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High times for harm reduction

13.8% of adults aged between 15 and 34 in Ireland have consumed cannabis in the last year. A figure that has increased from 10% in 2011. A larger amount of students are now using drugs, and yet very little is done at a governmental level to reduce the risks associated with substance use. Irish drug policies are remnants of the failing ‘war on drugs’, and its effects are very much still felt today. Ireland, while far from having the highest percentage of drug use per inhabitants, is the country with the highest prevalence of HIV caused by injection in Europe. If the French and Swedish can use more drugs and yet suffer less from it, then the main issue must be with policy and not the substances themselves.

Often drug related issues are dealt as criminal cases, when they could be dealt as health issues. Because of this, bars, clubs, associations and educational institutions have often shied away from providing information to make drug users face less risks. However, we have seen that in many countries with more liberal laws on drugs, more accessible information and more tools for safer drug use are more easily available, and reduces deaths and drug use related injuries. This lack of information in Ireland is what is causing such widespread problems.

In this country, the best that can be done at the time being with the current policies in place is to promote harm reduction on campus. Currently, a group of determined students from ‘Students for Sensible Drug Policies’ (SSDP) are attempting to introduce drug testing kits to the UCC Students’ Union. These kits allow people to test their substances for purity and to insure its quality, to prevent the intake of dangerous mixtures of cheaper, more nefarious products. But before these are introduced on campus, alongside informational booklets, let’s have a look at some of the temporary effects of drugs on mental health.

Here are the short-term effects that you could experience while on certain common drugs:


  • Alcohol (12-24hrs):
    Considering the variety of drinks available, the short-term effects of alcohol are numerous. In lower doses, alcohol can decrease your concentration and slow down your reflexes, and reduce your coordination. At higher doses, you can experience mood swings are alterations, vomiting, breathing difficulties and nausea.
  • Cannabis (2-7 days):
    Some of the short-terms effects of cannabis include and are not limited to short-term memory problems, anxiety and paranoia, psychosis (seeing or hearing things that aren’t here), panic attacks and lowered reaction time.
  • Cocaine (12hrs-3 days):
    Since cocaine is a stimulant, it will usually exaggerate your feelings. It may alter your mood and make you overly excited. You will become more impulsive and more prone to behaving in risky ways.
  • MDMA (Ecstasy) (2-4 days):
    MDMA takes longer to act, with effects usually manifesting between 20-60 minutes after intakes. MDMA is a drug that lowers inhibition and tends to make people friendlier and calmer. All of your experiences are amplified while on ecstasy. After the crash however, as usually tends to happen, with feelings of depression, sadness, and tiredness.
  • Acid (LSD) (2-3 days):
    Acid is an hallucinogenic drug. This means that a lot of the effects of LSD are short-term. Perception of time is altered (usually slowed down), things that aren’t real can be seen, felt or heard. Colours and shapes are intensified and seem cartoonish. You may enter some sort of a ‘spiritual journey’. LSD trips’ effects depend on your environment, your current mood and the people you are with. While LSD is one of the drugs on this list that has the least long-term effects, bad trips are notorious and can make you feel frightened or panicked.
  • Poppers (Few minutes):
    Short-term effects of poppers are typically only short-lived. They include lightheadedness, giddiness, hot flashes, heightened arousal and sexual feelings. Some people even experience time slowing down, and after the crash, headaches are very common.

If you are out partying and one of your friends reacts badly to substance use, you should know some simple things in order to help them and keep them safe.

In case of a panic attack, here is what you can do:

  • Reassure them and tell them that the effects are only temporary and that it will end.
  • Encourage them to breath, regularly and slowly.
  • Try to having a conversation about something else that interests them, as long as it is not overwhelming.
  • Stay with them throughout and don’t abandon them. This might further frighten them.
  • Don’t tell them to relax.
  • Whether you are a drug user or not, and whether or not they have followed safe use rules, do not be judgmental. Keep any sort of intervention for when your friend is sober and recovered.

In case you are facing someone who is unconscious because of their drug use, here are some of the steps you can take:

  • Check if the person is unconscious by noticing if they are reactive. Shake them lightly, ask them if they can hear you and if they are alright.
  • If they are, contact a staff member if you are in a bar or a club, or 999 if you are outside or at home.
  • While calling 999, make sure that the person is not left unattended.
  • Lie them to their side with their mouth open to prevent them from choking if they need to vomit.
  • Tell the emergency crew the drugs (including drinks) involved. The medics are only interested in keeping you safe.

In general, one of the leading cause of harm and death from drug use comes from dehydration and overheating. Make sure that you (or your friends) regularly drink water. Having said that, make sure to spread intake evenly – no more than one pint per hour. If you are overheating, move somewhere cool, like outside, and take off layers of clothing.

With RAG week still to come, and many nights out before then, hopefully this guide will be of help if needs be. As more people come to realise that drug-use issues are health problems, and not criminal ones, the general awareness will increase and, eventually, Ireland will be able to move towards a healthier and less judgemental system, such as the likes of Portugal or some US states.

Useful resources:

  • UCC Student Health: 021 4902311
  • SSDP: ssdp.org
  • Governmental drugs information website: drugs.ie
  • HSE Drugs & Alcohol Helpline: helpline@hse.ie | Freephone: 1800 459 459
  • Cork Sexual Violence Center: info@sexualviolence.ie | Freephone: 1800 496 496
  • Emergency: 999 or 112