The EU drugs agency is also concerned at the “potential for future heroin epidemics” as a result of record crops of opium in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, so-called new psychoactive drugs continue to be manufactured at a dizzying rate of around two per week, with 101 new substances in 2013 and 41 so far this year.
Figures released by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (Emcdda) show:
- Ireland had the third largest quantity of ecstasy seized in the EU in 2013, with 480,839 tablets;
- Ireland is one of the top three countries in the EU for the highest number of addicts reporting benzodiazepines (legal tranquillisers) as their main problem drug;
- Ireland has the fourth highest rate of drug-induced deaths in Europe, more than three times the EU average.
The publication of the Emcdda’s European Drug Report 2015 in Lisbon was attended by a delegation from the Oireachtas Justice Committee, which was also meeting senior Portuguese figures regarding their policy of decriminalisation of drugs for personal use.
Chairman David Stanton, a Fine Gael TD for Cork East, said the approach “seemed to be quite effective” and that he personally believed the issue “should be debated” in Ireland, as recently articulated by drugs minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.
The Emcdda report raises particular concern at the increasing strength of the main drugs.
“A key finding in this year’s report is the marked rise in the potency and purity of Europe’s most commonly used illicit drugs, fuelling concerns for the health of users who, wittingly or unwittingly, may be consuming stronger products,” said the Emcdda.
“Overall trends show the potency of cannabis [THC content], the purity of cocaine, and the MDMA content in ecstasy tablets to have risen in countries consistently reporting data; heroin purity also rose in 2013.”
Paul Griffiths, Emcdda scientific director, said people may be used to one strength of ecstasy and are then faced with “much higher potency”, with resultant health implications, including overdose.
In recent years, gardaí have been reporting both an increased supply, reflected in seizures, of ecstasy and a growing strength of tablets.
The higher potency of MDMA-based tablets was cited by garda sources as being a possible factor in the death of 18-year-old Dubliner Ana Hick last month.
The Emcdda report estimated that 4.8m MDMA tablets were seized in 2013, almost double the amount in 2009. It added that the quantity of precursor chemicals, used to produce ecstasy, seized in 2013 were capable of manufacturing about 170m ecstasy tablets.
The report highlights the increased potency of herbal cannabis and, as a “market response”, Moroccan producers are making stronger cannabis resin. The report said that while cannabis- related emergencies are rare, cases are increasing.
Mr Griffiths said high potency of cannabis was causing some concern in the US. He said there could be both “acute and long-term implications” and a small number of deaths had been reported.
The Emcdda said that, after years of decline, heroin frequency was showing signs of growth — with higher levels of purity and growing availability in some countries.
The report said cultivation of the opium plant in Afghanistan had “increased to record levels” with a bumper crop in 2014.
“Any potential for a resurgence of heroin problems is worrying and close monitoring of the situation is critical,” said Emcdda director Wolfgang Gotz.
Mr Griffiths said the union “can’t afford to be complacent”, saying the “potential for future heroin epidemics was there”.
Speaking at the launch, Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said he did not foresee any EU policy in relation to cannabis legalisation.
Mr Gotz said he did not know of any member state seriously discussing the issue, but noted that members of the Dáil had travelled to Portugal to examine the matter.
The report said there were 650 websites selling ‘legal highs’ to Europeans.