News and Views

First national survey of drug use in Ireland’s third level sector is published

20 Jan 2022
l/r- Sam Dick, Project Manager on the DUHEI project , Dr Michael Byrne, Head of Student Health, UCC & Asha Woodhouse, President of UCC student union with the Drug Use in Higher Education Institutions study.

A major national survey to determine the prevalence and type of drug use among the third level student population in Ireland is published today.

The Drug Use in Higher Education Institutions (DUHEI) survey analysed over 11,500 responses from students across 21 higher education institutions, to give a national picture of drug use among Irish university students, so that future policy and practice in the area can be informed. 

Launching the report, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris TD states; 

 “This report is an important resource for the Department and our higher education institutions. It helps understand the prevalence of drug use and the range of drugs being used by our students as well as detailing the impacts and effects, including harms caused by drug use in our student population. This data is vital to map the extent of the issue and will help us to develop appropriate responses and monitor trends in drug use in higher education over the coming years.” 

The My Understanding of Substance-use Experiences (MyUSE) research team in University College Cork (UCC) developed the study and Dr Michael Byrne, Head of University College Cork (UCC) Student Health and lead of the DUHEI Project team stated; 

 "Most students in Higher Education in Ireland do not take drugs regularly, but 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. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to help gather the data and provide the evidence contained in this report. These data will help inform policy and plans in this area for years to come." 


The survey population included undergraduate and postgraduate students aged 18 years and over. Among the findings of the DUHEI survey were:  

  • Over half of students surveyed reported using an illicit drug, with over one-third reporting drug use in the last year, and one-fifth reporting using drugs in the last month. 
  • Over half of students surveyed felt drug use is a normal part of student life, but over half also felt drug use has a somewhat negative or an extremely negative impact on student life.
  • Of those who had used drugs during COVID-19, one in three students had decreased their use; while just less than one in four had increased their use over this period
  • One in four male students report current drug use compared with one in six females.
  • Current drug use rises year on year to peak in last the two years in college. 
  • The most commonly used drugs are cannabis (52%); cocaine (25%); ecstasy (23%); ketamine (16%); mushrooms (12%); amphetamines (9%) and New Psychoactive Substances (8%). This order of prevalence of drugs/drug types is maintained across all three user groups. 
  • Cocaine has replaced ecstasy to now be the 2nd commonest drug used by students.
  • For the majority of drug types, the age of first use was between 19-21, whereas for cannabis it was between 16-18. One in four current users starting use before they were 16 years of age
  • Over one in two current users, are at moderate or substantial risk of harms arising from their drug use. 

Commenting further on the study the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris TD states; 

 “Last year, I launched the Healthy Campus Charter and I am pleased that all of our institutions have signed up to participate in this initiative.” 

 “Healthy Campus will provide us with an overarching framework to embed important actions on drugs and alcohol misuse within the Higher Education campus environment, so as to enhance and improve the health and well-being of our students, staff and local communities”. 

USI Vice President for Welfare, Somhairle Brennan said:

The findings of this report show how normalised drug culture has become in the student community, and therefore highlights the need for tailored supports directed specifically at students who use drugs. This can, and should, be done through the Framework for Response to the Use of Illicit Substances in Higher Education, which encourages the development of policies and plans on an institution by institution basis.”  

 “USI strongly supports the inclusion of drug harm reduction strategies and believes this should be an integral part of the supports provided. This report gives us a clear insight into drug use by students and enables us to shape proper supports based on need, and so we thank every student that shared their experiences for this research.” 


The survey makes a number of recommendations including:  

  • Each higher education institution (HEI) should develop and implement a Drug and Alcohol Action Plan specific to the HEI and their students. 
  • HEIs should embed actions on drugs and alcohol within the new Healthy Campus Framework, as part of the Healthy Campus initiative.[1] 
  • HEIs should benefit from the expertise and support of the Health Service Executive in implementing actions on drugs and alcohol.   
  • This DUHEI survey should be repeated at 5-yearly intervals to monitor trends in drug use prevalence, attitudes, and behaviours amongst students in Ireland. 

[1] The Healthy Campus Initiative, co-ordinated by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), aims to support HEIs to take action to promote the health and wellbeing of their students and staff through the adoption of the Healthy campus Charter ad the implementation of the Healthy campus Framework. 

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