A "massive resurgence" in the use of ecstasy among drug users who favour amphetamines has been directly linked to a significant drop-off in cocaine usage because of its expensive cost.
Senior gardaí working in drug enforcement say ecstasy consumption is now at the same level as it was in the mid '90s, when the drug's popularity was at an all-time high in Ireland.
"We've seen things go full circle. Ecstasy first became popular here in the early '90s. It became a dance drug, a party drug, and rose in popularity in line with the emergence of hardcore dance music becoming mainstream," said a senior garda.
"Then it dipped in popularity when we hit the year 2000. We saw a lot of people who would have taken ecstasy regularly in their teens moving on to cocaine because it was more sophisticated and it wasn't as obvious you had taken something. But it was also much more expensive. A lot of middle-class cocaine users would have thought nothing of spending €100 on a bag of coke a couple of years ago.
"The only thing that's stopping these recreational cocaine users now is that they can't afford it anymore. But ecstasy pills are now only €5 and it's a cheap high. The shift is all down to the recession."
Another garda agreed that dealing with people who've taken ecstasy is a lot easier than people under the influence of cocaine and added that the feeling among gardaí working in drug enforcement is that it's a less dangerous drug.
"If I'm being completely honest, people returning to taking ecstasy instead of cocaine are making our job easier and it's better for society. Coked-up people are extremely aggressive and drink a lot of alcohol whereas people taking 'E' never fight; it's a real loved-up drug. Also, the most important issue is that ecstasy is not addictive whereas cocaine is highly so."
There are no figures for the number of ecstasy deaths in Ireland, but media reports would suggest that more than 20 people have died from ecstasy, directly or indirectly, since the late 1980s. The number of people who have died from cocaine-related deaths dwarfs this but that drug has been available for a far longer period. In 2005 alone, 34 deaths occurred as a result of poisoning from cocaine. This amounted to over one fifth of drug-induced deaths that year.
There have been a number of ecstasy seizures since the beginning of the year but none of them major. The garda national drugs unit (GNDU) is now focusing on targeting the importation of ecstasy in reaction to the change in the market. "The ecstasy tablets coming into Ireland are coming from mainland Europe; Holland and Belgium mainly. The increase in ecstasy use is pure economics," said another garda working in drug enforcement. "The cocaine market has contracted. It's a simple case of supply and demand."
Drug dealers have reacted to the decrease in cocaine sales by dropping its price. "It used to be about €80 for a gram of cocaine but it's gone down to €60 now," said Tony Geoghegan of Merchants Quay Ireland in Dublin, which works with drug users and homeless people. "International evidence shows that in times of economic downturn, more people turn to drugs. This is a huge concern. While dealers may have dropped the price of cocaine, they are bulking up their product by cutting it with other substances.
"So users believe they're getting more for their money but they're really only being conned."