National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol

The NACDA was established in response to the drug problem to assist in our continued need to improve our knowledge and understanding of problem drug use.

The goal of the NACDA is to advise the Government on problem drug use in Ireland in relation to prevalence, prevention consequences and treatment based on our analysis and interpretation of research findings.

Research on cannabis use in Ireland and Northern Ireland

ISSUE DATE: Friday 7th October 2005

MEDIA CONTACT: Jane O'Dwyer (086 6491408) / Pat Montague (087 2549123) at Montague Communications, Tel. 01 8303116

A major survey, published by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs, finds that 17% of the general population have used cannabis at some stage in their lifetime. Only 3% report using it in the last month.

These findings are amongst the key results contained in Drug Use in Ireland and Northern Ireland 2002/2003 Drug Prevalence Survey: Cannabis Results Bulletin 3 launched today (Friday, 7 October) by Mr Noel Ahern, TD, Minister of State with responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

Previous reports have indicated that cannabis is the most commonly used illegal drug in both Ireland and Northern Ireland. This Bulletin (the third in a series) deals specifically with cannabis prevalence and use providing detailed information on the age of first use, regularity of use, the type and method of cannabis used, obtaining cannabis, stopping use and attitudes to cannabis use in general.

In response to the finding that most people did not wish cannabis to be permitted for recreational use, Minister Noel Ahern TD commented;

"This finding reinforces the position of Government in relation to cannabis. I believe that cannabis is a complex substance and notwithstanding the fact that it is not as dangerous as some other drugs, it can have many damaging effects on the physical and mental health of the user, particularly the young and those who are heavy users of the drug."

The Minister added that this information will feed into the National Drug Awareness Campaign.

Over a quarter of people surveyed who said that they had ever taken cannabis said that they had used it on a regular basis. Of these, 58% said that they had stopped using it for a variety of reasons including, not wanting to take it anymore (43%), it was no longer part of their social life (26%), the ill effects were not enjoyable (23%) and due to health concerns (20%). This highlights that a substantial proportion of people who have taken cannabis have experienced unwanted side effects.

The survey also finds most people obtain cannabis from family or friends and share it amongst friends.

Key findings from the survey include:

  • 17% of people aged 15-64 reported that they had used cannabis at some stage in their lives with 5% having used the drug in the last year and 3% in the last month;
  • Prevalence rates were higher among younger respondents – the lifetime prevalence rate for those aged 15 to 34 (24%) was more than double that for those aged 35 to 64 (11%);
  • Male respondents reported higher prevalence rates than females across all time periods. The lifetime prevalence figure for males was 22% compared to 12% for females. Younger men are also twice as likely as older men to have used cannabis;
  • Average age of first use was reported as 18. Regular users of cannabis started use on average at the younger age of 16 years;
  • 22% of current users reported daily use of cannabis;
  • Just over a quarter (27%) of respondents who said that they had ever taken cannabis said that they had used it regularly. Of these, almost three in five (58%) said that they had stopped taking cannabis, one in eight (12%) said that they had tried to stop and failed, whilst three in ten respondents said that they had never tried to stop.

In terms of obtaining cannabis, the survey found that:

  • 31% of respondents were given cannabis by a family member or friend;
  • a further 27% of respondents said they had shared cannabis amongst a group of friends.

Commenting on this key finding, Dr. Des Corrigan, Chairperson of the National Advisory Committee on Drugs (NACD) said, "This information contradicts the popular view of the dealer as someone completely unknown to the user and highlights how important it is for parents to know who their children are associating with, what they are doing and if they are being supervised. This bulletin is a useful resource in terms of contributing to the importance of understanding the family and social context within which people use drugs.

Commenting on the fact that 23% of those who have used cannabis have stopped their previous use because they did not like the side effects, Dr. Corrigan said:

"The potency of cannabis available in Ireland has increased in recent years, increasing the risk of dependence and psychiatric problems. In terms of the physical health effects, it is estimated that up to four times the amount of tar can be deposited on the lungs by smoking a cannabis joint compared to a standard tobacco cigarette. Indeed, cannabis smoke contains more cancer causing chemicals than tobacco smoke leading to bronchitis and a doubling of the risk of certain types of cancer."

Adding that 20% of respondents said they had stopped their previous use of cannabis for health reasons, Dr. Corrigan added,

"An earlier overview conducted for the NACD showed that whilst cannabis-based medicines can be used in nausea and have some potential benefits in relation to pain relief and multiple sclerosis (MS), cannabis use does have profound ill effects."

Des Corrigan continued;

"The survey also confirms anecdotal information that most Irish cannabis users are more likely to use resinous hash than herbal cannabis (marijuana, weed, grass). This is the first time we can say that the majority of cannabis users smoke cannabis in a joint rather than consume it in other ways such as using a pipe or eating it. This in itself increases the risk of experiencing harmful effects."


Notes to the Editor

The general population survey was undertaken by MORI MRC in 2002/2003 on the island of Ireland on behalf of the NACD and their collaborating partner the Drug and Alcohol Information and Research Unit (DAIRU) in Northern Ireland.

A total number of 8,434 people aged 15-64 were surveyed by MORI MRC on behalf of the NACD and DAIRU (4,918 in Ireland and 3,516 in Northern Ireland) between October 2002 and April 2003. A response rate of 70% was achieved. Using the most recent census data, the sample was weighted by gender, age and Health Board (Health and Social Services Board area in Northern Ireland), to maximise its representativeness of the general population.

The aim of this drug prevalence survey is to establish the extent and pattern of drug use in the general population; first drug prevalence findings were produced in Bulletin 1, (published October 2003 and revised in June 2005 for Ireland, Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland. Bulletin 2, published in April 2004 and revised in June 2005 released the drug prevalence findings by health board area in Ireland and health and social services board area in Northern Ireland. Bulletin 3, published today (7 October 2005) focuses on Cannabis Use in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Earlier NACD Cannabis Research

Last September, the NACD published the first Irish review of scientific evidence about cannabis ‘An Overview of Scientific and other Information on Cannabis’. The study reviewed all relevant research from Ireland and abroad up to early 2003 and revealed the following:

  • The potency of cannabis available in Ireland has increased in recent years.
  • It is estimated that up to four times the amount of tar can be deposited on the lungs by smoking a joint compared to a cigarette.
  • Cannabis smoke contains more cancer causing chemicals than tobacco smoke leading to bronchitis and a doubling of the risk of certain types of cancer.
  • There is a strong association between regular cannabis use in adolescence and poor educational outcomes, especially early school leaving.
  • Evidence exists to support an association between cannabis use and schizophrenia among vulnerable individuals.
  • Evidence shows that while drivers under the influence of cannabis are often aware of their impairment they are unable to compensate for the loss of capability in some psychomotor skills such as staying in lane which means that cannabis use is a risk factor for road traffic accidents.
  • Evidence shows that heavy cannabis use produces subtle cognitive impairments of memory, attention and the organisation of complex information.
  • Regular cannabis use tends to be associated with somewhat poorer occupational and employment performance, specifically lower income, greater job instability and lower job satisfaction.

The NACD, as a result of its analysis of its earlier report on cannabis and of the results in this Bulletin concluded that there is a need to monitor the potency of cannabis products on the Irish market; as well as establishing the extent of cannabis dependence, and whether there are links between cannabis use and mental ill-health and respiratory illnesses, in particular. Other significant areas where the NACD feel that only further research can provide the necessary answers include the area of what happens when cannabis users come into contact with the legal system and an investigation of cannabis use as one of the factors in early school leaving.

About the NACD and DAIRU

The NACD was established in July 2000 to advise the Irish Government in relation to the prevalence, prevention, treatment / rehabilitation and consequences of problem drug use in Ireland, based on the analysis of research findings and information. The NACD is overseeing the delivery of a work programme on the extent, nature, causes and effects of drug use in Ireland. The NACD comprises representatives nominated from relevant agencies and sectors, both statutory and non-statutory. The NACD reports to the Minister of State responsible for the National Drugs Strategy. The NACD has published several reports which are available on the website. Further information can be obtained from the website:

The DAIRU was established in May 2001 to develop and manage a programme of information and research work in support of the joint implementation of the Northern Ireland Executive’s Drug and Alcohol Strategies, building on previous work to support the Drug Strategy alone. Both strategies highlight the need for detailed information on drug use and drinking patterns and behaviours in order to effectively target policy and practice. DAIRU is also involved in the evaluation of projects and initiatives funded through the Drug Strategy, management and development of the Northern Ireland Drug Misuse Database and dissemination of available information. DAIRU is located within the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Further information can be obtained from the DHSSPS website:

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