The use of psychoactive drugs by young people in Ireland between the ages of 15-24 is the highest in Europe. The comparative level of drug use by Irish young people was revealed in a recent report from the Health Services Authority. The report highlights how drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine or ketamine are most popular in Ireland than in any other European country. The UCD Students Union, and the national Union of Students have re-confirmed they will advocate for a harm reduction approach to drug use.

Minister of State for Health and Dublin South Central TD Catherine Byrne officially launched a new information campaign recently with students being the specific target demographic. The campaign was originally developed by the Union of Students of Ireland in partnership with and the HSE.  The information and awareness campaign focuses on harm reduction as well as also taking aim at young adults who use new psychoactive substances.

In addition to established drugs such as MDMA, available indicators suggest that there are no signs of slowdown in the number, type or availability of new substances used in the recreational nightlife scene. These include the wide variety of new psychoactive substances designed to mimic established illicit drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA and LSD.

Manufacturers of these ‘head shop’ substances develop new chemicals at an alarming rate to replace those that are banned in order to stay ahead of the law. As the availability of new substances has increased so have the serious harms associated with their use particularly acute poisonings sometimes resulting in death. These substances also cause other unwanted physical and psychological side effects.

Research from within the report also indicated that 22% of those engaged in drug use from within the age bracket go on develop a lifetime use of illegal substances. Data also suggests that the purity, or potency of most illicit substances is increasing and that the market for substances is becoming more varied and accessible.

The initial phase of the campaign focuses on two specific drugs; ecstasy and ketamine. This is the first step of an ongoing campaign to provide harm reduction information for students. A social media campaign is among some of the tools being used by the coalition group in an effort to give harm reduction advice and information on accessing support a wider reach for people who may be using illicit substances.

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) President Annie Hoey said they are ‘delighted to be working closely with the HSE and on this harm reduction campaign.’ Hoey continued, ‘ongoing use of a variety of substances by young people and students has rightly attracted attention and concern due to the significant number of physical and psychological side effects associated with their use. As such, it’s important for us to ensure that students’ relationship with substances is as safe as possible. Drugs can be unsafe, but if you do take them, follow a harm reduction regime.  We are urging students to be vigilant against unknown substance‘.

‘The HSE is partnering with the Union of Students in Ireland to target students and young people with an appropriate harm reduction message. Harm reduction refers to policies, programmes and practices that aim to reduce the adverse health, social and economic consequences of the use of legal and illegal psychoactive drugs.  Harm reduction benefits people who use drugs, their families and the community. It is always safer not to use illegal drugs and we advise people not to use, however we have a duty to reduce harm and protect young peoples’ health.  The key messages that we need to get to people is to Stay Safe and to be aware of the strength of the drugs they are taking. There is information, support and help available through or the HSE Drug Helpline’.

UCD Students’ Union launched their own campaign on drugs awareness and information back in 2015 with the then Minister for Drugs Strategy Aodhán Ó Ríordán and Dublin county councillor Críona Ní Dhálaigh. The campaign also took a slightly different direction to the classic approach of ‘drugs are bad, don’t do it’ , instead pioneering a contemporary step in implementing cautionary safety measures for those that do choose to take drugs. The key aim of the campaign was to raise awareness of the various chemicals that are inside not only psychoactive drugs but also stimulants and sedatives.

Speaking to the College Tribune, a spokesperson for the SU said ‘these [drugs] can all have different, unpredictable risks associated with them, including hospitalisations, deaths and possible mental health issues. The main message of the campaign is that you can never tell what’s in a pill just by looking at it. The safer option is always to not take drugs at all, but we acknowledge that a lot of students do use ecstasy and the campaign focus is to promote precautionary measures’.

The campaign went on to highlight that 82% of students admit to experiencing drug use in their time in UCD, with a quarter of those surveyed saying they do so for fun, but a further  31% cite using drugs as a coping mechanism, boredom and switching off as their reasons for doing so.

As for the continued use of drugs among young people, the SU and multiple other groups will be continuing the campaign to raise awareness of illicit drug use over the Christmas break and into the new year, as the winter break following exams will see students out in town in force.  


Oisín MacCanna |  Politics Editor