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Surge in cocaine-related hospital emergencies among young people

Hospital emergencies caused by drink and drug-taking among young people are on the rise, with an alarming spike in cases involving cocaine.

A new report reveals that more than a third of young people who drink alcohol are engaged in “hazardous or harmful drinking”.

Ireland now has the second-highest proportion in Europe of 15- to 24-year-olds who have used cocaine and ecstasy at least once, the Health Research Board report also finds.

The 223-page document gathers together a wide range of research data and surveys covering the period up to 2019-2020, the most recent official data available. 

The number of hospital emergencies involving drunk or high 15-24 year olds has increased by 26%, with an alarming 83% jump in cases involving cocaine.

A leading addiction counsellor said the cocaine situation “has only got worse” in the last two to three years, with widespread abuse of the drug and the emergence of crack cocaine in urban areas.

Michael Guerin, senior addiction therapist with Cuan Mhuire Addiction Treatment Centres Ireland, also said the driving force of future alcohol addiction problems in the adult population was the “widespread abuse and harmful nature with which adolescents drink”.

The HRB study said: “The 2019-20 NDAS (National Drug Alcohol and Survey) indicated that 38% of drinkers aged 15-24 years were classified as having an alcohol use disorder. The rate of young people drinking at this high level is of concern, given that children and adolescents are typically more vulnerable to the harmful effects of alcohol.” 

Alcohol use disorder was developed by the World Health Organization to measure “hazardous and harmful” drinking and possible alcohol dependency.

The report did highlight some positive trends on alcohol, including an increase in the average age of first drinking (from 15.6 years to 16.6 years) and a significant jump in 15- to 24-year-olds who don't drink alcohol (from 11% in 2002 to 26% in 2019).

The study said that despite a drop in binge drinking, adolescents in Ireland still rank seventh out of 35 European countries for reports of being drunk.

Graphic: HRB
Graphic: HRB

A “worrying trend” it identified was the narrowing gap in drunkenness between males and females, as the neurotoxic effects of alcohol on the developing adolescent brain was “more pronounced” in females than males.

It said ecstasy and cocaine use in Ireland had increased, with usage of both stimulant drugs the second highest in Europe.

The report found that almost one in five (19%) respondents aged 15-24 years who had used cannabis in the last year – ie recent users – met the criteria for a cannabis use disorder.

The study found:

  • Hospitalisations due to drug use increased by 26% and alcohol-related hospitalisations by 12% between 2015 and 2018;
  • A 171% increase in cases of young people receiving treatment for cocaine use between 2011 and 2019 and;
  • An 83% rise in cocaine-related hospital emergencies between 2015 and 2019;

The report said there was a “clear link between mental ill health and substance use” and said this was “evident across data on anxiety, self-harm and suicide”.

Graphic: HRB
Graphic: HRB

Report lead author Anne Doyle said: “The finding that young adolescents are starting to drink at a later age is welcome; however, this HRB report also shows the many challenges and risk factors that young people face in relation to substance use, the need for treatment and the impact of substance use on mental health.” 

Commenting, Mr Guerin said Cuan Mhuire had expected that cocaine use would drop because of the pandemic and lockdowns, given cocaine was linked to socialising.

“We believe the opposite,” he said, “and that the situation with cocaine is far worse than three years ago, in terms of the widespread nature of abuse and emergence of crack cocaine, particularly in urban areas”.

He said multi-million cocaine seizures did not seem to impact supply of the drug: “That’s indicative of the amount of cocaine brought in, dealt in and consumed in Ireland on a daily and weekly basis. You never hear a cocaine user on the ground telling you there’s a scarcity.” 

In relation to alcohol, he believed the problem “has picked up” since the pandemic and that, in some cases, because of the pandemic.

“The thing that is concerning for us with alcohol dependence, is that the driving force of alcohol dependence in the future is the widespread abuse and harmful nature with which adolescents drink, notwithstanding report in the HRB report that age of first use has gone up by a year.” 

 He added: “Our culture equates enjoyment with intoxication. Until such time as that changes, it’s very hard to see us being a country where alcohol dependence is going to be in decline.”

Graphic: HRB
Graphic: HRB