State spends €147m a year on ‘hidden’ costs of drug misuse, research finds

Expenditure associated with hospitals, prisons, criminal justice system and productivity losses

The research is focused on the costs of ‘unlabelled’ expenditure on problem drug use, outside of dedicated programmes or interventions. Photograph: iStock

The research is focused on the costs of ‘unlabelled’ expenditure on problem drug use, outside of dedicated programmes or interventions. Photograph: iStock

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Ireland is spending €147 million per year on “hidden” costs associated with drug misuse, a spending paper by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform suggests.

The research is focused on the costs of “unlabelled” expenditure on problem drug use, outside of dedicated programmes or interventions with their own allotted budgets.

About €200 million every year is spent on dedicated drug and alcohol interventions, but research has previously shown the full cost of alcohol misuse is significantly higher. This is the first attempt to capture the full cost of drug misuse.

It finds that about €87 million per year is spent on the “unlabelled” costs associated with hospitals, prisons and the criminal justice system in dealing with the medical and legal consequences of drug use. Meanwhile, productivity losses associated with drug use are estimated to be in the region of €61 million.

Taken on a longer time frame, each of these annually occurring costs grows significantly. For example, the total cost of a multi-year prison sentence, or the lost productivity associated with a premature drug-related death across the many years which follow, are much higher than the cost in the year a death occurs.

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The study found that over the long term, these economic costs could be as high as €652 million, with the vast majority – some €456.6 million – associated with lost productivity arising from premature deaths.

Radical overhaul

“This hidden expenditure exposes again the need for a radical overhaul of drug policy and undermines the practice of treating addiction as a criminal justice issue,” Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Labour Party spokesman on education, said.

He said the research showed the “level of public expenditure required to keep up the facade that the country’s drug policy is having any level of success at all”.

“Clearly it is an expensive mess and actually harming the very people it purports to protect.”

Overall, the paper found that unlabelled expenditure and productivity costs “contribute significantly to the overall economic burden of problem drug and alcohol use,” and are an important component when valuing policies to address the issue of their misuse.

“Having an estimate of the total economic burden that problem drug and alcohol use places on society is a first step in generating the economic evidence base to evaluate public policy on substance misuse,” the authors wrote.

The paper also attempted to track progress made under goals set out in the State drug and alcohol policy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery. It found that some indicators are moving in the right direction, such as reduced rates of alcohol use among 10- to 17-year-olds. However, others are not, such as the level of uptake of treatment among vulnerable groups.