Even before they're teenagers, children are trying drugs
Long before they go to college, Irish teenagers are mired in the drugs culture and parents must be wary
Some Irish children are dabbling in drugs from as young as 11 or 12, according to one of the country's leading addiction counsellors.
The trend is occurring in families where elder siblings or parents are abusing substances, said Donal Kiernan, the chairman of the Irish Association of Alcohol and Addiction Counsellors.
Mr Kiernan, a former garda sergeant who works as an alcohol and addiction counsellor at UCD, said it was becoming more and more common for students to have their first experience of drugs well before reaching third level.
But he said the fast evolving situation was "not a case of drug dealers preying on students at the school gates".
Rather it is what he termed "peer pull" which is attracting more and more young people to experiment with drugs in secondary school.
"Peer pull is where because your mates are doing it, you want to do it, even though they are saying to you that you shouldn't do it," he told the Sunday Independent.
"It is sensational to have this picture of the demon drug dealer hanging around outside the school. But the fact is that is not what is happening.
"It is older brothers or sisters or older siblings' friends who are supplying the drugs.
"Young people will follow their older peers. That is why it is crucial for parents to watch who their child is associating with. It is better for them to be with their own age group."
Mr Kiernan said that for some young people "starting drugs at 11 or 12 is common in the family".
He said "emotional immaturity" and "curiosity" were major factors, particularly in the early to mid teens.
"Even around 14 or 15 years of age they are engaging now with cannabis, smoking and pill popping," he said.
However, Ireland's teenage drug problem is not just limited to illegal drugs.
"Codeine and benzodiazepines are also becoming a bigger problem," he said.
"I would have met people who are addicted to cough bottles and codeine-based tablets who would have started when they were 15 or 16 years of age.
"I think some of that probably goes back to the communities they live in.
"If you are 14 or 15 and see mammy or daddy taking tablets all the time, either prescribed or illicit, it becomes a mindset."
Mr Kiernan said alcohol abuse was still the number one issue he encountered in his work. Of the illicit drugs used by students, he said cannabis was the most common one, followed by ecstasy.
He also warned that energy drinks were "a gateway" as their use changes the mindset of young teens.
Although he accepts his warning "may sound alarmist", he insisted such products had helped create a culture where young people feel "they need something to give them energy or help them be themselves".
"There is a growing culture in Ireland where it is almost acceptable to be taking something," he said.
It is not known how many children have been expelled from Irish secondary schools as a direct result of drugs possession or abuse.
Such figures are not collated and, although the Department of Education deals with dozens of appeals against expulsions each year, the reasons for a child being permanently excluded from a school are not published.
While there is anecdotal evidence that drug use has been a factor in several expulsions in recent years, a high level of secrecy has surrounded the issue.
Department of Education guidelines say such incidents should be treated on a "need to know" basis.
All written records must be held confidentially by the principal or deputy principal.
While the department is clear in its stance that the use or supply of illegal drugs in schools is not acceptable, its guidelines on behaviour and discipline also make it clear that expulsion is only to be considered as a last resort.
Expulsion should only occur "after every effort at rehabilitation has failed and every other sanction exhausted", the department's behaviour and discipline guidelines state.
While individual schools are autonomous bodies and can set their own rules in relation to how they deal with drugs issues, most follow quite closely the template set by the department.
However, there are some variations between different schools regarding disciplinary sanctions.
Boards of management are free to decide on the exact wording of their school's code of behaviour and the severity of disciplinary sanctions to be applied in certain instances.