Study finds one in 20 has taken cocaine.
ONE IN 20 Irish people and almost one in 10 young people have taken cocaine, a major all-Ireland study of the drug has found.
Men are twice as likely to use cocaine as women - 7 per cent prevalence as against 3 per cent. Regular and even daily use of the drug is increasing, according to the drug prevalence study carried out for the National Advisory Committee on Drugs (NACD).
More than 150,000 people have used cocaine, including 111,000 young people and 21,500 regular users, the figures show.
North Dublin, where almost 16 per cent of young people said they had used the drug, emerges as the country's cocaine blackspot, but rates are rising steeply everywhere.
Use of the drug by 15-34-year-olds has risen five-fold in the north-eastern counties over the past five years, and more than three-fold in the midlands and the west.
The vast majority of cocaine users start taking the drug in their early 20s and the most popular means of obtaining it is from friends and family. However, a small but growing proportion of users source the drug from "risky" environments such as the houses of dealers or from strangers.
Twenty-five per cent said they knew someone who took cocaine, compared to 14 per cent in the last all-Ireland survey carried out in 2002/03.
Cocaine users are taking the drug more often, with one-in-four users taking it once a week and 7 per cent reporting daily use. No one reported daily use in the earlier survey.
Cocaine is very easy or fairly easy to obtain within the space of 24 hours, according to two out of three users. Nearly half were given the drug by family or friends and one-third bought it from a friend.
Overall, 5.3 per cent of the population has taken cocaine, up from 3 per cent in the last survey. Some 1.7 per cent of respondents reported using the drug in the previous year, up from 1.1 per cent, and 0.5 per cent said they had taken cocaine in the previous month, up from 0.3 per cent.
Rates of cocaine use north and south of the Border are broadly similar, with the prevalence in the North being slightly higher among young people (9 per cent) and lower for older age groups (2 per cent).
The vast majority of users recognise the risk involved and most try to stop, the results show. Crack cocaine use remains low; about one person in 200 has tried the drug in this form.
"While these figures are of concern," said Minister of State with responsibility for drugs strategy John Curran, "we should not lose sight of the fact that they are reasonably low and that any perception that 'everyone is at it' is far from the true situation."
The survey also shows that cocaine use varies greatly between different regions, with the highest rates recorded in the more densely populated areas in the east, roughly from Louth to Cork.
"The challenge is to ensure that the lower rates are kept at such levels while the problem is tackled in the areas of higher use," Mr Curran added.
The Minister said the risks attached to cocaine use were often ignored or underestimated by users. "Cocaine use is linked to heart conditions, strokes and to various other physical complaints that vary, depending on the route of administration of the drug. Frequent or long-term use of cocaine can also have a powerful effect on the user's mental health, through depression, anxiety, agitation, compulsive behaviour and paranoia."
Earlier research has shown that the average purity of cocaine sold on the streets is just 10 per cent. Prices have dropped from €110 a gram to €70 in recent years.
Mr Curran expressed concern about the ease with which users could obtain the drug, but defended the efforts being made to tackle misuse, pointing out that more than €61 million was allocated to the area in last week's estimates. The Government is spending more than €200 million on measures aimed directly at problem drug use, he said.
Almost 7,000 people were surveyed for the study, which was carried out between October 2006 and May 2007.
# PAUL CULLEN
# Irish Times
# October 22, 2008