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Home > Extent and patterns of cannabis use in Ireland.

Horgan, Justine (2013) Extent and patterns of cannabis use in Ireland. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 47, Autumn 2013, pp. 5-6.

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The National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol (NACDA) recently published Bulletin 3 in the series of reports on the 2010/11 survey on drug use in the general population in Ireland and Northern Ireland.1 The bulletin reports on cannabis use in the adult population (15–64 years), on cannabis dependence and cannabis abuse as well as on patterns of cannabis use in Ireland. A total of 5,128 people were interviewed, representing a response rate of 60%. This article presents a summary of the main results for Ireland reported in the bulletin.


Key findings 

Prevalence: use, abuse and dependence
The results from the 2010/11 survey reveal that 25% of the adult population (15–64 yrs) reported having used cannabis at some point during their lives (lifetime use); 6% reported use in the year prior to the survey (recent use); 3% reported use in the month prior to the survey (current use).
The rates of cannabis use were notably higher among men than women. Lifetime prevalence for men (33%) was almost twice as high as the rate for women (18%); last-year prevalence was three times as high (men, 9% vs women, 3%); and last-month prevalence was five times as high (5% vs 1%).  The lifetime prevalence among men increased from 27% in the 2006/7 survey to 33% in the 2010/11 survey, a statistically significant increase of 22%. There was a relatively small increase, from 17% to 17.5%, in women’s lifetime prevalence rates in the same period.
Rates of cannabis use were substantially higher among young adults (15–34 years) than among older adults (35–64 years) in the 2010/11 survey. Lifetime prevalence among young adults (33%) was more than one and a half times that among older adults (19%), last-year prevalence was just over three times as high (young adults 10% vs older adults 3%) and last-month prevalence was five times as high (5% vs 1%). While there were statistically significant increases in lifetime prevalence for younger adults, from 29% in 2006/7 to 33% in 2010/11, no statistically significant changes were found for older adults over that period (3% in both 2006/7 and 2010/11).
The prevalence of cannabis abuse and of cannabis dependence were measured in the NACD Drug Prevalence Survey the first time in 2010/11 using M-CIDI,2 as advised by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). Substance abuse and substance dependence are defined by the DSM-IV as a maladaptive pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress.
Seventeen per cent of recent cannabis users met the criteria for cannabis abuse, with rates being higher among males (20%) than females (8%) and among young adults (20%) than older adults (9%). Of the valid responses from the survey sample, 1.3% met the criteria for current cannabis abuse. Applying this rate to the 15–64-year-old general population (3,073,269 in 2011) we can infer that approximately 39,953 people in Ireland abuse cannabis.
Nine per cent of recent cannabis users were classified as dependent. Dependence was higher among males and among young adults. Of the valid responses from the survey sample, 0.6% met the criteria for current cannabis dependence. Applying this rate to the 15–64-year-old general population, we can infer that approximately 18,440 people in Ireland are cannabis dependent.
Patterns of cannabis use
Among lifetime cannabis users, the median age of first use was 18 years. This was unchanged since the last survey.
Almost half (48%) of the current cannabis users had used cannabis on 1–3 days (lowest frequency use) in the month prior to the survey, an increase on the 2006/7 figure of 37%; this frequency was most common among female users (54%) and older adult users (55%). Between the two surveys the proportion of all adults engaging in the highest frequency use (20 days or more) in the previous month decreased from 24% to 14%.
Since 2006/7 the relative share of herb to resin used by current users has reversed. In 2010/11 herb was the main type of cannabis used by current users, at 71%, while resin, at 60%, was the most common form reported in the 2006/7 survey. Almost all (94%) current cannabis users said that a joint was the main method they used when consuming cannabis. Forty-five per cent did not know where the cannabis they consumed was grown; 38% said that the cannabis they used was grown in Ireland, an increase on the 2006/7 figure of 16%.
Nearly three quarters (73%) of recent users said it would be easy for them to obtain cannabis in a given 24-hour period. Over four fifths (83%) said they sourced cannabis from someone they knew relatively well, e.g. either shared by or bought from family members and/or friends.  
Over one quarter (27%) of lifetime cannabis users said they had used it on a regular basis at some point and most (74%) of this group said they had stopped using. The three most common reasons given for stopping cannabis use were: not wanting to take it any more (27%); cannabis being no longer a part of their social life (18%); and health concerns (17%).
Acceptability of cannabis use
Respondents were asked about the acceptability and risk of cannabis use:
  • 66% agreed with cannabis use being permitted for medical reasons;
  • 69% disagreed with cannabis use being permitted for recreational reasons;
  • 73% disapproved of smoking cannabis occasionally;
  • 64% considered smoking cannabis on a regular basis to be very risky.  
Profile of cannabis users in Ireland
Socio-economic group:  Rates for lifetime cannabis use were highest among those classified as Group A (professionals and managers) (35%) and lowest among those in Group D (semi-skilled and un-skilled) (20%). Last-year rates were also highest for those in Group A (10%) and lowest among those in Group C2 (skilled manual workers) (7%).
Housing tenureCannabis prevalence rates were highest among people renting accommodation. Among those renting from a private landlord the lifetime prevalence rate was 37%, and last-year prevalence was 12%. Rates for last-month use were highest among those renting from a local authority/housing agency (7%).
Level of education and age left schoolResults point to cannabis use increasing with level of education attained. On the one hand, rates were highest among students, at 21% (lifetime), 10% (last-year) and 4% (last-month). Lifetime rates were also highest among those who had left school at 20 years or over (34%) and among those with a third-level education (31%). On the other hand, lowest lifetime rates were found for those who left school at 15 years or under and among those with primary-level education only (19%).
Marital status: Last-year prevalence was highest among those who were cohabiting (13%), followed by those who were single (12%). Last-month rates were highest among cohabiting and divorced people (at 7%).  
The findings of the 2010/11 survey suggest a mixed picture regarding the cannabis situation in the general population in Ireland. More people than ever before had tried cannabis at least once in their lifetime, with the rate at one in four adults, compared to one in six in the 2002/3 survey. The trend is, however, changing and rates for last-year and last-month prevalence have tapered off since the last survey. This development is in line with that in many European countries which are reporting a recent fall or stabilisation in cannabis prevalence rates.3 Additionally, among those consuming cannabis, age of initial use has remained the same, a welcome finding given the link between early initiation and high-risk groups.
The 2010/11 survey data show that age continues to be an important factor in the pattern of cannabis use in Ireland and that use declines with age. Gender is also important for several reasons: it interacts with age with the effect that the decline in use happens later for men than for women. Although the extent of use has declined, prevalence rates are still considerably higher among men than women, with no indication of any narrowing of the gender gap. Closer examination of the data is needed, however, as these age and gender effects are likely to vary across regions in Ireland, reflecting differences in context, particularly social and economic circumstances. These influences, how they vary with context and time are important, particularly for targeting areas where patterns of drug use have become entrenched and for identifying where action may be needed to prevent this situation.
When compared to results from the 2006/7 survey, cannabis is now used less frequently among current users, an important finding given the increased uptake of herbal cannabis use since the last survey. While the data from the two surveys show that high-frequency use has always been more common among men than women, the propensity for men to be high-frequency users has fallen sharply since the 2006/7 survey, with the effect that the gap between men and women has reduced considerably between the two time periods.
The likelihood of a young adult in Ireland using cannabis daily or almost daily has declined substantially since the survey in 2006/7. Despite lower prevalence, frequency of use is higher among older adults, changing little since the last survey. Among current users, high-frequency use, or intensive use, is reported by 10% of young adults and 24% of older adults.
An indication of the public health impact of a drug can be seen in the numbers entering treatment. The number of treatment cases reporting cannabis as their main problem substance has increased significantly in Ireland and in 2010 cannabis became the most common problem drug reported by new cases.4 
Dependence is increasingly recognised as a possible consequence of regular cannabis use. For many people, intensive use and dependence on cannabis are linked. Among those defined as recent users, 17% met the EMCDDA criteria for cannabis abuse and 9% were classified as dependent.
However, in comparison with the available data on tobacco or alcohol use, little is known about the extent of cannabis dependence or abuse in Ireland. This bulletin provides a solid baseline for the ongoing monitoring of the prevalence and nature of cannabis dependence and abuse in the general population and among recent users. Its findings also point to the need for further research on the consequences of increased availability of high-potency cannabis, on the experiences of cannabis use in the population of long-term users, and on the continuation and discontinuation rates of long-term use and factors influencing these rates and how these might be targeted by treatment and other services.   
1. National Advisory Committee on Drugs (2013) Drug use in Ireland and Northern Ireland. 2010/11 Drug prevlence survey: cannabis results. Bulletin 3. Dublin: Stationery Office.      
2. The Composite International Diagnostic Interview (CIDI, World Health Organization, 1990) contains the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for substance abuse and dependence and is a validated method to assess the seriousness of a person’s cannabis use. On the advice of the EMCDDA, the abbreviated version, the Munich Composite International Diagnostic Interview (M-CIDI), a 19-item instrument reflecting the four cannabis abuse and seven cannabis dependence criteria, was used for the NACD 2010/11 Drug Prevalence Survey.
3. EMCDDA (2011) Annual report 2011:the state of the drugs problem in Europe. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
4. Bellerose D, Carew AM and Lyons S (2011) Trends in treated problem drug use in Ireland 2005–2010. HRB Trends Series 12. Dublin: Health Research Board.
Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Intervention Type
Screening / Assessment
Issue Title
Issue 47, Autumn 2013
October 2013
Page Range
pp. 5-6
Health Research Board
Issue 47, Autumn 2013
Accession Number
HRB (Electronic Only)

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