Call for dedicated drugs minister

The Government has its “head stuck in the sand” in relation to drugs and needs to appoint a dedicated junior minister to drive responses, including new laws on legal tranquillisers, Sinn Féin TD for Cork City, Jonathan O’Brien, has said.

Call for dedicated drugs minister

He said the Government does not “see the urgency” in bringing in long-awaited regulations to control the sale and possession of tranquillisers such as benzodiazepines, and z-drugs, which are sleeping tablets. The call comes as figures show the number of people seeking treatment for benzodiazepines as their main drug of abuse jumped from 261 in 2009 to 719 in 2013 (up 175%).

Benzodiazepines were involved in 123 overdose deaths, or 35% of all poisonings, in 2012. Z-drugs, which are hypnotics, were implicated in a further 27 deaths.

Government proposals to control the sale and possession of these legal drugs were drafted in 2013 by the Department of Health, in response to growing concerns at the problem, but have not yet been introduced.

“I don’t see the urgency there in the Government regarding the regulations,” said Mr O’Brien. “The Government has its head stuck in the sand. It needs to put someone in charge of drugs, a dedicated minister of state.”

Former drugs minister Róisín Shortall, who signed off on regulations in 2012, has said the “political will” didn’t appear to be there to push the matter.

A Department of Health spokesman said draft proposals to amend the Misuse of Drugs Regulations were prepared in 2013, but, during the consultation period “some medical practitioners and advocacy groups raised concerns” about tighter controls on prescriptions for this medication. He accepted there was a need to tackle the illegal trade in benzodiazepines and z-drugs in Dublin city centre and elsewhere.

“The Department of Health is conscious of the implications that a blanket ban on possession of these medicines without a prescription could have for individuals in society,” he said. “That is why the department has held two rounds of consultation on the matter.

“The amended regulations should be introduced later this year.”

Once the regulations have been published, there is a mandatory EU notification period of three months, before they become law.

A senior garda source said organised crime has taken over much of the trade, given the massive profits and huge demand. He said crime groups often bought powder in bulk from Pakistan, India, and China and manufactured the tablets here with tablet machines. He said the products looked genuine, in industry blister packs, and do contain the active ingredients, but the dosage can be off. A single tablet exchanges for €1 or €2 on the street.

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