In their own words, the latest National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program Report from the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) contains some “disturbing data” on Australia’s drug use.
So, what have Australians been up to?
What is a wastewater report?
Wastewater - better known as sewage - comes from our sinks, showers, and toilets. You may have heard about wastewater analysis being used to locate COVID-19 outbreaks throughout Australia. But did you know that it is also used to measure drug use?
After drugs are consumed their presence can be tested in wastewater, providing a unique insight into drug use across a population. Drug use patterns have traditionally been measured through surveys, but this data is not entirely accurate. Due to the stigma associated with drug use, it’s not uncommon for people to avert the truth when surveyed. Wastewater, on the other hand, does not lie. And it’s a valuable tool in painting the true picture of drug use in Australia.
The data used in the newest report was collected between December 2022 and February 2023, and represents over 50% of the Australian population.
The analysis tests for 12 substances: nicotine, alcohol, methamphetamine (ice), amphetamine, cocaine, MDMA, MDA, oxycodone, fentanyl, heroin, cannabis, and ketamine.
National drug use
When it comes to illicit drugs, Australians have their favorites.
Cannabis was by far the most consumed drug, and has been for a long time.
Coming in second place was methamphetamine - more commonly called ice.
On average, we are consuming more cocaine, ice, ketamine, MDMA, and - concerningly - fentanyl. Fentanyl consumption has been steadily increasing since April of 2022, and experts are beginning to take note.
On the other hand, we are consuming less oxycodone, cannabis, and heroin than previously. Despite this, statistics from the latest Annual Overdose Report show that opioids continue to be the most common cause of unintentional overdose in Australia.
State vs state
What are each of the states up to?
Victoria leads the pack in heroin, fentanyl, and ketamine use. It’s not surprising, then, that unintentional overdose deaths are on the rise in Victoria, according to the 2023 Annual Overdose Report.
New South Wales prefers cocaine and MDMA.
Down in South Australia, ice and cannabis usage rates are highest.
Western Australians use the most MDA - a drug closely related to MDMA, with the street name ‘Sally’.
The Northern Territory is still struggling with alcohol use.
Australia’s Capital Territory ranks highly in heroin and oxycodone consumption.
Queenslanders are consuming high rates of fentanyl, ketamine, and MDMA. Sadly, increased fentanyl use has led to a large number of overdose deaths in the state in recent years.
And down in Tasmania, cannabis and oxycodone are the drugs of choice.
International drug consumption
Wastewater analysis reports allow for comparison with other countries that also test their wastewater. Currently, this allows for the comparison of Australia and up to 28 other countries, throughout North America, Asia, Oceania, and Europe.
Overall, Australia had the sixth highest drug usage rates. Much of this has to do with our high rates of methamphetamine consumption. In fact, Australia ranked third highest in methamphetamine use, behind the United States and the Czech Republic.
Data from the 2023 World Drug Report showed similar findings. According to the report, amphetamine-style stimulants (including methamphetamine) accounted for 60% of our drug use!
Where to now?
So, with various types of drug consumption on the rise, what do the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission suggest we do to reduce usage?
Paradoxically, while acknowledging the rising trend in drug use rates and the simultaneous increase in drug seizures, the ACIC remains resolute in advocating for law enforcement as the primary means to deter drug use.
In their mind, ‘disrupt[ing] and [dismantl[ing] serious organized criminal networks’ remains an important focus for the government’s time and resources.
We hear this argument time and time again, despite evidence that points to the contrary.
The Australian government spends billions of dollars on law enforcement in an attempt to keep drugs out of our country. Their efforts are clearly not working, so why should we continue to waste our money?
If we truly want to reduce the harms associated with drug use, we need to spend more of our resources on harm reduction measures. Pill testing, safe injecting facilities, and naloxone distribution save lives, and we need governments around Australia to commit their support and resources towards these life saving measures.
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