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The stats

Drugs in Ireland - what did we take before, what are we taking now?

For the Irish, when it comes to taking controlled substances, old habits die hard.


Over the next four days, will take a look at Ireland’s relationship with illegal substances. More people in Ireland are using drugs than ever before. We’ll look at why that is… and the possible consequences.

DRUG-TAKING IN IRELAND, particularly of the illicit variety has increased steadily in recent years, but the statistics suggest that the kinds of substances we’re taking haven’t really changed.

Cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine are still the drugs of choice and more and more young men and women are choosing them. 

Broadly speaking, the most significant drug statistics in Ireland come from the government-appointed Health Research Board (HRB), surveys regarding usage trends produced by the National Advisory Council on Drugs and Alcohol (NACDA), and crime statistics produced by the gardaí and released by the CSO.

shutterstock_607978820 Shutterstock / Mitch M Shutterstock / Mitch M / Mitch M

The HRB, whose figures feed up to EU level and are appropriated by the Union’s European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), reports on actual trends in drug-taking, together with changes in policy, legislation, and treatment on a yearly basis.


Its most recent Drugs Ireland publication for 2017 suggests that the most commonly used illicit substances, based on usage over the previous month, are cannabis (4% of people aged 15-64), ecstasy/MDMA (1%), and cocaine (0.5%).

Meanwhile, the numbers of Irish people aged 15-64 who have used an illicit drug in their lifetime has increased to a large extent over the past 15 years – from 19% in 2003 to 31% in 2015, the most recent year surveyed.

20180907_Drugs_1 Statista Statista

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Cannabis, easily the most used drug, and ecstasy have seen their usage among all people aged 15 or greater roughly doubled since 2007, with cocaine usage roughly the same as previously.

The most recent survey of Irish drug-taking behaviour was conducted by the NACDA for 2015.

It suggested that cannabis is by some distance the most popular drug in Ireland, with a lifetime prevalence (ie a proportion of the entire population who have used it at some stage in their lives) standing at 27.9%, 7.7% of those in the last year.

Ecstasy usage is the other greatest outlier in that survey, having more than quadrupled from 0.9% to 4.4% among those surveyed in the four years to 2015.

Male users dominate in all categories, with one in four aged between 15 and 24 having used an illegal drug in the previous 12 months, compared with one in eight females.

Legislative changes

As of 2015, the use of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), such as so-called N-Bombs bought in head shops, had decreased steadily from 3.5% to 0.8% after the introduction of legislative changes designed to curtail their use.

20180907_Drugs_2 Statista Statista

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Of those still accessing those substances, school students aged 15-16 dominate, with roughly 8% having tried an NPS during their lifetimes, some distance ahead of the EU average.

In fact, ‘statistically significant increases’ in the usage of illegal drugs across a lifetime were seen among all those aged between 35 and 64 who were surveyed by NACDA – up 5% to 25.6% in just four years.

Similarly, those aged between 15 and 34 reported significant increases in their usage in the last year and the last month categories for all drugs, but most particularly ecstasy, which jumped from 1% to nearly 4.5% for those who had taken it in the previous year.

shutterstock_431460415 Shutterstock Shutterstock

Conclusion? A lot of Irish people like to take drugs, and the number is growing all the time. But newer drugs are less en vogue, with cannabis and ecstasy ruling the roost by some distance. Ecstasy use is very much on the rise for younger adults however.

As regards drug treatment services, users of heroin and cannabis are the most likely to avail of such rehabilitation programmes – 41% of people availing of same in 2015 were users of heroin, 28% were cannabis users.

When it comes to treatment, Irish men are more than twice as likely, in all drug categories bar amphetamines (ecstasy), as women to receive treatment from a dedicated service.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, among younger people, in the 15-16 age bracket the use of different kinds of drugs is a bit more evenly spread. Of those teenagers who have taken an illicit substance in their lifetime, 19% have used cannabis, while 10% have used inhalants (petrol, glue), and 8% have tried New Psychoactive Substances.


Mortality rate

In the context of drug-induced deaths, Ireland’s rate (214 in 2014) is amongst the highest in the EU, behind only Estonia, Sweden and Norway per head of population. 78% of those who died in Ireland in 2014 were male.

Ireland’s national drugs strategy has been in place since 2009. The most recent rendition, from 2017, took an approach to drugs of ‘reducing harm’, with a stated goal of ‘promoting healthier lifestyles within society’ via an ‘integrated public health approach to drug and alcohol use.

Put simply, that means managing the law and the control of illicit substances effectively, while responding to ‘evolving trends’ effectively, as in the case of the anti-NPS legislative changes implemented.


At present, Ireland’s government expenditure regarding illegal drugs is roughly 0.09% of GDP, about €237,000 – 73% of which goes on the reduction of demand, as opposed to slashing supply routes.

Despite this, the rate of drug-taking in Ireland increases ever upwards.

As regards drug offences, the CSO’s official data (which currently is declared as being ‘under reservation’ due to issues surrounding the validity of Garda statistics) indicates that drug crime is split starkly between possession for personal use (75%) and the supply side of things (25%). As of the first three months of 2018 that trend continued, with personal use accounting for 71% of all drug crimes.

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