More than half of third-level students have taken illicit drugs, as cocaine replaces ecstasy as the drug of choice after cannabis.
A new national survey aimed at determining the prevalence and type of drug use among the third-level student population analysed more than 11,500 responses from students across 21 higher education institutions, providing insight into the effects of drug use on student success, health and wellbeing.
According to the results, more than half of participants reported using an illicit drug, with over one-third reporting drug use within the last year and one-fifth reporting drug use within the last month.
More than half of students surveyed said drug use is a normal part of student life.
Based on the findings, more than one in two current users are at moderate or substantial risk of harm.
However, just over half of current drug users reported they would not like to reduce their drug use.
When asked why this was the case, some of the most common reasons were perceived low or occasional use (55.5%) and not perceiving their use as harmful (18.2%).
The most commonly used drugs are cannabis (52%); cocaine (25%); ecstasy (23%); ketamine (16%); mushrooms (12%); amphetamines (9%); and new psychoactive substances (8%).
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) vice-president for welfare Somhairle Brennan said the findings show how normalised drug culture has become in the student community, and highlights the need for “tailored supports directed specifically at students who use drugs”.
The results also found that one in four males reported current drug use while one in six female students reported the same.
For the majority of drug types, the age of first use was between 19 and 21, but for cannabis, it was between 16-18.
Those who use cannabis do so about twice a week while those current users who use cocaine or ketamine, do so about once a month.
Participants had overestimated the percentage of their peers they believe had used drugs in the past year, saying about 60% had used drugs in the last year. However, the actual figure was 37%.
Drug use rises year on year in college, peaking in the last two years for undergraduates; from one-in-six first-year students to one-in-five in second year, and then to one-in-four in third and fourth year.
Undergraduate and postgraduate students aged 18 years and over took part in the survey, that was developed by the My Understanding of Substance-use Experiences (MyUSE) research team in University College Cork (UCC).
Speaking on the results, Michael Byrne, head of UCC student health and lead of the DUHEI Project team noted that while most students in higher education in Ireland do not take drugs regularly, a significant proportion do.
“If we are to work with our students and our institutions to address this issue, it is vital that we understand the reasons why our students choose to take drugs, or indeed choose not to take drugs; and to base our actions on data and evidence,” he said.
“I am delighted to have had the opportunity to help gather the data and provide the evidence contained in this report.”
The data will help inform policy and plans in this area for years to come, he added.