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December 16, 2003

Dail Debates. Written Answers. National Drugs Strategy

Vol 577 No. 3, December 16 2003
Mr. O'Dowd: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this item again for tonight. This time I hope the Minister has a reply. There are continual seizures of cocaine all around the country and I commend the Garda for its attention to this problem, particularly those with responsibility for drugs, who are doing a tremendous job. I praise their work.

On the ground in Dublin, community workers in the north and south inner city and throughout the whole city area have been deeply concerned for some time about increasing levels of cocaine use, especially among young people. The results of the survey carried out by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs are timely. They show that in terms of current use among those aged 15 to 34 cocaine is the second most popular drug after cannabis and it is used most frequently among 15 to 25 year olds. This is a serious issue. The advisory committee reckons that one in 20 people in that age group has tried cocaine during their lives so far.

Cocaine is becoming an insidious and readily available drug. It is available with greater frequency than previously in clubs, pubs and late night bars. An RTE programme earlier this year outlined how serious and prevalent the problem is. It is also frequently used by poly-drug users, which is a serious problem.

Dr. Des Corrigan, the chairman of the NACD, said when the report was launched that higher injecting frequency was increasing the chance of users contracting hepatitis and HIV. According to the website of The Irish Times this evening, the incidence of HIV in Ireland has increased by 22% in the last year. The report does not state how this relates to the increase in cocaine use but it is clear that increasing damage is being done.

What will the Government do about this? How will the national drugs strategy, which has been very successful so far in fighting the heroin problem, cope with the problem? It needs to be adjusted significantly and more resources need to be used to fight cocaine use. According to Ms Mairéad Lyons, the director of the NACD, cocaine addiction is especially problematic because there are no replacement drugs available. She said: "Drug-treatment services across the sectors face an enormous challenge in managing problem cocaine use amongst the opiate drug-treatment population." What does the Minister intend to do about this serious problem which is growing every day? I am particularly concerned about the number of young people for whom it is the drug of choice. It is very worrying, especially for parents.

Mr. B. Lenihan: I am replying on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Noel Ahern. This Department has overall responsibility for co-ordinating the implementation of the National Drugs Strategy 2001-2008. The strategy aims to tackle the drugs problem, including that of cocaine use, in the most comprehensive way ever undertaken in this country. It contains 100 individual actions under the four pillars of supply reduction, prevention, treatment and research, to be implemented by a range of Departments and agencies.

The NACD report on cocaine use in Ireland to which the Deputy refers was compiled at the Government's request and the Minister of State has been aware of its findings for some time. The statistics for cocaine use in the report were primarily based on the recent drug prevalence survey which showed that 3.1% of the population had used the drug at some point, 1.1% had used it in the 12 months prior to the survey and 0.3% had used in the previous month. Not all European countries have undertaken comparable surveys, but of the ten countries that have we are roughly midway in terms of cocaine use. There is no room for complacency.

The Minister of State is aware that the Eastern Regional Health Authority, ERHA, has reported that its services are beginning to notice an increase in those presenting with problems related to cocaine use, though it should be noted that the numbers presenting are still low. While cocaine use is on the increase, the numbers presenting for treatment are still very low and, in total, make up approximately 1% of those in treatment for drug use. The Deputy made that point in his contribution.

Mr. O'Dowd: On a point of information, the number of cocaine users in treatment in some other countries is 30% of the total number in treatment, so the level in Ireland is very low.

Mr. B. Lenihan: The Garda and Customs and Excise are having a considerable degree of success in seizing drugs, including cocaine, and the Garda Síochána policing plan for 2003 includes as a major priority ensuring that the objectives of the national drugs strategy are met. Drugs seizures might not necessarily be related to usage in Ireland as the drugs may have been in transit. Cocaine-related offences remain relatively uncommon, accounting for approximately 3% of all such offences. The majority of offences continue to be for cannabis, at approximately 60%, and ecstasy. However, this does not mean that we are not aware of the problem and, contrary to what the Deputy said, the Minister has never denied that cocaine use was rising. I am not sure the Deputy stated that the Minister suggested that.

Mr. O'Dowd: I did not. I thank the Minister of State for contradicting his colleague.

Mr. B. Lenihan: Perhaps the Deputy suggested it on some other occasion.

Mr. O'Dowd: Deputy Lenihan should have Deputy Noel Ahern's job.

Mr. B. Lenihan: The national drugs strategy is designed to deal with the problem of misuse of all drugs. The problem of cocaine use can be tackled within that framework and particularly through the pillars set out in the strategy. Under the supply reduction pillar Garda resources in local drugs task force areas will be increased. In addition, the volume of all illicit drugs seized will be increased by 25% by 2004 and by 50% by 2008.

Under the prevention pillar an ongoing national awareness campaign highlighting the dangers of drugs has been launched and comprehensive substance misuse prevention programmes are now on all school curriculums. The NACD report pointed out that drug prevention approaches in Ireland are consistent with best practice internationally. Under the treatment and rehabilitation pillar the strategy provides that there will be immediate access to professional assessment and counselling for the individual drug misuser, followed by commencement of treatment not later than one month after assessment. A range of treatment and rehabilitation options will also be developed in each health board area and a protocol will be developed for treating people under 18 who present with serious drug problems. It also seeks to expand the number of rehabilitation places available for recovering drug users by 30%.

Other measures within the context of the strategy also tackle the misuse of cocaine. For example, the local drugs task forces, for which the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has responsibility, were established in 1997 in the areas experiencing the worst levels of drug misuse, regardless of which substances were involved. There are currently 14 task forces - 12 in Dublin, one in Cork and one in Bray. In total, the Government has allocated more than €65 million to implement the proposals contained in the two rounds of plans for the task forces since 1997. Under the young people's facilities and services fund approximately €130 million has been spent on or allocated to the 14 task force areas. Regional drugs task forces are also being established.

The Deputy asked what additional measures could be taken to tackle cocaine misuse. Specific challenges are posed which vary according to the type of user involved. For existing heroin users who are also using cocaine, often through injecting, the challenge is to treat such users for cocaine dependence while simultaneously dealing with their heroin use. To deal with the broader population using cocaine, mostly through snorting the drug, the challenge is a difficult one. We need more prevention initiatives and a greater capacity to attract users into treatment, as the Deputy suggested. In the area of prevention, we need to counter the deluded perception among some users that this is a safe, clean drug.

The NACD report pointed out that drug prevention approaches in Ireland are consistent with best practice internationally. The Minister has asked that the issue of cocaine use be considered in the context of the ongoing national awareness campaign. Also, where there is a demand, there is a need to expand the provision of appropriate treatment. As I said, the EHRA has noticed an increase in the number of those presenting with problems of cocaine use, although the numbers involved are still low. The drug treatment services have also reported that the majority of cocaine use that has come to its attention is in the form of poly-drug use, usually with heroin. Unlike heroin, there is no substitute drug available for the treatment of cocaine dependency. Existing services such as counselling and behavioural therapy are the best treatments available. For such treatments the motivation of the users must be high. Although cocaine is not physically addictive in the classic sense it does produce severe psychological cravings.

Additional counsellors and outreach workers have been recruited by the three area health boards of the ERHA in the last number of years. Cocaine users who present to the drug treatment services are provided with a full assessment of their treatment needs. The area health boards continue to monitor cocaine misuse in their regions and where necessary have developed specific responses. For example, in the South Western Area Health Board training courses are provided for staff involved in the drug treatment services of all three boards, with a specific emphasis on the treatment of cocaine misusers. The area of cocaine misuse is constantly being monitored.

Although the strategy is flexible enough to deal with these challenges, it should be noted that an independent evaluation of the effectiveness of the overall framework is due to be carried out by the end of 2004. This will allow us to examine the progress being made and enable us to identify priorities and refocus if necessary.

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