Controlled Drugs and Harm Reduction Bill 2017: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, to the House and thank her for dealing with this matter. I also thank her for the work she has already done in this area since she became Minister of State and even when she was a Deputy. I pay tribute to both Senators Ruane and Ó Ríordáin for the very passionate speeches they gave. They believe passionately in this issue because they have worked in this area, especially Senator Ruane, who has a huge amount of experience in it. It is important that we take on board what she and Senator Ó Ríordáin have said.

The Bill proposes to amend the Misuse of Drugs Acts 1977 to 2016. It is a fundamental change in that the intention is to decriminalise possession of controlled drugs where they are for personal use. The Bill makes provision for circumstances in which a person exceeds the maximum amount for personal use, providing An Garda Síochána with a range of measures where the person is a repeat offender. Possession of controlled drugs for the purpose of resale and supply will continue to be an offence under section 15 of the Misuse of Drugs Acts 1977 to 2016. The Bill does not amend the position where someone has possession of drugs for the purpose of resale. The Bill provides for the establishment of a drug discussion service to case manage persons found in possession of controlled drugs and to divert people away from the courts by providing a system of harm reduction measures including drug awareness, drug rehabilitation and community engagement programmes. That is extremely important.

Senator Ruane is correct in what she said about the difficulty encountered when someone with a drugs conviction goes for a job. That was explained very well in the presentation I attended yesterday and it is something I have come across myself in dealing with young people in Cork city. Those with any kind of conviction encounter major difficulties in trying to secure employment and then they stay out of the system. It is important that we look at this very carefully. It is not something that we can change overnight because we need to examine the best way forward. We need to look at other jurisdictions. In fairness to the Oireachtas committee on justice, it did some work on this in 2015. The committee indicated that we needed to change the law in this area. A strategy committee was set up in December 2015 to report and provide an overall national drugs strategy. Hopefully, that will incorporate the proposals contained in the Bill. It is important that we come back with a careful analysis of the best way forward. We need to look at all of the options that are available. We also need to protect the wider public.

While we must consider those who are addicted and who need help and support without bringing them into the criminal justice system, we also must have a balance. We must examine it carefully. The Minister will deal comprehensively with all the issues that have been raised here but it is something with which we must move forward, not something to be parked.

As for getting change in this country, a development within the last two weeks frightened me in this regard. My colleague, Senator Reilly, introduced a Private Members' Bill in 2009 on health care and I introduced a similar Private Members' Bill in 2012. The Government introduced a Bill in 2014, which was only passed last week. It took us seven or eight years to get through what should have been straightforward legislation. I hope something as straightforward as this Bill does not take seven or eight years. It needs to be carefully examined and scrutinised to see the best way forward but we should not have to wait seven years to deal with this issue.

As recently as Monday of this week, I spoke to a coroner who raised concerns after having to deal with an inquest involving a young person and an overdose. We have a lot of work to do. As the death rate from the misuse of drugs is increasing every year, it is not something we can park and leave in the hope that the existing structure will deal with it. The existing structures are not dealing with the issue and nor at present is the criminal justice system. We need to look at it and ensure we set clear deadlines because we need to bring about the change. I accept that the Minister of State cannot give an undertaking to have it resolved here this evening but we need to bring forward change and part of that change must take on board the proposals of someone like Senator Ruane who has worked in this area and they must be given careful consideration.

I thank both the proposer and seconder for bringing forward this legislation, as well as all the people who have worked with the Senator on the matter. It is something that has my support in trying to bring about change but that change must be brought about in a reasonable time.

I thank Senators Ruane and Ó Ríordáin for bringing this Bill forward. It is correct to say that the war on drugs has not worked. It has turned into a war on poor people. It is a war on the sick. When one sees that we have the third highest overdose rate in Europe, it shows that our systems are failing in all respects. When one sees 679 people dying from overdoses, which is three times higher than those dying from road traffic accidents, one considers the amount of effort, energy and resources put into trying to reduce the amount of people who are speeding on our roads and how entire days are devoted to speed reduction - this took place only last Friday. One compares that with efforts to try to help those who are sick and are in addiction primarily because of the circumstances of their birth. It is disheartening to hear we are talking about a drug strategy from 2015 and here we are two years later, still awaiting progress.

As for progress for this issue, in getting the detail right on Committee Stage and ensuring that it is brought across the line, Members who have tried to introduce Private Members' Bills and who are involved in legislation will be aware it requires relentless effort, despite the idea that we are all in favour of the substance of the debate. As the former Minister of State in charge of this strategy who is seconding this proposal will know, it is extremely difficult to go from the policy to getting the legislation across the line. Then, more importantly, there is the question of securing the resources that will make the difference, because legislation without resources is of no use.

When I say it is a war on poor people, we all know that in the case of a family with a son or daughter who is in addiction and is going through the courts, that son or daughter will end up in jail if the family is poor but will not if the family is rich. The statistics show it. The appeal is made to the judge that they are from a good family. What does that mean? Does it mean that a judge should treat people equally? Obviously not. They treat the rich better than the poor because they are from a "good family". The justice system is supposed to be blind and give justice equally and therefore, it should treat the poor the same as it does the rich. The son or daughter of the rich person gets off because the family is respectable, whatever that is meant to mean.

I reflect upon the issue of addiction because I remember meeting Tony Paget who was Ireland's person of the year in 2002. Tony jumped into the River Liffey to save a bus driver who had driven off the road. As person of the year, he was homeless. He ended up getting the award, with the tuxedo, and had one night in the hotel before he was kicked out onto the street. He was Ireland's person of the year in 2002. It is an amazing way to treat such a citizen. Tony ended up back on the street for months but that was addiction. He was a sick person, not a criminal. He had plenty of time in court but if Tony had been from a respectable family, he would never have seen the inside of a prison.

The Bill, as we know, has all the research done. No one is a better expert than the Senator herself, and the person who is seconding it who knows the Department inside out. The problem is in our new politics, the system, the officials and the Department are not able to contend with the idea that someone is a better expert than are they themselves. The Committee Stage to come is where we as legislators must get used to the idea that we can no longer come in, get our Second Stage passed and then say "wasn't that a great day in court". People outside will think we have the Bill passed, but we know how far it still has to go. It will require this Dáil to remain and for the Senator to remain in her seat, whether there is an election or not - because legislation can jump into the next sitting - but I know the Senator to be relentless in her life and she has proven that in politics too. Persistence is required because the change it will make in decriminalising those who are found in possession now and in generations to come is very important. While we are obviously disappointed with the delay, it is not defeat. It will require the relentless persistence of the Senator and we hope to support all those proposals in the nuts and bolts that are required on Committee Stage to make sure that when those proposals come back and are seen to be ineffective, as the Senators will be aware, and do not do the job in hand and do not ultimately help sick people, then explaining that to us and to all those involved will be important. It will be done because it is the right thing to do but it will require persistence and relentless pursuit of what is a just cause.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House today and thank her for her long-standing commitment to this area. I particularly want to thank Senators Ruane and Ó Ríordáin. It is not easy to come into this House and share personal experiences and Senator Ruane has done that on many occasions. She clearly has considerable knowledge of this area, has researched this Bill well, has worked with other people and shared their experiences to hone in on particular issues she thinks are appropriate to this Bill and that is great. I do not accept this defeatist attitude.

We are in the Oireachtas and this is the Seanad. We should not accept that nothing will happen. It will happen because we have to make it happen.

There is a mob that comes in and bellyaches about this and that and how we can do nothing because this is the new politics. We are in politics for this time and this moment. If we do not deliver, we do not deserve to be here. It is as simple as that. That is the bottom line. I would not want to be in the Seanad if I was not making some contribution. This is the time and Deputy Catherine Byrne is the Minister of State today. This is not a criticism of her and I acknowledge her support, but we have been elected to legislate. It is as simple as that. We need to set out a course. If Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or any other party has a problem, it should come to the Chamber, exercise its proper democratic mandate, engage in legislative procedures, table amendments and make this a better Bill.

I acknowledge all of the Senators who took their political courage in their hands and signed to endorse this Bill - Senators Ruane, Ó Ríordáin, Kelleher, Higgins, Grace O'Sullivan, Dolan, Black, Norris, who is to my right, McDowell, Craughwell, myself, Lawless, Freeman, Ó Domhnaill, Bacik, Nash and Humphreys. They are the people who considered this to be good legislation. They gave it thought and signed it. I would not have signed if I believed that it would be a charter for drug pushers. That is not what it is about. Drug dealers need to be taken on because they are criminals who are destroying people's lives, communities and families. Let us not criminalise everyone, though. The Bill is progressive, humane and compassionate. That is why I support it. How could anyone not? It is responsive to the needs of people who have suffered for far too long, individuals who want to get on with their lives, access services, have meaningful relationships and families, work and play a role.

The drug issue does not just affect poor people. Drugs are found in every walk of life, for example, cocaine. There are people overdosing on medications and other pharmaceuticals. Let us not forget that, but what is the difference? Some people are marginalised and do not have houses or a listening or compassionate ear to help them on their way. They do not care whether they survive or succeed. This Bill addresses some of these fundamental issues. If political parties can make this a better Bill, we want to hear from them.

The Bill's purpose is to provide a 21st century approach to solving what we all acknowledge is Ireland's ongoing drug problem. It provides for an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Acts 1977 to 2016 by inserting a new section 3 in the principal Act. This will decriminalise the possession of controlled drugs, provided that the amount possessed is for personal use only and, importantly, does not exceed the authorised amount as regulated by the Minister.

I will provide some context. In 2015, the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality undertook an examination of ways to reduce harm caused by substance abuse. The committee travelled to Lisbon, Portugal, to review its strategy and regime. Members of the public and civil society were invited to make submissions at public hearings. The committee's November 2015 report made a number of recommendations. I will not go through all of them, but I will single out a few. The report states:

The Committee strongly recommends the introduction of a harm reducing and rehabilitative approach, whereby the possession of a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use, could be dealt with by way of a civil/administrative response and rather than via the criminal justice route...

The Committee recommends that discretion for the application of this approach would remain with An Garda Síochána/Health Providers in respect of the way in which an individual in possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use might be treated...

The Committee recommends that any harm reducing and rehabilitation approach be applied on a case-by-case basis, with appropriately resourced services available to those affected, including resources for assessment (e.g. similar to the Dissuasion Committees used in Portugal) and the effective treatment of the individuals concerned...

The programme for Government states: "Completing work and commencing implementation of a new National Drugs Strategy within 12 months." That time has well and truly lapsed. We can no longer keep making excuses. The Government signed up to delivering this, but it has not done so. We cannot keep pushing out the goal posts because it suits people to dodge making real decisions. Why is the national drug strategy not complete and when will it be completed? The Minister of State might share the details with us.

Importantly, the programme for Government also states: "We will support a health-led rather than criminal justice approach to drugs use." I welcome this positive commitment, which presents an opportunity. It is about being brave, moving forward, making difficult decisions and legislating.

This Bill is the beginning of a process. I commend Senators Ruane and Ó Ríordáin on leading on this matter, but if anyone can make it better, he or she should come to the Chamber and engage in the various Stages of the legislative process to do so. I support the Bill and commend all involved in preparing it. I also commend all of those who shared their personal experiences to bring the Bill to this point.

I understand that Senator Reilly wishes to share his time with Senator Byrne at four minutes each.

It will be six and two, if that is all right. Actually, it will be five and three.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House again and thank Senator Ruane for raising this important issue through the Bill. She has told us of her personal life experience of this issue and is passionate about it. Having worked with the Minister of State for many years, I know her also to be someone with tremendous passion about it as well as considerable compassion. I cannot think of anyone better to be responsible for this area in government.

The national drug strategy group is due to report within weeks. Senator Boyhan is right, in that we are legislators with a duty to legislate, but we also have a duty to ensure that our laws are sound and do not bring about unforeseen consequences. Already, there is a strong view that the Bill could, as currently construed, not just decriminalise this issue, but legalise drugs, which is not something that we would want to see.

Some might, but I would not.

I have wanted to for 30 years.

As a doctor who has worked for the past 34 years as a general practitioner as well as several years in Oberstown dealing with young people who had fallen foul of the courts and had drug addiction problems, I believe strongly - most Senators do - that this is a health issue and should be treated as such. I have received many emails from people who work in this field all over the country whom I admire and whose work I admire. I believe in the principle of what the Bill tries to achieve and support that. We need a system outside of the courts that can deal with this as a health issue.

As an aside, I heard today of a doctor who had been addicted for several years but has since recovered and is now a well-respected specialist in that doctor's field.

The only reason I make the point is that it reminds me of how many people can recover to lead very productive lives, be very much part of society, have families and children, and contribute. I genuinely do not believe that putting people in jail or giving them a criminal record is the way to deal with this issue. I particularly think of younger people who, whether we like it or not, are going to experiment with life. To be caught and have a criminal record which stays with them and prevents them from travelling internationally to certain areas and which makes employment a much more difficult challenge for them is clearly wrong.

I want very much to support the principles behind this Bill. I know there are problems with it and that we have agreed we will adjourn its progress. Like Senator Colm Burke, I would be very much committed to making sure this Bill does progress and that we do not have a situation like I had myself. As was mentioned, back in 2009, I had a very simple Bill in regard to medical insurance for doctors before they could register as doctors, and it only passed last week, despite the fact I had been Minister for Health myself. We have to overcome the difficulties that can arise. I agree with Senator Boyhan that we are here to do a job and we should do a job. We should do it in order that we can benefit the people we are here to represent. Given we have cross-party support for this issue, I believe we can decriminalise this area and give people who become addicted to both legal and illegal drugs, but especially illegal drugs, a real future, a real chance and real support, and that we show real compassion. We will all be the better for it and the richer for it too.

I thank Senator Reilly for agreeing to share his time. This is a very important opportunity to discuss our approach to people who come into contact with the criminal justice system as a result of drug use. I compliment Senator Ruane and think it a very well-intentioned Bill. It seeks to address drug use as a social and health issue rather than as a criminal justice matter, which I believe is the correct approach. However, it is important to have a compassionate and humane approach without losing sight of the victims of crime. I believe there is a general acceptance of the need to divert drug users into treatment services that promote recovery, and Senator Ruane spoke very passionately about that in her speech. We must ensure there is a proper approach to the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use. The Portuguese system is the one Ireland is predominately looking at, and perhaps we should also look at other international practice in this regard. However, I would not agree with the legalisation of drug use, and I would be very firm on that.

We need a framework in Ireland to protect public health from the risks attached to using dangerous or harmful substances. I spent many years on my local drugs task force where many such issues were raised. I know a report is being prepared for the Minister. Given the experience of the drugs task forces and what they have dealt with over the years, their reports and recommendations should be firmly taken on board. As I said, there should be a compassionate and humane approach to drug users who come into contact with the criminal justice system, but a change to our legislation on such an important matter requires careful consideration and public buy-in.

I welcome the Minister of State. She is committed in this area, she has a track record and she is someone who actually will do something about it. It is an extraordinary situation. In the Victorian period, people took drugs all over the place and laudanum was rampant. It was at the instigation of the pharmaceutical industry that all this criminalisation came in. I want to fly a flag. I am in favour of the decriminalisation of drugs. I have campaigned on this issue for 30 years. The Portuguese example has been quoted. It is stunning what has happened there. Some 90% of the involvement of the authorities is now treatment and only 10% policing. That is a wonderful record. There were 80 deaths in 2001 but, since the decision was taken, there were just 16 in 2012. The number of heroin addicts in Portugal has halved. That is something we need to look at.

We cannot simply deal with the addicts, however. We have to deal with the supply side as well. So long as the supply side keeps going, we are going to have the involvement of criminal gangs. I am not in favour of decriminalisation so that everyone in the country should get high. I am in favour of it because drugs are the motivating factor for the overwhelming majority of criminal activity in this country. That is why this should stopped.

There was a commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government for "a health-led rather than a criminal justice approach to drug use". This is the right way to look at it. The Global Commission on Drug Policy has stated that the criminalisation of drug use and possession has little or no impact on levels of drug use. That is a fact. The amount of drug use in this country is quite astonishing. Some 26.4% of Irish adults aged 15 years or older report using an illegal drug in their lifetime, 7.5% within the past 12 months and 4% in the past month. Lifetime usage of cannabis at 24% is considerably higher than any other form of drugs. Therefore, there is a very considerable amount of drug taking in this country.

I congratulate Senator Ruane on the production of the Bill, as well as Senator Ó Ríordáin. I remember Senator Ó Ríordáin, when he was Minister of State, speaking in this House on this issue. I am very glad it is called the Controlled Drugs and Harm Reduction Bill. That is what we should be interested in, not criminalisation or penalising people for what is essentially an illness. What we should be doing is ensuring people have access to rehabilitation. This is one of the most important features of the Bill and it is quite visionary.

The Bill has been gone through to some extent. We note that it decriminalises the possession of small amounts for personal use but continues the capacity to prosecute drug users. In this regard, we should look also at the mandatory sentence of ten years. Some of the big drugs suppliers use eejits as drug mules. If they are caught with an amount of drugs, they are imprisoned automatically for ten years. It should be the real criminals who are targeted. It is splendid that there is a drug dissuasion service intended to manage people out of the situation. It is a very caring Bill. While I will not go through all its provisions, I want to highlight section 20 which refers to a drug awareness programme, a drug rehabilitation programme and a community engagement programme. At subsection (2), it states that the case officer can exercise his or her discretion and not refer someone to a programme if there is a feeling it is not appropriate.

There is quite a lot of unanimity in this area, particularly on the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality which looked at this situation and issued a report. No. 1 in the report states, "The Committee strongly recommends the introduction of a harm reducing and rehabilitative approach". Let us note the word "strongly". It is not just recommending, it is strongly recommending, and it points to the Portuguese example. As I said, the Minister of State at the time, now Senator Ó Ríordáin, made a speech in February 2016 in the London School of Economics where he spoke in terms of decriminalisation.

I have received a large number of emails from people who strongly support this Bill. Some of them are repetitive and it is obvious that there is some kind of a programme but I welcome that because lobbying is part of the political function.

The Bill proposes to decriminalise the possession of controlled drugs for personal use and to establish a drug dissuasion service. It provides for harm reduction measures for those found in possession of drugs, including drug awareness. One of the striking aspects of the correspondence I received on this matter is the large number of doctors who contacted me. I have here a copy of an email from a doctor whose name, in deference to the House, I will not use. He writes, "Treating patients of addiction as criminals will someday be viewed as a violation of human rights." He is absolutely right. He also states that criminalising patients, "has never been shown to help". This is a doctor who knows what the circumstances are. Another doctor, whose name I will also replace with a blank, writes, "I have worked in addiction services for over 25 years and I believe this Bill, if passed, will be the greatest step forward for Ireland and for its substance users/misusers in the history of drugs legislation." That is an extraordinary statement to make. It is remarkable that somebody who entered the Seanad at the previous election has produced such historic legislation.

Another doctor, whose name I will also leave blank and who works in Beaumont Hospital's psychiatric service, wrote to me expressing total support for the Bill. Another correspondent, this time one who is not a doctor, writes:

I am a father, husband, brother, uncle and an addict in recovery a very long time. I am a Master’s student of the Dublin Institute of Technology and a professionally qualified social worker.

This again is testament from the coalface.

I understand the reasons the Bill will not be pressed and we will adjourn the debate to allow for consideration of further reports and discussion with the Minister and her advisers to enable a more excellent Bill to be produced. That is what the Oireachtas is about, namely, putting down forward-looking legislation, while accepting that there must be co-operation and dialogue between the proposer of the Bill and the Minister responsible and her advisers and civil servants. This is a good day for Seanad Éireann and I am honoured to have been allowed to speak in the debate on this welcome Bill.

The previous occupant of the Chair asked me to apologise for failing to call Senator Colette Kelleher. The Senator will be the next speaker.

We have not had a speaker yet.

I apologise. Senator Kelleher has the floor.

The Senator can go ahead. We will speak after her.

I am just doing what the previous occupant informed me.

It is fine, honestly.

Is Sinn Féin all right with that?

I thank Sinn Féin. I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of this enlightened, humane, informed, realistic and practical Bill introduced by Senators Ruane and Ó Ríordáin. The purpose of the Bill is to achieve decriminalisation. Claims that it is about legalising drugs are misleading and a red herring and I am disappointed that Senators Reilly, McFadden and Byrne spoke in those terms. While the legalisation of drugs could be a topic for discussion on another day, this Bill is not about legalisation. I am pleased the debate will adjourn and the Bill will be re-introduced soon after the publication of the national drugs strategy.

The Bill faces up to the fact that people, including perhaps current and former Members of the House, use drugs. Members may even use them tonight and we need to face reality. It faces up to the fact that people have deep addictions and that prohibition and abstention as an approach to drug use and addiction - the "Just Say No" approach - simply does not work. We only have to walk around Dublin, Cork or any country town, village or community to realise that the war on drugs, as Senator Ó Ríordáin stated, was well and truly lost everywhere a long time ago. If we are honest, we will know this is true from families and friends, and that it is especially true of all those who have died as a result of addictions and lived or are living miserable, partial lives. Efforts and money have been wasted on futile endeavours.

The Bill faces up to the fact that criminalising people who use drugs or have addictions is unkind and does not work. It faces up to the fact that criminalising people for possession of small amounts of controlled drugs for personal reasons does not deter them from potentially harmful drug taking, help them with their addictions or reduce harm, but damages their lives and life chances, drawing them into rather than away from the criminal justice system.

There is a vast body of evidence and plenty of facts to support the provisions of the Bill and Senators will have heard this evidence during the debate. I speak in favour of the Bill informed and influenced by the facts on decriminalisation and harm reduction. I will use my time to speak through the lens of people I know or, sadly, once knew. I have in mind, for example, a man I knew well through Cork Simon Community, a marathon runner, poet and painter who was also a survivor of dreadful abuse in an industrial school and had drug and alcohol addictions. I remember, when I met this man, that he took me aside and said, "Colette, girl, sleeping rough was heaven after sleeping in fear of them coming after you at night." Drugs and alcohol masked his pain of abuse and trauma. I would go so far as to say that deep addictions are often driven by deep trauma.

In advocating for this Bill, I also remember a young woman who died on Christmas Day from a drug overdose. I am thinking of the woman I knew who died on the streets of Cork one dreadful Christmas week and whose daughter, whom I meet on the streets of Cork, also has deep addictions. I once read that trauma not transformed is trauma transferred and it struck a chord. I also have in mind a young woman, a school friend of my daughter, who was abused and neglected until the age of four years when she was eventually adopted. She is now parted from her own little girl and uses drugs to ease her pain. I think of the young man I know who lost his job because he was found in possession of a very small amount of controlled drugs. Since his conviction, he has drifted, lost confidence and lost his way. I think of a school friend of mine, a fellow Capricorn whose birthday was in December. My birthday is in January and we used to go to each other's birthday parties. I think of a woman whose son is the very same age as my son and who died as a result of an accidental overdose.

Criminalisation of the possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use caused nothing but harm to the people I mentioned and does nothing for the many people with addictions who will use drugs today or tomorrow. I know from my life and work that people in deep addiction are not put off drug taking, often harmful and fatal, because drug possession is illegal. Criminalisation does not bring health care, housing, clean needles, counselling, hope of job prospects or something to live for. It brings nothing. It wastes the time of the Garda and criminal justice system and breaks the hearts of families who are desperate for help for the people they love. It breaks the spirit of those who are working against the tide, including community workers, the general practitioners to whom Senator Norris referred and others who are frustrated by the futility of criminalisation. The effects of criminalisation are a chronic lack of the range and depth of supports needed by people who use drugs and have addictions. They do not have accessible supports, provided with kindness and judgment when and where they are needed. If an addict decides to get clean tomorrow, it may well be too late three weeks later because he or she needs to be able to access the help he or she needs immediately.

The Bill, if passed, would signal a transformation in how we face up to the realities of drug use and addiction. The measures proposed would save and transform lives.

The establishment of an activist, kind, skilled non-judgmental and holistic drug dissuasion service, as this Bill proposes, would save and would transform lives. I urge the Minister of State to face up to the realities of Ireland and the realities of drug use and addictions, to be politically brave and to do what she knows to be right. Instead of condemning and criminalising people who are in trauma and in trouble we need to put our efforts to good and useful effect to help them. We need to support and not stigmatise people who are often in deep trauma and to back up this grown-up Bill for a grown-up Ireland. I thank Senators Ruane and Ó Ríordáin and all the civil society organisations involved, including the people who influenced the Senators and whose lives inspired and encouraged them to bring this enlightened, humane, informed, realistic and practical Bill to the Seanad.

I apologise to Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile. He was on the top of the list but the previous occupant of the Chair may have inadvertently misinformed me.

Please do not worry at all about it. We shall not fall out over it. It is always a great pleasure to follow Senator Kelleher, especially on an issue such as this where she is engaged in a very sincere and passionate way.

The Minister of State is very welcome. Much of what I had intended to say has been said already, so I will avoid overt or unnecessary repetition on some of the sentiments that have been expressed by colleagues in their contributions.

I thank Senator Ruane for bringing this motion before us today, and I also thank Senator Ó Ríordáin for seconding it. Regardless of where one falls in this piece of legislation, or indeed in the broader argument, I do not believe that any of us could deny that it is a significant, substantial and passionate piece of work. The passion, dedication and commitment is written all over it. One can see it in the i's dotted and t's crossed. Fair play to Lynn and her colleagues who have contributed to that hard work.

I want to refer back to some of Senator Boyhan's comments on what we are trying to do here, what we are about and what we should be about as legislators in the Seanad. Sinn Féin did not sign the Bill because there are elements of the Bill we are opposed to and elements of the Bill we would have sought to change. Sinn Féin would have supported and voted for the passage of the Bill on Committee Stage in order to do exactly what Senator Boyhan is advocating us to do. This is to bring forward equally passionate, equally sincere and equally hopeful amendments to make the legislation better for the benefit of the people who need it. We do agree fundamentally and I am sure the Minister of State, in her heart of hearts, also agrees with the primary objective of the Bill, which is to reduce harm by making greater use of health interventions or community based sanctions rather than custodial sentences where a person's crime is solely possession for personal use and where such interventions would be more appropriate. This is why we should hone in on that aspect of the matter and I urge colleagues to not engage in any scaremongering around decriminalisation or legalisation as a blanket term for this legislation because it is not necessarily the case. I know this view might resonate with some tabloids or media outlets but it should not be the aspect we focus on today. The standard of work that has been put into the Bill warrants an equal standard of response from Senators in how we examine it and the contributions we give in the Chamber.

In moving this legislation forward I shall take the wisdom of Senator Ó Ríordáin and will not make an issue of why we will not have a vote to move it on today. We could do that but I do not believe it is in keeping with the spirit of the debate thus far. It would not be in concert with what we ultimately want to try to achieve. This is not about new politics or anything like that, it is actually about doing politics well and right. Einstein defined insanity as repeating the same mistakes over and over. All the statistics on the issues are there and a blind man or woman on a galloping horse can see that all the best intentioned policies and strategies thus far have not made the difference we wanted in the so-called war on drugs. This is why we will seek to amend this legislation.

The core principle and spirit of the Bill's proposed legislation represents everything that new politics should be. It is about trying to look at a societal problem that is staring us right in the face in the most tragic and awful ways with people suffering greatly as a result of dependency on drugs. Anyone who comes in to the House in a spirit of trying to assist and change that is to be commended, supported and co-operated with in trying to achieve that goal, one which we can all live with as politicians and elected representatives but, most important and critically, a goal that can start to make a tangible change in our society.

Without over egging and hamming it up - and I do not say this to be contentious or controversial - I grew up at a time and in an environment in Belfast when people who were using or selling drugs were shot, knee-capped and killed. That never stopped people from taking or dealing drugs. If we look at the same issues and our current strategic policy direction then why would people stop taking drugs? If a person is going to take somebody into an entrance and shoot them and it does not stop them engaging in drug use, then why do we think that what we have been doing over and over again is going to stop them? I do not say this to be controversial. I say it because I believe this discussion warrants frank contributions. We would do people a disservice if we do not speak frankly about the realities of the matter.

I know the Minister of State is hearing us and she is committed to the issue. I have heard the Minister of State speak before on these issues. I know she shares a desire to see a change in policy and, hopefully, to see a change in society that ultimately starts to treat the issues highlighted in this Bill with the kind of legislation it deserves. I hate to engage in clichés or rhetoric but I cannot think of any other term other than to say it must be about putting people first. It has to think of the individuals who are suffering as a result and it has to be reacted to in a way that looks after their health and well-being. By directing the affected people onto a path that is about their recovery I believe it will ultimately benefit the Minister of State's Department and the resources of Government by taking these people away from the criminal justice system and away from some of the issues they face as a result of their drug dependency.

I am in no way advocating a soft approach to the people who peddle drugs to the most vulnerable sections of our society. I believe they should feel the full rigours of the law. People who poison communities on a broad, wholesale level are doing more of a disservice than anybody to the people we are trying to help through this debate today. While I advocate and support fully the primary objective of the Bill, which is to deal with the situation as a health care issue, I appreciate there is a balance to be struck. I fully acknowledge that regardless of our best intentions there are people out there who are intent on harming communities and they must be faced down also.

When I was appointed as a Minister of State last year the first thing I did was to contact Senator Ruane and a number of Deputies and Senators to discuss the national drug strategy with them. I felt it was an important start for me to get the views of everyone and not just of political parties. At the time I made it my business to listen and to note, but above all to listen to things we do not normally do in here and to think outside the box. I believe this is thinking outside the box.

It is a conversation that is long overdue. I am delighted that Senator Ruane has brought the matter to the Seanad this evening. We have had long conversations about it over the past few days and have had hiccups here and there. I want to make it very clear that no matter who is in this job next week or next year, legislation passed by the Dáil and the Seanad must be in line with the law. We cannot just pass legislation for the sake of it. We have to dot all the "i"s and cross all the "t"s. That is what today is about. I thank Senator Ruane for her co-operation in allowing the debate to adjourn this evening for reasons I will outline shortly.

I thank Senator Ruane for tabling the Bill. I thank all who are in the Chamber this evening and those who have been present for debates on the national drugs strategy in these Houses in the past. The Bill provides an important opportunity to discuss our approach to people who come into contact with the criminal justice system as a result of their drug use. I am aware that Senator Ruane has genuine concerns about those who find themselves in this situation. I would like to say from the outset that I share those concerns, as do most normal-thinking people. We would all agree that people need a second chance and that we need to look after the most vulnerable among us.

I believe the Bill is well intentioned. It seeks to address drug use as a social and health issue rather than as a criminal justice matter. This reflects a growing level of interest in the issue of decriminalisation in Ireland and internationally and is consistent with the programme for Government commitment to support a health-led rather than a criminal justice-led approach to drug use. I believe that what we need is a public health approach to substance misuse. I know there is cross-party support for a compassionate and humane approach to drug users who come into contact with the criminal justice system, without losing sight of the victims of crime.

There is a general acceptance of the need to divert drug users with possession offences away from the courts system, where appropriate, and into treatment services that promote recovery. Criminal convictions, resulting in a lifelong criminal record, can represent a serious impediment for people seeking to move on from drug misuse. Such convictions can limit opportunities for the person concerned, particularly in the areas of access to employment, housing and travel. Senator Ruane and I, in the context of my responsibility for the national drugs strategy, have met many young people around the country who have come out of addiction and still find it very difficult to get a job or a home, or to travel outside the country. I feel very compassionate towards them and am passionate that we need to do something about it. There can be very severe repercussions for young people and their future prospects, which can impact on a drug user’s potential for rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

However, finding an alternative approach to criminal sanctions in cases involving possession of small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use is a complex matter and we need to ensure that any changes would be appropriate in an Irish context. In Ireland, there has been a great interest in the Portuguese model, under which it is still an offence to possess illegal drugs, but it is now treated as a civil administrative matter in certain cases. In 2015, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality visited Portugal, held public hearings and produced a report which concluded that a health-led approach, rather than a criminal sanction, may be more effective and more appropriate for those found in possession of a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use. I believe that we need to further explore the Portuguese model and other international models.

Finding an alternative approach to criminal sanctions in cases involving possession of small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use is an issue which now needs to be dealt with in the context of the new national drugs strategy. The national drugs strategy steering committee has been mandated to develop an integrated public health approach to substance misuse. This is consistent with the programme for Government commitment to support a health-led rather than a criminal justice approach to drug use. The need for a health-led approach to those with drug-related problems was also raised repeatedly during public consultation on the new strategy. This reflects a welcome change in public attitudes to people with drug problems. The steering committee on the new strategy is expected to report within the next two weeks. This report will advise on the future direction of Government policy to tackle the drug problem, and will address a number of the issues raised in the Bill.

The steering committee has considered the case for a health-led and harm reducing approach to the needs of those found in possession of a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use. I understand the committee felt a number of issues needed to be looked at before it could recommend any change in policy in this area. In Ireland, substances that may cause harm and which are prone to misuse are controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Under the legislation, unless expressly allowed to do so, it is illegal to possess, supply, manufacture, import or export a controlled substance. The objective of the legislative framework is to protect the public from dangerous or potentially dangerous and harmful substances. We will continue to need a framework in Ireland to protect public health from the risks attached to using dangerous or harmful substances. We need to understand the potential impact and outcomes for the individual, the family and society. We need to ensure that we incorporate well thought out and workable processes in any proposal. It would also be important to understand the consequences of any alternative model for the health system and the criminal justice system. It is intended that the report of the national drugs strategy steering committee, which is due shortly, will outline a recommendation to establish a working group to examine this issue in more detail, which would report to the Minister responsible within 12 months.

While I believe the Bill is well intentioned, I do have significant and serious issues with parts of it. The Misuse of Drugs Acts are designed to prevent the abuse of certain drugs and to regulate the various professional activities associated with such substances. It imposes prohibitions on various activities associated with controlled drugs but contains provisions and positive obligations to ensure that certain controlled drugs are available and that persons or classes of persons are enabled to do certain things with those drugs for medical, industrial and scientific purposes. Possession is the most basic offence under the Acts and is a constituent element of many other offences contained within the Acts. The Bill removes the prohibition on and the offence of possession and replaces it with nothing. This would adversely affect the ability to control these potent and dangerous drugs. The Bill would effectively legalise possession of all drugs for personal use and would mean that a person in possession of controlled drugs could not be prosecuted under the misuse of drugs legislation, where the quantity is determined to be for personal use. It would become effectively legal to possess drugs like heroin, cocaine, cannabis and so-called legal highs such as 25I NBOMe or n-bombs. This is not decriminalisation; this is de facto legalisation.

The Bill removes the offence of possession and replaces it with nothing. This is a problem as I believe that legislation has to be carefully crafted to ensure that no unintended or undesirable consequences occur. Another area of concern for me is the fact that under this Bill, the Minister would set the quantities of each drug deemed to be for personal use. This would prove very difficult, considering the huge number of different drugs available and the different effects they have on the body. In Cork last year, when some young lads dabbled in taking tablets unfortunately one of them passed away. Every individual is different and people may have different physical reactions to taking a certain drug. I would therefore find it difficult, as a Minister, to quantify how much of which drugs people could take on a legal basis.

The misuse of drugs legislation is complex. Any amendments to it must be carefully considered and constructed so as not to undermine other provisions within the legislation. The possession of controlled drugs is the fundamental offence created under the Misuse of Drugs Acts and possession is a constituent element of many other offences under the Acts. In replacing section 3, the Bill as proposed undermines a tenet crucial to the construction of the entire misuse of drugs legislation in Ireland. It removes the prohibition on and the offence of possession of controlled drugs. Without the fundamental prohibition and offence of possession there can be no practical or legitimate mechanisms for controlling the import, manufacture, production, preparation or transportation of controlled drugs for their many legitimate and important medical, industrial and scientific uses.

This includes the use by health care professionals or patients with a prescription. We need a compassionate and humane approach to drug users who come into contact with the criminal justice system, but a change to our legislation on such an important matter requires careful consideration and public buy-in. As a result, this is a matter that needs to be dealt with under the national drugs strategy, and dealt with as a matter of urgency. I look forward to bringing my proposals for a new national drugs strategy to Government at the earliest opportunity, so that we can start the process of implementing an integrated public health approach to the drugs problem in our society.

I commend Senator Ruane on the work she has done on this Bill. It has not gone away. This is only the beginning of this Bill and I will do anything I can, with the working group on the national drugs strategy, to help put in place a Bill that covers all angles and does not leave us open to any legal challenge, which is the most important point. We have to accept that when a Bill comes into either House, it has to be scrutinised not only by the Minister and Department, but by the Legislature. We found complications in the Bill which we need to examine in more detail and rectify. Above all, we must not stop the conversation on this issue. I commend the Senator because what she has done this evening has opened an avenue to many people who would never have been able to stand up and speak openly about their addiction and how it has affected their families, their communities and the Irish people. I thank her and I thank the Seanad for giving me time to speak here this evening. Whether I remain in this job or not, I will continue to help the national drugs strategy because we all have a voice in bringing legislation forward. That is very important.

As the time for the debate has concluded, I call on the Leader to move the adjournment of the debate.

I am happy for the adjournment to be moved but I would like to clarify one issue before that because it is an important point of order to finish on.

We are not finishing the debate today. There are two further speakers, Senators Warfield and Black. We are adjourning the debate.

Does Senator Ruane have a point of order?

Yes, but I have to give permission for the debate to be adjourned because it is my Private Members' time.

The House will decide. I call on the Leader.

I want to make a point of order about parts of the Bill that are not factual.

With respect to the Senator, they are not points of order. The Senator will-----

If wrong facts were given out-----

The Senator will have the opportunity to conclude the debate when it is resumed.

The Tánaiste's officials, an ex-Attorney General and the justice spokespersons for other parties have not once raised a concern about legalisation. I need to make that point before we adjourn. This Bill does not in any way promote legalisation.

The Senator is out of order. I call the Leader to move the adjournment.

Debate adjourned.