Report to show 'substantial' rise in cocaine use in colleges

Report to show 'substantial' rise in cocaine use in colleges

The survey was completed by 11,500 students from universities and colleges across the country. Picture: iStock

A study on drug use at third level due to be published tomorrow will highlight a “substantial increase” in cocaine use, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

The survey was completed by 11,500 students from universities and colleges across the country.

The study was carried out by Dr Michael Byrne, who leads the My Understanding of Substance-use Experiences (MiUSE) project team in University College Cork.

The National Drug Use in Higher Education in Ireland survey was commissioned at the close of 2019 by then education minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor.

Addressing the Oireachtas health committee, Dr Eamon Keenan, HSE addiction clinical lead, said the forthcoming report indicates a “substantial increase in cocaine usage” in this population.

He said cocaine was a problem “right across society” and said the report will be calling for work to implement the Framework for Response to Illicit Drug Use in Higher Education, which was published in February 2020.

The health committee – which covered a wide range of issues – was attended by drugs strategy minister Frank Feighan, along with Dr Keenan and Jim Walsh, head of the Department of Health’s Drug Policy Unit.

They were called to attend following concerns raised at the committee last month over structural changes in the department drug strategy National Oversight Committee, the dispute between the department and Dublin’s North Inner City Drugs Task Force (NICDTF) and funding to address the crack cocaine problem highlighted by the Tallaght Drugs Task Force.

A number of TDs, including Dublin Central Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan and Sinn Féin Cork North Central TD Thomas Gould, told the minister and Mr Walsh they have still not seen any evidence of the governance issues as alleged by the department against the NICDTF.

Mr Gould said the department’s intervention in blocking the appointment of the new chairperson was in “contravention” of the rules governing the area.

Ms Hourigan sought clarity on whether funding would be provided to the taskforce for 2022 and was told by Mr Walsh that €2.2m was available but that the company associated with the taskforce needed to set out to the HSE what projects would be funded with the money.

Ms Hourigan said the language in the last year from the department appeared to reflect “an ideological centralisation of the decision-making process”, away from the joint State-community partnership at the heart of drug strategies since 1996.

'Anti-community attitude'

Social Democrats co-leader and former drugs strategy minister Róisín Shortall said she had got a sense from local groups that there was an “anti-community attitude” in the Department of Health and said there was a need to listen to the local community, who, she said, were the “experts” on this area.

Mr Feighan and Mr Walsh were also questioned on changes being made to the structure and membership of the National Oversight Committee (NOC), amid fears a leading community representative body, CityWide, could be excluded.

Mr Walsh said none of the existing groups, including CityWide, would be excluded, adding the department was looking to “broaden” representation.

The minister indicated he hoped to include addiction nurses back into the NOC, after the group Irish Examiner criticised their sudden exclusion in the this week.

A number of committee members, including People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny and Senator Lynn Ruane, pressed the minister on decriminalisation and legalisation of drugs. 

Ms Ruane repeatedly challenged the minister over his claim that war on drugs was not effective, pointing out to him that the current approach, which criminalised use of drugs, was a war on drugs.

The minister said that at the moment there was “no desire” in the Government to decriminalise or legalise drugs.

He pointed out a working group which examined alternatives to criminalisation and published its report in August 2019 did not favour decriminalisation and instead backed a health diversion approach.

Asked by Ms Shortall and others about the status of the promised citizens assembly on drugs, Mr Feighan said there was currently no time schedule for it.

His allocation of €850,000 over three years for programmes tackling cocaine and crack cocaine use nationally was welcomed by some and criticised by others as too little.

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