Drugs in N.Ireland

A quick look at drugs and their use in our culture.

Drug use in NI

Drug misuse, compared to alcohol, can vary in respect of scale, pattern and intensity.  According to the NI Health Survey for 2017/18 over three quarters of adults aged 16 and over drink alcohol (77%) – with 18% of those also reporting that they drank over the weekly limits.  Whereas according to the All-Ireland Drug Prevalence Survey for 2014/15 (27.7%) of respondents aged 15-64 who were surveyed reported ever having taken illegal drugs.

In 2017 in Northern Ireland there were a total of 303 alcohol-related deaths compared with 136 drug-related deaths during the same year (NISRA). Poverty also plays a part – drug and alcohol related deaths in the most deprived areas of NI are around 4 and half times the rates seen in the least deprived areas of NI (Health Inequalities Report, 2019, DoH).
(Health Inequalities Report, 2019, DoH).

In terms of illicit drugs, cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy remain the most misused illegal substances in NI.  Of those who accessed treatment services in 2016/17, cannabis most commonly reported drug used (66%), followed by cocaine (37%), benzodiazepines (35%), ecstasy (15%), and heroin (11%)

(Substance Misuse Database, DoH)

Drug misuse in Northern Ireland over the last 20 years has reflected the changing nature of illicit drug use. Northern Ireland’s pattern of drug misuse has probably mirrored that in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland in terms of recreational use, but has not seen the same intensity of problem drug misuse, especially in respect of heroin and crack cocaine.

Prescription drug misuse

Medication, when used as prescribed by a GP, and under their care and supervision, can be extremely beneficial to someone in poor health – physically or mentally.  However, there is a growing illicit market for prescription medication – both real and counterfeit – in Northern Ireland.  Medication such as Pregabalin, Tramadol, Diazepam, and Temazepam are sourced through family or friends, on the street or via the internet and then often used alongside or in combination with other drugs.

Following high levels of prescribing rates, a rise in reported illicit use and a significant increase in deaths where pregabalin was present in 2017, as of April 2019, Pregabalin (brand name – Lyrica/street name – Buds) has been classified as a class C drug when used without a prescription or illegally shared or sold.

2017 saw four times more deaths where Pregabalin was listed on the death certificate, with numbers increasing from 8 in 2016 to 33 in 2017.  Forty percent of all drug-related deaths in 2017 involved the controlled drug, Diazepam, compared with twenty-four percent in 2007.


Alongside the usual intelligence and enforcement measures conducted by the PSNI, the Health and Social Care Board works closely with GPs to monitor prescribing rates for medications that are prone to misuse and the PSNI works closely with Customs officials and Royal Mail to try an intercept illegal and counterfeit medications from coming into the country.

Polydrug use

In the past few years, polydrug use (using a combination of drugs) has increasingly become the norm for drug users.  Although specific risks depend on which substance or substances are taken, one of the biggest risk factors is using more than one drug at a time or ‘mixing’.  This can include alcohol, over-the-counter medications, prescription drugs (such as Diazepam, Tramadol, Lyrica/Pregabalin) and illegal or illicit drugs (such as MDMA/ecstasy, cocaine, heroin).

Mixing any combination of prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, illicit drugs, and/or alcohol can be unpredictable and dangerous.  Most fatal overdoses involve use of more than one type of drug.

In Northern Ireland, three out of four drug-related deaths involve more than one drug or a combination of one or more drugs and alcohol.  In many cases, prescription drugs are also involved. 


More information on the risks and how to reduce them can be found in the PHA’s ‘Mixing’ booklet – click here to view


Historically, heroin use in NI has been much lower in NI than elsewhere in the UK and Ireland. This was originally attributed to higher levels of security during The Troubles, and lack of access. Awareness of the availability of heroin in NI grew in the late 1990s, and led to the establishment of the first NI government-funded needle exchanges in 2001. However, since around 2014, there has been evidence (such as a significant rise in needle exchange visits and police seizures) of increasing heroin use in NI. 

    From 2012/13 to 2016/17 (5 year period) there has been a 38% increase in visits to needle exchange services). 




    The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is the primary legislation for the United Kingdom and came fully into effect in 1973.The main purpose of the Act is to prevent the misuse of controlled drugs and achieves this by imposing a complete ban on the possession, supply, manufacture, import and export of controlled drugs except as allowed by regulations or by license from the Secretary of State.

    You can get a fine or prison sentence if you take, carry, make or sell drugs or psychoactive substances. The penalties depend on the drug and the amount you have, and whether you’re also dealing or producing the drug.

    More information about those drugs banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 can be found at www.gov.uk/penalties-drug-possession-dealing

    Useful links

    Below is a link to a UK-based website where you can find more detailed information on the types of drugs and their effects:

    Key messages in relation to drug misuse

    • It’s never a good idea to take drugs for recreational use. The truth is that all drugs carry risks. We strongly recommend that you do not take them.
    • You should only ever take medication that has been prescribed for you by your doctor or another medical professional, and according to dosage instructions.
    • Mixing any drug, including prescription medication, with another drug, or with alcohol, increases the risk of dangerous side effects including death by overdose.
    • If you think you might have a problem with drugs and/or alcohol or you are concerned about a loved one and would like to get help please visit our ‘Services Near You’ section.

    Talk to someone, you are not alone.

    Lifeline counsellors are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to listen and help, in confidence.

    Deaf and hard of hearing Textphone users can call Lifeline on 18001 0808 808 8000. Calls to Lifeline are free to people living in Northern Ireland who are calling from UK landlines and mobiles.

    Slide “Addressing drugs and alcohol together”

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