GAA can help with 'harm reduction' of illegal drug use
By Colin Regan
GAA Community and Health Manager
The new Citizen’s Assembly on drugs in the Republic of Ireland will have its first sitting in April.
It is timely. The topic of drug use in Ireland has moved from the fringes to the mainstream. This is understandable considering Class A drugs (such as cocaine, ecstasy, MDMA, considered under law as the most harmful) are more accessible and visible across all walks of Irish life than ever before. Hopefully, the Citizens Assembly will facilitate an informed discussion around the facts and help identify an appropriate response that best fits Ireland’s experiences and needs. So where does the GAA fit into this equation? What is the role of a community-orientated sports association and where does our remit lie?
Before we explore that, let’s look at some of the facts around drug use in Ireland. If we were to accept some of the public narrative, one might believe that every young person between 18- and 34-years-old is using cocaine. This type of overstatement is unhelpful. We hear such accusations regularly in relation to GAA squads: ‘Sure they were all off their heads on cocaine in the local on Saturday night’. Young people know this isn’t true as the majority don’t use illegal drugs. The minority who use drugs also know it isn’t true. Therefore, they are all less likely to engage with factual information on drugs when provided to them by a reputable source. This sort of over-reporting also normalises drug use for the next generation as they have heard (incorrectly) that the majority of those older than them are using drugs.
It's worth remembering that alcohol remains the most common drug used in Ireland. It is legal for those aged 18 plus, but like many other illicit drugs it alters our relationship with ourselves, others, and the world around us, and changes the way our body and mind operate. According to a report from the Health Research Board (HRB) in 2021, Ireland ranks 9th among OECD countries in terms of alcohol consumption and 8th in the world when it comes to monthly binge drinking, defined as consuming more than six standard drinks in one sitting. The report continues:
‘In 2019, on average every person in Ireland aged 15 and over drank 10.8 litres of pure alcohol a year – the equivalent of either 40 bottles of vodka, 113 bottles of wine or 436 pints of beer. Given one in four people in Ireland don’t drink at all, actual consumption rates among those who do drink would be much higher than this.’ The starkest finding of the report highlights that alcohol-related harm leads to three deaths per day and a growing burden on an already stretched hospital system.
When it comes to illegal drug use in Ireland, the three most popular substances are cannabis, cocaine, and ecstasy (MDMA). The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction publishes a yearly report covering all members of the EU. The 2019 research available for Ireland (Republic only) is a little dated but reveals that:
· 24.4% of people aged 16-54 used cannabis at least once in their lifetime (just below the EU average of 27.3%)
· 13.5% of young adults aged 15-34 used cannabis in the last year (again below the EU average of 15.5%)
· In terms of cocaine, 8.3% of Irish people used it at least once in their lifetime, above the EU average of 5%
· 4.8% of young adults aged 15-34 used cocaine in the last year, more than double the EU average of 2.2%
· Lifetime usage of Ecstasy (MDMA) in Ireland amongst those aged 16-54 was 10.3% - almost three times the EU average of 3.7%
· 6.5% of young adults aged 15-34 used Ecstasy (MDMA) in the past year, significantly above the EU average of 1.9%
The age bracket of 15-34 closely mirrors the competitive age brackets for Gaelic Games. As noted, these figures are from 2019 and there is considerable evidence that suggests usage has increased in the intervening years. Even allowing for a significant jump in usage, only a relatively small percentage of members in a squad will have used either cocaine or ecstasy in the past year. Anecdotal evidence suggests higher usage in certain squads. That is very likely – some squads may have developed a culture and acceptability around the social use of cocaine or ecstasy. The same can be true of drinking and betting cultures. So what is the role of a GAA club when it comes to substance use, or alcohol or gambling for that matter?
The first thing a club needs to decide is the sort of culture it wants to promote and foster. Any culture needs to be consistent with the GAA’s or the club’s mission, vision, and values. It should also be communicated through a policy that sets out the expected set of behaviours – in this case a Substance Use policy. Such values and policies need to be brought to life through the everyday behaviours and experiences of club members. For example, there is no point in having a substance use policy that states a club is against the misuse of alcohol, especially by juvenile members, and the club then brings their U17 county championship winning team to the pub and publishes photos of them under the influence on the club social media channels.
The Community & Health department in Croke Park has with the support of representatives of the HSE’s Local and Regional Drug & Alcohol Task Forces developed a sample Substance Use policy for clubs. The principles of what it is trying to help a club achieve include:
· promoting the health and wellbeing of members
· developing a consistent approach to drug-related issues
- providing onward referral to specialist services for members presenting with substance related issues
The policy and a guide to adopting it can be found here.
A club should also consider its role in terms of its members’ decision to use illegal substances in their own time, away from official club activities or events. A percentage of the population will always choose to use drugs and this is not exclusive to young people or athletes. It will include representatives from every walk of life. For this reason, it is important that any club Substance Use policy does not single out any cohort within a club (e.g. juveniles or players). It should speak to all members. While clubs may vary in their thinking regarding what someone does in their private life, the GAA Club Substance Use policy explicitly states that the use of illicit drugs at club events is unacceptable (meetings, training, games, dinner dances, fundraisers etc). It also outlines protocols for a club to follow should a member be suspected of or arrested for dealing illegal drugs.
Anti-doping regulations are different and speak to substances used to improve sporting performance and are targeted exclusively at athletes. Some people believe that our players are using cocaine to enhance their sporting performance. There is no evidence backing this up in Gaelic Games. In fact, such is the impact of cocaine on the body’s system it is more likely to be detrimental to sporting performance and to one’s health. It is worth considering why people chose to use illegal drugs. The European Web Survey on Drugs (conducted by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and available here) included Ireland for the first time in 2021. A total of 5,796 respondents were eligible (i.e. they were aged 18+, reported that they lived in Ireland and had used illicit drugs in the previous 12 months). The research aims to capture the experiences of those who use drugs but may not experience dependency issues. It contained the following findings:
· 80% of Irish people who use cannabis do so to reduce stress/relax, while 57% do so to aid their sleep
· 88% of people who use cocaine do so to get high/have fun while 70% use it to socialise
Other interesting findings from the research revealed that among males, those aged 35 years and over were most likely to report frequent cocaine use, while those aged 18–24 years were least likely. Among females, those aged 25–34 years were most likely to be frequent users. Fifty-two per cent lived in a city, 30% lived in a town, and 18% lived in the countryside or a village. Just 5% had received treatment for drug use in the last year. While men are more likely than women to use such substances that gender divide is narrowing particularly amongst those of college age.
Concern amongst GAA membership regarding substance use is real and understandable. It prompted a motion to be brought to each of the last two GAA Congresses for debate. In 2022, Rathdowney-Errill's motion (which called for drugs and gambling addiction and anti-doping awareness programmes to be made compulsory for any adult player wishing to play championship) was deferred for consideration by the GAA’s National Health & Wellbeing Committee. The outcome was a collaboration with the HSE-funded local and regional drug and alcohol task forces, who established a team of experts to develop a substance use education workshop suitable for the delivery in clubs. Currently undergoing testing in the field, the initiative will be officially launched in the coming months. (Capacity of the task forces to deliver this in clubs will be limited and priority will be given to clubs participating in the Irish Life Healthy Clubs Programme initially. Only clubs with Substance Use policies in place will be considered for workshops.) Conversations have begun with the DACTs (Drug & Alcohol Coordination Teams) in the North to explore how a similar partnership might aid GAA clubs in the six counties access appropriate information and materials regarding substance use.
At the opening of this article, I asked what is the remit of the GAA in terms of illegal drug use. Professionals in drug and alcohol intervention and education use the term ‘harm reduction’ and I believe that reflects the GAA’s role. The GAA can and does positively impact the lives of our members in many ways. Clubs act as a protective factor against the misuse of drugs through the provision of positive alternative activities such as Gaelic Games and by connecting our members into a values-based association that allows them contribute to and be part of something bigger than themselves. By adopting an appropriate Substance Use policy and working with their local drugs awareness teams, clubs can also help their members access factual information on the topic. And finally, should any member experience trouble with a substance (alcohol or drugs) a club can support that individual in accessing the help they need. We may never know the reason why an individual became dependent on drugs or alcohol, but many now believe a previous traumatic life experience be a significant contributing factor.
It is estimated that since 1971, the United States has spent $1 trillion on the war on drugs, with little if any impact on usage. If the GAA had a silver bullet solution to drug misuse, we would be in demand globally for more than our games.
The GAA Community & Health department will host a webinar for all interested clubs and members on the topic of substance use on Wednesday, March 8th, at 7.30pm. It will cover items including adopting a club substance use policy, responding to incidents, while exploring the issue of substance use in sport. Please note you need an account on the GAA E-learning platform to access the webinar.
If you already have an account you can register via: SubAbuse2023 (gaa.ie)
To create an account follow the instructions found at the link below before enrolling for the Substance Use webinar via the calendar of events: https://learning.gaa.ie/officertrainingcalendar