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OPINION: National Drugs Strategy opens window of hope.

Byline: EOIN RYAN Minister for Local Development with special responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy

DESPITE the impressive growth in the economy over recent years, there are still many individuals, families and communities who suffer the daily misery of drug misuse.

I have spent a great deal of my time as Minister for Local Development and with the National Drugs Strategy, working hard to put policies in place which will benefit such people.

Having seen at first hand the positive impact that many of the Government's initiatives are having, I can state with some confidence that we are now beginning to make a real difference to the lives of the most vulnerable in our society.

The new National Drugs Strategy is the first time that all strands of drugs policy have been brought together. It clearly sets out 100 actions to be carried out across a number of departments and agencies over the next seven years.

The purpose of this extensive consultation was to listen to the views of those people who are dealing with the drug problem on a daily basis throughout the country. The picture which emerged was that cannabis and ecstasy are the most commonly used drugs.

However, in terms of harm, heroin is the most serious problem and remains predominantly a Dublin phenomenon - 96 per cent of treated cases and arrests for possession of heroin are in the Dublin region.

That said, we cannot afford to ignore the indications that heroin is now emerging in a small number of areas around the country. In addition, the typical profile of the heroin misuser remains male, under 30 years of age, unemployed and over half had already left school by the age of 16. So what's new about this strategy?

The strategy marks a major departure, by clearly assigning responsibilities and targets for departments and state agencies. It also sets out specific objectives and key performance indicators, under the four pillars of: supply reduction, prevention, treatment and research.

Another key element is the establishment of regional drugs task forces which will bring together all the key agencies and the local community on an area basis to develop and implement drug action plans in every region in Ireland.

In those areas which have been ravaged by heroin misuse, I have secured an unprecedented level of resources - over EUR19 million annually - to ensure that action plans developed locally to tackle the problem are implemented effectively on the ground. In both the local and regional drugs task forces, the participation of the local community is crucial to the development of effective and relevant action plans. This partnership approach remains at the core of the new strategy.

There are now over 300 drug-related projects up and running. With the assessment of the new South Inner Task Force Plan almost complete, I expect to be in a position shortly to announce a significant injection of funding to drug projects in the area.

On the prevention front, I have overseen an investment of EUR130 million under the Young Peoples' Facilities and Services Fund to develop programmes and amenities aimed at youth at risk of drug misuse. To date, over 340 projects have been approved funding of some EUR58 million.

As a direct result of this fund, many vital facilities are now providing programmes for young people at risk in purpose-built premises. Because of this fund, there are now over 90 workers employed to provide activities and programmes for the most vulnerable kids in these areas. I am particularly happy that areas such as Ringsend, Whitefriar Street and Pearse Street are receiving significant funding to develop and enhance their youth programmes.

I also established the National Advisory Committee on Drugs with an annual budget of EUR1.3 million to provide reliable and relevant information on the drug problem. Already, this committee has produced a valuable report on drug prevention that is informing the development of a public awareness campaign to highlight the dangers of drugs. The first phase of a National Awareness Campaign will be launched by mid-2002.

With regard to the provision of Methadone treatment - some 6,000 places were provided at the end of 2001, in comparison to 1,400 in 1995. By the end of 2002, I expect that 6,500 places will be provided. Furthermore, extra places have been provided in drug-free treatment centres.

A joint policy on prison-based drug treatment services has been agreed between the prison service and the Eastern Regional Health Authority and is being implemented.

In addition, a pilot drug court has been set up in Dublin to provide opportunities to divert people away from the criminal justice system into alternative and more effective treatment and rehabilitation.

All this is being done against the backdrop of substantial funding being made available under the National Development Plan 2000 - 2006 for social inclusion measures. Over the lifetime of the plan, approximately pounds 1 billion will be made available for such measures.

I believe that the foundations are now solidly laid and we have entered the next stage of the drugs strategy with a clear focus on what needs to be done. We should not, of course, underestimate the task facing us. But I do believe we can succeed. I do believe we can make a difference. A measurable difference.

The strategy opens a window of hope for all those suffering because of drugs. It offers an alternative to the drug misuser that will make all the difference to their lives, the lives of their families and the wider community and make this a country of which we can all be proud.


HEROIN HAUL: batches of heroin, like this one shown by Det Sgt Stephen Courage in 1999, are bringing misery to Ireland
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 24, 2002
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