Minister of State for Health Promotion and the National Drugs Strategy, Catherine Byrne, was responding to the annual report of the EU drugs agency which found, not for the first time, that Ireland has one of the highest rates of drug-induced deaths in the union.
The European Drug Report 2018 reported that Ireland had the joint fourth highest rate of such deaths, at 70 per million people.
With a rate the same as the UK, Ireland was behind Estonia (132), Sweden (88) and Norway (81), while the EU average was 23 per million.
However, the report said the findings “must be interpreted with caution” as there was “systematic under- reporting” in some countries.
“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,” said Ms Byrne.
The report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction said opioid (mainly heroin) users are five to 10 times more likely to die than their peers, and that heroin, often in combination with other substances, is present in the majority of fatal overdoses.
The report recommends strengthening overdose awareness, effective drug treatment and identifying periods of elevated risk, such as release from prison and drop out from treatment.
It added: “Interventions such as supervised drug consumption facilities as well as take-home naloxone programmes are highly targeted responses which aim at improving the likelihood of surviving an overdose.” It said drug consumption facilities, as they are known in much of Europe, ensure professional support is available if an overdose occurs.
“There is growing evidence of their benefits which include reductions in risk behaviour, overdose mortality and transmission of infections, as well as increased drug users’ access to treatment and other health and social services,” it said.
The Irish contract has been awarded to Merchants Quay Ireland, which has to lodge its planning application with Dublin City Council. Elsewhere in the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction report, it found an increase in the potency of cannabis resin trafficked into Europe, which the agency believes may be in response to higher-strength cannabis herb being grown domestically in the EU.
The report said it is “unclear” what the implications for Europe would be if a large legal market for cannabis develops in parts of the Americas, saying “an impact on patterns of supply or use in Europe cannot be ruled out”. In relation to new psychoactive substances, there were 51 new substances detected in 2017, which is down on previous years (66 in 2016 and 101 in 2014). The agency is monitoring a total of 670 such substances.
As well as increased detections of high potency fentanyls (synthetic opiates), the agency is concerned at the rise in benzodiazepines (tranquillisers). The Health Research Board, which supplied the Irish data, said that last year, use of new psychoactive substances by young adults fell from 6.7% in 2011 to 1.6% in 2015.
The report said the new synthetic cannabinoids (mimicking effects of cannabis) have resulted in “acute intoxications and deaths”.
It said online sales of drugs, while small, appear to be growing and that EU suppliers are estimated to be responsible for nearly half of darknet drug sales.