by CanSS, posted 07 07 2016
Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill 2016: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)
Thursday, 7 July 2016
Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 917 No. 1
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[Deputy John Curran: [Information on John Curran] [Zoom on John Curran] ] I compliment the Taoiseach on the appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy of Deputy Catherine Byrne who, in terms of her background and being a Dublin Deputy, is ideally suited to the position. I have every confidence she will be effective in this role and I wish her well in that regard over the coming years. While the portfolio is associated with the Department of Health it is evident from the contributions of other speakers that the level of interaction required across a range of agencies and Departments in coming up with an effective response to the drugs issue is challenging. My only regret is that the Minister of State is not a super junior Minister sitting at the Cabinet table. Given the co-ordinating role required of her across so many Departments and agencies it is the next logical progression.
On the legislation, I acknowledge that the Minister for Health fast-tracked the introduction of this Bill which was to be part of wider legislation in terms of the misuse of drugs. This was done as a result of pressures following particular incidents in the North Inner City. It is important the political system is seen to respond quickly and appropriately. I understand that further legislation on other issues in this area will be introduced later in the year. Fianna Fáil supports this legislation.
The issue of prescription drug abuse has been around for a long time. All of the reports, surveys and findings have indicated the harm that they are causing. I have spoken to people outside of here about the issue of prescription drugs. Some people are of the view that because prescription drugs are made to a particular standard and are certified they are not bad. However, when prescription drugs are taken with other drugs they can have a serious effect on the individual. The Health Research Board report 2015 data on drug misuse is shocking. In the decade 2004 to 2013 there were more than 6,000 deaths from drug poisoning. If that statistic was related to road fatalities, as a society, we would have a completely different attitude in terms of how we deal with it.
In 2013, the last year for which published data is available,there were 387 drug-related poisonings in this country. There were 679 drug-related deaths in 2013, of which 387 were as a result of drug poisoning. They are horrendous statistics. As a society we need to get our heads around this and we need to give this issue the priority, attention and urgency it deserves. According to the report, polydrug use was implicated in 60% of poisoning deaths; alcohol was implicated in 35% of poisoning deaths and methadone was implicated in 0.25% of poisoning deaths. There were 86 deaths in which heroin was implicated. In almost two thirds of poisoning deaths in 2013 polydrugs were involved. Death due to the use of polydrugs increased by 90% over the period. In 57% of poisoning deaths in which alcohol was implicated other drugs were also involved, particularly benzodiazepines. In 94% of deaths in which methadone was implicated other drugs were also involved, particularly benzodiazepines. In 72% of deaths in which heroin was implicated other drugs were also involved, in the main, benzodiazapines. This combination of drug taking is not only affecting people it is killing people at an enormous rate. As I said, in 2013 679 people died from drug-related poisoning. It is important in that regard that our response is appropriate.
When speaking about the war on drugs previous speakers used the phrase, "we're never going to win". I do not like that expression. It is the wrong way to look at the issue of drug use and drug addiction. The challenge for Government is to reduce the harm over time, to make improvements year-on-year. Today, are dealing with legislation on the misuse of drugs. Other legislative measures around enforcement and so on will be required. If we are to bring about change in this area we will have to change our behaviour. This will require a huge amount of investment, time and effort in educating young people about the dangers and consequences of drug misuse. We did this in relation to drink driving. When I was growing up it was the norm for people to have a few pints and drive. The advertisements on television at that time quoted "two will do". Now, there is zero tolerance in that area. There has been a cultural shift; drink driving rates have reduced, our roads have improved and our cars are of better quality. While the number of cars on our roads has doubled the number of fatalities has halved. If we are to bring about significant behavioural change, we will need a constructive educational programme on drugs which the whole of society can buy into. There will always be drug experimentation and drug use but we now have an opportunity to radically change how we deal with the issue. This will require change in our behaviour, our education and our awareness. In my view, this should be the focus of any new national drugs strategy.
Earlier when speaking about drug-related deaths I indicated that in terms of poisonings alcohol was involved in many cases. The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, referred recently in the Seanad to the development of a new national drugs strategy. The Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, will be aware that the national drugs strategy introduced in 2009 included specific elements on alcohol, which subsequently led to the introduction of a national substance misuse strategy. I am hoping that alcohol is included and that we will have a national substance misuse strategy not just a drugs strategy. It is important the strategy is what we determined it should be. It may be that I misunderstood what the Minister said. It is important, based on the two strategies that have emerged, that we have a national substance misuse strategy.
I understand the new strategy will be published some time this year. From the Minister of State's point of view, that will be a difficult task. It may be the case that because it took a while for a Government to be formed she is now playing catch-up. There is a consultative process to be gone through. Members of the Dáil and Seanad had an input into the previous national drugs strategy. There were two specific Oireachtas meetings on the issue and a a discussion on it in the Seanad. I hope that in advance of publication of the national substance misuse strategy Members of both Houses will have an opportunity to be involved in its development.
I heard a number of Members speak about the Portuguese model and so on. I believe that any changes to legislation must be evidence-based. It is easy when looking at an issue to take a narrow look and to form the view that a particular treatment works in a particular situation. However, issues must be addressed in the wider context. In other words, does it have a consequential effect in terms, perhaps, of prevalence, use and so forth? I have an open mind on all of this. The decisions that we make in this House need to be evidence-based. As, I said there has been much talk about the Portuguese model; I believe we need to look further afield than that. I do not have an ideological hang-up in terms of injection rooms and so forth but I would like to see the medical evidence that they work for that particular cohort and to know if in that regard there are any unintended consequences for society in general or other users. That is important.
A number of Members said earlier that this legislation will not be effective but it is only one element of a programme to deal with drug addiction and the problems associated with it. During the passage of legislation through this House on head shops the common line was that even though the head shops would be closed people would still be able to get the drugs and, therefore, the problem would not be tackled. The subsequent reality was that people did continue to get the drugs but fewer people got them. That is the evidence from the accident and emergency departments and the consultants. According to them it was like switching off a tap over night. There continue to be problems with substances known as legal highs but not of the previous scale and level. Each measure we introduce must be incremental in improving the situation. This Bill will not solve the problem and it does not pretend to solve it but it is one step in tackling the cohort of prescription drugs that are doing harm.
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