National Drugs Strategy – The Minister should listen to the words from the Communities

I present this motion to provide the House with the opportunity to engage in an urgent and focused debate on the implementation by drug and alcohol task forces of the national drugs strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery, which was launched in July 2017. The national drugs strategy has enjoyed cross-party support over the years with Ministers in successive Governments committed to maintaining the interagency partnership approach to tackling the drugs crisis in Ireland, in particular in the cities. Is this Government going to be the first to buck that support? The strategy is two years into its three-year priority action plan and CityWide is more than concerned that the action plan will not be realised. CityWide emailed out a briefing document a couple of weeks ago, which this Private Members’ motion reflects. These are the very people who were ignored in the 1990s. Politicians recognised then that they had to be brought to the table in respect of task forces and the innovative model which was then established to reflect community views and link with agencies.

The points of concern and the proposals set out in the motion are about ensuring the national drugs strategy action plan is a success. The motion sets out first the international background. Opium production increased by 65% between 2016 and 2017, which is the highest level ever recorded. Cocaine manufacturing increased by 56% between 2013 and 2016 and was at its highest level ever in the latter year. Europe’s early warning system monitored 670 new psychoactive substances by the end of 2017, up from 300 in 2013. Cannabis, the most commonly used drug, was used by 192 million people globally last year. EU data show a significant increase in the potency of cannabis resin from 8.14% THC in 2006 to 17.2% in 2016. Drug markets continue to be the most important illegal markets in the EU with over 30% of organised criminal groups participating in the production, trafficking and supply of illicit drugs. There were 695 drug-related deaths in Ireland in 2015. Significantly, drug-related deaths occur at a rate three and a half times higher than the rate at which deaths occur on our roads.

There are 50 actions in the action plan for 2017 to 2020. These actions are designed to co-ordinate and implement the national drugs strategy at local and regional level. The key role of task forces is to provide a local response to local needs and the interagency partnership approach continues to be the cornerstone of the process. Community participation in decision-making to shape responses is also a key focus of task forces.

The link between national and local is the role of the national oversight committee and standing sub-committee.

There are serious challenges for the strategic role of the task forces. The most important is the funding for the task forces. There were no budget increases from 2015 to 2018 and in 2014 there was a reduction from 2013. There has been a cumulative cut of 37% to the budget. There has been no restoration even though funding to the HSE is increasing significantly each year. The projects are struggling to survive and maintain the existing level of service, to pay the salaries of the people employed and to meet the new and emerging needs. They are under huge pressure. The health budget has been increasing year on year so there is no reason for the base core funding for task forces remaining the same since 2014. The workers and communities feel they have been ignored and that the work they do is not recognised. They do not get the same recognition as other groups. The 2019 HSE plan shows a figure of an additional €1.9 million for overall social inclusion activities, with addiction services one of the five areas to be covered. There is no indication of any increase for the task forces. This is the problem of the core funding not being reversed. The only new moneys mentioned in the Minister of State’s amendment is €1 million. One could say that is a coincidence and more cynical people might say it is a cynical move before today’s debate.

CityWide has indicated that national drugs strategy actions are not being brought to the table by statutory agencies for consideration. There must be a mandate to the task forces to develop action plans based on the national drugs strategy actions. CityWide indicates that there are huge challenges to community participation. That must be actively supported and resourced and CityWide proposes an immediate investment in community leadership and participation programmes with a view to strengthening the community voice across all levels of the national drugs strategy. The Minister of State’s amendment makes reference to that, but she does not say there will be immediate investment in it. She says it should be resourced, but there is a big difference between investment and resourcing.

The national drugs strategy commits to addressing the drugs issue with an integrated approach through inter-agency partnership. Strong co-ordination and co-operation are needed in delivering the actions involving 17 Departments, agencies and sections. Some agencies are not participating. They should be identified and forced to participate as it is in their remit to participate in the structures. The motion calls for the Department of the Taoiseach to appoint a senior official to the NDS national structures to ensure the direct accountability of all agencies at national, regional and local level for their active participation in implementing the new strategy. The Minister of State’s amendment says there is robust accountability, but there is not. There are problems in that regard and we must try to tease them out.

Regarding the new scheme for young people, the increase in the strength of cannabis is leading to growing concern about the impact on young people’s mental health, and community youth projects are reporting a significant increase in benzodiazepine use by young people. The Lifting the Lid on Greentown study shows how young people are being recruited into criminal gangs. CityWide has called for a new scheme for young people to be developed through a partnership approach, including youth services, those involved in the young people’s facilities and services fund, YPFSF, schools and community drug projects.

Drug related intimidation is a serious threat to local communities. It was the local communities who detected that this type of intimidation was taking place. There is an urgent need to bring together a high-level group that includes senior justice and Garda personnel, community representatives and relevant stakeholders to establish an action plan to address this problem. I believe this action is worth examining and developing. Expansion and acceleration of the work of the Garda asset profilers are crucial. The work of the working group on alternative approaches to criminalisation must be brought to a conclusion without further delay to end criminalisation of possession for personal use and to address these harms in a better way by referring people to health led treatment rather than into the criminal justice system.

On the drug and alcohol action in the national drugs strategy, committing to an integrated public health approach to drugs and alcohol abuse is a key priority. Again, it is not adequately funded. CityWide is calling for an engagement with the task force on a timetable for implementation and monitoring of the 2018 alcohol Act, but funding is a prerequisite for doing that.

A key point I wish to make relates to the HSE reviews and the role of the HSE. CityWide welcomes the health-led response on drugs and alcohol, but in the broader, holistic sense of a public health response with mental health programmes and so forth. Currently, however, we are seeing a deterioration in how the national bodies are working. The subgroup is supposed to check the accountability of the task forces to the national forum, but instead the HSE is carrying out reviews in this regard. The subgroup should be doing those reviews and checking accountability, not the HSE. How much do these reviews cost? There have been three already. I have a copy of the remit of the review being carried out on the Canal Communities local drugs task force, with which I am involved. It is the work plan of what it is investigating. This is not the work of the HSE. It is the work of the communities and the task force. I have been at two reviews of the task force in recent years, as I am on the task force, and it does a very good job in terms of accountability for where money is going and what proposals have been put in place for the communities.

A total 21 of the 24 co-ordinators have been selected from a panel from just the HSE. Under the national drugs strategy the situation should be that a representative from both the task force and the HSE should be on those panels, but that has been refused. Heretofore the co-ordinators would link the drugs task forces to the HSE, but now it is the other way around. The HSE is doing the reverse.

The innovative model of the task forces is being threatened. People in CityWide who were part of the initial process in the 1990s are saying this. Those voices should be heard. The motion here from CityWide should be accepted by the House. I support the amendments put forward by the other parties. The Minister of State should listen to the words from the community.