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Third-level survey shows 1 in 6 first years are current drug users

Fun is the most common reason why third level students take illegal drugs – with cannabis being the only substance where people say they also take it to relax, the Citizens' Assembly on Drugs has heard.

Michael Byrne, head of student services at UCC, said the fun/enjoyment factor in drug use might not be “palatable” for other people to hear.

Addressing the assembly, he gave details of a previously published mass survey of drug use among third level students — the Drug Use in Higher Education in Ireland (DUHEI) project — which received responses from 11,500 students.

He said this found that 43% of respondents said they had never used drugs.

One in five had tried drugs but had not used them in the last year.

Some 16% took drugs in the last year (recent users) and one in five used drugs in the last month (current users).

He said one in six students in first year were current drug users. This increased over the years, to one in four students in third and fourth years.

Cannabis was the main illegal drug (52%), with cocaine displacing ecstasy as the second most used drugs.

Mr Byrne said that when compared to a major student survey in 2002, the number of current users of cocaine had almost tripled, from 5.8% to 15.7% Asked why students take drugs, he said the “commonest reason was because they enjoy it”, which he said might not be palatable for others to hear.

He said cannabis was the only substance where students said they took it not just for fun, but to relax, which Mr Byrne described as “self-medication”.

He said over half of current users report moderate or substantial risk of harm, with strong effects on finances, studying and mental health.

Overall, just over half of the students surveyed said substance use had a “negative impact” on student life.

A third of current users said they would like to reduce their consumption, with mental wellbeing the main reason.

The number of students currently using cocaine had almost tripled, from 5.8% to 15.7%
The number of students currently using cocaine had almost tripled, from 5.8% to 15.7%

The assembly, comprising 99 people from the general public, is holding its fifth and penultimate meeting this weekend, where the focus is on prevention.

An expert at the EU drugs agency said there were limits to traditional views of prevention — to provide information and education.


Gregor Burkhart said studies on what factors are at play in whether young people move from drinking alcohol to getting drunk cite: how well the young person is doing in school, do they recognise social rules applying to them; their relationship with parents and if they believe all their peers are getting drunk.

A principal scientific analyst (prevention) in the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Mr Burkhart said people’s perception of drug use among their peers was particularly important in relation to cannabis use.

He said the alcohol industry  — and the cannabis industry — send the message to users that the onus is on them to act responsibly.

He said he was not saying information or education was useless, but that with impulse-driven behaviours “information is less important” and that what drives substance use was “visibility and perception of normality”.

He urged that state spending on prevention interventions should be “cautious and savvy”.

Mr Burkhart said evidence-based prevention can tackle a wide range of problems, in addition to substance use, from school drop-out to violence.

Richie Stafford of the Department of Health said there were “no silver bullets” in prevention and that strategies that focus on scaring young people were “ineffective”.

He said behaviours can change through State strategies and cited the impact of the ban on smoking in pubs.

He said one “worrying” finding from the last European-wide (Espad) study on school children aged 15-16 found an increase in drinking in the last 30 days and in lifetime smoking.

His colleague Karen O’Connor said the department was funding a number of projects to see how effective they were.

Health message

She said evidence-based prevention should be a key pillar of drug policy “regardless of the legal framework” she said the assembly was examining.

She said it “sends out a strong public health message” to people and that it “will save money and even may save lives”.

Celeste O’Callaghan of the Department of Education said substance use education in the SPHE programme was robust up until junior cycle.

She said it was optional for schools from transition year on and that only a minority of schools have programmes in the senior cycle.

She said they were putting this out for public consultation to see if it should be mandatory for the senior cycle.

The assembly continues.