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Decline in reported availability of methamphetamine and heroin during COVID-19 restrictions

Image - Decline in reported availability of methamphetamine and heroin during COVID-19 restrictions
Date Published:
5 Nov 2020

The Drug Trends program at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at UNSW Sydney has released reports on findings from annual surveys with hundreds of people who regularly use drugs in Australia.

Out of the 884 people interviewed from capital cities who regularly inject drugs as part of the Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS), 71 per cent of those who commented noted a decline in availability since COVID-19 restrictions for crystal methamphetamine and 45 per cent for heroin.

Interviewees also noted that the price of crystal methamphetamine (62 per cent) and heroin (91 per cent) had increased since the beginning of March since COVID-19 restrictions compared to before.

Program lead for Drug Trends, Dr Amy Peacock said: “Possible reasons behind this increase in price and decrease in availability could be interruptions in illegal drug supply in Australia.”

“Major disruption to these markets could see increased treatment demand. Many services are already at capacity. Greater investment in drug and alcohol treatment and support will be critical.”

“There is also the risk that we may see people turn to more easily-transportable, cheaper substances instead, which may carry significant risk of harm.” 

One third of participants reported injecting at a different frequency during the last month compared to the month of February.

“Of these, 70 per cent reported a decrease in injecting frequency (25 per cent of total sample),” said Dr Peacock.

The report also found that of those in treatment since March, half (49 per cent) reported any disruption to their drug treatment in that same period.

“Most commonly reported disruptions were appointments moving to phone/video rather than face to face (34 per cent) and changed hours of service (17 per cent),” said Dr Peacock.

“Most reported that their satisfaction with their drug treatment was the same compared to before March.”

Many engaged in harm reduction behaviours to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission while obtaining or using drugs.

“It is critical to continue to monitor impacts, particularly amongst those populations who report more regular or dependent use of drugs,” said Dr Peacock.

Findings from the National Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System 2020 (EDRS)

The Drug Trends program has also released findings from EDRS, which surveyed 805 people recruited from capital cities who regularly consume ecstasy and other illegal stimulants.

Main findings include:

  • Overall, participants reported a perceived decrease in use of a number of drugs since March, including ecstasy/MDMA (70 per cent), cocaine (46 per cent) and ketamine (45 per cent).
  • The primary reason for a decrease in use of these drugs comprised ‘fewer opportunities to be with people’ or ‘go out’.
  • An increase in cannabis use was observed for 41 per cent of consumers, mainly due to ‘boredom/less things to occupy time’, ‘more time to use the drug’ and ‘greater anxiety/depression with COVID-19’.
  • Most participants reported drug availability as stable, although crystal methamphetamine and MDMA pills were most commonly cited as drugs which had decreased in availability (46 per cent and 45 per cent).

Findings from the Australian’s Drug Use: Adapting to Pandemic Threats (ADAPT) Study

NDARC researchers have also released a new bulletin on wave two of the ADAPT study which is exploring the short and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the experiences of Australians who use illicit drugs.

After interviewing 308 people who use drugs two months after they first completed a survey between April-June 2020, researchers found:

  • A continued decline of drug use since COVID-19 restrictions.
  • Cannabis continued to be the substance with the largest proportion of participants reporting that their use had increased since the beginning of March 2020 (ie. since COVID-19 restrictions) as compared to before, although the percentage had declined (44 per cent in Wave 2 versus 56 per cent in Wave 1).
  • MDMA (47 per cent), cocaine (42 per cent) and ketamine (40 per cent) remained the substances that had the largest proportion reporting decreased use since the beginning of March (since COVID-19 restrictions) as compared to before.