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Snapshot of injecting drug use in Australia

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Date Published:
2 May 2011
Contact person:
Marion Downey
+612 9385 1080 / 0401 713 850

Users are getting older; one in five have overdosed and polydrug use is common

Australia’s injecting drug users are getting older and nearly one in five have overdosed in the past year, according to a snapshot of illicit drug use in Australia released today.

The 2010 Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) report, released today by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales also found that use of multiple illicit drugs (poly drug use) was high among injecting drug users but the types of drugs used varied markedly across states. Methamphetamine and cannabis were the most commonly used drugs alongside heroin.

The average age of participants in the survey is 38 compared with 29 in 2000 and over 80 per cent are unemployed compared with 68 per cent unemployed in 2000.

Nearly two thirds of Australia’s injecting drug users continue to inject some form of methamphetamine but methamphetamine users are injecting less frequently and use of speed and base has declined sharply while use of ice has remained stable.

Morphine was the most commonly used prescription opioid, used by half of the sample, with the majority of that obtained illicitly.

Around a third of the sample used oxycodone –most of it obtained illicitly. Use of illicitly obtained morphine was much higher in Tasmania (73 per cent of injecting drug users reported recent use) and in the Northern Territory (89 per cent) compared with a national average of 42 per cent of injecting drug users reporting use of illicitly obtained morphine.

More than one quarter of injecting drug users nationally reported recent use (previous six months) of illicitly obtained oxycodone but this jumped to 60 per cent in Tasmania.

Chief investigator of the IDRS Dr Lucy Burns said it was good news that patterns of drug use across Australia was relatively stable but that the overall picture masked some worrying trends.

“We are not seeing major changes in the use or frequency of use of injected drugs across Australia and indeed use of methamphetamine, in particular speed and base, has actually declined,” Dr Burns.

“But it is of continuing concern that rates of self- reported overdose, one in every five users, has not changed in five years.

“As well this group has very high rates of mental distress compared with the general population and nearly four out of five sought treatment for a mental health problem in the past year.”

Key findings of the IDRS 2010:

  • Average age of first injection was age 20
  • Average age of survey participants was 38 years
  • 57 per cent of injecting drug users in NSW had used cocaine in previous six months compared with 18 per cent nationally
  • Most survey participants used cannabis and daily use was common
  • Nearly half reported recent use of morphine
  • Morphine use highest in Tasmania (73 per cent) and Northern Territory ( 89 per cent) – both states where heroin was not readily available
  • Oxycodone use highest in Tasmania (60 per cent) compared with more than one quarter nationally (28 per cent)
  • Half of all survey participants are receiving opioid substitution treatment, such as methadone, (47 per cent) – participation rates highest in NSW (67 per cent),Victoria (58 per cent) and ACT (54 per cent)
  • 56 per cent reported high, or very high, rates of psychological distress compared with 10 per cent of the general population
  • 85 per cent had visited their GP in the past year; average number of GP visits was eight.

About the IDRS

  • The Illicit Drug Reporting system (IDRS), run by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at UNSW, is Australia’s central monitoring and early warning system which identifies key and emerging trends among injecting drug users for the purpose of informing government policies and providing information to clinicians and to those working in the drug and alcohol sector.
  • It comprises nearly 1,000 interviews with injecting drug users across Australia, as well as interviews with key experts who work in the drug and alcohol sector. It also incorporates analysis of other national data related to illicit drug use in Australia.

 For further information please contact Marion Downey: m.downey@unsw,.edu.au or mobile 0401 713 850