HRB Factsheet January 2017 – Opiates: the Irish situation

Opiates: the Irish situation

January 2017

In common usage, the term ‘opiate’ tends to be understood as referring to all opiate/opioid drugs. To keep things simple, this Factsheet uses the term ‘opiate’ in this way.

What are opiates?

Opiates are derived from the dried milk of the opium poppy. Synthetic opiates are called opioids. Heroin is the most commonly used opioid. Methadone, which is used as a substitute drug in the treatment of heroin addiction, is also an opioid.

What do opiates do?

Opiates are sedative drugs that depress the nervous system. They induce feelings of relaxation and detachment in the user. The more often the drug is used the greater the quantity needed to produce the desired effect. Physical dependence often results from regular use and withdrawal can be very unpleasant. Opiates can be smoked, snorted or prepared for injection. Overdosing on an opiate can be fatal.

How do we know how many people use opiates in Ireland?

Surveys of random samples of the population can be used to estimate the total number of people who use specific drugs. However, opiate users are under-represented in population-based surveys, which are not designed to include people who do not normally live in private households (such as the homeless, hostel dwellers or prisoners).

Researchers in Ireland use a number of sources of information to estimate the number of opiate users in the population. These include:

  • The Central Treatment List (CTL), which is a register of the number of people who are receiving methadone or another opioid as a substitute drug treatment.
  • The Hospital In-Patient Enquiry (HIPE) scheme, which records details of people discharged from hospital, including their diagnosis.
  • The Garda information systems, which record details of drug-related crime.

How many people use opiates in Ireland?

There have been attempts in recent years to estimate the number of problem opiate users in Ireland using these overlapping sources. The first study estimated that 14,158 people were using heroin in 2001, a rate of 5.6 per 1,000 of the population. In 2006 the estimate was 20,790, a rate of 7.2 per 1,000. There are about 1.3 million opiate users in Europe.

How many people receive treatment for opiate use?

As of 31st August 2016 there were 9,652 patients receiving treatment for opiate use (excluding prisons).

The National Drug Treatment Reporting System (NDTRS) provides data on treated drug and alcohol misuse in Ireland.a A total of 16,587 cases entered treatment for problem drug or alcohol use in 2014, of whom 4,477 reported an opiate as their main problem drug. Of the 4,477 cases who reported an opiate as their main problem drug:

  • 943 were new cases.
  • 2,148 were resident in Dublin.
  • 2,955 were men.
  • 5 were under 18 years; 2,618 were aged 18–34.
  • 2,676 used opiates with other drugs.
  • 2,079 used an opiate daily, 640 used it between two and six days per week, 294 used it once per week or less, and 1,163 had not used it in the last month.ha
  • 1,737 injected, 2,059 smoked, 487 ate/drank and 5 sniffed/snorted opiates.

How many people die from using opiates?

The National Drug-Related Deaths Index (NDRDI) is a database which records cases of death by drug and alcohol poisoning, and deaths among drug users and those who are alcohol dependent. 354 people died from poisoning in 2014. Opiates were the main drug group implicated in poisoning deaths in Ireland in 2014. Methadone was implicated in more than a quarter of poisonings (98, 28%). The number of deaths where heroin was implicated increased to 90 in 2014 compared to 86 in 2013. This is the second year in succession that a rise in heroin deaths is reported.

One quarter (25%) of all poisoning deaths involved heroin. Of those who died where heroin was implicated:

  • 87% were male
  • 81% involved more than one drug
  • 48% were injecting at the time of the incident that led to their death
  • 46% lived outside Dublin (city and county)
  • 42% were not alone at the time of the incident that led to their death
  • 29% were homeless
  • 18% were recorded as being in addiction treatment at the time of their death.

Non-fatal overdoses and drug-related emergencies

According to the Hospital In-Patient Enquiry (HIPE) scheme, 4,233 cases of non-fatal overdose were discharged from Irish hospitals in 2013. There were 14% (587) positive findings for narcotic or hallucinogenic drugs in relation to these cases, of which 80% (468) were for an opiate.

What does the law say about opiates?

Heroin and other opiates are on the list of controlled drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Acts 1977 and 1984, and amending regulations. Under the legislation a person who has this controlled drug in their possession is guilty of an offence. You can find more information about Irish drug laws, offences and penalties on the Citizens Information Board website.

Seizure of opiates

Information on drugs and crime is published by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) and includes data on drug seizures made by Garda and Revenue Customs officers. The number of seizures of heroin rose from 690 in 2013 to 954 in 2014. There were 15 seizures of methadone in 2009, and 56 in

The Forensic Science Ireland (FSI) analyses drugs seized by the Garda. FSI prepare a quarterly report for the Garda and the data presented here are from the combined report for 2014. This tells us the number of cases involving drugs initiated by the Garda and gives a picture of the relative
frequency of the various types of illicit drugs seized. 954 cases were associated with seizures of diamorphine (heroin). There was a significant increase in the quantity of heroin seized; from just under 40 Kgs in 2014 to just under 62 Kgs in 2015 (just over 61 Kgs of heroin in 2013).

For more information on opiates please refer to the following sources:

  1. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
  2. Kelly A, Teljeur C and Carvalho M (2009). Prevalence of opiate use in Ireland 2006: a 3-source capture-recapture study. Dublin: Stationery Office.
  3. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2014) European drug report 2014: trends and developments. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
  4. Health Service Executive (2017) Health service performance report August/September 2016. Dublin: Health Service Executive.
  5. Treatment data HRB National Drugs Library interactive tables.
  6. Health Research Board (2016) National Drug-Related Deaths Index 2004 to 2014 data. Dublin: Health Research Board.
  7. Health Research Board Irish National Focal Point to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2016) Ireland: national report for 2015 – harms and harm reduction.
  8. Irish National Focal Point to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. (2016) Ireland: national report for 2015 – drug markets and crime. Dublin: Health Research Board.
  9. An Garda Siochana (2016) An Garda Siochana: annual report 2015. An Garda Siochana, Dublin.


How to cite this factsheet:

HRB National Drugs Library (2017) Opiates: the Irish situation. HRB National Drugs Library, Dublin


Other Factsheets in this series:

Cocaine: the Irish situation
Alcohol: the Irish situation
Sedatives and tranquillisers: the Irish situation
Cannabis: the Irish situation

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