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Press Release

Press release

New report reveals the latest drug trends in Europe - HRB compares situation in Ireland with European findings

22 November 2007

A new report on the state of the drugs problem across Europe indicates that heroin use and drug injecting have become ?generally less common?, and suggests that cannabis use may be stabilising. However, cocaine use and drug-related deaths are on the rise. The Annual Report 2007 from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) was published today. The Health Research Board (HRB) provides the Irish figures for the EMCDDA report.

A new report on the state of the drugs problem across Europe indicates that heroin use and drug injecting have become ?generally less common?, and suggests that cannabis use may be stabilising. However, cocaine use and drug-related deaths are on the rise. The Annual Report 2007 from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) was published today. The Health Research Board (HRB) provides the Irish figures for the EMCDDA report. This media brief compares the situation in Ireland with that in Europe.

?The main areas of interest in the report are the rise in cocaine use, drug use among under 15s, and drugs and driving?, said Dr Jean Long, Head of the Alcohol and Drug Research Unit at the HRB. ?The majority of Irish trends in drug use and related patterns of behaviour are within European averages. For example, just under 2% of young adults in the general population aged 15?34 used cocaine in the last year, while the European average was almost 2.5%'.

?The report also clearly indicates that progress has been made across Europe in terms of responding to drug-related problems. Some of the recent progressive developments in Ireland include the establishment of a rehabilitation pillar as part of the National Drugs Strategy, the documentation of opiate treatment outcomes, and the implementation and evaluation of pilot cocaine treatment projects?, said Dr Long.

The key areas of focus in the European report, called Selected Issues, are highlighted within an Irish context on the following pages.

A copy of the full report, European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction Annual Report 2007, and all related media material from Europe, are available online on the EMCDDA website at the link below.

Selected Issue: A rise in cocaine use ? a growing public health issue
In Europe
  • Cocaine is the second most commonly used illicit drug in Europe, after cannabis.
  • An estimated 12 million European adults (aged 15-64)have tried cocaine, and 4.5 million have used it in the last year.
  • School surveys conducted in 28 European countries show that, on average, less than 2% of 15-16- year-olds have tried cocaine, compared to an average of 23% who have tried cannabis.
  • Cocaine accounts for 13% of cases entering treatment across the EU and is the most common reason for entering treatment, after opiates (mainly heroin), and cannabis. A total of 22% of new cases entering treatment in 2005 were cocaine related.
  • Cocaine treatment takes place mainly in traditional outpatient settings tailored for heroin users. Because many cocaine users do not use opiates, they may be reluctant to initiate treatment alongside heroin users; this has led some countries to call for different approaches to treatment.
  • There was an increase between 2000 and 2005 in the number of cocaine seizures and in the volume of cocaine seized. In 2005, an estimated 70,000 cocaine seizures, amounting to 107 tonnes, were made across Europe, a 45% increase on 2004.
Ireland ? a comparison

?In Ireland, the latest available figures on cocaine use among the general population are from the 2002/03 National Advisory Committee on Drugs (NACD) survey. Given the time that has elapsed since that survey, these figures are now dated',said Dr Long. ?The most recent figures ? those for cases entering treatment ? were collected in 2006, and indicate the level of problematic rather than population use', she clarified.

In Ireland
  • Three per cent of adults (aged 15-64) had used cocaine at some point in their lives, and just over 1% had used it in the year before the survey.
  • Cocaine is the third most commonly used illicit drug, after cannabis and ecstasy.
  • A report on the health of Irish students showed that cocaine was the third most popular drug among third-level students. Just under 6% of students had used cocaine within the past year, compared to just under 3% of 15-24-year-olds in the general population.
  • Three per cent of 15-16-year-old school children reported using cocaine at some point in their lives.
  • One in ten cases (10%) entering treatment reported cocaine as their main problem drug in 2006, and cocaine was the third most common reason for entering treatment, after opiates (mainly heroin) and cannabis. Sixteen per cent of new cases entering treatment reported cocaine as their main problem drug.
  • Seven in ten cases (70%) reporting cocaine as a main problem drug were treated in outpatient services. In November 2005, the National Drugs Strategy Team funded a number of pilot projects to examine methods of managing cocaine users in Ireland. The emphasis of the projects was:
    1. Training of staff.
    2. Piloting of treatment interventions which have found empirical support in the literature on the treatment of individuals with problematic cocaine use or dependency.
    3. Delivering these pilot interventions in local communities where cocaine was perceived to be a visible problem.
    4. Adapting existing educational material where required.
  • There has been a steady increase in the number of cocaine seizures, from 206 in 2000 to 1,342 in 2006.
Selected Issue: Drug use and related problems among very young people (under 15 years old)
In Europe
  • Illicit drug use among children aged under 15 is rare in Europe. Regular drug use among this group is extremely rare and is associated with specific groups in the population where there is a combination of psychological and social problems.
  • Cannabis is the most common illicit substance used among this age group, followed by inhalants (glue and aerosols).
  • Between 5% and 36% of school students have been drunk at least once by the age of 13, and between 7% and 18% have smoked tobacco. The legal age limit for the consumption of alcoholic drinks ranges from 14 to 20 years across Europe, and in some countries depends on the type of beverage in question (e.g. a higher age limit for spirits than for beer). Germany, France and Luxembourg have increased taxation to reduce the attractiveness of drinks targeted at young people (e.g. alcopops).
  • Children aged under 15 account for less than 1% of all treatment clients. The majority present for cannabis use and, to a lesser extent, inhalant use. These figures exclude cases reporting alcohol as their main problem drug.
  • Primary responses include prevention approaches in schools and community settings, or counselling. Alternatives for high-risk groups include family prevention services, which are delivered mainly through health or social services.
  • Only one-third of European countries have 'child specific' treatment centres (Germany, Greece, Cyprus, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria and Portugal).
Ireland ? a comparison

?Irish figures closely reflect many of the findings reported across Europe', said Dr Long. ?If we look at the predominant characteristics of under 15s who present for treatment, the majority are male, aged 14, living outside Dublin and, as might be expected, are entering treatment for the first time', she said. 

In Ireland
  • Drug use among children aged under 15 is rare in Ireland. As in Europe, the most common drug used is cannabis, followed by inhalants. The National Health Behaviour in School-aged Children survey indicates that the proportion of boys aged 12-14 who reported using cannabis in the 12 months prior to the survey decreased from 11% in 1998 to 7% in 2006. The proportion of girls aged 12-14 who reported recent cannabis use increased marginally, from 3.5% to 5% during the same period.
  • Almost one-quarter (24%) of Irish children reported being drunk by the age of 13. The legal age for consumption of alcoholic drinks in Ireland is 18 years.
  • Similar to the European figure, 1% of all cases presenting for treatment are aged under 15. There were 52 such cases in 2006, of which 40 were 14 years old, 37 were boys, 45 lived outside Dublin and 49 were entering treatment for the first time. Two in every five cases used more than one problem drug. The most common additional drug was alcohol, which points, again, to the link between alcohol and drug use in Ireland.

?The number of cases entering treatment decreased from 74 in 2002 to 52 in 2006', said Dr Long. ?This may be due to a number of factors, including an increase in the age at which young people start using drugs, a reluctance to enter treatment, or the availability of specific adolescent services', she explains.

  • In Ireland, children are referred to treatment by families or social services, but rarely through the criminal justice system.
  • Adolescent services have been established in Dublin, and another centre is in the process of being set up in the South East. These services were developed on foot of the report of the Department of Health and Children and the Health Service Executive Working Group on treatment of under-18-year-olds, and reflect specific progress.
Selected Issue: Drugs and driving
In Europe
  • The number one substance endangering lives on European roads today is alcohol.
  • After alcohol, cannabis and benzodiazepines are the psychoactive substances most prevalent among the European driving population. Exceptions to this are found in Latvia, Finland, Sweden and Norway, where amphetamines are more common than cannabis or benzodiazepines, and in Slovenia where opiates are more common than benzodiazepines.
  • The legal position is clear in almost every European country: driving while clinically impaired by benzodiazepines, even if used under prescription, is an offence.
  • Male drivers are more likely to test positive for cannabis, while middle-aged female drivers are more likely to test positive for benzodiazepines.
  • Many countries have responded by tightening laws, increasing penalties or altering national strategies to address drugs and driving problems. Responses vary greatly, from zero tolerance (sanctioning detection of the substance per se) to impairment laws. (sanctioning if a person is deemed fit to drive)
  • The EU roadside testing assessment projects considered no device reliable enough for roadside screening.
  • Prevention approaches to date have focused on alcohol, with only one-fifth of countries addressing cannabis or benzodiazepines. Research on the impact of these campaigns shows that a 'one size fits all' approach will not work and that older benzodiazepine users ignore the cannabis adverts targeted at younger users and vice versa. Ironically, neither group believes that the alcohol advertising applies to them. 
Ireland ? a comparison

?In Ireland, driving under the influence of drugs has been a statutory offence since the introduction of the Road Traffic Act in 1961', said Johnny Connolly, research officer at the HRB. ?Penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol are graded based on the concentration of alcohol detected. However, the law does not set prohibited concentrations for drugs'.

In Ireland

The main evidence we have in relation to drugs and driving comes from a nationwide survey conducted by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety in 2000-2001. The survey found that:

  • 68% of drivers tested who reported zero levels of alcohol were positive for more than one drug.
  • Many drivers had high levels of both alcohol and drugs in their system.
  • Cannabis was the most common drug discovered. Of the 16% of drivers who tested positive for any drug, six out of ten tested positive for cannabis.
  • 90% of those apprehended were male.
  • Legislation allowing random breath testing for alcohol was introduced in Ireland in July 2006. Since then there has been a decrease of 19% in road accidents and a total of 17,788 drink driving arrests.

Roadside testing for drugs has yet to be implemented in Ireland. In response to a parliamentary question in July 2006, the Minister for Transport said: 'There is no feasible basis for the introduction of a scheme of preliminary roadside testing for drugs at present. However, screening devices based on oral fluid specimens are being developed for the purpose of carrying out roadside testing'.

Other issues highlighted in the European report include: the stabilising of cannabis use, and low rates of HIV transmission. 
Cannabis use stabilising, but intensive use on the rise
In Europe
  • Cannabis remains the most commonly consumed illicit drug in Europe. Nearly a quarter of all Europeans have tried cannabis at some point in their lives and 7% have used it in the past year.
  • 13% of 15-34-year-olds have used cannabis in the last year. The highest rates are reported in Spain (20%) and the Czech Republic (19.3%).
  • Among these high-ranking countries, recent data show that rates have stabilised in Spain and have fallen by 3?4% in the Czech Republic.
  • In contrast, rates are rising slowly in Hungary, Slovakia and Norway.
  • 1% of European adults are using cannabis on a daily basis.
  • 29% of cases entering treatment reported cannabis as their main problem drug.
Ireland ? a comparison
  • In 2003, almost one in five adults (aged 15-64) had used cannabis at some point in their lives and one in twenty had used it in the year before the survey.
  • Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug.
  • The report highlights that almost a quarter of young adults (15-34) had used cannabis in their lifetime, and 9% of young adults had used it in the past year.
  • There is no available evidence to assess whether the level of cannabis use among the general population in Ireland has stabilised over the past few years.
  • According to the 2003 figures, only 2.6% had used cannabis in the month prior to the survey and only one in five of this group were daily users.
  • One in five cases entering treatment reported cannabis as their main problem drug in 2006 and on this basis it is the second most common reason for entering treatment after opiates. Thirty-six per cent of new cases entering treatment reported cannabis as their main problem drug.  
Injecting drug use and blood-borne infections
  • Rates of HIV transmission were low in most European countries in 2005, although the report highlights the situation in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as being of concern, in spite of relative decreases in new infections in these countries. Although injecting drug use has become less important as a route of HIV infection, the EMCDDA estimates that it accounted for 3,500 new cases of HIV in the EU during 2005, which is a considerable public health issue. Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) is more prevalent than HIV among injecting drug users and it is more evenly distributed. In contrast to their success in preventing HIV infection, prevention and harm reduction services seem to be having a weaker impact on preventing HCV, which is now known as Europe?s ?hidden epidemic?.  Prevalence studies in Ireland indicate that one in ten injecting drug users in treatment are HIV positive.  The number and proportion entering treatment who ever injected an illicit drug decreased from 2,600 (48%) in 2002 to 2313 (42%) in 2006. The number and proportion who had injected in the month prior to entering treatment decreased marginally, from 1,206 (22%) in 2002 to 1,070 (20%) in 2006. The decrease in injecting drug use mirrors a fall off in injecting drug use across Europe. Seven in every ten injecting drug users in Ireland test positive for the hepatitis C virus. Ireland is currently defined as a high prevalence country for this disease, in comparison to its medium prevalence status for HIV.

For more information contact:
Gillian Markey, Communications Manager
Health Research Board
m 00353 87 2288514
t 00353 1 2345103
e gmarkey(at)hrb.ie 

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