent to address the problem with simple, clear, direct and effective legislation.
In addition to the resources available to this House, we are lucky to have assistants and researchers provided by the Institute of Public Administration. The information on the American precedent, for example, was garnered for me by Mr. Zach Cohen, my assistant. Getting young people involved in researching a subject such as this is beneficial, both to them and us. I am glad to record my thanks to him for his research work which has suggested something which perhaps the Minister will take up.
I congratulate the Seanad for adopting a unanimous stance. A sensible approach has been taken by all Members.
Senator Feeney referred to head shops as being a plague on society. That is certainly an appropriate way to describe what they do. However, if it were possible to simply bring forward legislation to ban products such as snow, blow, ice or charge plus, we could have it this evening. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that, which is where the difficulty arises.
We banned the sale of magic mushrooms in 2006, following a meeting I had had with the family of the late Mr. Colm Hodkinson. I will never forget that meeting during which I saw how troubled, devastated and upset that family were. Last year we banned BZP. As we ban these substances, small variations are made and, suddenly, there is a new product. That is the significant difficulty we face.
In the United Kingdom legislation was brought forward on 23 December last. We will have legislation ready within one month. Four regulations are required. There is a small team sitting behind me — there are three persons present, one of whom comes from the office of the Minister of State, Deputy Curran — which includes the chief pharmacist. This is only a small part of the wide responsibilities of the team. Discussions were held recently with the pharmaceutical industry and the team will have the regulations ready for the Government in approximately four weeks. We will then have to notify the European Commission, a process which takes three months. I note the United Kingdom did not notify the Commission, but we are advised that notification is required and that if one does not notify the Commission where one is required to do so, it could make the regulations invalid. Clearly, we want to ensure we follow the legal advice on notification. That being the case, we should have the law in place in Ireland, having notified the European Union, by June this year.
We must ensure we define by chemical compound what it is we are banning because many of the substances are legitimate and used in the legitimate pharmaceutical industry, as well as the plastics industry. For example, the products trazodone and nefazodone are legally used. In the United Kingdom they did not ban what is commonly known here as snow which, I think, is known as mephedrone. We hope to ban it. The reason for the difficulty is that many of these substances have legitimate uses.
I have never been in a head shop and I am unsure if I have ever seen one, except on television. However, I understand they vary from big emporiums that sell various bizarre products to mainstream herbal shops where, among other things, sell these highly dangerous products that are effectively killing people — there is no doubt about that. They are targeted at vulnerable and young people especially. They have no role in our society.
I was very taken by the recent comments of Dr. Luke from Cork. I am unsure whether he works in Cork University Hospital, CUH, or the Mercy University Hospital.
It is CUH.
He is one of the leading emergency medical physicians in the country and he suggested that although legislation has a part to play, a greater part must be played by education, awareness and changing the culture here. This is why I welcome such programmes as Joe Duffy's "Liveline" which concentrated on this issue. Recently, I was out with several leading consultants at a function. I asked if they knew what ice, snow and blow were and no one had ever heard of them. Those people did not work in this area; they were cardiologists, neurologists and so on, but they are well informed, well educated people. They were parents of young children but had never heard of any of these substances.
We need wider education of the public and a debate such as this is very useful. Senator Norris made the point that the House sought more than just a motion and that it sought a debate. Such debates as this held in such a forum in the Houses of the Oireachtas have an important role to play in the wider education of the public and especially young people. We know people can access drugs through the Internet. When the law is changed here, the Customs and Excise will be able to intercept delivery of these products. However, even with the law one cannot prevent people accessing dangerous products. There is a good deal of money in them and there are more than enough people willing to promote these products. We must use legislation as best we can but we must also realise that the legislation will never be able to keep pace with the capacity of individuals to vary products and to sell them as bath salts, for example. Anyone who spends €30 on bath salts needs their head examined. Excuse the pun.
That is what it is all about.
They are head shops after all.
Products are sold in that way and we cannot ban bath salts.
Given the expertise we have, we can use the chemical compounds, put them in the form of regulation, ban them and the Garda Síochána will be in a position then to enforce the law.
I have made the point at Government and I believe there should be a wider Government response, including product liability legislation. Consumer protection legislation must be examined as well as the role of public liability insurance. There could be improvements if people had to carry public liability insurance and any adverse health effects could be challenged against that insurance. Although I am not saying we can do these things, we must examine them. Also, there is the matter of planning legislation. We must consider this across several headings and the Government is doing so at present, lead by the Minister of State, Deputy John Curran, who will speak later in this debate.
I cannot disagree with the urgency with which members seek legislation. We will make it happen as quickly as we can. We are examining what has taken place in other countries, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States. However, no country has been able to deal satisfactorily with this issue yet. I refer to a group known as the EU Horizontal Drugs Group, of which Ireland is a member. Various experts from Ireland participate in the meetings of the group, including experts from the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law, Reform; Health and Children; and Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The group has discussed this issue many times but no one has been able to find a way to deal satisfactorily with what are broadly called head shops or with the products they sell. The best we have been able to do is to ban substances as they come on the market, in the realisation that a new variation or derivative will be found very quickly. There are derivatives of BZP, benzylpiperazine, legally used and very small changes can be made to allow these drugs to be sold legitimately. We must use other legislation as well and place a high liability on those who sell these products to carry the responsibility for these products. That could be a very effective way of dealing with the matter.
Senators mentioned that some of these shops are open until 4 a.m. We should examine the regulations from a business point of view to determine when such premises can trade. I understand many of the young people who access these stores do so after they have consumed alcohol and the combination of these substances with alcohol can cause not only mind changing but, in many cases, fatal consequences. There have been cases where people believe they can jump out of apartments and do various strange things.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to be here. I thank all Members who have spoken to date and I realise many other Members wish to speak. I congratulate Mrs. Kenny in the Gallery, whom I do not know. However, she is a campaigner and I welcome such campaigners. It is important that the wider society participates in the required education of young people especially, although the problem is not exclusive to young people. These shops are all about making money for people who do not seem to care about the consequences of the products they sell. Wider societal involvement in the campaign against these products sold by many head shops will play an important role in reducing the use of these shops, especially by young people.
Is the Minister aware that the landlord of the head shop in Naas is a member of the Judiciary who has today justified his position by saying he asked the Garda and the Garda said it was alright——
No. The Senator had his opportunity to speak.
——and that everything being sold is perfectly legal and that it is alright with him?
We are on statements. I call Senator Prendergast.
Will the Minister comment on that?
I was not aware until Senator Feeney mentioned it earlier. I understand she read it in theLeinster Leader. I have no wish to be critical of anyone who rents their property legitimately to someone for a legitimate business. I have no wish to comment on that. It will not be long before they are illegal and I hope the owners of properties will take the appropriate action, whoever they are.
I welcome the Minister and the recent statement in the Dáil from the Minister of State, Deputy John Curran, who has charge of the national drugs strategy. He indicated that bringing head shops under a stricter regulatory code was being examined. He referred to the Minister, Deputy Harney, with responsibility for the Misuse of Drugs Act. I was somewhat surprised by this because it is laggardly not to have addressed this issue. The Minister, rightly, banned magic mushrooms more than four years ago but it has taken some time to address the legal sale of other psychoactive substances. The magic mushroom ban fell far short of what was required. There is a warning that a fairly rigorous approach is required. The issue is back in the public glare again and featured on Joe Duffy's "Liveline" today. I suppose it will be the subject of many debates, but has never really gone away during the past four years. The Minister took action after the death of a young man allegedly after the use of natural hallucinogen — I cannot say the word now, but the House understands what I mean——
The Senator should spell it.
The Senator should break it down into sections.
One year later, another inquest found another type of magic mushroom, not banned, was responsible for the death of another young man. It is very difficult to isolate products. I acknowledge and accept this is a very difficult area to police. However, we have entered a new decade and we need a comprehensive response. We do not have such a response yet because the issue is still being examined. My research suggests there are more than 250 different illegal drug substitutes available in head shops. No doubt there are more than that. They are merely 250 already identified by various ways and means, including chemically, through the drug squad, through various laboratories throughout the country and through the various agencies that examine such matters.
Among the product types in question are such stimulants as high caffeine products, cocaine substitutes, hallucinogens and intense euphoria products. Many of these products state they are not for human consumption and head shops can sell them legally. This is an anomaly that must be addressed through several approaches. The Minister of State, Deputy Curran, reminds us the national drugs strategy includes an intention to increase monitoring of head shops. Will the Minister indicate how and whether this will take place? What resources are being allocated to achieve this aim? One characteristic of the Government is it claims to take action simply by stating some agency is dealing with an issue. At the same time, no resources or implementation strategy is developed. Again, that is a major difficulty.
The other prong of the national drugs strategy in this area is keeping legislation under review. As I illustrated earlier, this has not happened. There is an issue of confidence. Will this issue really be tackled head on, or will we see lip-service being paid to it?
Head on. I have just told the Senator it will be tackled within the next month.
I wait with baited breath.
This issue is very serious and the social cost cannot be underestimated. There is a real threat that the recession and the savage attack on young people in the past two budgets will lead to an increase in drug use. This time we will not be able to afford the necessary response to young people becoming dependent on drugs or engaging in anti-social behaviour.
Criminologists, Ian O'Donnell and Eoin O'Sullivan of UCD and TCD respectively, did research which showed that crime rates fell in the 1990s, in particular, burglaries and theft, because the State ploughed resources into the methadone maintenance programme. This broke the cycle of people having to use theft and burglary to fund their habit because they were getting State-sponsored assistance.
The Aisling drug treatment centre and other such places deal with drug rehabilitation and treatment in a supportive environment. People are entering psychiatric units and attending accident and emergency departments because they need crisis intervention and treatment for taking too many uppers, they want downers, they do not want to be high etc.
There are various polysubstance abuse issues in regard to these drugs and the types of effects they have. The rehabilitation of addicts will be particularly important. However, it will be very difficult to identify what the treatment will be if we do not know the amount of the substance taken or the nuances which exist because they are legally sold. That is certainly an issue.
Last week two other shops opened in Tipperary so there must be an increase in the use of the substances they sell. Head shops are opening specifically at 4 a.m. to facilitate people coming from nightclubs. As the Minister stated, alcohol creates the potential for substance abuse. That mix is causing undue hardship on people. Failure to address the sale of these products will lead to a major social problem. We need to identify resources to deal with the issue. I thank the Minister for her attention.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House to address this issue. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, who has responsibility in this area, and Ms Grainne Kenny, the international president of Europe Against Drugs. Ms Kenny has been an activist in this field and I worked with her from 1987 to 1989 in the Department of Health when I was national chairman of the national drugs advisory committee. She played a very good and consistent role. At that time, we had problems with cocaine and heroin and other drugs flooding inner city Dublin, in particular. The one thing about which Ms Kenny has always been consistent is not legalising any drug which would lead people into a life of drug dependency.
In the past week or two a head shop called High Times has opened on Castle Street, Roscommon town, in my constituency. It has caused consternation, to say the least. A public meeting was held last Wednesday night in Gleeson's in Roscommon Town which was addressed by Ms Grainne Kenny. A further public meeting will be held tonight. A group is campaigning outside the shop each day and a vigil is being held by concerned parents. It has come as a major shock to the people of Roscommon and the surrounding area that such a shop could open legally. There are probably 100 such shops all over Ireland.
The Minister outlined the action the Government will take, which confirms what the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, said in Mullingar last week. I appreciate that it is a difficult issue, that the chief chemist is here and that the Government is aware of the situation and is trying to do the best it can to introduce legislation. It would be better if it could bring the timescale forward. However, if it is rushed legislation, it might not be very effective, but some action must be taken in this regard as quickly as possible.
Chris Luke, an accident and emergency consultant in Cork University Hospital and the Mercy University Hospital, outlined the situation in Cork in theMail on Sunday on 17 January 2010. He expressed grave concern and referred to six cases of three men and three women all in their early 20s. He stated:
They were having psychotic episodes, were disorientated and hallucinating; they could not sleep and were disruptive and chaotic. One had to be given sedatives and be sent to a darkened room for 18 hours for his agitation to subside — a classic symptom of illegal drug use.
The Joe Duffy radio show has highlighted this issue and it is about time we took the action required. The Government Whip, Senator Wilson, has highlighted this issue for 18 months and got some of the drugs on sale banned. It is vital action is taken immediately to ban as many of these substances as possible.
These shops are technically legal at this point. The landlord in Roscommon town said he was not aware that one of these head shops was being opened. His auctioneer probably did not advise him of that. He entered into a lease out of which he cannot get. He faces great difficulty and said it was the worst business decision he ever made. It is certain to have a bad effect on the area and the town. The Minister of State, Deputy Curran, has spoken about the planning area. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is examining the areas of product liability and public liability insurance that are required. In terms of planning, a shop can legally open without informing anybody and without anybody being in a position to object.
We must also look at the opening hours of these shops, some of which are outrageous. They are open up to 4 a.m. The threat in respect of the shop in Roscommon town is that it will open 24 hours per day and that people are available 24 hours per day to provide these drugs.
I was quite astonished to find that legal substances have been available all the time, as I am sure Ms Kenny and others who have been involved in these campaigns over the years were. Methadone is on prescription and it is substitute drug given to people who are trying to wean themselves off drugs. However, some of these drugs are very strong. Given the publicity arising from what has happened in Roscommon Town, young people are now more aware of the existence of these drugs. As legislators, it is our responsibility to take action to ban them.
All these shops need to do is bring in products, which they can buy on the Internet, and have a VAT number. If we banned these drugs, the Customs and Excise could seize the packages of drugs being sent to shops. However, it opens up a new field. We were used to the drugs which were prescribed and named. Unbelievable synthetic drugs have come onto the market in the past number of years. Big money is being made under a so-called legal heading.
The Minister of State's speech in Mullingar was spot on. He outlined exactly what action he is taking. It is something which has hit the public quite unexpectedly but it will cost lives. Young people and older people can obtain such treatments or drugs and have no idea what effect they will have on them. They could have major psychiatric effects on them. It is something which we, as legislators, have a responsibility to prevent. If the Minister of State can introduce a ban on some of the drugs which are currently being sold it will make things more difficult for the shops involved and they will have to remove the products concerned from sale — he can talk to his officials in this regard. Such a ban could be introduced by order or legislation.
Magic mushrooms were banned by the Minister, Deputy Harney, who introduced an order under the Misuse of Drugs Act. A short-term solution could be reached by naming drugs, listing them and issuing an order. At least gardaí could go onto a premises and remove such drugs if they are not removed by the people involved. Such a measure would bring the timescale forward. The House has a very busy schedule ahead of it. The Finance Bill will come before the House and other matters will take priority. The Bill could be left until the autumn.
Every day a shop is left open there is a danger that one person or ten more young people will be affected. The Minister of State may take a draconian decision. If the legislation is challenged, so be it. Let it be challenged by the owners of the shops concerned if it is unconstitutional or not in order. At least it will show the public that we are serious about this issue. I again emphasis that June is too late. I would like to see an order or Bill introduced by March at the latest. I do not see why this cannot happen. There is enough research around the world to make a decision on the issue.
If I was in opposition I would be tempted to introduce a Private Members' Bill and put it up to people, but I would need a lot of research in that regard.
They are never accepted.
I got a Bill accepted here, so I might have more success.
Would Senator Leyden accept it?
I said I had a Bill accepted, the Registration of Wills Act.
Will Senator Leyden accept our Private Members' Bill?
That is not my call. It is a Government decision.
Senator Leyden without interruption please.
I was in the Department of Health and Children. Many of its senior officials are here today and are very welcome. I know the expertise it has, but if people have to work day and night to resolve this matter, so be it. I ask the Minister of State to give it priority. This House will pass a Bill in a week or less. I accept the complications and difficulties.
I again refer to Ms Kenny who knows the situation. When I was chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Drugs we decided to give out needles, which was a major decision at the time. We provided a needle exchange programme which was debated at the time because it was seen to encourage the use of drugs. We were not encouraging the use of drugs, we were preventing the spread of AIDS, which was part of our responsibility. We introduced a methadone programme which was used throughout the country and has been successful to some extent. I do not doubt the sincerity of the Minister of State in this regard and I know he has the full support of the Government. He also has other responsibilities. No issue which has arisen in the past number of months or year is more immediate than this one.
These head shops are spreading like wildfire. The public in the town of Roscommon are so enraged they are holding a vigil around the clock outside the shop to try to prevent people from going into it. The shop is using tactics such as opening for long hours. To add to that, there is a circular in the town stating another shop is opening which will provide other services.
We have had floods, bad weather and frost and we are now dealing with the issue of legal drugs coming into rural towns. I refer to Roscommon because I know it, but Senator Wilson referred to Cavan and the Leas-Chathaoirleach may be aware of the situation in Castlebar. They are all over Ireland. One operator, who I will not name because——
You will not have time to go around the country.
Stick to the constituency.
One owner, Paul, currently has 100 shops and they are spreading like wildfire. He is making a fortune, but it is at the cost of the future of young people in this country. We, as legislators, must take action and I ask the Minister of State to take action sooner rather than later.
I welcome the Minister of State. It is nice to see, for a change, that we are all of one mind here with regard to the dangers implicit in the products sold in head shops around the country. The Minister of State is familiar with the history of this issue. From autumn 2008 to March 2009, along with Senator Wilson and others, I ran a long campaign in the Seanad to get BZP banned. It was not easy. I heard more co-operation in the speech from the Minister, Deputy Harney, with regard to the aim to bring in very strict regulation. I welcome that.
What can I add to the debate which has not already been said? I want to discuss the users of drugs and give some quotes from them. All of my research on this issue is from the treatment services, including the psychiatric unit in Galway and the GPs who are dealing with the users. I want to discuss the effects of drugs and the complications when they are taken with alcohol, something which has not entered the debate so far today — if it has I apologise for not hearing it. I also want to discuss the fact that mixing some of these synthetic legal highs with alcohol is a lethal combination and examine some solutions.
At the end of 2008 two Galway youths had to undergo psychiatric treatment for three and four weeks, respectively, after using herbal ecstasy, or BZP, as it was at the time. It took that period of time to have them unscrambled in the psychiatric unit in Galway. I spoke to a member of the treatment services there today who recently dealt with a 21 year old man who had a psychotic episode and who has left the psychiatric unit after spending three weeks there. The main age group for users seems to be 14 to 25 years of age. However, when I was campaigning on this issue in late 2008 and early 2009, I received a lot of communication from women and men around the country who had used substances sold in head shops. On one occasion a 39 year old female business manager contacted me to say she went out for the night, took a head shop product in conjunction with alcohol and was found lying flat on the street at 6 a.m. by gardaí, luckily for her. It was 11 a.m. the next morning before she came to in the Garda station.
There are ingredients in these products which need to be checked. They are dangerous. Since BZP was banned it has simply reinvented itself. Before I leave the voice of the user, I wish to quote another young man who is 18 years of age. He said one could stay awake for three days while taking a certain drug and one's mind would be racing. One would not be happy but depressed in a strange way. He said the effect was hard to describe but it was hell on earth. Another young man said he waited for the shop to open every morning and would be at the door of a head shop in Galway at 10 a.m. He lost three stone using pills and woke up in Cork one day with no recollection of how he got there. Senator Buttimer is from Cork but he was not heading down to meet him. When users condemn the products it is a major concern and they are worth listening to.
As others have said, BZP has now simply been repackaged and changed. The substance is the same. BZP and similar drugs are being reinvented constantly and this will continue. The health service is always playing catch-up with head shops. People are greatly affected by this. The latest statistics from Galway reveal that every week three to four people show up requiring treatment. The case seems to be that ten people might use a substance without having any reaction while one person may have a severe reaction. It depends on whatever other symptoms are present that would predispose such people to having a severe reaction.
Young people are in danger and the situation is escalating rapidly. I asked some people who work with affected young persons whether head shops should be banned or regulated. I was talking to very reasonable people who know how complicated it is to ban something. It would not be my normal practice to say head shops should be banned. However, these people work with lives that have been disturbed. People are becoming violent at home as a result of this practice. The answer I got was to shut them down completely. The shops reinvent themselves all the time. They were given a chance and given warnings but have not taken the opportunity to be responsible. They do not seem to be interested in reforming their services but are more interested in finding new ways to cheat the system. The packaging techniques used by many head shops are designed deliberately to attract young people, with strong colour schemes, etc. The drugs scene is seen to be enticing and exciting, the ultimate act of escapism for many young people.
I spoke of the complications caused by products when they are taken with alcohol. This is worth listening to and is also a condemnation of what goes on in some of our night clubs. At present, four double vodkas and Red Bull are being offered for €20 in night clubs. If that is added to the gear from the head shops, one can see why these people end up in the psychiatric unit. The point made to me by people working in the treatment services is that this situation, whereby four double vodkas and Red Bull can be offered in this manner, also needs to be regulated. This should be considered before St. Patrick's Day because our national day is no longer a festival of celebrating our Irishness but has become a drinking festival. It was pointed out to me that we should consider not allowing off-licences to open before 5 p.m. because people get drunk much too early in the day. Again, the word among young people is that they are stocking up already for the day. Circumstances in which alcohol and head shop products are used in combination need to be examined.
Many good solutions were put forward today. Planning regulations must be looked at but how can we make them strict enough to induce the owner of a head shop to reveal the product that is to be used? It would be difficult to manage that but, in part, planning regulations might work if used in tandem with products liability insurance and public liability insurance. If a head shop owner is found to be selling a product that is dangerous and which has the power to induce psychotic effects in young people, he or she might then undergo criminal charges. A broad and multi-pronged approach must be taken to achieving a resolution in this area.
In line with what Senator Leyden said, I heard only today about an individual who believed he was leasing his property to a health shop rather than a head shop. Obviously, the words are very similar but now he is being threatened with legal action if he does not go ahead with the lease. Clearly, there is a great deal of money involved in this business and that must be investigated.
Other solutions involve awareness and education. There is a substance misuse programme at both primary and secondary levels in our schools under the banner of social, personal and health education, SPHE. However, as I stated before in the House, there must be a requirement regarding drugs education. An SPHE teacher can discuss relationships, sexuality, hygiene and environmental awareness. There needs to be a mandatory component of drugs education. Some schools have a great programme at second level, called "Stand on your own two feet", which could fit the bill. Awareness education and the participation of young people need to be discussed in classes in a responsible environment. It would be worthwhile also to explore having positive role models for young people, perhaps sports stars or others, who could talk about the dangers of using all drugs, both licit and illicit, and how these affect one's performance. Ultimately, one is talking about a mind-altering experience.
The Minister of State has made a commitment to examine the situation, having heard what the Minister, Deputy Harney, said. He should expedite this as quickly as possible but I also plead with him to explore the lethal cocktail of drugs and alcohol when mixed together.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Curran. It is the first opportunity I have had to do so since I became a Member of the Seanad seven weeks ago. His presence and that of the Minister, Deputy Harney, show how seriously the Government is taking this issue. I welcome that both were present and I congratulate the Minister on her performance on "Liveline" earlier today regarding savings made on different drug schemes. Obviously, these are legal medicinal drugs, not what we are discussing now.
I was heartened to hear Senator Healy Eames talking about the link between alcohol and drugs because that is a very significant issue. Many studies in Scandinavia have shown that the way to tackle addictive substances such as alcohol and legal drugs, including products of head shops, is to increase price or have tighter regulation. These are the two paths we must go down regarding the entire range of drugs and drug related problems.
I was contacted personally, as were many Members, in my case by teachers in the Louth-east Meath area I represent. They spoke of the responsibility they have in this area, trying to stay one step ahead of drugs and the potential problems they might cause. I was told a horrifying story less than an hour ago about a young person who was seen by a community garda. He had no recollection of the previous two days of his life. He had taken drugs, or products from head shops, and just as Senator Healy Eames described, he woke up two days later without any recollection of where he had been.
If the pun can be excused, these shops are growing like mushrooms around the place and that is the reality we must tackle. A further element is that the shopkeepers or those who own such premises seem not to care about the effects of the drugs. Their sole care is that they have a business and they will try to make as much money out of it as possible. As I heard it from people who have gone to shops of this kind to research them, there is no regulation about how much of any product one can purchase. The only limit seems to be how much money one has in one's pocket. The worry is that a person could literally buy the entire stock of a shop. That is a grave concern I have.
The other associated factor is the cost factor to the State, the health services and the Garda, whether in the resources spent by the State dealing with people who are suffering from the side effects of the drugs or the gardaí who must deal with the consequences of what people do or the hospitals that have to deal with the serious consequences. We saw this at Christmas when some people were caught up in this situation.
I welcome the Minister of State's strong response last week to the threat that issued from the head shops in regard to so-called legal and herbal highs. We must co-ordinate our response to these establishments across the various Departments involved. Some are concerned that certain Departments operate almost as silos or bunkers and do not co-operate with each other in order to tackle problems. The Minister of State has a unique role to play in this regard, particularly because he holds portfolios in a number of Departments. It is great that he has met various Ministers and officials to develop a strategy to deal with this matter. It is essential that a cross-departmental approach be taken. Such an approach should involve the Ministers for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Health and Children and the Minister of State present.
I am somewhat perturbed by statements from other Members to the effect that by changing one chemical component of an illegal drug, it suddenly becomes legal. Senator Norris inquired as to whether we might consider the legislative position in other countries such as such as the United States or other EU member states to discover how they are tackling this problem. The concern is that the Executive and legislative arms of the State will be rendered impotent by virtue of the fact that one need only change one chemical component of a drug to make it legal and prevent action being taken. I hope the Minister of State will give consideration to this matter as soon as possible.
As stated, we must consider how matters relating to drugs and alcohol are regulated and how they tie in with other aspects. The main such aspect is the sexualisation of young people through advertising, nightclubs or their perception of so-called role models from the media and pop music spheres. Some role models appear to comment on the matters under discussion in a jovial manner. In the 1990s, for example, mere weeks after a young woman in England had died after taking half an ecstasy tablet, Brian Harvey of the band East 17 stated ecstasy was great. Certain members of the media and sports stars take the major responsibility of being a role model very seriously. Perhaps the Minister of State might encourage sports stars to point out to young people that if they want to be the next Brian O'Driscoll, Robbie Keane or Shay Given, they should not consume drugs or alcohol. Those who engage in such behaviour would never be capable of replicating the sporting successes this country has enjoyed during the past 18 months.
I was interested to hear about the experiences of other Members in this matter. I have learned a great deal from what was said. I am 26 years old and as the youngest Member of the Oireachtas, I hope I can bring a different perspective to the matter. In that context, it is important to bring a mixture of youth and experience to debates on the various topics debated in the House.
I thank the Minister of State for coming before the House. The major concern that arises relates to the fact that certain drugs, regardless of whether they are legal or illegal, are becoming freely available in society. The reality is that people are able to get so-called legal highs from taking that which is on offer in head shops. The only people who will frequent these shops at 4 a.m. are those leaving pubs and nightclubs and who will perhaps already have imbibed alcohol or taken other drugs. I do not know whether the Misuse of Drugs Acts can be used in respect of this matter. However, I hope legislation to regulate the position on head shops can be brought forward as quickly as possible.
We must ensure we deal simultaneously with issues relating to alcohol, so-called legal drugs and the changing of chemical components to make illegal drugs legal. I reiterate that we have to consider increasing prices or introducing tighter regulation to deal with this matter.
Ba bhreá liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire. I am glad the Minister of State is present. From discussing other issues with him, I am aware that he is an extremely practical individual. I am delighted by his attitude and that of the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney. I welcome the fact that the Government proposes to take action in the matter.
We should consider banning not merely the drugs sold but also head shops. There are those who state widespread bans are difficult to implement both in law and in practice. However, implementing such bans is not as difficult as people might think. There is much we can do in the context of placing the onus on those who provide services in our society and ensuring they meet the standards we set. People should be obliged to seek permission to open certain establishments or sell particular products. I would not see a great difficulty with restricting the sale of these substances and products. We could also do a great deal to hinder and prevent the establishment of outlets such as those under discussion.
A comprehensive approach to banning is necessary in this instance. As long as they are in existence, head shops will find loopholes that will permit them to sell new versions of drugs which have already been banned. They celebrate and facilitate the culture of drug abuse and dependence. One need only consider the paraphernalia and products sold and promoted, whether on t-shirts or through other merchandise, to see how profoundly antisocial these establishments are. Parents and teachers are right to be outraged about the phenomenon that is head shops.
We must pose a number of questions with regard to civic culture. Are we witnessing a breakdown, to some degree, in that culture, particularly in the context of the massive rise in the number of head shops in such a short period? I understand that in Ireland alone one new head shop opens each week. That is an extremely unpleasant reality. At the rate at which they are opening, we cannot afford not to take action as soon as possible. It is terrible to think some of these shops remain open until 4 a.m. to attract the business of young people. In addition, some of them run home delivery services. It is also terrible that a significant percentage of the teenagers who use these products mix them with alcohol.
This problem does not merely relate to people using drugs and bringing upon themselves and others the various social and familial downsides which accompany such behaviour. In the light of the demand for the products on offer in head shops, one must wonder about the quality of parenting delivered in this country. This is another instance of the behaviour which occurs on Holy Thursday and which involves people knocking each other down on the way to the off-licence. What is happening with the Irish psyche when people feel this absurd need to approach the limits when it comes to accessing addictive substances?
I am particularly concerned about the role of parents. Parents have lost confidence when it comes to educating their children. Teachers and civic leaders all have a responsibility in this regard. However, what we see today is the outcome of something which began many years ago. If parents do not actively seek to influence their children or impress values upon them at a very young age, it should come as no surprise that a phenomenon such as the rise of head shops should emerge or that many will not be able to resist the allure of what is on offer.
We must ask serious questions about this matter, not merely with regard to the need to regulate or impose restrictions. We must rediscover our belief in behavioural change. Those who form policy, politicians, civil servants and parents often lose confidence with regard to the possibilities offered by such change. This is not just an Irish phenomenon, it is worldwide. I read an article inThe Washington Post in recent days which indicated that abstinence campaigns, when conducted properly, could actually work. The Obama administration is running away from such campaigns because it is afraid of being judgmental and also because it believes they will not work. Such campaigns also arise in the context of the discussion of the AIDS problem in Africa.
If one is intent on tackling social problems in a serious manner, one must change people's hearts and minds. It is not possible to control such problems solely by using the law. The latter is extremely weak unless cultural transformation underlies it. On their own, laws will not prevent problems or bring them to a halt. In that context, it is necessary to work on people's attitudes. The only way to build a civic culture where people have the right attitude towards substances such as those sold in head shops is by starting early. Serious engagement must occur at the earliest stage of people's lives and at the earliest stage of their education. In addition, the State must work with their parents.
What I am saying may sound airy fairy but it is the work which must be done. Otherwise, one will be, to use an Irish phrase, ag feadaíl in aghaidh na gaoithe agus tú ag iarraidh stop a chur le fadhbanna le dlíthe amháin. I do not, however, suggest the law is not a key element. However, it must be integrated within a deeper philosophy. We cannot just have law now because enough people are ringing up Joe Duffy's radio show or because some politicians are jumping up and down about what is happening in their constituencies. Law needs to be grounded in a more long-term analysis of what constitutes the social good.
Last month Britain introduced a ban on legal highs, building on the legislation that had already banned a great number of chemical substances for human consumption in Britain. The drugs that head shops were selling were banned because these highs were directly linked to a number of deaths as we all know. In addition to the numerous deaths, we know of other health problems that have been linked to them, including severe heart problems, seizures, brain damage and so on. With the new legislation in Britain anyone caught in possession of these drugs now faces the possibility of a two-year jail sentence. Even with this breakthrough in legislation, there still exists on-line head shops and head shops in Northern Ireland and the Republic, which have not been banned as we know. The key point about the British legislation is that it has provided us with a precedent. Sadly in Ireland we are very slow to act unless we get example from some other country and we then feel we have permission to act — otherwise we might be a bit timid. It reminds me of the line from the Bible that the meek shall inherit the earth — if that is all right with you fellows. Of course the Americans say that the meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights.
There are numerous dangers associated with these legal highs as we know. For instance the legal drug GBL is a liquid that was originally used as an industrial cleaner to strip paint from walls and remove graffiti. I apologise for putting on the record what many of us already know. We now see this being actively marketed by head shops. We know of the side effects including serious heart problems, vomiting, anxiety attacks, mood swings, seizures and even death. Again we are back to the same problem. Sometimes it does not seem to matter how many downsides are pointed out to people; there will still be a potential market for risk taking. That is why I regret the type of damage limitation approach that is sometimes adopted in the area of drugs whereby some people feel we should engage in harm reduction strategies or as Senator Norris was proposing the legalisation and regulation of drugs. I believe this is an outdated vision and sometimes wonder why people push these ideas that are so out of date. Are they trying to be daring? Do they have a deep desire to be anti-social or do they cling to the naïve view that these solutions actually work? Certainly based on experience in places like Switzerland and the Netherlands, I do not believe they are happy with having gone down the liberal route. I believe I would be supported in that by, for example, Grainne Kenny of Europe Against Drugs.
On the other side of the Atlantic there has been a weaker approach to the problem, perhaps borne out of alaissez-faire approach in the United States. There are legal grey areas with consequent problems for people.
Mar achoimre gairid ar an méid a bhí le rá agam, ní hamháin go gcaithfimid cosc a chur ar dhrugaí ach caithfimid cosc a chur ar na siopaí drugaí seo. Ní cóir go mbeadh muid sásta le dlíthe amháin. Caithfimid breathnú athuair ar cén chaoi gur féidir linn cultúr agus sibhialtacht choinsiasach a chothú i measc daoine óga. Caithfimid breathnú ar an gcóras oideachais agus ar an ról atá ag tuismitheoirí agus caithfimid féachaint cad iad na pleananna atá uainn chun cabhrú le tuismitheoirí ionas gur féidir leo na luachanna cuí a mhúineadh do pháistí le nach mbeidh éileamh ar an sórt siopa nó an sórt drugaí seo amach anseo. While we need law and it should certainly be restrictive, let us not forget we need more long-term strategies to promote the culture that will make those laws credible in the eyes of younger people and their families.
I wish to share time with Senator Corrigan.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Curran. I acknowledge his excellent work in his capacity as Minister of State with responsible for drugs strategy at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. He is an excellent communicator. Communication is a key word when debating head shops. It is important to communicate the message as clearly as possible to the authorities and the young people who are victims of these shops as to how dangerous they are to young and vulnerable people.
It used to take approximately 20 years for an idea that started in America to get as far as mainland Europe and to our closest neighbour, England. Getting to us might have taken a little longer. It is hard to believe it took more than 40 years for the concept of head shops to reach our shores. The first head shops sprung up in the United States of America among the student population during the 1960s. I first became aware of such shops towards the latter part of 2008 when it was brought to my attention by a council colleague that such a shop was proposed to open in Cavan town. In November 2008 I raised on the Adjournment the difficulties with these head shops, having researched them quite extensively. On that occasion I raised in particular the problem the so-called party pill, BZP, was causing. I was glad to have been in a position to report at the beginning of April last year that on 31 March 2009 the Minister for Health and Children added BZP to the list of proscribed drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1997.
During research into these products and shops, I was horrified at the advertisements that appeared on the websites. Incidentally they are very shrewd people. A new shop opens almost on a weekly basis. As Senator O'Reilly will be aware one recently opened in Monaghan. The head shop in Cavan has been in existence for more than a year and a half and does a thriving trade. It is shocking to read what is advertised on the websites. For instance one website advertises the sale of pipes, bongs, vaporisers, scales, grinders and room odourisers. Why would one need these? It advertises legal highs and herbal highs, and products such as "Berry Mashed", and asks the user to "have a blissfully stoned night". Another product is "Diablo XXX", which is described as being "by far the strongest pill" and it contains 500 mg of an illegal component. Another product is "E-Blast" and is described as follows:
Like a lightning bolt of pure energy straight to your brain, E-Blast pills are guaranteed to make your jaw clench, your hair stand on end and your feet to want to hit the dance floor. Take that feeling you get when the moon is full, you're looking good and feeling good and out for a night of carnage, you know, the kind of night where colours seem brighter, music sounds better and you feel unstoppable.
That seems very similar to another pill known as Ecstasy and is not a harmless pill by any stretch of the imagination.
These shops are focused on young and vulnerable people. The main reason they have sprung up is that there is a market for them. They are flouting the law by getting away with selling almost illegal substances that have been changed. Perhaps a component or two will have been changed. I understand the difficulty the Government has and the Minister of State in particular in banning these substances outright. As Senator Healy Eames and other speakers have indicated, BZP, which was banned, is now available under another name since there was a slight alteration in its make-up.
We need to look closely at the planning regulations given that new shops are opening almost every week. We apply very strict conditions to a person who proposes to open a takeaway shop in a town. Such shops must open and close at certain times while head shops can remain open 24 hours a day. In other words, young people are being restricted in their purchase of a burger or fish and chips, yet at any time of the day or night they can buy these illegal substances which cause so much harm.
I welcome this debate and thank colleagues for allowing it to be an all-party motion. As I proposed recently on the Order of Business, we should form an all-party focus group to look specifically at these shops so as to inform the Minister and the Department of Health and Children on the best ways possible to address this problem, using the expertise in the House, legal and otherwise. We should formulate an all-party focus group to concentrate on this issue because as others have said, there is only one way to deal with these shops and that is to close them as soon as possible. I commend Ms Kenny, who was mentioned, and the parents throughout the country who are waging campaigns against these shops.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy John Curran to the Chamber and join colleagues in paying tribute to his tremendous work and commitment in this area. I also pay tribute to my colleague, Senator Wilson, for ensuring this debate took place so as to raise this very important topic.
Head shops and their products have generated a new set of challenges for us in the fight against dangerous substances. Tragically, the consequences have been that deaths have occurred, allegedly following the use of substances bought in such shops. These deaths have been devastating for the families involved. I extend my sympathies to all families affected. A great deal of publicity has been generated, but it is important to bear in mind that other forms of devastation have resulted too, not just death. We do not have figures for the exact number of lives that have been ruined or human potential destroyed, whether as a result of physical health problems encountered afterwards or the psychological or mental health challenges people have had to face, such as the onset or psychosis, brain damage, depression, etc. We must appreciate that these are very real life-altering consequences with which people have to live for the remainder of their lives.
A Garda Síochána study has shown that many of these substances, when analysed, were found to contain really disturbing products, including scheduled poisons. Undoubtedly some of the substances available can be associated with unrealised consequences for some of the people using them. The packaging is facetious and almost contemptuous.
Colleagues have referred to the fact that the UK has banned certain substances. There is a very real danger for Ireland in that. The danger, as the Minister of State previously outlined, is that Ireland could become a dumping ground for these products. All those stocks ordered within the UK need to be passed on because they no longer can be used legally. That is something we must guard against. There is a concern that such substances can provide a gateway to harder substances. Colleagues have referred to another gateway product worthy of a debate in the Seanad in its own right, namely, alcohol and alcohol abuse.
I will conclude by warmly welcoming the comments of the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, in particular the focus she intends to bring to bear on this in conjunction with other Departments. The Minister of State, Deputy Curran, is spearheading an interdepartmental focus on head shops and I support Senator Wilson's call for the establishment of all-party approach to the problem, drawing on everybody's expertise. However, I welcome, in particular, the Minister's focusing on the chemical ingredients as well as the emphasis on product liability, consumer safety and opening hours.
Many families affected by this have campaigned very strongly. One of the effects and consequences of such campaigns is that at a minimum they have ensured greater awareness among the public of the dangers presented by these products. Senator Mullen referred to the need for behavioural change, but we know that this can only happen if we bring about a proper level of awareness and education. I pay tribute to the time devoted by families, despite their grief, to campaigns to ensure public awareness of these very dangerous products. I wish the Minister of State well in tackling this very complex but urgent area.
I wish to share time with Senator Eugene Regan, with the permission of the House.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
There is no question that head shops present a real day-to-day threat to the physical and psychological well-being of young people because they sell mind altering substances. They use the cover of legality for this and that makes them particularly sinister. It is a countrywide problem. In my constituency it is a problem in the towns of both Cavan and Monaghan which have such shops. In that context I acknowledge the campaigning work of my colleague, Senator Wilson, in attempting to have the head shop in Cavan town closed.
These shops present a real threat to parents and young people. One regularly receives harrowing reports from parents of their experiences in this regard. The difficulties are many, but the recently banned substance, BZP, has been replaced by a substance known as mephadrone or "meow meow" in the jargon. The substance was already banned but has been reintroduced in this form, which is particularly frightening and underscores the difficulties we confront. A packet called "Blow — Intense Euphoria" which contains five pills is priced at €30, so it is within the purchasing power of too many young people.
Strategies must be put in place to deal with this. One I commend to the Minister for instant use is our planning laws. There should be a requirement to secure a change of use permission for such premises, and there should be potential to stop the building at planning stage, or at least to ensure restrictions at that stage. There should also be an investigative process and a facility for local people to object. Undoubtedly, the planning laws should be brought to bear on this issue. Similarly, consideration should be given to the control of substances through the Irish Medicines Board and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. The Misuse of Drugs Act does not prescribe as illegal a number of the substances being sold in these shops. That must be addressed.
I welcome the Minister's commitment to do something within a month on this matter. It is of such urgency that something must happen within a month. I also acknowledge the bona fides of the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, on this issue. I urge that within a month a programme of steps to deal with it is brought before the House. In that context, I have no difficulty supporting Senator Wilson's suggestion of an all-party working group to enhance that process.
Not only must we address this problem through planning laws, the Misuse of Drugs Act, food labelling and the Irish Medicines Board, we must also put a recreational structure in place in our towns. For example, Cavan town should have a skate park. There should be a drop-in centre in every town, with an infrastructure and comfortable ambience in which young people can congregate, relax and chat. Every town should also have athletic facilities of maximum quality, recession or not. We must match recreational facilities of the greatest quality with an education and awareness raising programme.
This issue requires a multi-faceted and immediate response. There has been very effective campaigning on it by my colleague in the Dáil, Deputy James Reilly, and others. However, there must be a response within a month. Parents want to see action. To give the graphic and horrible reality of this problem, there have been sexual assaults and violence of an unparalleled nature as a result of the use of these substances, as well as people jumping from buildings and engaging in all sorts of bizarre behaviour. Parents tell harrowing stories. There is also a loss of interest in education, loss of self respect and a consequent demotivation of the person. It is a problem of the most urgent and grave seriousness. This is probably the most important debate we have held in the House for a long time because the issue has the most impact on the lives of the people for whom we have responsibility.
This has been a very healthy debate, if I can use that word. There is a consensus on the need to tackle head shops. We must thank many people, not least Grainne Kenny, president of Europe Against Drugs, for educating people about the dangers of certain drugs and for educating Members of the Oireachtas about the problem. The issue was brought home to me in 2005 by the death of Colm Hodgkinson in Dún Laoghaire after he took magic mushrooms and jumped off the balcony of his apartment. I know many people who were very good friends of this man and it had a traumatic effect on them. There was extraordinary surprise that this could happen with a product that was not necessarily considered dangerous at the time.
The problem has been highlighted. The dangers of these drugs are clear from the evidence provided by Dr. Chris Luke of Cork University Hospital. It is acknowledged that we must tackle the problem, but the issue is how to do so. The manner in which the products are sold, by referencing them as not for human consumption, is cynical and sophisticated, as is the way the products can be changed minutely so they fall out of the illegal category once more. The response must be equally sophisticated. The first area must be education and advertising to counteract the effect on young people. People will listen when they know the dangers. The problem until now is that the dangers of these products have not been fully appreciated.
Everybody is agreed that there must be legislation to ban these products and operations. I appreciate that the Minister, Deputy Mary Harney, came to the House today to explain the Government's plans and that the Minister of State, Deputy John Curran, is now present. However, there is a hesitancy or a way of going about this which, perhaps, does not actually deal with the problem. The precautionary principle must apply. We know these products are dangerous so I do not understand the delay and, indeed, the approach. I would have thought that products that are not licensed for sale are automatically deemed illegal. Medical products must be approved under very stringent conditions before they can be sold. The products we are discussing are not of that type but they are products that have a dangerous effect. We must have a different approach and apply the precautionary principle, whereby if the products are not licensed they are illegal. That generic approach would pre-empt problems further down the line.
I favour the twin-track approach of education and advertising along with legislation. I welcome the fact that the Minister came to the House and is moving ahead on this issue. I appreciate that it must be notified to the European Commission and I have emphasised the importance of notifying the European Commission about matters in another area. However, in this instance and given the proof we have of the dangers of these products, I wonder if it is necessary to wait three months before activating the legislation.
This is an interesting debate. There is a great deal of agreement about the dangers that exist and the need for regulation. Even Senator Norris's contribution points to the necessity of considering a drugs policy that is proactive as well as reactive.
The danger of head shops has been highlighted in many contributions to the debate. One reason we should be grateful to them is that they show the state of technology at present and the type of products that can be produced for sale. In terms of drug use, synthetic drugs are often the most pernicious. Regulation is the way to proceed, whether in a proactive way as described by Senator Regan, or in a reactive way, where we try to identify each substance as it is created and assess whether it causes difficulty and should be properly prescribed. I tend to agree with Senator Regan that we adopt the precautionary principle.
However, even if head shops disappeared tomorrow, the problems we have due to drug use in society would not disappear. A wide ranging drug policy must address the fact that drug use is prevalent in our society. Whether it exists in the form of counter-culture shops such as the head shops or it exists underground, there is a responsibility to deal with the wider issue. Outside of what has already been said about education, inspiring a drug-free lifestyle, bodily integrity and the need for awareness about the effects of particular substances, we most particularly must make young people aware of the dangers of poly-drug use, which is one of the most dangerous activities one can undertake. When one is young, one feels indestructible and that one can pop pills, ingest drugs by way of smoking and drink alcohol without being affected in any way. The reality is that the effects are all too obvious. Senators talked about the effects on individuals, including injury and sometimes death. Memory, personality and behaviour can be affected.
If drug use, which is becoming more prevalent, involves taking a cocktail of substances, which substances change regularly, trying to control it presents a problem. Perhaps the value of the head shops is that they let us know what substances exist and that there is easy access to them. There is a responsibility on legislators to ensure they are properly proscribed.
The combating of drug use at a wider level must be addressed by the Government. The chief ingredient in the cocktail of drugs taken by young poly-drug users remains alcohol. We need a policy that measures its effects properly. I am not too sure the voluntary code of practice for alcohol providers is sufficient. The counter-culture marketing that head shops try to employ is used in respect of alcohol such as alcopops. Their consumption is regarded as unique to young people and as differentiating them from society at large. Marketing suggests they will be allowed to cock a snoot at authority, pretend to be rebel and make a difference. The reality is that young people led down that line are doing nothing of the sort; they are undermining their own capabilities and compromising their futures. Tackling the problem in a way that allows us, as responsible legislators, to encourage alternative behaviour very often leads young people to behave as they behave with parents, that is, by doing the exact opposite of what is desired of them. It is a difficult balance for us to strike. I do not envy the Minister of State in his role in determining Government policy in this area.
We need to determine how we will deal with the legal drugs and the illegal drugs, be they soft or hard, and what we will do about prescription drug addictions. The real problem we face in this debate is that synthetic drugs have too great an influence on the lives of young people. Their manufacture and sale must be regulated. We must decide whether this should be done through existing agencies such as the Irish Medicines Board and whether there is a role for local task forces or a need to provide resources to address this problem, which is becoming very big indeed.
This debate was instigated by the Government Whip, Senator Wilson, who has experienced the problems under discussion in his home town, Cavan. That drugs are being taken among populations far smaller than those in the major cities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway means there is a very real problem to be addressed. We all have responsibility to act collectively on this issue.
I hope that as we return to this issue and reflect on how it was articulated in the speech of the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, there will be a Government response. We hope the response will have the required short-term effect nationally but we should acknowledge that the battle cannot be won in the shorter term, as the Minister of State will be aware. It cannot be won by any individual Bill and a sustained and long-term strategy is required. Everybody, regardless of his or her views on the wider issue, would accept this line of argument.
I wish to share time with Senator Paddy Burke.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
There has been a very healthy debate all afternoon. It touched on many issues and it was good to hear a consensus emerging on how we approach the problem. We have examined this matter for years. It was good to hear Ms Gráinne Kenny recognised today. I dread to think of how many years it was since we sat down together at a committee meeting; it must be 25. She has stuck with it all those years and deserves great credit for doing so.
I have long believed there should be a two-pronged approach focusing on both supply and demand. All the media comment tends to be on demand. In this regard, it was very good today to hear so many Senators focusing on education and advertising. We must have learned over the past decade that no matter how much legislation we put in place, as we must, and no matter how many resources we put in place, including Garda and customs resources, there is no doubt but that there will be a supply line as long as there is demand. While one could never hope to solve the drugs problem through targeting the supply line alone — drugs will always be brought into the country — one could hope to solve it permanently by focusing on demand. I have made this point many times because it points to our greatest hope for long-term and full success.
No matter what way one looks at the drugs problem, one will find an equal and opposite answer. A contrarian view can be applied to many parts of the problem. While one cannot make a logical case for decriminalising certain substances, it may be the case that certain drugs could be controlled better if their use were not a criminal offence. If it were not a criminal offence, we might see where the problem is happening. Let nobody believe I am suggesting that we decriminalise hard drugs and other drugs; that is not the point I am making.
We must put in place legislation that will deal with the way head shops are operating. Much can be done through ordinary planning-type approaches and by requiring the shops to at least meet certain minimum requirements, as would any other business. We do not seem to be considering this at all. We need solid legal sanctions, where necessary.
For me, it is a question of education and increasing the knowledge of young people. It is about challenging their attitudes and developing their skills and self-confidence such that they will say "No" and feel they do not need to take a drug. This is the real challenge. It is a societal matter and cannot be resolved by any one approach.
Some 25 years ago, I suggested that every school in Europe should have a member of staff or other person with expertise in drugs education. Thinking in this regard has evolved to some extent since then, but not nearly enough. The drugs education resources in countries where they have been put in place are considerable. It is a matter of building drugs education properly and fully into the curriculum with clear objectives and key performance indicators. Rather than looking at outcomes, we must concentrate on what we include in the curricula of pupils of various age groups. If we do not do so, there is no question but that we will never succeed. We need to provide people with honest and accurate information.
We have learned many times that the risk issue is irrelevant. That people can get killed using drugs is of no value whatsoever in drugs education. If anything, risk is an attraction to many people, including the young. Nobody would have ever got to the top of Mount Everest without taking a risk and nobody would have broken records associated with speed and height if they did not take risks. The risk attitude is important to us as legislators but it is utterly unimportant to the young people. One might as well tell them not to drive fast. One can make this case but must do so in a much more smart, clever and strategic way. Therefore, we have to give accurate and honest information. We cannot tell people, "This will kill you," if it will not because they are smart enough to know otherwise. There has to be honesty. Parents and teachers must be brave enough to challenge the attitudes of those who are using drugs or tempted to do so. We also need to examine the relationship between drug use and what it does to communities, families and homes over generations. Young people understand these matters, whereas warnings of personal risk could be a turn-on, rather than a turn-off, for them. If, however, it is explained to them what drugs can do to their families and if this is built into a properly structured programme, something can be done about the problem. In addition, we need expert support at all levels to identify those moving into the shady area of drug abuse.
While I have only touched on the subject, I welcome this debate. I also welcome the Minister of State, Deputy John Curran, and the fact that the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, was present earlier. We can take the matter forward by having it examined by a special group, as Senator Wilson suggested.
I thank Senator O'Toole for sharing his time with me. In the limited time available I wish to ask the Minister of State one or two questions. This is a fascinating debate but we more we discuss it the bigger the issue seems to be. We are now talking about planning issues, the misuse of substances legislation, the Food Safety Authority, the HSE and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform — the list goes on. The more we speak about bringing all these agencies together, the bigger the issues seems to become.
Senator O'Toole referred to the issues of supply and demand. I have a few questions for the Minister of State about the issue of supply. I happen to be involved in the restaurant business, but if I were to pick leaves and berries in the fields to sell them, I would receive a visit from officials of the Department of Health and Children who would want to know from where I got these items and where they had been washed. Some restaurants cannot even sell potatoes, rather they must use pre-packed ones. Potatoes cannot be washed on some premises because they may not have enough sinks. If, however, we were able to obtain those substances, would we be able to sell them? It strikes me that I would have to answer to the health authorities on where they had been obtained, who the distributor was and what they would do.
That is correct.
Can one sell them beside other products? I would be in the courts if I were to do so; therefore, we should close head shops down immediately.
The food industry, including restaurants, operates under strict regulations. We must check food storage temperatures four or fives time a day. One cannot serve breakfast without taking the temperature of a rasher first. One cannot wash potatoes beside cabbages and one cannot make coleslaw in the same sink that was used to wash potatoes. However, substances can be sold all day in a head shop which probably does not have planning permission. This makes no sense. The more we broaden the debate, the more agencies become involved and the bigger the problem becomes.
I wish to pose a question. Could someone like me in the restaurant business legitimately sell the products being sold in head shops, beside food products, without being exposed to the rigours of the law and health inspectors asking from where they had come and how they were packed and washed?
This is an important debate. As a former Chairman of the Oireachtas committee which dealt with the drugs issue, I can say we examined a number of products. For example, we looked at smoking as a gateway to other drugs. Some thought we were silly to tackle that issue, but we produced a report which yielded a ministerial response in the form of the smoking ban. We also tackled the issue of alcohol abuse, not a popular one to consider. The problem in this country is not only do we have a culture among some children of getting high through using some drug, legal or illegal, youths look to adults to show example. I mention this because alcohol is another gateway drug.
As part of our investigation, members of the committee visited New Zealand. At the time we were talking about bringing the use of alcohol within the terms of the national drugs strategy, as New Zealand had just done. It had only recently established a commission to tackle the issue. While there we met a lot of the key personnel involved in the drugs field and discussed the alcohol and illegal drugs problem. At that time they were particularly worried about the party pill. When I went to buy a newspaper or a can of Diet Coke, even the smallest of ordinary shops — not head shops — had party pills on sale. Tackling that issue was the key priority for those working in the drugs field in New Zealand. They said to us: "Be careful. If it is here now, it will be with you at some stage." It is similar to the problem with X-rated premium telephone numbers. One can ban such a number today, but there will be another available tomorrow. We must find a mechanism in order to react quickly.
We can visit schools and speak to them about the problem, but that is a simple solution which research shows does not work. I will, however, cite one example in respect of something that struck a chord with me. Those involved with a UK television programme sent a 12, 14 and 16-year old into a head shop to buy these products. Although each of them was under age, they came out with the products. Some were challenged about their age but were able to get the product by saying, "Sorry, I don't have my ID with me," even though it was obvious they were all under 18 years. The phrase that stuck with me was used in jest by the person running the store. They said: "Be careful not to use this until you get home." They were laughing and said: "If you pop the pill in your mouth leaving here and walk across the road, you could lose the use of your limbs. You could collapse in the middle of the street and get hit by a car." It was presented as "fun" to be had from head shops and the products they sell.
People sometimes become involved for other reasons. For example, they might smoke because they want to lose weight. Alcohol product labels should include the calorie content. Food products are always labelled so well that consumers know the salt content and other ingredients they contain. People can thus choose what they want to eat, but when they go into a bar, they cannot work out what is contained in alcoholic drinks. I will not advertise products here, but there is a low-calorie drinks industry. I am not trying to promote alcohol, but there are ways to tweak people's imaginations. If they knew how many calories there were in a pint or a glass of wine, would they have nine or ten pints or a bottle of wine? Would they choose something different or minimise their consumption? These are important issues. In the case of head shops, they are getting away with it by stating the product is not for human consumption. They will always move around the issue, but there must be warning systems in place. We must examine best practice around the world in this regard.
Senator Burke was astonished that we might need so many departmental approaches. It is the case that because the alcohol abuse issue did not come under the national drugs strategy it was not brought into focus. I commend the Minister for bringing it under the ambit of the national drugs strategy.