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FactCheck: Has the rate of illegal drug use increased most among young Irish people?

The government says it has so we take a deep dive into who is taking what – and how often.

LAST WEEK, THE government launched a new national drug strategy. “Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery” promises a “health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland” from now until 2025.

Part of the strategy’s focus is on younger people, with one of the first objectives being to “prevent use of drugs and alcohol at a young age”. The government says that illegal drug use is rising particularly fast among younger people. But is that correct? We’ve run the numbers.

Claim: Rates of illegal drug use in Ireland have risen the most among younger people over the past decade.

What was said

In the foreword to Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery, and in an accompanying press release, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says that “rates of drug use in Ireland have risen significantly over the past decade, with the greatest increases among younger people”.

The source

The press release offers some supporting details. It says that “the 2014/15 drugs prevalence survey found that one in four Irish adults (26.4%) has tried an illegal drug at least once in their lifetime… trends over the past decade point to an increase in the rate of recent and current drug use, with the greatest increases in amongst younger people aged 15-34”.

So we can note from the outset that the government’s definition of “younger people”, in this context, is 15 to 34 year olds. We’ll come back to that.

As for the drug prevalence survey: this is a major study of how often people drink and take drugs. It’s commissioned jointly, every four years, by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol (NACDA) and Northern Ireland’s Department of Health. That means it covers both the Republic and the North, but we’re only looking here at the figures for the 26 counties.

In the drug prevalence survey, people are asked about whether they’ve taken illegal drugs:

  • Ever in their lifetime
  • In the past year
  • In the past month

Drug use in the past year is referred to as “recent”. Use in the past month is “current”.

There have been four such surveys since 2002/03. The latest was in 2014/15. The Department told FactCheck that when it talks about trends “over the past decade”, it’s looking at the changes in current and recent drug use between 2002/03 and 2014/15.

That’s fair enough: this is certainly the best source, and there’s no more recent data that we’re aware of.

There is one health warning: before 2010/11, people weren’t asked about their use of “new psychoactive substances” – what used to be known as “legal highs”, sold in head shops - because they weren’t “illegal drugs” until 2010. If people were using these drugs in, say, 2006/07, it wouldn’t show up in the survey results for that year, whereas it would for 2014/15. In other words, the survey is set up to record illegal drug use, but doesn’t let us compare actual drug use over time with perfect precision.

The NACDA confirmed to FactCheck that “the proportion of people taking any of the drugs listed as illegal in the 2014/15 survey, may have been higher than is reported in the ‘any illegal drug’ category in previous surveys”.

The facts

But while this caveat is worth bearing in mind, the trends are clear enough. The percentage of Irish people aged 15-64 saying that they had used an illegal drug at least once in their life rose from 18.5% in 2002/03 to 30.7% in 2014/15, with increases reported at each survey in between. There were also steady increases in the rates of recent drug use (5.6% to 8.9%) and current drug use (3% to 4.7%).

So based on this data, it’s pretty clear that drug use in Ireland has been rising overall. You can make your own judgement on whether those rises are “significant”. But this might help: if current drug use has gone from 3% of the 2002 population to 4.7% of the 2014 population, that’s roughly speaking an extra 60,000 people who have tried drugs in the past month. (That’s using Central Statistics Office 15-64 population estimates for those years.)

What about younger people, then?

The drug prevalence survey divides people into “young adults” (15-34) and “older adults” (35-64). So it seems reasonable for the Department to take the former category as “younger people”.

And the claim broadly checks out when you look at the rates of increase among those two age cohorts. Between 2002/03 and 2014/15, recent drug taking rose by 5.9 percentage points among young adults, compared with 1.7 percentage points among older adults. Current drug use, similarly, is up by 3.3 percentage points for the younger generation and just 0.8 points for the older group.

Lifetime drug use, though, rose by more within the higher age bracket across this period. It didn’t change by a statistically significant amount for the 15-34 year olds between 2010/11 and 2014/15, whereas it did among the older people. That doesn’t necessarily undermine the argument: remember that this is likely to include plenty of people who only ever tried drugs once in their lives. As drug use becomes more common among younger people, you’d expect to see that translated, over time, into a higher percentage of older people saying that they’ve tried drugs at least once.

Some alternative facts

You might be saying to yourself: that’s fine, but what I really care about is drug use among particularly young people – teenagers and college students, say. And we can help you there.

Each individual drug prevalence survey has the percentage of drug users aged 15-24, 25-34, and so on. Gathering them all together shows that, in fact, the greatest percentage point increase in drug use – whether lifetime, recent or current – has been among Irish people aged 25-34. The rise among those aged 15-24 has been smaller.

For example, the percentage of 25-34 year olds telling the researchers that they’d taken drugs in the past month rose from 3.4% in 2002/03 to 7.7% in 2014/15 – a rise of 4.3 percentage points. Among 15-24 year olds, it went from 6.9% to 9.6% – 2.7 percentage points.

On the other hand, the rise just between 2010/11 and the latest survey in 2014/15 was generally higher among that youngest cohort of people. That tends to support the claim, if you view it in isolation, although if you’ve stayed with us this far you’ll remember that measuring from 2002/03 to 2014/15 was the Department’s chosen measure.

There don’t seem to be many other sources we can look at, aside from the drug prevalence survey. An obvious place to check is the EU drugs agency, but it uses the same data that we’ve just been discussing.

There is, however, a separate Europe-wide survey of 15 and 16 year olds. There’s good news in that: the illegal use by these teenagers of cannabis, inhalants (such as glue or nitrous oxide) and prescription drugs in Ireland has fallen or remained stable since the mid-1990s.

A National Student Drug Survey was carried out in 2015. It found that 82% of third level students surveyed had tried illegal drugs at least once in their life. But as one of the authors, Tim Bingham, confirmed to FactCheck, this survey was the “first of its kind” – it doesn’t yet allow us to say how drug use among students has changed over time.

Conclusion

As we’ve seen, the authoritative source on the rate of illegal drug use in Ireland shows that the trend overall is up. People of all ages are taking more drugs than they were a decade or so ago. It’s also true that the rate of drug use among people aged 15-34 has risen by more than those aged 35-64.

However, if you define “younger people” more narrowly, you get a different picture, with the increase since 2002/03 slower among people of a typical school and college age than people aged in their mid-20s to mid-30s. We also know that the use of certain drugs among 15 and 16 year olds isn’t rising at all.

That’s balanced by the fact that the 15-24 age group has seen the biggest percentage point rise in drug use if you look just between 2010/11 and 2014/15. And it seems pretty standard in this field to define 15-34 as “young”.

Taking all this into account, we rate the claim as: Mostly TRUE.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is the only verified Irish signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read the Code here.

For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here

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