Final Report: Illicit Drug Reporting System. Consultant's report to the Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health

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Resource Type: Technical Reports

NDARC Technical Report No. 292 (2008)


In 1995 the Australian National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) was commissioned to design a relatively inexpensive way of monitoring trends in illicit drug use that minimised the effects of these challenges. The architect of the Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) was a criminologist, Dr Grant Wardlaw, who ran an Illicit Drug Indicators project in 1990 and 1991. This predecessor version of the IDRS proved to be too slow and cumbersome to produce timely reports on illicit drug trends largely because it relied on existing indicator data collections (e.g. numbers seeking treatment, school surveys of drug use), which varied between States and were typically reported 1-2 years after their collection. This early monitoring system was abandoned in 1992 after two iterations.

Dr Wardlaw was then commissioned by the Commonwealth Government to review methods for monitoring illicit drug trends and to design a new system for doing so in Australia. In 1995, NDARC was funded to develop and test an Illicit Drug Reporting System that met Wardlaw's specifications. The IDRS was to provide coordinated monitoring of: trends in the price, purity and availability of major illicit drugs; patterns of use (frequency, routes of administration); and characteristics of the users of the major illicit drug classes of concern to health and law enforcement, namely, the opioids, cocaine, amphetamines and cannabis. The intention was to provide an earlier warning of emerging drug use trends than the number of arrests, treatment entrants, blood-borne viral infection (BBVI) notifications, and drug overdose deaths.

The IDRS became a national monitoring system by increments. The first report was published in 1996, and in 1997 and 1998 it was expanded from Sydney to Melbourne, Victoria and Adelaide, South Australia. In 1999 the full IDRS was conducted in these capital cities, but only the key expert (KE; formerly referred to as key informant, or KI) interviews and indicators were used in the remaining states and territories. From 2000 onwards a full set of IDRS information (KE, injecting drug user, or IDU, interviews and indicators) has been collected from the capital cities of every state and territory in Australia.

We believe that rationality is the outcome of a social process in which the validity and interpretation of data are tested by discussion and debate among experts who are knowledgeable about the limitations of the data and their possible implications. When interpretation is uncertain, the aim of the discussion is to identify further research that needs to be done to resolve the uncertainties. Confidence has grown over time as a result of these experiences and as we have been able to retrospectively validate the findings of earlier iterations of the IDRS against information from lagging indicators. Alternative explanations generated in the meetings and reports have also been tested by looking at additional data sets or by including additional questions in later iterations of the IDRS, or in other studies of illicit drug use that were in the field.

Over the 12 years that it has operated the IDRS has proven to be a relatively inexpensive system for monitoring trends in the types of illicit drug use that cause the most harm to the community, namely, heroin and pharmaceutical opioids, benzodiazepines, and the stimulants, methamphetamine and cocaine. It has detected major changes in the availability, use and harms caused by these drugs in Australia over the past decade. Details of the projects and results of the work – bulletins, reports and publications - can be found on the NDARC website.

The current report is a reprinted version of the original report submitted by Dr Wardlaw to the Australian Government Department of Health Ageing. We feel that it provides important contextual information on the historical origins of the system that helps to understand the current operation of the IDRS, and its sister project that monitors trends in ecstasy and related drug markets – the EDRS.

Citation: Wardlaw, G. (2008) Final report: Illicit Drug Reporting System. Consultant's report to the Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health. Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.