Turns out young people in Ireland are more into weird new drugs than anyone else in Europe. According to the "2016 EU Drugs Market Report" released this week, 9 percent of Irish 15- to 24-year-olds have tried a "new psychoactive substance" (NPS) at least once in the last 12 months, followed by 8 percent of young people in both Spain and France.
The NPS category is fairly broad, but mostly consists of research chemicals and "legal" alternatives to traditional drugs—pills and powders with names like "GoWhizz," "JawShatterer," and "Colombian Banter Fuel." The stuff imported from Chinese labs and sold online in colorful vac-pack bags that look like they might contain pop rock candy. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction currently monitors 560 of these substances, but that number is steadily increasing, at a rate of around two a week.
The most common type of NPS seized by police across Europe was found to be synthetic cannabinoids—fake weed—which currently makes up 60 percent of all NPS seizures. The second largest group was synthetic cathinones, like mephedrone, generally sold as a replacement for MDMA and amphetamines. They made up 22 percent of all seizures. If seizure data is a broad indication of the NPS marketplace, then demand for synthetic cannabinoids is on an exponential rise, while demand for other substances has been gradually falling since 2013.
In 2010, the Irish government attempted to confront the rise of NPS use by introducing a bill which made all substances that had a psychoactive effect on the brain illegal, excluding (of course) caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. The bill was similar in purpose to the Psychoactive Substances Act currently proposed in the UK, and led to head shops around the country being closed down.
Activists like Daryl Sullivan, who works as Policy and Communications Officer at LEAP UK (Law Enforcement Against Drugs), believe that while an outright ban might change how accessible these substances are, it ultimately pushes the market underground and into the hands of criminals.
"These drugs are made more dangerous by their newfound illegal status," he says. "Organized crime gangs completely control the market for most illegal drugs, thanks entirely to the illegality itself. Simply making something illegal doesn't mean that there will suddenly be no market; it just means that criminals will move in to fill that demand. And where you see a market controlled by criminal gangs, you don't tend to see regulation—you don't see harm reduction, and you don't see quality control. All of this makes the drugs being sold more dangerous, and the potential harms of using them more serious."
Graham de Barra is the director of Help Not Harm, an organization committed to changing drug policy in Ireland from a criminal justice approach to a health-based approach. He says the blanket-ban legislation of 2010 hasn't helped matters at all.
"The environment for consuming drugs on the island has become so dangerous that people are overdosing because of misidentifying substances, which would be solved with the introduction of drug testing labs," he says. "It's taken devastating events to push the issue out to the public, and people are beginning to think more about drugs.
"However, as drugs enter into mainstream discourse, it's essential that the conversation is rooted in evidence and backed up by research, rather than giving platforms for ignorant views. With campaigns such as our own calling for more harm reduction and decriminalization, it has drawn more light in the public domain about safer drug practices and policies that reduce harm."
For now, decriminalization is far from a realized government policy in Ireland—but activist groups and experts continue to try to inform strategy by bringing attention to drug use and the substances themselves.
READ ON BROADLY: Sex Workers Reveal What Cops Took from Them in Police Raids
Alongside other experts, de Barra helped implement the National Student Drug Survey last year. This study explored Irish drug use and the motivations behind it, using the responses of 2,700 people in third level education. Researchers found that the most common reasons Irish students consume drugs are: to have fun, to explore their curiosity, and to simply switch off. Interestingly, the survey also presented a decline in NPS use since the ban in 2010.
"Our survey… suggests that drug use is high [in Ireland], but there has been a shift back toward traditional illegal drugs, such as cannabis and MDMA," says de Barra. "There could be many reasons why drug trends change. There has been a surge in homegrown cannabis available in the country, which could be one reason why there is a shift away from synthetic cannabis. The closure of head shops also plays a factor for certain people. That said, cannabis remains a high priced drug for many people. It costs €25 [$28.50] a gram, which may be the highest among the EU.
"People using drugs may consume differently, and legal high [NPS] use may be high among certain groups of people more than others. For students, there's been a decline, but for vulnerable groups and homeless people, the rate may be as high as the head shop days, which would be more in line with the results from this particular [EUDM] survey."
The disconnect between reality and the response of lawmakers is clear, with activist groups often appearing to grasp the situation much more clearly, using relevant and current information.
"Any strategy that is rooted in the criminal justice model is unsatisfactory at reducing the harms of drugs," de Barra explains. "We need a full reform of our drug laws and to treat drugs primarily as a health issue, rather than the current situation of giving priority to the gardaí and keeping doctors secondary. Therefore, the laws in Ireland are out of touch with the reality of Irish society, which has a largely misinformed relationship of drugs, including alcohol."
Follow David on Twitter.