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More people are using cocaine and ecstasy, but slightly fewer are using cannabis

Men are more than twice as likely as women to use drugs, according to a new survey.

Staged photo of a woman snorting cocaine
Staged photo of a woman snorting cocaine
Image: Tibor Duris/Shutterstock

MORE PEOPLE IN Ireland are using illegal stimulants such as cocaine, but slightly fewer people are using cannabis, according to the National Drug and Alcohol Survey (NDAS) 2019–2020.

According to a survey of over 5,700 people conducted by the Health Research Board (HRB), one in 14 (7%) have used an illegal drug in the last year – an unchanged figure since the most recent survey in 2014–15.

Almost one in four (23%) respondents have used an illegal drug at some point in their lifetime, equating to almost 900,000 adults aged 15 years and older in the general population.

Results show that overall illegal drug use in Ireland has plateaued since 2014–15; with notable changes reported in the types of drugs used and who uses them.

There has been a significant rise in the use of stimulants (cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines) and in the use of LSD and poppers, with a small decrease reported in cannabis use.

A wider range of drugs are being used since the previous survey, with 25% of those who used drugs in the last year reporting use of at least three different drugs compared with 15% in 2014–15.

Cocaine use has increased across all age groups, doubling since 2002-2003. Men aged 25–34 are most likely to report cocaine use in the last year, rising from 2% in 2002–03 to 9% in 2019–20.

Age and gender

Men are more than twice as likely as women to use drugs. Drug use is most common among young people, with just under one in five 15–24-year-olds reporting drug use in the last year.

Since 2002–03, there has been a large increase in drug use among men aged 25–34, rising from 9% in 2002–03 to 26% in 2019–20. Among young women aged 15–24, drug use has doubled since 2002–03, up from 8% to 16%.

Almost nine in 10 people surveyed support the use of cannabis for medical purposes with the highest level of support reported by lifetime users of cannabis (99%). However, fewer than three in 10 people surveyed support permitting cannabis for recreational use with the highest level of support again reported by lifetime users of cannabis (66%).

There are fewer smokers than ever before, according to the findings. The current survey is the first time that the proportion of ex-smokers was found to be greater than current smokers. Health concerns, cost and health warning labels were cited as the main reasons for quitting.

Meanwhile, rates of hazardous and harmful drinking remain high. Two in five drinkers engage in heavy monthly episodic drinking (so-called binge drinking) and one in five drinkers meet the criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

Hazardous and harmful drinking patterns are most common among 15-24-year-olds, with 56% engaging in monthly binge drinking and 38% meeting the criteria for AUD.

Deprivation and intimidation

The survey found that areas which are most or least deprived, there is little difference in the prevalence of drug use, while communities with high levels of deprivation are disproportionately impacted by the negative effects of drug use activities in their local area.

More than one-third (37%) of respondents reported a ‘very big’ or ‘fairly big’ problem with people using or dealing drugs in their local area, this ranged from 44% in the most deprived areas compared to 20% in the least deprived areas. Commonly reported problems included drugs being too easily available, people dealing drugs, and children and teenagers taking drugs.

One in 10 respondents (the equivalent of 390,000 people in the general population) aged 15 years and older have had either personal experience of drug-related intimidation or knew someone who had been intimidated, with numbers peaking among communities in the Dublin area.

Those in deprived communities were twice as likely to experience drug-related intimidation than residents in less deprived neighbourhoods.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Deirdre Mongan, Research Officer at the HRB and lead author of the report, said: “While there has been little change since the last survey in the number of people using drugs overall, what is notable is the rise in the use of illegal stimulants, particularly cocaine and amphetamines, as well as an increase in the use of LSD and poppers.

“Also, people who use drugs are now more likely than before to use a wider range of drugs. By monitoring trends over time, the Health Research Board can provide solid evidence in relation to changing drug use patterns.

“This supports the development of targeted approaches to create awareness about the prevailing challenges of drug use, to help reduce harm and inform policy change in relation to drug use.”

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The survey interviewed 5,762 people in Ireland aged 15 and over, to look at what drugs people are using and how often, people’s perceptions and attitudes towards drugs, and the impact of drugs on local communities.

It is the first time the HRB has conducted the survey, and the fifth survey that has been undertaken since 2002–03.

The HRB noted that the NDAS only includes private households and consequently does not allow for people in prison or other institutionalised individuals, homeless people or Travellers to be included, potentially excluding adults who may be more likely to use drugs than the general population.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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