Home > HRB compares the Irish drug situation with the rest of Europe.

Health Research Board. HRB compares the Irish drug situation with the rest of Europe. (07 Jun 2018)

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) publish the European drug report 2018: trends and developments today. This report provides a snapshot of the latest drug trends across the 28 EU member states, Norway and Turkey. The Health Research Board provides the Irish data and research for the EMCDDA report.

This media brief is designed to highlight key points from the European report and, where the data are available, provide a comparison with the situation in Ireland.


Speaking about the latest report, Minister for State for Health Promotion and the National Drugs Strategy, Catherine Byrne, said' The latest European drug report highlights the challenge of illicit drug use for Ireland and for Europe in general. The Department of Health will use the data gathered from across Europe to inform the ongoing implementation of our national drugs strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery.


'In particular, we must continue to be vigilant in responding to the emergence of new psychoactive substances. I therefore welcome the 75 per cent reduction in the use of new psychoactive substances by young adults in Ireland from 6.7 per cent in 2010/11 to 1.6 per cent in 2014/15.


'The high number of drug related poisoning deaths every year (350 people in 2015) greatly concerns me and we want to reduce this number. One public health measure to specifically address heroin related deaths (82 in 2015) is the establishment of a pilot supervised injecting facility in Dublin city centre in 2018.'


Dr Mairead O’Driscoll, Interim Chief Executive of the Health Research Board (HRB), says, ‘Working with other countries across Europe increases our understanding of drug markets and emerging trends. This is essential if we are going to reduce the harm caused by drug use and develop approaches to support recovery effectively’.


Dimitris Avramopoulos, European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, says, ‘We are seeing higher drug production and availability in Europe today. On top of that, the illicit drug market is highly dynamic and adaptable — and therefore all the more dangerous. If we want to stay ahead of the game, our efforts must focus on building both resilience and responsiveness, not least because of the growing importance of the online market and the development of new types of drugs. With the new rules on new psychoactive substances entering into force by the end of the year, Europe will be equipped with additional, stronger tools to tackle those challenges more effectively and better protect European citizens against dangerous drugs’.

How many people are using illicit drugs?

Across Europe (EU 28, Turkey and Norway), drug availability is high and in some areas appears to be increasing. Latest figures show more than one million seizures of illicit drugs in 2016. Over 92 million adults in the EU (15-64 years) have tried an illicit drug in their lifetime and an estimated 1.3 million people received treatment for illicit drug use in 2016.

In Ireland the number of people aged 15-64 reporting that they used illicit drugs in their lifetime has risen from two in 10 in 2002/3 to three in 10 in 2014/15. Cannabis remains the most commonly used illicit drug among this group, followed by MDMA and cocaine. A total of 9,227 cases presented for treatment in 2016.



European situation

  • The cocaine market in Europe is buoyant with a greater number of seizures and higher purity, possibly associated with rising production in Latin America. Further evidence of increased use comes from municipal wastewater analysis in several cities.
  • Around 2.3 million young adults (15–34 years) have used cocaine in the last year across Europe.
  • There has been an increase in Europe in the number of first-time entrants to drug treatment services with cocaine as a main problem drug.
  • An estimated 8,300 clients entered treatment for primary crack cocaine use in 2016.


Irish comparison

  • In Ireland the most recent general population survey in 2014-15 shows that 2.9 per cent of 15–34-yearolds used cocaine in the last year which had not changed since the 2010/11 survey.       This is lower than the corresponding figure for the UK (4.0%) but roughly the same as Denmark, France and the Netherlands.       Only these five countries report last year prevalence of cocaine use among young adults of 2.5% or more.
  • Since 2014 there has been a steady increase in the proportion of new cases for treatment reporting cocaine as a main problem drug in Ireland, rising from a low of 297 cases in 2013 to 568 cases in 2016.
  • In 2016, 11.3% (112) of cocaine cases reported crack as their main problem drug an increase from 9.1% (81) in 2010.

Cannabis: availability and use

European situation

  • Cannabis remains the most widely used illicit drug in Europe, its prominence evident in data on prevalence, drug law offences, seizures and new treatment demand.
  • The EMCDDA estimates that 14% of young Europeans (15–34 years) used cannabis in the last year.
  • Cannabis is responsible for the greatest share (45%) of new entrants to treatment, with numbers rising from 43,000 cases in 2006 to 75,000 in 2016.
  • In 2016, 763,000 seizures of cannabis products were reported in the European Union.

Irish comparison

  • Cannabis is also the most widely used illicit drug in Ireland, which is evident in prevalence, seizures and new treatment demand.
  • The 2014/15 general population survey reported that 14% of young adults (15-34 years) used cannabis in the year prior to the survey, similar to Europe. This is the same prevalence as the European average for this age group and below that of Spain (17%), France (21%) and the Netherlands (16%), but slightly above that of the UK (12%).
  • Cannabis is responsible for 41% of new cases presenting for treatment, with numbers rising from 1,338 in 2010 to 1,452 in 2016.
  • Between 2007 and 2015, the number of illicit drug seizures in Ireland has decreased. Cannabis seizures have also decreased over this time, but they remain the most commonly seized type of drug in Ireland.
  • The 2014/15 ESPAD survey reported that 18.9% of 15‒16-year-old students had used cannabis during their lifetime. This places Ireland slightly above the EU average of 16.5%.

Fewer new psychoactive substances detected

European situation

  • Data on new psychoactive substances (NPS) are based on notifications by Member States to the EU Early Warning System (EWS). In 2017, 51 new substances were reported for the first time (66 in 2016). By the end of 2017, the EMCDDA was monitoring more than 670 NPS, compared with around 300 monitored in 2013. Over 50% of the substances currently being monitored were still detected on Europe’s drug market.
  • Almost 70% of new substances identified through the EU EWS were detected in the last 5 years.
  • In 2016, almost 71,000 seizures of new psychoactive substances were reported through the EU Early Warning System. Together, synthetic cathinones and synthetic cannabinoids accounted for almost 80% of all seizures and 80% of all quantities of new substances seized in 2016.
  • Synthetic cannabinoids were the most frequently seized new psychoactive substances in 2016, with just over 32,000 seizures reported. In total, 118 synthetic cathinones have been identified since 2005, with 14 reported for the first time in 2016, a decrease from the 31 reported in 2014.
  • Overall, 38 new opioids have been detected on Europe’s drug market since 2009 — including 13 reported for the first time in 2017.
  • The EMCDDA estimates that 2.2 million young adults (15–34 years, or 1.8% of this age group) used MDMA/ecstasy in the last year. National estimates vary considerably with the Netherlands highest at 7.4%.
  • While consumption levels of new psychoactive substances are low overall in Europe, in a 2016 EMCDDA study over two-thirds of countries reported their use by high-risk drug users. In particular the use of synthetic cathinones by opioid and stimulant injectors has been linked to health and social problems.

Irish comparison

    • In 2010 more than 200 individual substances were controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 and the Criminal Justice (psychoactive substances) Act 2010 was passed to prohibit supply of harmful NPS. While the court of appeal effectively annulled earlier declaration orders banning numerous substances, the Misuse of Drug (Amendment) Act 2015 was introduced to control these substances in Ireland.
    • The 2014/15 general population survey reported last-year prevalence of ecstasy of 4% for young adults (15-34), a significant increase from 0.9% recorded in the 2010/11 survey.
    • Last year prevalence of new psychoactive substances (NPS), such as herbal smoking mixtures, party pills or herbal highs, or powders such as cathinones, was included as a drug category for the first time in the 2010/11 general population survey. In contrast to trends observed with other illicit substances, data from the 2014/15 study demonstrate a reduction in the use of NPS by young adults, from 6.7% to 1.6%. Last month prevalence was less than 1% for respondents aged 15‒64 years.
  • There were 72 entrants to treatment in 2016 for whom an NSP was the main problem drug. The proportion of cases treated for this type of drug peaked in 2010 at 2.5% of all treatment episodes, but dropped to 0.2% in 2012 and has increased to represent and 0.8% in 2016.
  • In 2015, MDMA (alone or with other drugs) was implicated in eight deaths compared to 15 such deaths in 2014.
  • In Ireland 4.4% of 15-34-year-olds had used MDMA in the past year. Ireland is second after the Netherlands in Europe for prevalence of this drug.


Opioids (mainly heroin)

European situation

    • There was an estimated 1.3 million high-risk opioid users in Europe in 2016.
    • In 2016, use of opioids was reported as the main reason for entering specialised drug treatment by 177,000 clients or 37% of all those entering drug treatment in Europe. Of these, 35 000 were first-time entrants, 83% of whom reported heroin as their primary drug.
    • It is estimated that at least 7,929 overdose deaths, mainly involving opioids, occurred in the EU in 2016. As in previous years, the United Kingdom (34%) and Germany (15%) together account for around half of the European total.
  • Between 2002 and 2014, the quantity of heroin seized within the EU halved, from 10 to 5 tonnes, and has stabilised in recent years. A total of 4.3 tonnes were seized in 2016.


Irish comparison

  • A prevalence estimate of opioid use in the Republic of Ireland in 2014, calculated using an analysis of four data sources, was between 18,720 and 21,454.
  • The estimates of prevalence of opioid use for Dublin in 2014 were 13,458 opioid users. The corresponding figures for 2006, the last time the study was done were 14,909. The prevalence for the rest of Ireland (excluding Dublin) was estimated to be 5,530, also a slight decrease from 2006.
  • Opiates (mainly heroin) were the most common main problem drug reported by cases entering treatment in 2016. There were 4,202 cases (46.9%) in 2016, a continuation of the steady decrease in the proportion of the total number entering treatment in recent years.
  • Between 2007 and 2010 opiates (mainly heroin) were the main problem drug reported by new entrants, but opiates were superseded by cannabis in 2011, and this trend continues with a quarter of new cases in 2016 reporting heroin use.
  • Methadone (alone or with another drug) was implicated in more than a quarter of poisoning deaths and continues to be the opiate most commonly implicated in poisoning deaths. In 2015, there were 86 deaths where methadone was implicated, compared to 98 deaths in 2014. This is compared to a peak in 2011 when there were 119 deaths where methadone was implicated.
  • In 2015 there were 82 deaths where heroin was implicated, compared to 90 in 2014.


Further reading

Accompanying the European Drug Report 2018 is Perspectives on drugs (PODs), online interactive articles providing insights into specific issues in the drugs field. A number of these PODs have been updated and are published today alongside today’s report.


References used in this press release


Hay, Gordon, Jaddoa, Ali, Oyston, Jane, Webster, Jane, Van Hout, Marie Claire and Rael dos Santos Anderson (2017) Estimating the prevalence of problematic opiate use in Ireland using indirect statistical methods. Dublin: National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/27233/


National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol, Northern Ireland. Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. (2016) Prevalence of drug use and gambling in Ireland & drug use in Northern Ireland. Bulletin 1. Dublin: National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/26364/


Taylor, Keishia, Babineau, Kate, Keogan, Sheila, Whelan, Ellen and Luke Clancy (2016) ESPAD 2015: European Schools Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs in Ireland. Dublin: Department of Health. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/26116/


If you have any queries in relation to the Irish figures, you can contact:

Gillian Markey, Communications Manager, Health Research Board

m +353 87 2288514         e gmarkey@hrb.ie

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